I have had a lifelong fear of being misunderstood. Perhaps then it was no accident that the large part of my professional life was spent studying and trying to overcome the ways in which misunderstanding arises between people, within organisations and across social groups. Unfortunately one of the consequences of this was that things I wrote were so meticulously precise that, while there was little room left for misunderstanding, this was mainly because no one could comprehend any of it in the first place. Perhaps this is why I ended up working with lawyers.

Over the last ten years I have relaxed a lot and started to accept misunderstanding as an inevitable consequence of communication. And partly to appreciate that we often can’t hold ourselves responsible for how people interpret what we say. Anyway, contributing to this site has re-awakened much of my previous fear – the potential for being misunderstood in this context could be quite vertigo inducing.

So I wanted to share with you one of the letters I recently received. I have been giving a class in Buddhism to some 12 year olds at local schools – they have been studying Buddhism and their teachers thought it would be good for the students to see a real life Buddhist and have chance to ask questions. So far I have given my talk to, and answered hoards of questions from, about 160 very lively students. Some time after one of the classes I received a large bundle of enthusiastic letters from the students expressing their thanks and describing what they liked about the sessions – it was truly heartwarming to receive. Amongst them – and in an enthusiastic, warm and supportive letter – one of the students had written:

I can imagine the way you live must be very relaxing, not worrying about anyone else.

Well heck, I thought, what on earth did I say that made them think I didn’t’t worry about anyone else? Had I given the impression that Buddhism didn’t care about others? – and should I give up trying to explain Buddhism altogether if I could be so misleading? It almost seemed on a par with the memorable line from the film A Fish Called Wanda: when Wanda tries to explain to Otto that The central message of Buddhism is not every man for himself.

Anyway, I told myself to forget about it and just get on with the next thing. But it has been niggling at me like these things often do when they have more to show. So I thought, with your (Mugo’s) voice echoing in my head, lets sit with this fear, lets look at it a bit closer, open it up and let the air in at it – let the rain fall on it a bit.

And that is what I’m doing – I’ll let you know how it goes.

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4 thoughts on “Misunderstandings?”

  1. I’m sure the child’s response had nothing to do what you said and everything to do with being 12 and longing for relief from worrying too much about what others think. Perhaps that will be the topic of your next teaching!

  2. and should I give up trying to explain Buddhism altogether if I could be so misleading?

    I know of an online author who used to periodically delete his entire website because of worries like this. Always came back to it in the end, though.

  3. Hi Auntie Seldoen, yes, I think if I’d known 12 year olds a bit better I would have come to a similar conclusion as you much sooner and saved myself worrying. And at the same time, the worrying seems to have helped me. I guess if there hadn’t been this to bother me about teaching the students then I’d have found something else, and that’s fine.

  4. Thank you Dan, I find your comment deeply re-assuring, .

    Makes me wonder: – if only I had an agreement with Reverend Mugo to let me take things off the website…
    – if only the relationship with our Buddhist teacher could be that straightforward.

    I’m continually finding that the teaching I get seems to lead or nudge me into precisely those areas where I feel least comfortable or competent.

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