Revisiting ‘Awareness’ by Anthony De Mello

Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence.

Awareness – Anthony De Mello

I’ve decided to revisit the book that got me started on my spiritual journey twenty years ago: Awareness by Anthony De Mello S.J.

Even the best psychologist will tell you that, that people don’t really want to be cured. What they want is relief; a cure is painful. Waking up is unpleasant, you know. You are nice and comfortable in bed. It’s irritating to be woken up.

What struck me immediately is how negative it is. The focus is consistently on how asleep we all are, how resistant we are to waking up, and how we cling to our precious illusions and attachments.

Do you think you help people because you are in love with them? Well, I’ve got news for you. You are never in love with anyone. You’re only in love with your prejudiced and hopeful idea of that person….

“How could you let me down when I trusted you so much”? you say to someone. Did you really trust them? You never trusted anyone. Come off it! That’s part of society’s brainwashing. You never trust anyone. You only trust your judgment about that person. So what are you complaining about?

The fact is that you don’t like to say, “My judgment was lousy”. That’s not very flattering to you, is it? So you prefer to say, “How could you have let me down”? So there it is: People don’t really want to grow up, people don’t really want to change, people don’t really want to be happy.

The whole book is an onslaught of treasures like these.

While De Mello works toward valid principles like unconditional happiness, he frames them in a very negative context.

He justifies this negativity as being more truthful, more honest, and therefore not truly negative. He depicts negativity and “disillusionment” as the pathway to a spiritually superior happiness.

What I took from it as a teenager was that if I wanted “true” happiness, I should discard all the things that gave me relief, comfort, and security since these were illusory and only kept me asleep.

Instead I should seek out the negativity, suffering, and unhappiness within me, because it was through suffering I would finally be motivated to “wake up”, and these points of discomfort were the key to identifying my attachments and delusions.

Anytime you have a negative feeling toward anyone, you’re living in an illusion. There’s something seriously wrong with you.

You’re not seeing reality. Something inside of you has to change. But what do we generally do when we have a negative feeling? “He is to blame, she is to blame. She’s got to change”.

No! The world’s all right. The one who has to change is YOU.

What I took from passages like these is that I was to blame for my negative feelings, that there was nothing wrong with anyone else, rather there was something wrong with me.

Lately I’ve been reading and listening to the Abraham material by Esther Hicks, and while it shares similar principles of unconditional happiness and personal responsibility, the emphasis and framing is very different.

Abraham would never state that “there is something seriously wrong with you”, nor imply that we should transfer blame of others to blame of ourselves.

Yet De Mello’s whole program explicitly focused on digging into negativity:

Put this program into action, a thousand times: (a) identify the negative feelings in you; (b) understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality; (c) do not see them as an essential part of “I”; these things come and go; (d) understand that when you change, everything changes.

Do I do anything to change myself? I’ve got a big surprise for you, lots of good news! You don’t have to do anything. The more you do, the worse it gets. All you have to do is understand.

I applied this program in my own life in response to the negative feelings in me. I became obsessed with understanding, trusting that “all you have to do is understand”.

Where did that get me?

Twenty years later I am exhausted from trying to understand. I never ran out of negative feelings, because the more I looked, the more I found. I understood them over and over again. I filled journals with them. I diligently took responsibility for them, and then tried not to identify with them.

I understood so much that I began to suspect there was something wrong with my search for understanding…and then I tried to understand that problem as well!

Contrast this with the Abraham approach. Do you need to understand? No. All you have to do is feel better. And the only reason you wanted to understand in the first place was that you thought you would feel better when you understood.

Instead of rejecting relief and happiness as “illusory”, I would have been better served to seek out as much relief and happiness as I could find.

What went wrong?

What went wrong? Should I blame De Mello for how I interpreted and internalised his words for twenty years of my life?

In fairness, he was long dead when I read his book, and the book itself was a posthumous publication based on transcripts of his retreats. As a writer myself I don’t think it’s fair to judge him for material that he may only ever have intended to deliver in person, in a controlled environment, perhaps tailoring his message to his audience.

I still think his focus on suffering and negativity is unhelpful. Abraham instead presents suffering and negativity as “contrast” which inspires and refines our desires, as opposed to De Mello’s insistence that we suffer because we are asleep in our illusions and keep bumping into objective reality.

I can also see now that De Mello’s approach is a very choleric one, and totally unsuited to a melancholic. Cholerics are much more inclined to challenge, confront, and test people, because their own sense of self-worth is typically strong and resilient.

For this same reason, spiritual writings by cholerics are often strongly focused on humility and letting go of pride. It makes sense to tell proud, self-satisfied people that they shouldn’t rest on their laurels and must take responsibility for their own feelings.

But a melancholic-phlegmatic tends to already be full of self-criticism, inadequacy, and fear of faults. Melancholics require encouragement in trusting themselves and their authentic feelings. They do not thrive under pressure nor “rise to the challenge” in response to being tested.

Was it really wrong?

In Abraham terms I’ve experienced a lot of contrast by focusing so strongly on things that felt bad. But another Abraham principle is that you can’t get it wrong, and you can’t get it done.

Even apparent mistakes like mine have to be seen in the context of my life at that point in time, and it is obvious to me that I gravitated toward De Mello’s book at that time and interpreted it in that way because it was a perfect match to how I was already feeling.

I was already depressed, anxious, and cynical. It felt a little better to find what seemed like a deeper meaning behind my suffering.

So even on that level I could have read De Mello’s book and focused only on the uplifting and inspiring parts.

My experience of De Mello’s book was a perfect match for me at that time, just as my now vastly improved thoughts and feelings have brought me to this unplanned but perfectly timed reappraisal of the book.

And in Abraham terms the suffering I’ve experienced has only added to the strength of my desire for its opposite – my desire for the real meaning, freedom, enjoyment and connectedness.

With the Abraham material I finally understand that there is no dichotomy of true and false happiness. All emotion exists on a scale from depression and despair up to appreciation, love and joy.

There is no sense in avoiding or depreciating the slightest bit of relief, and no sense in glamourising or seeking out the slightest bit of suffering.

There is no need to seek out negativity, and there is no virtue in being disillusioned.

We are meant to be happy, we are meant to enjoy life, and that includes my relief at finding that I no longer want an experience characterised by disillusionment, suffering, and the kind of desperate existential spirituality I was drawn to all those years ago.

Mindfulness for people who hate mindfulness

I tried mindfulness in the past. It didn’t work, and I developed reservations about the purpose and direction of mindfulness as a movement or fad.

I’m not alone in being critical. Edwin Ng wrote a great piece from a Buddhist perspective, critiquing aspects of the mindfulness movement:

this initial reception of sensorial and perceptual impressions with non-reactive awareness has to be followed through with the ardent application of what is described in Buddhist teachings as appropriate attention and the clear comprehension of the conditionality of phenomenal reality-selfhood…

In this way, mindfulness is guided by an ethical imperative which requires the practitioner to cultivate a wise and compassionate ethos of care and engagement towards self, others and the world. Mindfulness is, therefore, not exactly non-judgmental but rather entails an ongoing evaluative task of being heedful and discerning about the intentions driving the actions of body, speech and mind.

I think this is the difficulty I encountered in practicing mindfulness. It’s generally promoted as non-judgemental awareness, but I think people are either misunderstanding what non-judgmental means, or merely repeating a principle they don’t literally apply to their own practice.

Non-judgmental could mean “don’t beat yourself up for having bad thoughts”. In other words, don’t judge if judging adds another layer of reaction to your awareness.

But mindfulness can’t be truly non-judgmental in the sense of not preferring some states of mind over others. At the very least, mindfulness practice must prefer being mindful over being unmindful.

Mindfulness and positive thinking

I’ve begun using mindfulness as part of my positive thinking work, because I finally understood that the relationship between thoughts and feelings is immediate.

In other words, if I’m feeling bad it’s because I’ve just had a negative thought.

Today I walked past the mechanic and felt bad, because my mind turned to the thought of when I need to get my car serviced, and from there to a general thought about all the hassles and responsibilities I have in life.

That train of thought is guaranteed to make me feel bad, and produce a greater sense of life’s burdens in me.

But if I’m mindful, I’m paying attention to each and every thought I have, and noticing the immediate emotional reaction to it.

Esther Hicks’ material refers to this as our “emotional guidance system”, which tells us whether our thoughts are in alignment or out of alignment with our desires and the perspective of our “inner being”.

Without getting into the metaphysics of that system, the point is that your emotions are always giving you immediate feedback on the direction your thoughts are taking you.

The self-aware mind

What happens in mindfulness is that the mind itself becomes aware of the connection between thoughts and emotional feedback.

I began paying attention to my thoughts – all of them, one after the other – and to my surprise it was as though my mind began regulating itself, diminishing the intensity of negative thoughts as the correlation between thought and feeling became clear.

If we are not aware, we don’t see the connection, and we persist in focusing on thoughts that make us feel worse and worse.

Hicks explains that if you put your hand on a hot stove you know immediately what is wrong and pull your hand away. That we don’t do the same for negative thoughts is due in part to lack of awareness of cause and effect, and in part to the insistence of others that such thoughts are necessary, realistic, and somehow virtuous to hold.

So practicing mindfulness in the context of positive thinking really is valuable, because it amounts to a highly focused and disciplined application of the basic principles. You wouldn’t consciously put your hand on a hot stove, and you won’t consciously focus on thoughts that make you feel bad either.

A process for personal change

I’ve been thinking recently about the process I used to lose weight, as described in my book on weight-loss.

When I first set about trying to lose weight I did so with determination but also with confidence in my ability to solve problems in my own unique way.

Losing weight was just one application of a process I’ve slowly developed and refined. Maybe it’s a process uniquely suited to my own temperament and experiences, or maybe it has broader application for others?

Recently I decided to apply the same process to the goal of feeling good.

Why feeling good?

Like trying to lose weight, I’ve tried for a long time to feel good without success.  A combination of temperament and experience has made it seem more complicated or elusive than it ought to be.

By “feeling good” I mean a consistent and persistent change in my emotional set-point. I’ve been describing it lately as a shift from a pessimistic outlook to an optimistic one.

1. You can’t see the answer from where you are.

If you’ve been stuck in a persistent, negative experience for a long time, then you won’t be able to see the answer from within that experience. You have to recognise that the answer or solution will be something different and new; it will require a true change in perspective.

2. The goal itself is easy to achieve.

Goals like weight-loss and feeling good are easy to achieve. To lose weight all you need to do is eat significantly less food. To feel good all you need to do is focus on thoughts and experiences that feel good rather than those that feel bad.

Recognise the simple, practical solution to your problem, and the real culprit will rear its ugly head as you realise:

3. You don’t want to achieve your goal.

You might start with “I want to feel good, but I can’t or don’t know how.” Or “I want to lose weight, but I can’t or don’t know how.”

If you accept the simple, practical method in step 2, then this thought has to change.

Eg. “I want to feel good. I know that if I just focus on good-feeling thoughts I will feel good. But nonetheless I don’t.”

Eg. 2. “I want to lose weight. I know that if I eat significantly less food I will lose weight. Nonetheless I don’t.”

I think most people implicitly realise this conundrum, but instead of concluding “I guess I don’t really want to lose weight/feel good”, they instead conclude “I guess eating less/changing focus isn’t really the solution”.

But what is the solution? Denying the obvious solution just leads us into endless pursuit of fads or gimmicks and demoralising struggle. It’s far more valuable to accept the obvious solution, and accept that:

4. You may not like your experience, but it’s what you want.

I never liked being overweight, but as I worked through these steps I came to realise that part of me was resisting the simple solution of eating significantly less.

Why?

Because that part of me wanted to escape regularly into the immersive experience of eating.

Somehow, my mind hadn’t joined the dots between this part that wanted to eat, and the part that was unhappy with the side-effects of so much eating.

Likewise, parts of me are resisting the simple solution of focusing on thoughts that feel good. Intrusive negative thoughts are serving a purpose for some part of me. I want to focus on them, even though I don’t like the consequences.

5. A total change in perspective.

There’s a whole lot of ancillary realisations and shifts in perspective that supported and facilitated losing weight. For example, I realised early on that I couldn’t control my weight per se, I could only control my eating habits.

I realised that there was nothing “wrong” with being overweight, considering that I was overeating. Overeating makes you overweight…that’s normal. So there was no point feeling bad about being overweight when in reality I should feel bad about my dysfunctional eating habits.

Likewise, it’s normal to feel bad when you focus on negative things. It would be weird to feel good about bad things, wouldn’t it?

We fixate on our feelings as if we can change them directly. But our feelings are actually responding to our point of focus, our thoughts and our beliefs. Focusing on bad things makes you feel bad, focusing on good things makes you feel good.

So fix your focus and your feelings will take care of themselves, just as your body will find its own balance if you stop overeating compulsively.

Being overweight feels bad, but really we should feel good about being overweight. If you could overeat compulsively and remain thin, there would probably be something drastically wrong with you.

So maybe we should also feel good about feeling bad, when we focus on negative things? Isn’t that a sign that your psyche is in good working order?

The real culprit is not your feelings, it’s your point of focus. Take your bad feelings as a sign that part of you wants to focus on something negative.

And if that’s the case, then you’re already where you want to be, right? You want to be somewhere you don’t like. Maybe you haven’t thought about it like that before. Maybe you have some misconceptions about how the world works. But this perspective shows that you really are in control after all.

I wanted to overeat, even though I didn’t like the consequences. I want to focus on negative things, even though I don’t enjoy feeling bad.

Being aware

I love looking at myself from this kind of perspective. It shows that I am actually in control, even when I really don’t enjoy my experience.

It’s a little disconcerting to find that parts of us are running on auto-pilot. I liken it to a computer with programs running in the background, consuming resources, conflicting with other software.

Until we go looking, we may have forgotten we set those programs running in the first place. We might wrongly assume there’s something wrong with the computer, that it’s too old or too slow, or that it’s just not compatible with the software we want to run now, or that the new software isn’t any good.

I think that once we become aware of the programs we’re running, the things we want but have forgotten about, then our mind can start to connect the dots. We realise there’s a trade-off, or better yet a trade-up.

If you learned to overeat when you were young, it might be because eating was your only accessible means of feeling good and having control over your experience. But when you’re an adult you have much greater scope for finding happiness and meaning in life.

The trade-off might be facing some of the negative feelings you’ve been escaping from. But the trade-up is repairing your relationship with food, bringing your body into balance, and finding healthier sources of enjoyment.

Likewise, you might focus on negative things because you thought you had no choice, or you thought it was important to be “realistic” or in the midst of negative experiences that seemed beyond your control, you sought to adapt to those negative aspects and find some consolation in them.

Perhaps you found it more bearable to feel like a victim? Or to harbour thoughts of resentment and revenge? Or to feel that you were persevering against enormous odds?

These might have been consolations at the time, but now that you know you can change your point of focus there’s a possibility of trading up. You don’t have to remind yourself constantly that you’re a victim, or that you resent life, or that you are still bearing up despite great adversity.

The only caveat is that you have to do so from outside the recurring patterns of thought, otherwise you’ll turn this effort into another instance of your negative experience. You need to first recognise that you want this negative experience, even though you really don’t like it.

Stuck in my head

In the literature on temperaments I’ve read that melancholics seem to be less coordinated, less ‘at home’ in their bodies, and more prone to illness and minor ailments.

Even before I came across the temperament theory, I’d concluded that as someone who thinks a great deal, spending so much time “in my head” upsets things like balance, coordination, proprioception, and my awareness of minor aches and pains, tension, thirst, and bad posture.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I spend nearly every waking moment thinking. And while I’ve tried various methods to ‘quiet’ my mind in line with generic meditation advice, I think that such advice is not necessarily appropriate for a melancholic idealist philosopher.

After all, I’m not just thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner. My mind is inquiring, analysing, speculating, and critiquing. My mind composes speeches, stories, articles and even conversations; it welcomes inspiring new ideas and elaborates on intriguing problems and dilemmas. It’s always working, and while it can be exhausting, I feel I’ve found the right kinds of creative directions for this mental energy.

So while I used to think this constant thinking was excessive and needed to be shut down, I now see it as a skill and a creative process that needed to be trained, disciplined, and given appropriate work to do.

Nonetheless, there are times when being so ‘head-centred’ becomes too much, and I’ve found over the years that it’s possible to shift the focus away from thoughts and towards other aspects of embodied awareness, such as the aforementioned proprioception, breathing, or just the feel of my feet on the floor. But more important is the sense of dimming the focus on my thoughts, of deciding that my thoughts are not important for the time being, and I won’t miss anything by letting go of them for a while.

We talk about lowering our centre of gravity, but this is more like lowering the centre of awareness. As strange as it sounds, it has an immediate impact on perception, making everything around me seem a little more real and substantial. It’s as though being focused on one’s thoughts and dwelling in abstraction leaves the world feeling somewhat unreal.

The world of thoughts is a valuable one, but this conflict between thinking and being troubles me. It leaves me wondering what a true balance would look like; am I really overdoing the thinking, and is it undermining my health in ways of which I am oblivious? If you’ve ever had the experience of getting up from a computer desk after hours craning over a keyboard, you’ll understand that we can easily lose touch with bodily discomfort when engrossed in mental activity. How much more so if we spend most of each waking day lost in thought?

That’s a telling idiom after all: no one ever claims to find themselves in thought. Am I, a thinker, more myself when I am thinking? Or am I just someone who’s gotten used to losing himself in entertaining, instructive, ever-more-engaging thoughts?