Lecture 08 Understanding

by P D Ouspensky

Contents List:

System Foundation
The 'Nature' of Understanding
Not Memory
Struggle With Obstacles
Change of Being
Not Faith
Remember Yourself!
Combination of Centres
Emotional 'Understanding'
Mutual Understanding
'School' Language
Practical Understanding and Attitude
What Do You Want?

Return to:

Campus

See also:

Four Ways to Immortality

System Foundation

I wish to remind you that this system is based on understanding. Understanding must occupy the first place in the system. The more you understand, the better the results of your work will be.

Understanding is a relative term. Everyone understands something at every moment in his own way. But understanding may be large, larger, and still larger. In this system we call understanding a certain possible maximum on a certain level of knowledge and being. As a rule this maximum is too low; people's understanding is usually limited to only one room, and they never get out of that room. But understanding of these ideas is very much beyond this one room.

What I wish you to think about refers to the whole thing. People do not ask 'why?' sufficiently often and, if they do, this 'why?' is generally very small. You should think of why you come here, what you want from this system and why, what you can learn from it, why this system exists, why I talk of this system, what I wish to achieve by talking about it. One has to have a certain point of view about it all; it may be a wrong one, but still one must have some idea.

As it is, almost every idea remains unopened, unexplored. There are boxes of books that may be opened, the contents read, and many new things added. But mostly we deal with unopened boxes. One box, knowledge; another, being; a third, understanding; and so on. First we have to learn the contents of the boxes. There is no need to limit yourself to a definite question in this respect. This is an organic system: in it you can start with anything. Start where you like, only do something with the ideas you hear. It is not enough simply to sit on those boxes of books.

Open the box with knowledge and the box with being. It is the relation between knowledge and being that is important.

The 'Nature' of Understanding

There are many things that you can understand now although, of course, they will be surrounded by many things you cannot understand yet; but if you begin with those you can understand, you will understand many other things. Every moment of understanding, every realisation, sheds light not only on the thing we are thinking about but on many other things as well.

There is no 'real' or 'final' understanding. Understanding is relative. It is like temperature: it may be five degrees, ten degrees, fifteen degrees. You see why ordinary language is no good and why we have to study a different language. In ordinary language all words are taken as absolutes. In reality there are different degrees of understanding. We can understand a little better and much better. Then, if we want to understand still better, we must change our being. If we can bring higher emotional centre into play we can understand much better. To understand still more needs higher mental centre.

Definitions can seldom help and, as a matter of fact, we can have very few definitions. This conviction that in order to understand something it is necessary to define it is quite wrong. Most things we cannot define; and the few that we can, we can define only relatively with the help of other things. So, among an enormous quantity of things we cannot define at all, there are small islands of things we can define.

Even if we take, for example, self-remembering as an absolute term, the question is, for how long? Whether you remember yourself in the best possible way for half an hour or for five minutes makes a very big difference. To bridge the gap between self-remembering and merely thinking about it, you have to break a certain wall, and you do not know how to do it. Learning to do something means acquiring a certain skill. For a long time you cannot do it well, you do it clumsily; then one day you find that you can do it properly. It is the same with self-remembering not quite, but near enough.

There are thousands of way of increasing one's understanding. All that we have ever spoken about is ways to increase understanding. But the first way is by observing and studying ourselves, because this increases our capacity to understand. That is the first step. If you could understand the ideas that you have been given, your knowledge would increase. But you understand only on the surface and apart from desire. Or you may have quite a strong desire, but the machine does not work. Yet inside our machine we have better parts which at present we do not use. We can use them only by increasing consciousness. This is the only way.

Not Memory

Memory, the best memory we may have, is not sufficient, because in this system we remember not by memory but by understanding. Memory may even be a hindrance. You hear something which has a right place in the system, and if you put it where it belongs you cannot forget it and it will remain there; but if you only remember what was said without putting it into its right place, it is quite useless. Each small thing you hear you must try to understand, and to understand means to find the place where it belongs among other ideas. You must have a general idea of the system and everything new must have its place in it; then you will not forget, and every new observation you make will find its place. It is as though you have a drawing without details and observation fills in the details. If you have no drawing, the observation is lost.

Struggle With Obstacles

Chiefly you must struggle with obstacles which prevent you from understanding. Only by removing these obstacles can you begin to understand more. But obstacles, with the exception of the general description of identification and so on, are individual. You must find your own; you must see what stands in your way, what keeps you from understanding. When you find it, you must struggle with it. It needs time, for it cannot be found at once, although in some cases it may be very clear almost from the beginning. For a long time all the work must be concentrated on understanding, for it is the only thing by which one can be guided. Our chief difficulty is that we want to 'do' before we can know what it is all about. But in this system one must understand first. When you understand things better, many other things will become possible, but not before.

Change of Being

Knowledge without understanding is useless, because it is mere words. We must work on change of being, but if we work on that as we do on everything in ordinary life, life will not be long enough. It is possible to get a durable change of being only if we use the perfected methods of school work, otherwise our attempts will be too scattered. The first condition of such work is not to believe anything, to verify everything one learns. The second condition is not to do anything unless one understands why and for what purpose one is doing something. So it depends on understanding; all short-cuts depend on understanding.

Being and understanding are not the same. Understanding is a combination of knowledge and being. The limiting factor in ourselves is definitely our being, which means our capacity for understanding. It is connecting one bit of knowledge with another bit of knowledge. You will see that understanding depends on being if you take the elementary idea of being. Man is divided into different 'I's or groups of 'I's which are unconnected with one another. Then if one 'I' knows one thing, a second 'I' knows another thing, a third 'I' yet another, and they never meet, what kind of understanding is possible? From one point of view it may look as though a man has enough knowledge, but since these 'I's never meet, this knowledge can never be brought together. This is the state of an ordinary man's being, and it proves that as he is, he cannot have understanding. Understanding always means connecting things with the whole, and if one does not know the whole, how can one connect?

In this system you must try to understand; only what you understand gives positive results. If you do something without understanding it will not give much, for only what you understand is valuable.

Not Faith

Faith will not help you. You have to accept or reject the ideas on the basis of your preparation. You come to these ideas with certain material, and with the help of this material you decide whether to accept them or not according to whether you understand them or not. For yourself you can use the word 'accept', but we use the word 'understand'; and if you can understand, you do not need faith. There is absolutely nothing in the preliminary ideas that needs faith. In some cases, as on the psychological side, you can verify everything; and in some other cases, as in studying the Universe, there is the idea of scale. I do not see a single idea in this system which requires faith and where faith would help. On the contrary, I think faith would make things more difficult and stop you instead of helping you.

Remember Yourself!

The chief thing is to remember yourself. The more you remember yourself, the better you will think, for you will find new machines. If you are conscious of yourself, you will not need intellect. Intellect will serve you for thinking about tables and chairs, but if you want to think about greater things you must be able to use better machines. If all attempts to understand something go wrong, try not to think about it but try to remember yourself that is, to be emotional and in time you will understand. Understanding does not become permanent at once; as in everything else there are many steps. You can understand something one day and not understand it the next day, for you may be more conscious in the same circumstances one day and more asleep the next. So many days may pass before it becomes your own.

Combination of Centres

Understanding is a combined function of all centres. Each centre separately can only know; when they combine all their knowledge, this gives understanding. To understand something needs at least three centres. First you must have an idea on which line, on which scale, of which whole, you are thinking. Then, if you speak or think about some separate thing, you must understand this separate thing in relation to the whole. Only this is understanding: finding the place of this thing, the meaning of this thing, the relation of this thing to yourself and to other things. Try it: but you will find it is not as easy as it seems.

Sometimes we understand simple things. But if something is a little more complicated, we lose ourselves and do not understand. We want to understand big things without realising that in actual fact we cannot understand the simplest things. If we begin with the simple things, then gradually we will begin to understand more. But if we begin with big things and refuse to think of or observe small things, we shall never understand anything properly.

Emotional 'Understanding'

Emotional 'understanding' is feeling, not full understanding. It is very good sometimes, only you cannot verify it. But if you can look at a thing from the point of view of one centre, another centre, and a third centre, then you really understand. And even the direction of centres is not sufficient by itself, for knowledge is necessary. Only when knowledge is connected with the direction of centres is it understanding. In everything, only practical application will show whether you understand or not.

Mutual Understanding

How can we understand other people when we do not understand ourselves? Men 1, 2, and 3 cannot understand one another; on this level understanding is simply accidental. If we move in the direction of Man 4, we begin to understand one another.

When people speak or try to explain their views, they cannot. They cannot even repeat correctly what they have heard; they change things. And so misunderstanding grows and grows. One invents a theory: immediately five others are invented to contradict it. Thousands of years have passed from the invention of language and in all this time people never understood one another. How can we expect that they will now?

So first we must understand ourselves. We do not see our situation and realise our mechanicalness. We do not see that this not understanding is a law.

We can do nothing without trying. If you want to make sure you are not a machine, try to do something that a machine cannot do. Try to remember yourself, for a machine cannot remember itself: if you find that you can, then you are not a machine; if you find that you cannot, it will prove that you are a machine. And then, if you realise that you are a machine and want to find out whether you can cease being a machine, again the only method is to try.

If two people have an equally wrong being, they will not understand one another. It is not equality which brings understanding between people, but a certain level not only of being but also of knowledge. Different levels, such as Men 5, 6, and 7, presuppose levels of both knowledge and being. Men 5 are supposed to understand one another, Men 6 understand better and Men 7 understand fully. Even Men 4 understand one another as compared with us; but we cannot understand one another, or we understand only occasionally for a moment, and at another moment we cease to understand. We cannot rely on such understanding. People who know one another very well may work together for years and yet on some occasions fail to understand one another. This is why the place or conditions where we are is called the place of confusion of tongues because we all speak different languages.

'School' Language

In a right school you first learn the language in which you can speak with other people in the school and then, using this language if you use it in the right way you will understand one another. That is why a new language is necessary. If you do not learn this language, or if the language is wrong, you will never understand one another.

Words begin to acquire objective meaning starting from the level of Man 4. Men 1, 2, and 3 are purely subjective and everyone understands every word in his own way. But if people know the language, or even a few words of it, they can use it in the same meaning.

You cannot understand one word completely and another incompletely. You have to know them all on the same level, and then your being changes and you find many more divisions. So your language will become more and more complicated. And at a certain level perhaps you will need new words, new forms, because old forms will no longer be sufficient.

Understanding of a term or a word varies in relation to the degree of being. We can already see how the same word means one thing for Man 1, another thing for Man 2, and yet another for Man 3. But on the level of Man 1, 2, and 3, this is mechanical in the sense that people cannot help it. They understand according to their level, their capacity, not according to the meaning of things.

Man 4 knows his aim and how his aim can be attained. He goes with his eyes open, while we go with our eyes shut. Man 5 is already one: he has unity. He does not live in this constant conflict of egos that we have. He has self-consciousness. He has control of higher emotional centre.

Man 5 will know how he himself has changed. Other people will know only what he can demonstrate through being able to control himself.

If people reach the highest level, they cannot understand things differently. Since we only aspire to reach this level, we must for now take it as a principle. In a small way you can find examples of this even now. If two people really understand something, for instance if they can do something equally well, they will understand one another. But we have lost the habit of judging things from the practical side: we judge them theoretically, by words.

When we speak of ourselves, we cannot speak in absolutes. We can speak only of relative values. Complete understanding is very far, but we can speak of less understanding and more understanding. If you continue to try to remember yourself and not to identify, understanding will grow.

If you understand only a part, it is not understanding. Understanding means connecting parts with the whole. One can begin from parts or one can begin from the whole. But whatever one begins from, the more connected things are, the better one understands if the connections are made rightly and are not merely an illusion.

Practical Understanding and Attitude

Right understanding requires a right attitude. We must understand that we have no control, that we are machines, that everything happens to us. But simply speaking about it does not change these facts. To cease being mechanical requires something else and, first of all, it requires a change of attitude. One thing over which we have a certain control is our attitude towards knowledge, towards the system, towards work, towards self-study, towards friends, and so on. We must understand that we cannot 'do', but we can change our attitudes.

Attitudes can be very different. For the moment we will take only two, positive and negative not in the sense of positive and negative emotions but referring to the positive and negative parts of intellectual centre: the part that says 'yes' and the part that says 'no', that is, approval and disapproval. These are the two chief attitudes.

It is very important to think about attitudes because we very often take a negative attitude towards things we can understand only with a positive attitude. For instance, it may happen that people take a negative attitude towards something connected with the work. Then their understanding stops and they cannot understand anything until they change their attitude.

We must have positive attitudes in some cases and negative attitudes in others, because lack of understanding is often caused by a wrong attitude. If a man studies life, he must sometimes come to negative conclusions, for there are many things wrong in life. Trying to create positive attitudes is as wrong as having only negative attitudes. Yet some people have a negative attitude towards anything and everything, and some people try to cultivate a positive attitude towards things that need a negative attitude.

On the other hand, the moment you have a negative attitude towards things that refer to the work, to the ideas, methods, and rules of the work, you cease to understand. You can understand according to your capacity only as long as you are positive.

But this refers only to intellectual attitudes. In emotional centre, negative emotional attitudes mean identifying. Then it means a suspicious or unsympathetic or fearful attitude. Take it in the ordinary sense of accepting or not accepting.

Attitude is not the same as identification. You can have a point of view without being identified; but very often, identifying is the result of a wrong attitude. One can change one's attitudes by studying oneself and one's life on the lines of this system. It is a process of thinking, putting together all the things we already know with all the ideas and principles we have learnt, and being able to see facts from a new point of view.

To think in a new way is a very difficult thing, for the old way of thinking is kept up by old habits of thinking, old associations, old attitudes, and the influences of things themselves.

What Do You Want?

Understanding is the strongest force we have which can change us. The more understanding we have, the better the results of our efforts. But you must know what you want. Just imagine yourself going to a big shop with many different departments. You must know what you want to buy and you must know what the shop sells, otherwise you may ask for things they don't sell. This is the way to approach the work.

You must always remember why you started. Do you want things you can get from ordinary life, or do you seek different things? Is it worth while trying? Our capacity for imagination, generally used so wrongly, can help in this case. But you must control it all the time and never let it run away with you. If you use it rightly, it may help you to see whether you really want what you say you want; because very often we want something different, or we do not realise that one thing brings another with it. You cannot want one thing by itself; if you want one thing, you get many other things with it.

Only when you know what you want will you know where you are going, and know it rightly. It is necessary to know. From the ordinary point of view it may be quite fantastic or even impossible, and yet it may be right. Or it may look very simple and right, and yet be impossible.

In general, the only aim is change of being. The aim is to reach higher states of consciousness and to be able to work with higher centres. In order to achieve that, it is necessary to do many things that seem to have no relation to it, but they are necessary because we generally live at a subnormal level. Most people are too identified, too hypnotised by formatory ideas, lie too much, and are more mechanical than they need be. First we must reach the normal level and then we must try to develop new things and possibilities. No one can help you in this, only your own work and understanding.

You must begin with understanding. These lectures and this system are to give understanding. The next step depends on your own efforts. Change of being can be achieved only if you remember all that was said and if you do not make exceptions for yourself and leave out things you do not like. If you do this, you will not have a right relation to what was said, and even if you try to remember it, it will change nothing.