Distinguishing Between ‘Being With’ And ‘Understanding’

When is it appropriate to simply ‘be with’ (experience) the phenomena and when is it appropriate to dive into that which shows up and strive to understand it?

Let’s start with exploring ‘Understanding’ as a mode of being (showing up) and operating (travelling) in the world. Why? Because it occurs to me that is the dominant mode of being in the Western world where I find myself living.

A Brief Exploration Of Understanding

Something occurs and we strive to understand.  What exactly does that mean? As I look into my lived experience it occurs to me that when we are involved in ‘understanding’ we are involved in:

– seeking to figure out why something occurred and specifically we are looking for the cause of that which occurred;

– seeking to figure out the mechanics (the machinery behind) that which occurred – how the various elements interacted to generate that which occurred; and/or

– seeking to figure out (predict) how some event is likely to play out, the path that will be travelled and the outcomes that will generated.

Whilst all three of these are possible, in everyday practice, when we are seeking to understand, we are seeking only to figure out cause and/or mechanics.

This mode of being (showing up) and operating (travelling) in the world has become dominant since the Enlightenment. And has been the means for us, the human race, to attain mastery over nature. Arguably, the mode of being is responsible for the length of our lives,  the quality of our health, the sexual liberation of women, our capacity to fly, to put men on the moon etc.

 A Brief Exploration of ‘Being With’

When you and I are ‘being with’ that which shows up, we are being present, to that which shows up and we experience as experiencing beings amidst the hurly-burly of life.  And not as ‘scientists’, standing apart from that which is occurring, and engaged in the task of figuring out that which lies behind that which has occurred or is occurring.

I get this may sound strange given that this is the not the normal way of talking. So, allow me to give life to this by sharing a lived experience.

A long time ago, that is how it occurs to me, I found myself managing a motor dealership that had gone into ‘receivership’ (Chapter 11 in the USA).  There I am sitting in the office dealing with paperwork. There is a knock on the door and the lady who plays the role of Receptionist, shows in a well built tall (very tall) man. Instantly, I found myself experiencing fear. Why?

At some level, I had picked up that the man in front of me was both strong and angry – very angry. His upset, his anger, was written all over his body. And I picked up that the Receptionist had ‘saved her skin’ by passing this man over to me.

Finding my wellbeing at stake, I found myself totally present. Being totally present, I talked to the man politely, invited him to sit down. Then I told him that I could see that he was really upset and invited him to tell me his story. Then I listened. And I empathised – with his experience of loss, of betrayal, of confusion and suffering. After about an hours conversation, I shook hands with the giant who was now gentle. And helped him as best as I could to file a claim against the business for the losses he had incurred.

At no time in this encounter-conversation did I find myself in the role of ‘scientist’ standing at a distance, looking at what was occurring, and attempting to figure out what had occurred.

That is how I would define ‘being with’: being attuned to the situation; dancing with that which occurs as it occurs; operating at the level of lived-felt experience; living it not figuring it out!

What Happens When We Mix Up These Modes of Being? 

Recently, it was my birthday. At the appointed time of celebration I was so excited. Why? I was looking forward to giving out the ‘gifts that I had brought’ for each person around the table.

With great delight I announced that I wanted to enter this phase of my life as I wish to live it: giving that which I could/had to give. Then I told everyone that I had a gift for them. And handed each person an envelope with his/her name on it. Once they got over their surprise, each opened his/her envelope, and found money in there.

What I was hoping to see-experience was joy: joy in the faces of these people. What I got was questions along the lines of is this some kind of joke? I assured all that it was not a joke, that the money they had in their hands was genuine gift from me to them on my birthday. Then the why questions started: why are doing this?

I found myself puzzled, distressed and mildly annoyed with questioning. Why? It occurred to me that in showing up and operating from the ‘Understanding’ mode of being-operating in the world, the people around the table had stripped the beauty from the act-experience of giving and receiving.

Furthermore, and most importantly, there was no adequate answer that I could provide that satisfied them. Why? Because there was no cause – nothing and nobody was causing me to do that which I was doing.  And there were no set of circumstance (the mechanics) that had come together to cause me to give people gifts on my birthday.

It was only when we gave up the ‘understanding’ mode of being, along with its questions, that the people around the table were able to experience the joy of receiving a gift that day. Only when they embraced the ‘being with’ receiving a gift was I able to experience the joy of giving that which I had given and had been looking forward to giving.

Why Distinguish between ‘Being With’ and ‘Understanding’?

If you have lost a loved one and  are in pain, suffering, grieving, crying. Then it is totally inappropriate for me to show up and operate from the mode of ‘Understanding’: to figure you out. What is appropriate is for me to ‘be with’ you being the way that you are being. And ‘dancing’ with you.  This may mean simply listening or it may mean touching you, hugging you, holding you and allowing you to hold me.  Arguably, that is the appropriate response to all those who are grieving over the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner.

There are also situations where the most appropriate mode of showing up and operating is that of ‘understanding’.  In the case of the disappeared Malaysian airliner, all who search for the black box do so from the context of ‘understanding’. The commitment is to figure out what happened. And importantly, to figure out what caused what happened.

When you and I use the right mode of being – such that it fits the context at hand – we increase the workability of our lives, the lives of our fellow human beings, and life itself.

What I see again and again is the inappropriate intrusion (or use) of the ‘understanding’ mode in the area of human relationships and relating. Too often we seek to ‘understand’ others when the most appropriate-fitting way of showing up is ‘being with’ the other person and the relationship as it is and is not.  Too often we strip nature-humanity-life of its beauty by using the the ‘understanding’ mode to explain that which it is most fitting to experience.

Take the love between a mother and her child. Can this ever be ‘understood’ and explained?  And even if it is ‘understood’ and explained, what does this understanding-explanation add to the experience of love?  Now think what shows up in your living if you simply show up and simply witness, be with, experience a mother’s love for her child: perhaps your mother’s love for you or your love for your child.

I dedicate this post to my friend Lonnie Mayne. Lonnie does not seek to understand me. He simply creates the space where he and I can simple ‘be with’ that which shows up in our conversation. What a privilege this is: to be granted a space to simple be. Thank you Lonnie, your existence makes a massive contribution to my existence.

 

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

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