How to Understand: 8 Timeless Thoughts from the Last 2500 Years

“Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving.”
Dale Carnegie

“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”
Galileo Galilei

“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.”
Leonardo Da Vinci

One of the interesting things about getting older and being interested in personal development is how you come to understand just how little you really understand. Quite the change from when I was younger and thought I knew it all. :)

But how can we improve our understanding of ourselves and our world now? Here are 8 timeless thoughts on that topic.

1. Take notice of what others may teach you about yourself.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Carl Jung

What we see in others is quite often what we see in ourselves. And what irritates us in people is may be what we don’t like in ourselves. What you judge in someone you are actually judging in yourself.

Therefore what you notice and what irritates you in others can teach you important things about yourself. Things you may not be aware of. In a way people can be like a mirror for you. A mirror that can help you to learn more about yourself, what you fear and how you may be fooling yourself.

2. Look at aspirations to understand the heart.

“To understand the heart and mind of a person, look not at what he has already achieved, but at what he aspires to.”
Kahlil Gibran

A person may not have done as much as he or she had hoped for just yet. But the exciting part of a person does to large extent lie in his/her dreams. What does s/he aspire to? Dream about during the lunch break? Work at on evenings and weekends?

Sure, many of the things people dream about may not become more than dreams. But the dreams say much about the people and their hearts. And that’s often more fascinating – and surprising – than what they work with and where they live.

3. You must do to understand.

“The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”
Tom Bodett

“There is a great difference between knowing and understanding: you can know a lot about something and not really understand it”
Charles F. Kettering

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
Chinese proverb

The Chinese proverb above is very much true in my experience. You cannot understand something by reading about it on a blog or in a book. You may think you understand something. But it’s not until you try it in your own life that you know how it feels and you get the full experience.

That is one of the reasons why it’s crucial that you take action. No matter how many books you read on a topic you need to add real-life experience. It’s also often in real-life that you learn the quickest, because here you have access to great feedback like failure.

4. Understand first and not the other way around.

“Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”
Stephen R. Covey

It’s very easy to do this backwards. We all have a need to be understood so it’s natural to start in that end. But to really be understood it is better to start with understanding the person you are talking to.

By understanding him/her first, by understanding his/her needs, wants, dreams, mood etc. you can adjust your message, solutions and communication so it better fits the other person. If you just plow on with your message and feel need to be understood first you may not get across at all. Because you don’t understand the person in front of you.

5. Use a lens of sympathy.

“No person was every rightly understood until they had been first regarded with a certain feeling, not of tolerance, but of sympathy.”
Thomas Carlyle

To really understand someone you have to open yourself up to him/her. You can do that by viewing him/her through a lens of sympathy. This opens you up emotionally and lets you relate to the person on an emotional level and not just the level of words. It also let’s you see the person more clearly instead of parts of yourself projected on him/her.

Words aren’t everything. The most important thing is often how people feel beneath the words. To rightly understand them you need understand how they feel too.

To further understand someone you may also want to remember that emotions are contagious. So what you feel is may be what you are receiving from the person in front of you.

6. Be here and now completely.

“When we talk about understanding, surely it takes place only when the mind listens completely — the mind being your heart, your nerves, your ears- when you give your whole attention to it.”
Jiddu Krishnamurti

This is something I have already written a lot about on this blog. To be present. To be here.

When you are here and now fully you sense the nuances and the layers below the surface. Presence is a wonderful thing when observing your world or in a conversation/relationship. You are fully attentive to the other person. You don’t have to think about what to say, the right words – usually – just flows out of you effortlessly. To be present seems to raise the quality of whatever you are doing compared to if you are unfocused and split.

How can you reconnect with the present? Three suggestions:

  • Focus on your breath. Just take a couple of dozen belly breaths and focus on your breathing.
  • Focus on what’s right in front of you. Or around you. Or on you. Use your senses. Just look at what’s right in front of you right now. Listen to the sounds around you. Feel the fabric of your clothes and focus on how they feel. You can for instance use the autumn sun or rain and how it feels on your skin to connect with the present.
  • Pick up the vibe from present people. If you know someone that is more present than most people then you can pick up his/her vibe of presence (just like you can pick up positivity or enthusiasm from people). If you don’t know someone like that I recommend listening to/watching cds/dvds by Eckhart Tolle like Stillness Speaks or The Flowering of Consciousness. His books work too. But cds/dvds are better than books for picking up someone’s vibe since the biggest part of communication is voice tonality and body language.

7. Try a different point of view.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”
Harper Lee

“If one does not understand a person, one tends to regard him as a fool.”
Carl Jung

This is certainly one of the hardest things about understanding. Why? Because we want to be right. The ego wants it. And it makes it very hard to switch “sides” and look at things from another perspective, especially the perspective of someone you may be in opposition to. By “choosing a side” we may project something upon the other person and label him/her. That label makes it very hard to see the real person underneath.

And so it becomes easy to regard the person as a fool. Because you never put yourself in his/her place and at least tried to understand. All that is left is strange and stupid otherness in the other person that enhances how right and perhaps even good you are.

As I wrote yesterday, judging can give you a temporary boost of positive emotions. But it’s always followed by a hangover where negative thought loops and emotions run around in your mind and body for quite some time.

In the long run it’s better to try to avoid that instant gratification. To instead, for example, try thought #5 and some sympathy. Because if you do then that makes you feel better and opens up your eyes and world to more fully understand both new – and old – things and people.

8. Understand that there are things you may not need to understand.

“People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.”
Claude Monet

“The fact that you are willing to say, ”I do not understand, and it is fine,” is the greatest understanding you could exhibit.”
Wayne Dyer

I don’t know where I got this but one quote that has been bouncing around in my mind for the last few weeks goes something like this: “Analysis is a form of violence.”

I think it was Eckhart Tolle who said it (and probably Buddha/some mystic before him).

And that’s a thing I haven’t always paid attention to. When you are interested in personal development then much of your attention is focused on understanding and analyzing things. Perhaps even more so when you also write about the topic. It’s easy to get totally stuck in an analyzing frame of mind for long periods of time.

But while that can be very useful it can also detract from positive things.

Always trying to understand it can screw up your human enjoyment in things, people and experiences. Perhaps some things are better if you don’t analyze them so much. Then you will have greater enjoyment of them and be able to see the wonderful and beautiful whole rather than all the small pieces of the puzzle.

Finding a balance between trying to understand and just experiencing your world isn’t easy. But I think it can be a very useful balance to try to figure out for just about anyone.

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About the Author

Henrik Edberg is the creator of the Positivity Blog and has written weekly articles here since 2006. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Gothenburg and has been featured on Lifehacker, HuffPost and Paulo Coelho’s blog. Click here to learn more…

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • This is a great article that I really enjoyed … BUT … in point 5. I think you should replace the word “sympathy” with “empathy”. Nobody wants sympathy, it’s disempowering. Everybody craves empathy.

    Having said that I HATE nitpicky comments under my own posts so PLEASE forgive me for being a little snotty-nosed writing snob (I may have been a particularly full of himself editor in a past life methinks, and was probably stabbed to death with a fountain pen by some long suffering genius writer who grew tired of screaming at me that I was missing the !@#$% point!)

    Oh dear time for bed for this hairy Australian …

  • “Take notice of what others may teach you about yourself.”

    “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

    This is so true. Much of the time we are annoyed and complain about someone’s personality or way of doing things, and yet it’s often those traits that we have in common with that person. We can so easily see that flaws in others when we share that flaw ourselves.

    I like how you laid things out. Eric.

  • Henrik…wow! This is a great list and a wonderful and insightful explanation of each point. I particularly liked what you had to say about being present, and about using a different point of view. The latter comes easily to me due to years of debate training. In competitive debate you don’t get to choose a side of the issue, it is assigned to you and it’s your job to win for that side. I was often forced to argue something that I didn’t believe in, but by studying and attempting to embrace the arguments on the other side, I gained understanding and compassion. In some cases I was swayed. Overall I gained an understanding that there can be valid and valuable arguments on all sides of an issue and that we need to keep an open mind and listen to each other.

    As for being present, that one remains a challenge. I am a working mom and a multi-tasking monster! I have been known to say “you’ll need to wait a moment, mommy can only do three things at once” and that’s probably not a good thing, LOL. I have begun to carve time into each day where I breathe and just become totally present in the moment, in my space and in my body and it is quickly becoming my favorite part of the day :-)

  • These are fantastic Henrik. I’d love to add a quote from our good friend Steve Jobs:

    “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

  • I agree with the point, do to understand. Sometimes we can keep on reading and reading but without actually putting the knowledge to work, we cannot understand. Knowledge is not power, knowledge with action is the real power.

    Personal Development Blogger

  • words could be overwhelming, every situation has a multitude of dimensions, never has there existed a fixed rule complying all the time, if you consider the core in this particular order truth, kindness, discipline and religion than you are less likely to make a mistake!

  • I like this one:

    “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” – Carl Jung

    Carl Jung was the originator of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which espouses the idea that different personalities aren’t better or worse, just different. So if someone seems backwards to you, that might simply reveal that you have a different type.

  • Some great pearls of wisdom, very much appreciated.

  • Be here and now completely? Now this is something that speaks directly to me. My mind is so busy that sometimes I absentmindedly arrive at a place and then ask myself what I wanted to do here. Within a few moments my mind goes through a number of different thoughts forgetting about the reason that directed me to that certain place.

    So, presence IS what I need the most… getting rid of that noise in my head and focusing on the present moment and the one single activity that I’m undertaking in this moment.

    Thank you Henrik for another great article.

  • Henrik – Thank you for a most excellent article. The quote selection is inspiring and the commentary is meaningful. I particularly appreciate the Krishnamurti quote. Practicing present time consciousness – practicing being present – is an ongoing, moment-by-moment activity. Of course, mostly I forget to practice! :-)

    In the moments when I remember, the experience is powerful. Being present supports relationships, work, health, exercise, and wellness. Thanks for reminding me to practice being present!

    And, any article quoting Leonardo, Galileo, Dale Carnegie, and Khalil Gibran is well-worth reading from top to bottom!

  • I am with you on the fact that the more you learn and think you know, the more you understand that you don’t know. I used to think I knew it all, and I still do :)

    Its a joke, relax everyone. Good read man. Keep it up.

  • I remember the quote of my instructor in college saying “The more you know, the more you do not know”. If you think you know everything you’re wrong because there’s a lot to learn.

  • OT

    “Analysis leads to paralysis”
    -Jack Nicholas

  • Great reminders, Henrik. Much obliged.

  • Amy

    Wise and powerful post. Please consider giving more attention to grammatical issues of fragment sentences and proper apostrophe and comma use; your words will carry the full weight they deserve if you avoid such distracting errors.