During an especially difficult period for me I connected with a friend who was going through difficulties of her own. She’d recently gone through a divorce and was confronting addiction issues in her life head on.
As one of the few people whose book recommendations for me are consistently spot on, I asked what she was reading at the time. One of the titles on her current list was Awareness by a writer I hadn’t heard of: Anthony De Mello.
Of the several titles she mentioned, this one didn’t particularly grab me, but I looked it up, liked the reviews and bought a cheap used copy.
Reading the book was a revelation. Like contemplative practice itself, this reading allowed a space of greater awareness to open up internally.
As an Indian-born Jesuit who studied Psychology at the University of Chicago, De Mello is comfortably conversant in wisdom traditions from across a wide variety of religious and cultural backgrounds. There is nothing terribly intricate or high minded about De Mello’s teaching. In fact the book is essentially a transcript from a talk he gave at a retreat in the eighties. His style is simple and conversational, but very powerful.
His gift instead is that of a storyteller. He uses folk wisdom from a variety of cultures and traditions to illustrate his insights into the spiritual life as a therapist, a spiritual director, a teacher, and a Jesuit raised in a Hindu culture.
One image from the book that resonated in particular is that in a state of awareness, our mind becomes like the sky. When suffering or difficulty arise, it’s like throwing black paint up at the sky. There’s simply nothing for it to stick to. It rises and falls right back down.
At that time in my life I had been in a state of extreme inner tension over several areas in my life: marriage, work, relationships, creativity. In each area there was a vast gap between a mental ideal I had created and my daily experience. In that state of constant dissatisfaction, even minor irritants touched a deeper seed of resentment and set off anger and frustration. As De Mello puts it, I was driving around town with my broken glasses thinking everything needed to be adjusted. Another illustration De Mello uses is that we go to the doctor, tell him our symptoms and say we want prescriptions for everyone else around us. We’ve got circumstances and people we blame, but it’s really how we’ve organized our mental-emotional landscape that has us trapped and unhappy.
It’s what I needed to hear.
What at first had seemed like a trivial aspect of life, awareness, takes on a broader resonance in the writing. In another illustration from the book, a student approaches a monk and asks him what Enlightenment means and the monk writes down “Awareness.” The student responds, “and what does awareness mean?” “Awareness means: awareness, awareness, awareness.” “Yes, but what does it mean?” asks the student. The monk writes “awareness.”
In reading the book, I realized every instance of movement toward greater spiritual expansiveness in my own life was characterized by increased awareness. And that the wisest people I knew had a kind of otherworldly awareness, of themselves and of others.
Awareness means understanding our motivations, desires, cravings, tendencies in general. Awareness means seeing our mental-emotional patterns and recognizing helpful and unhelpful thoughts as they arise. It means recognizing moods and triggers and cycles in a state of attentive alertness. Over time, we learn to practice grace with ourselves, and then naturally extend this to others. We recognize lack of awareness with ourselves, and are able to have greater compassion for lack of awareness in others. But in explaining the state of awareness, we run the risk of substituting the explanation or surface comprehension for the thing itself, for deep understanding, for internalized awareness.
The spiritual life itself is this kind of waking up, on the micro level of moment to moment awareness of our own inner state, and macro level awareness of people, institutions, and systems. At its best, all spiritual practice, from meditation to prayer to congregating for worship helps us either expand our level of awareness or bring that expansion about for others.
One of the many simple truths he touches on is that, contrary to what we claim, people generally don’t want to be happy, or at least they don’t want unconditional happiness. We’ve got a version in our head of how things need to go in order for us to be happy. We mistakenly place our happiness in our things, our families, our marriages, our achievements, our religions, our past, our future. We don’t realize the true capacity for happiness, freedom, and love lie in letting go of our need for things to go a particular way.
The mistaken desire for fulfillment in these areas becomes our attachments. We want praise from others, we want recognition, affection, status. If we don’t get it, we refuse to be happy. De Mello compares life in this state like a bus driving through beautiful countryside with curtains covering the windows. The people on the bus argue over who sits where and who sits next to whom and don’t for a second appreciate the intricate and beautiful landscape outside. So it is that many of us are born, live, and die in our sleep. Spirituality for De Mello simply means waking up.
There’s an effortless way De Mello has of interweaving wisdom from different traditions such that they inform, complement, and illuminate each other very naturally. It expands and extends our understanding and shows common underlying principles.
For me, the book helped synthesize the work of authors like Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating with elements of Eastern mystical traditions I had studied. I’ve turned back to this and many other of his books and even lay in bed some nights listening to the original lectures the book was based on. Getting there can take deep strain such that we’re sick of our dependencies, or it can take constant work to become more attentive; more than likely, both. The journey itself can be exquisite. And much more so with guides like De Mello to speed it along.