Comprehension and Zen

“Increasing intellectual understanding only supplies more information, not Comprehension.” – unknown

Comprehension: The action or capability to understand something. Understand: Perceive the intended meaning or interpret, view, something a certain way.

A group inquiry on these words and concepts quickly ground to a halt. We are always using these words but I have a problem with our definitions. Both descriptions point towards an intellectual processing of words and ideas. Great.

But then, what does it mean to Comprehend suffering? It’s the first task associated with the first of the Ennobling Truths in Gautama’s encouragements. Life is suffering and I need to comprehend that. Not intellectually understand what it means. Where would that get me? How does understanding the meaning of a word translate into my life experience?

For me, comprehension differs from understanding because it includes emotions, moods, and feelings. I can know something intellectually, but will not comprehend until the entire system labeled “Bryan” has the experience that an understood word represents. (When using the word “suffering,” I try to be discerning in application. I believe that’s because I comprehend how suffering feels. And for me, suffering doesn’t mean missing the bus, or being pissed off at another. Suffering manifests in the comprehension of suffering, the experience.)

I don’t comprehend a “horse” because I read and understand the word horse, I comprehend when I am in the presence of a horse. One is intellectual understanding, the other is visceral, resulting in getting closer to the entire entity labeled horse.

“Horse” moves from being contained in the stream of thought, to having smells, sounds, feelings, and emotions. One being, “I”, weaves with another, “Horse.”

For me, it’s the engagement and weaving with the horse that manifests comprehension. The same way that asking oneself “Am I suffering” enables us to experience the feeling of suffering in real time, a direct comprehension.

Last year I installed a birdfeeder and proceeded to read up on Michigan birds. And although I had read about them, and heard them, I finally comprehended a Pileated woodpecker for the first time.

It’s an amazing world.

Bryan Wagner

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