Understanding Sublime

At the peak of a heritage tree, surveying and assessing the Tennessee landscape I knew well as a young walker, I wondered why the word “understanding” wasn’t “overstanding”, since when I “got it” or comprehended something, I seemed to be taking an overview, a heightened recognition of an embedded pattern.

Well in fact, there was a Middle English word overstonden, literally “overstand.” But overstonden was used only in literal, actual, physical circumstances, as if you were describing someone upon a tree limb or balcony. Conversely, the person standing below you in the creek would be described by undergestandan.

My confusion was at last resolved by the fact that there are two “under”s. “Under”, as in “below”, is from the Germanic unter, “below”, PIE ndher-, “under”. Amazingly, this appears to be a completely different root from the “under” of understanding. The connotation of the Old English under- in “understanding” is within, not below. Indeed, as we look deeper still, we find that the under- of understanding has its PIE deep root in nter-, “between, among”, as evidenced by the Sanskrit antar and the Latin inter, both meaning “between” and “among”.

In fact, there was an Old English word understandan, meaning comprehension, and it is literally translated as “stand in the midst of.” To be true to its roots and our current conventions and meaning, “understanding” would be better written as interstanding. Walk a mile in my shoes, within my life, among my sensations, to understand/interstand my world, so says native wisdom.

However, before I came to this interstanding, I held a hierarchical sensitivity, especially to certain downward subjects. “Subject” is the Latin sub- “under” with iacere, “to throw.”) Being subject to the king in 13th century Europe was followed by certain 14th century people who described their subjective feeling as recipients of actions. Two hundred years later at the re-birth (Re-naissance) of Hellenic philosophy, the phrase subject matter appeared, borrowed from the Latin, subjecta materia. This was in turn taken from Aristotle’s hypokeimene hyle, literally “that which lives or lies beneath”, my favorite subject.

With my heightened interest in downward subjects, I came to learn how the Underworld is the dominion of Hades, and how this name is from a-des, not day, un-conscious. But once you have turned over your unconscious Hades sufficiently, you learn a new name for the underground divinity: Pluto, the divinity of riches. For beneath the soil, jewels and precious metals are found.

For when an unconscious pattern is revealed, harvested, and polished, an unhappiness is converted to sensitivity and richness of feeling. Thus it is said, “Where you stumble, there’s where you find your treasure.” The Hades to Pluto transition is the prayer of every soul.

In the midst of this transition, sometimes I feel like I am forever turning the ground; sometimes I am forever lying in that rich plowed field.

As we are restored to joy, we find ourselves within a rich beauty; this is understanding indeed, and in truth. We surrender within this reality and sublimities bless the being. Surrender is an Old French word meaning “deliver over, give up,” as sur is not a French version the Latin sub, but a French version of the Germanic super, “over”. Render is the French for “give”, from the Latin dare, “to give”, with its deepest root in the PIE da, “give”. Surrender is a total giving over.

Giving your self over completely is anathema or suspicious in today’s world of achievement, success, and independence. The fear that sending one’s head down in true submission leads to being yoked under or subjugation is grounded in reality, for the past is replete with such abuse. Instead, with wide eyes we must discern what and who we give ourselves to and then grow in our giving. Grounded in continual discernment, our surrender flows without withholding and we find ourselves within “the secret women’s mysteries” that allows anyone to be lifted “up to” (Old French sub-) and beyond the limits of the threshold (limen) to the lofty sublime. How do we arrive in the life where sublimities bless the heart and understanding quiets the mind? All the traditions agree: We must stand below our self-oriented conventions in the ground of real existence; we must be people of substance.


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