Understanding is one of the deepest things we do as humans. Once something is understood, it becomes easy, or even enjoyable, to deal with – and it’s nearly impossible to forget something you truly understand.

For most of my life, it’s been an intuitive process.

However, as I’ve had to get better and better at understanding complex subjects quickly, I’ve developed at least some approaches to it that I’m more aware of.

One way I understand something is in terms of questions about it. Some basic ones:

  • What is it?
  • How does it come to be?
  • When should it be?
  • Where is it?
  • Why does it need to be?
  • Who made it? Who intended it?
    (tenses may vary)

Some slightly more elaborate ones:

  • What is its history, its current state, its future?
  • How does it change? Where is it flexible, where is it rigid?
  • Who is responsible for it?
  • Who can it benefit and how?
  • What’s related to it?
  • How important is it?

Depending on the subject, the questions may change in subtle ways. Simple questions help illuminate the silhouette of a problem/solution/project/idea/proposal/theory/situation/relationship/thing. Deeper understanding relies on the art of asking the right questions: great illuminating answers start with a great question.

Another way I feel I understand something is in terms of how to build it or do it. Sometimes, even though I am unable to find a good question, or a satisfactory answer to a reasonable question I do have, I am still able to create something – and I feel like I understand it in some sense, because I am able to reason about it sufficiently to bend it to my will for whatever purpose I may have. Of course then all my basic questions will be future tense!

I still rely on intuition a lot. More types of understanding reinforce each other; first, having answers to basic questions, then to deeper questions, then being able to express my understanding through creation, and still always having intuitive imagery for what it is I think I’m understanding.

The Socratic tragedy is the feeling of incompleteness of understanding, no matter how deep or broad – a puzzle piece always seems to be missing. Enlightenment comes, and becomes mundane, as master Qingyuan Weixin famously wrote: “Before I had studied Ch’an for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not just mountains, and rivers are not just rivers. But now that I have got its very substance, I am at rest. For now I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers”.