What does it mean to truly know something? To fully and absolutely understand what it is and what it means? We like to believe we know a lot about life.
We know the subjects we learned in school (hopefully), we know the hobbies we spend our free time on, we know how we do our jobs, and yet, how well do we truly know any of them?
There are certainly levels of comprehension, from touching the surface to complete and full understanding, although we like to see things more black and white. Either I know design or I don’t. Either I know social capitalism or I don’t. Either I know accounting or I don’t. There are no shades of gray.
The truth is more likely that we truly know nothing, because true understanding isn’t so simple.
here’s an idea in Zen Buddhism termed Satori, which literally translates to understanding or comprehension. In this context, it means individual Enlightenment or a sudden awakening or awareness of what Zen truly is. Suddenly, it all makes perfect sense, despite years of trying to understand it.
Satori is the raison d’être of Zen, without which Zen is no Zen.D.T. Suzuki
Satori is often preceded by moments of Kenshō, which means initial insight. In essence, these are stepping stones towards Satori. Moments of insight that eventually turn into complete understanding.
If we apply this idea of Satori to the real world, then I believe we begin to realize what true comprehension really is. It is the act of fully understanding what something means. Not just on the surface, but its very essence. I have my doubts about how often this level of understanding is really achieved.
Although it’s easy enough to say we have a deep understanding, how can we be so sure? How do we validate that we have achieved Satori in any particular thing in our lives? I believe there are two simple tests that will provide a solid baseline.
1. Can you explain it in a few, simple words?
First and foremost, there must be a simplicity to your understanding of the idea. When you can explain it in a few words that is when you truly understand it. Far too often, we believe we understand something, until we have to explain it to others.
Articulating an idea to someone else is when our own understanding of it comes to the fore. More often than not, we stumble and falter and aren’t able to clearly explain that which we know so well.
Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.
It takes a certain level of understanding to breakdown the most complex and intricate ideas into something simple and succinct. Whether it be through analogy or story or just simple terms, it doesn’t matter – it must be simple.
2. Can you teach it to ANYONE?
Teaching an idea or skill to another individual is often the ultimate demonstration of understanding. When you can teach it to others, you truly know it. Teaching is, in a way, the most recognized form of expertise.
This is where the anyone part comes into play. Teaching an idea to a peer is one thing, but teaching it to the elderly or the young or the foreign or the ignorant, is something else all together. Once again, simplicity comes into play because it is what makes teaching efficiently possible.
Teaching big ideas to those who have yet explore such subjects can only be when the complex is made relatable.
f anything, I hope I’ve explained just how nuanced understanding really is. We may have preconceptions of our understanding in a wide range of subjects, but in reality we haven’t achieved Satori in most of them, if any. So what? Why does having that level of understanding even matter? Is it really of any value? The short answer is, it has tremendous value.
It matters because when you have such deep understanding of something, it unlocks the essence of what that idea really is. Suddenly the WHY of the matter is fully understood. The problems become obvious. The solutions become apparent. All the pieces to the puzzle finally fit together.
Of course this is easier said then done. It takes a certain type of person and a certain level of commitment to think so deeply about anything. Especially in today’s world, where we tend to skim and cut corners towards achieving our goals.
To be sure, having a teacher or mentor who will instigate this level of thinking is invaluable. It may frustrate, annoy, and drive you a little crazy, but being pushed into the depths of any subject will result in a clarity in things that were otherwise amiss.
So if you’re working on the next startup that will disrupt an industry or if you’re writing the book that will define your generation or if you’re simply trying to answer a question to a problem – think about it deeply.
Revisit it, refine it, question it and get to the essence of what that idea or problem truly is because that is where all your answers will be found. That is when you’ll be able to properly communicate your idea to others and inspire or excite them. That is where the truth is found.
Strive for Satori in all things.
Image via flickr