A Buddhist antidote to feeling misunderstood.
Posted May 19, 2020
In 1930, Jackie’s birth interrupted his mother’s poker hand in a holiday home off the coast of French Algeria. What should have been a celebration of life was unfortunately eclipsed by his parents' mourning over the recent death of their first son, Paul, whose life was cut short at the age of three months. Upon his first breath, Jackie found himself caught in the tension of two polarities—life and death.
This moment of tension became a symbol for Jackie’s entire being and orientation toward life. In adolescence, Jackie experienced blatant discrimination being an Algerian Jew at the height of anti-Semitism. During that time, he found himself dislocated from any defining culture as he grew up in a French-ruled North African country with a contemptuous mix of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
In his early years, Jackie was neither wealthy nor scholarly, but he would soon be rubbing shoulders with the most revered intelligentsia of his time (Powell, 2006). Jackie’s identity was etched between opposites: life and death, Christianity and Islam, wealth and indigence, pedestrian and intellectual, native and foreigner.
I suspect this suspense between polarities led Jackie to constantly explore how he and others misunderstand one another. Jackie would later become famously known as the philosopher Jacques Derrida, a pioneer of a revolutionary philosophical tool called post-structuralism, which attempts to deconstruct polarities and engage our primal anxiety of being misunderstood.
For Derrida, certainty and dualism were enemies to critical thought and knowledge. Derrida’s posture was ensconced in the tension between polarities--always rotating interpretation like a gem to reveal new light and perspective. The anxiety of being misunderstood was Derrida’s academic playground for endless interpretation and critical engagement.
I don’t know what, if any, experiences Jacques Derrida had with Buddhism, but I suspect he would have found a home within mindfulness. Although post-structuralism and mindfulness fulfill different purposes, both grapple with our collective desire to be understood and offer a philosophical remedy through the suspension of judgment and acceptance of ambiguity.
Before moving too far into our need to be understood, it may be helpful to provide a brief explanation of mindfulness. In the past century, the Western mental health community has recognized the ancient practices of mindfulness and meditation as evidence-based disciplines that can have real, positive impacts on our mental health (Epstein, 2019). These disciplines have been shown to help develop healthier brain waves associated with positive states of mind and clarity (Hanson, 2009).
Although mindfulness can be difficult to pin down to one definition, in a sense, mindfulness is an experiential, mental discipline of being present with the embodied brain and having an awareness of being aware.
A major part of this experiential discipline is meditation. First, we might notice our breath and the way our muscles embody our emotions on a moment to moment basis. Then, we might toggle to nonjudgmentally noticing our thoughts shift to states of planning, criticism, or idea generation. And upon this noticing, we remember the breath again, the rising and falling of the shoulders, and we find ourselves in a state of mindful observation by being aware of being aware.
The experiential discipline of mindfulness relaxes the ego's defensiveness and keeps us grounded in the present while honoring the true nature of our minds—environmentally integrated, flexible, mysterious, and impermanent.
Unfortunately, many of us may not be receiving the full potential of mindfulness because it contrasts sharply with the parts of Western ideology that are largely dominated by rugged individualism. This individualism seeks to establish our identity as separate from others, unchanging, and understood through rigid constructs like personality, job titles, and other modes of self-expression.
This desire for identity is also baked into our assessments with tools like the enneagram, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the DiSC, Holland Code, and an assortment of other psychometric tests crafted to tell us who we are to some degree. Certainly these tools can be beneficial but only so long as they are not holding us hostage to an excessive need to be understood.
The British psychotherapist, Adam Phillips, discussed this primal need for understanding saying, “The wish to be understood may be our most vengeful demand, may be the way we hang on, as adults, to our grudge against our mothers; the way we never let our mothers off the hook for their not meeting our every need. Wanting to be understood, as adults, can be our most violent form of nostalgia.” (Phillips, 2013).
Of course, this idea goes beyond our mothers. In true post-structuralist form, it seems more useful to interpret “mothers” as more of a symbol for many significant figures and people groups we wish to be understood by.
I can easily recall a past “vengeful demand” as my most “violent form of nostalgia” in response to being misunderstood. As a therapist, graduate student, and Christian who happens to have an interest in Buddhist psychology and faith development, I find myself occasionally misread by the wide and oftentimes contrasting social circles I find myself in. To the conservatives, I’m too critical; to the progressives, I’m too neutral; to the zealots, I’m too compromising; and to the Christians, I’m too faithless. I’m certain, even in misinterpretation, their criticisms are correct at some level, and maybe it’s this ounce of truth that makes the misunderstanding feel so caustic.
The principle of “right mindfulness” in Buddhism’s Eightfold Path has something to offer in the realm of feeling misunderstood by others and ourselves. By being fully present with ourselves through mindfulness, we learn to be fully human, which means letting go of any illusions that we can be any social group's exemplar. Right mindfulness helps us unlearn our over-identification with degrees, positions of power, professional titles, accolades, political parties, social class, doctrines, and narratives of victories and suffering.
Certainly, all these identity fragments carry some information and meaning in our lives, but they can never measure or fully explain the mysterious and uncertain nature of ourselves. If we embraced the mysterious, flexible, and interconnected nature of the self, wouldn’t we be a little more accepting of others’ misunderstanding? After all, if we exercised right mindfulness, we too would experience a constant state of new awareness and curiosity toward “self” as we notice our minds' endless posturing and adjustment. With right mindfulness, there’s a little less surprise and criticism toward our mistakes, missed cues, imprecisions, and unexpected behavior--all of which contribute to misunderstanding. Through mindfulness, we can exercise more acceptance of self, which opens up a greater reservoir of acceptance of others--even when we’re misread.
I want to hedge this idea of acceptance surrounding being misunderstood. Folks have experienced traumatic blows for not being understood. People die at the hands of others or themselves because they are misjudged. It’s important for people to feel like they have some control over their lives. It’s healing to feel understood. We all share a collective responsibility to assuage other's pain through understanding. But some of us, myself included, may feel at times entitled to be understood completely by everyone around us. This yearning for total understanding and control is a source of suffering, and perhaps by abating this attachment, we can alleviate some of this angst.
For some, right mindfulness provides a path to forgiveness when misunderstood. I’ll speak for myself since it’s not my job as a therapist to direct someone to forgiveness, and in my experience, people often have a myopic perspective of forgiveness without consideration of its spectrum of meanings. In many cases, forgiveness also comes with boundaries and might be less about saving the perpetrator and more about saving one’s self.
But for me, both mindfulness and Christian ethics inform my forgiveness to those who have misunderstood me. Because if it’s true that I don’t need to defend my rigid sense of self, then maybe being misunderstood is less offensive as my ego becomes less important. Maybe for you, mindfulness can be letting go of the desire to be completely understood by yourself and others and lead you to a deeper experience of equanimity in a world of chaos.
Epstein, M. (2019). Advice not given: A guide to getting over yourself . Penguin Books.
Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha's brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Phillips, A. (2013). Missing out: In praise of the unlived life (1st American ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Powell, J. (2006). Jacques derrida : A biography. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com