Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Do You Understand?

Do You Understand?

You are sitting on your chair, staring at your computer screen. What is your mind doing? You are reading these words, attempting to understand what I'm trying to say.

Now, when you attempt to "understand" something, what you are doing is that, you are performing a comparison between what I'm trying to point out and what you have experienced and learned before. Certain things are difficult to understand because you have no similar experience in your memory. There is no basis for comparison.

You attempt to analyze each word and sentence to see if there's a logical thread that you can follow. But the understanding that comes would still depend on your experience of words. You must guess what I mean when I'm using a particular word. A word like "cow" has a very objective meaning. So there's no ambiguity. But sometimes they are words like "effulgent", which is rich in imagery but vague in meaning.

Therein lies the problem of communication. Words like "cow" is clear because it maps to something physical. But they don't convey more than what the physical object represents. To describe something more about the object, you have to use adjectives: "a hungry cow".

We all understand what a "hungry cow" is because we have all experienced hunger before. So the imagery of a "hungry cow" stirs up the experience of hunger in our memory. And we say, we understand what a "hungry cow" means.

But what is a "soul"? What do we even mean when we say "soul"? Has anyone seen a soul before?

Even so, all of us would agree, that we kind of understand what a soul is, don't we? We would even go so far as to use the word soul, to describe somethin inanimate, such as a car. "This car has a soul". Car lovers out there will certainly claim to "understand" what it means.

But we are now venturing into a slightly more fuzzy area here. Do we mean exactly the same thing when we talk about the "soul" of a car? Does it stir up the same feeling (like in the case of "hunger") in every one of us? Does it mean that the car has "character"? Or does it mean that it behaves in a quirky manner? Or does it have a "soul" because it stirs up such strong emotions in us. Perhaps it's all of these. Who knows. Does it matter?

The experience of the word "soul" could be different for every individual. We have built an understanding of the word from our encounter with the word in different situations, and arrived at a mental "concensus". Subconsciously, through the processs of elimination, we have narrowed down its meaning, but yet never precisely defining it. But we feel quite sure that we are somewhere in the ballpark.

Therein also lies the power of words. Most of the words in our volcabulary do not have precise meanings, or poets would have been out of a job long ago. When words are not precisely defined, they have enormous potential to stir up the imagination. Then we can use words such as an "effulgent soul", and just let the vagueness of its meaning seep into

When the boundary of words are nebulous, they are like musical notes. We can combine any combination of notes to shape and stir up the appropriate emotional reaction in the reader. When people say that they cannot understand poetry, then they are probably not approaching it with the right frame of mind. Do you always attempt to understand music? No. You just listen to it, and the emotion arises. Why can't you use the same approach with poetry?

This is also why sometimes religious or spiritual texts are so difficult to "understand". They attempt to describe something that is beyond experience. So they have to resort to words that are vague (but rich) in meaning, such as "soul".

Therein also lies its danger.

We have religious people arguing over the meaning of words: Is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit one or three different entities? This so-called Problem of the Trinity caused so much crisis in the early Church. So many have been labelled heretics for disagreeing with the official definition of the day.

We find such disagreements common when it comes to things involving spirituality and religion. You will have one group saying, there's only one Universal Soul, which we call God and another will say, no, there are many souls, each a small fragment of the Universal Soul. And then they are intermediate souls, which are "gods" that are lower than the Universal Soul. And another will come along and say, no, ultimately, even the Universal Soul is an illusion. There's only emptiness and so on and so forth.

And so we spend our entire human history arguing about such things, waging wars and persecuting people who don't agree with our definition of words--words that we ourselves do not exactly "understand". But yet we are so passionate about them-- passionate enough to kill.

We have agnostics, atheist, monoatheists, polyatheists, pantheists, henotheists and what-have-you. Labels and more labels to identify ourselves with. But do they contribute to more understanding? Pick your favourite label and convince yourself that you understand what they are trying to say. And then force the rest of the world to believe that your interpretation is the correct one, because you "understood", and it looks so clear to you.

Which brings us to the root of the problem: What is understanding? What do we mean when we say that we "understand"?

Do you understand what I'm trying to say? No?

Never mind! :-)

No comments: