“Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand you can’t love.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
I recently attended a weekend workshop, and there was a man in the group who always had a strange look on his face whenever we had to look for a partner to work with. I noticed that some people avoided him, like they didn’t want to work with him. Perhaps it was the vibe he gave off because of the way he looked at people.
At some point later in the weekend I sat with him. It was hard to put my finger on it, but there was something about him that did feel a little strange, and I could see that other people were put off by him.
After the weekend had finished, we happened to be sitting next to each other and started talking, which somehow led to him telling me that he is almost completely blind. With his contact lenses in he can see okay, but the low light of the room made it very hard for him to make out faces.
In that moment I understood. That was why he gave off a weird vibe—because he was having trouble seeing. The “look” he gave was simply a result of him trying to see and ultimately connect with someone.
The internal label I’d given him of “strange” dissolved in an instant, and in that same moment I felt an opening in my heart. It was an unconditional level of understanding that brought with it a sense of peace and connection.
Understanding and Letting Go
We often get frustrated or angry with the people around us, projecting our emotions and frustrations onto them when we don’t understand them. The moment we understand, it can change our whole attitude, creating a space of opening.
Imagine you’re driving your car, and the car in front of you starts slowing down. You don’t know why they’re slowing down, so you get frustrated and possibly impatient. Maybe you start verbalizing your frustration, or perhaps you even honk your horn in an effort to release some of your tension.
Then you see an elderly woman crossing the road, moving very slowly.
In that moment your frustration softens, because you now understand why the driver in front of you was slowing down. They saw something you didn’t.
We can take understanding in this example even further. You also understand the woman moving slowly. Perhaps you have a mother or grandmother who moves slowly, or you realize that one day, as you age, this could be you, and you’d appreciate drivers slowing down for you. Or maybe you’re young but injured.
Understanding creates a mental shift enabling us to replace reactive emotions and disconnection with compassion and connection.
Understanding Is a State of Mind
Understanding is more than something we do, as in trying to understand someone else’s perspective or how they feel. Yes, this is part of it, but understanding is also a state of mind that we can cultivate. Just like joy, enthusiasm, sadness, or frustration are states of mind that govern the way we experience life.
When we feel joyous, we think, act, and respond to life in a certain way—joyfully. When we feel frustrated, we think, act, and react to life in a different way—finding reasons to justify our frustration everywhere.
Understanding is a state of mind that makes us feel more peaceful, compassionate, and connected, creating an attitude of “us” as opposed to a “me vs. you” mentality.
When we proactively nurture an understanding mindset, we approach people with openness—even if they’re difficult—because we’re committed to always looking beneath the surface instead of making judgments and assumptions.
We may not always know why someone acts the way they do. But an attitude of understanding does not actually require us to know the exact details of other people’s story.
Understanding at its deepest level is just like love—an unconditional understanding of another’s humanness. We don’t have to know their story, but we can appreciate they’re going through the human experience, just like us.
Cultivating an Attitude of Understanding
There are various ways to cultivate understanding in your life, but I’d love to share a reflective exercise here to help you understand and connect more deeply to yourself and humanity.
Think of a time when you lost it. A situation when you got angry or frustrated. Maybe a family member did something that really upset you, or maybe someone undermined you at work. The reason why does not matter here; you’re not trying to justify it, and you’re definitely not judging it as right or wrong.
When you have that memory in mind, just feel it. Feel the sensations in your body—the intensity, the heat, or the thoughts and emotions that come with it. If it’s uncomfortable, that’s okay.
Don’t try and change it. Just feel it.
As you feel it, notice that in that moment you were unable to maintain peace inside yourself.
We can’t be at peace inside while reacting with anger.
I’m not suggesting there should be a suppression of anger in any way. This is about recognizing the truth of what’s happening inside us when we react with anger. When it happens unconsciously there’s nothing we can do about it—the result being we act mindlessly. But when we consciously pay attention, we deepen our self-awareness, and this gives us the opportunity to choose how we act.
I had an experience at a coffee shop where I was returning my drink because they’d made the wrong one. When I told the woman at the cashier they’d made the wrong order she was quite rude, and told me bluntly, “That’s what you ordered!”
It caught me by surprise. Her attitude made me feel like I was being accused of something I didn’t do. I could feel myself getting angry and ready to defend myself.
I felt a wave of intensity come up inside me.
As I was about to react and get into an argument with her, there was a moment where instead of feeling my anger, I could feel she was stressed. Something was bothering her, even before our interaction. I don’t know what it was, but it was enough for me to pause, reflect, and understand that we often don’t know what’s causing someone to act the way they do. We can never know what’s happened in their lives just before we began interacting with them.
There are so many different reasons why someone might be stressed or upset—an argument or breakup, chronic back pain, the death of a loved one, or inability to pay their mortgage to name a few possible explanations.
That moment of understanding her human nature allowed me to let go of my reaction. I’d taken her reaction personally, and it put me in a state of “you vs. me” where I was ready to fight to defend myself. And I would have felt quite justified in doing so because I felt falsely accused. But if I had, it would’ve just been me reacting to her reaction, and we likely would have ended up in an argument.
Reaction versus reaction = conflict.
The world is already so full of conflict, and at some point, if we want to create more peace in the world, we have to choose not to take things personally and instead respond with understanding, connection, and peace.
I’m not suggesting it’s easy, but I believe moments like these offer an opportunity to live from our heart when a natural reaction is conflict.
For me, in this case, the shift to understanding opened my heart and created a sense of peace and connection to the woman.
She must have felt it on some level, because without me pushing back at her with my own reaction, she also softened. Something dropped, and she simply asked the barista to make me a new beverage.
Whatever was bothering her before was still there, but I could feel she wasn’t projecting it outward onto me.
A moment of understanding can change everything.
The World Needs More Love (Understanding)
We often judge or complain about other people’s actions, but if we can pause and be honest with ourselves, we’ll realize we often do something of a similar nature ourselves.
Everyone has different life stories and traumas that condition their unique personality, but we all experience moments when we’re unable to maintain peace inside, so even though we may not know someone’s exact story, we’re still capable of understanding.
Instead of wasting our energy judging or complaining about others, we can put ourselves in their shoes and understand that we struggle with similar emotional challenges. This allows us to be more present and compassionate, cultivate deeper self-awareness, and connect on a human level.
Imagine a world where more people chose understanding and truth rather than reaction and conflict.
But ultimately imagining it is not enough; it’s a good start, but we need to act. We need to live and engage life from our heart.
“Understanding is love’s other name…”
“Understanding is an avenue into love. It’s also an expression of love in action. When we enter into understanding we are entering into love… and “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” ~Jimi Hendrix
What kind of a world do you want to live in?
Will you choose understanding instead of reaction today?