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.