The following is the 15th chapter in AWARENESS: A de Mellow Spirituality Conference in His Own Words
by Fr. Anthony de Mello, S.J. edited by J. Francis Stroud, S.J., Copyright © 1990 by the Center for Spiritual Exchange
“The great masters tell us that the most important question in the world is: “Who am I?” Or rather: “What is ‘I’?” What is this thing I call “I”? What is this thing I call self? You mean you understood everything else in the world and you didn’t understand this? You mean you understood astronomy and black holes and quasars and you picked up computer science, and you don’t know who you are? My, you are still asleep. You are a sleeping scientist. You mean you understood what Jesus Christ is and you don’t know who you are? How do you know that you have understood Jesus Christ? Who is the person doing the understanding? Find that out first. That’s the foundation of everything, isn’t it? It’s because we haven’t understood this that we’ve got all these stupid religious people involved in all these stupid religious wars—Muslims fighting against Jews, Protestants fighting Catholics, and all the rest of that rubbish. They don’t know who they are, because if they did, there wouldn’t be wars. Like the little girl who says to a little boy, “Are you a Presbyterian?” And he says, “No, we belong to another abomination!”
But what I’d like to stress right now is self-observation. You are listening to me, but are you picking up any other sounds besides the sound of my voice as you listen to me? Are you aware of your reactions as you listen to me? If you aren’t, you’re going to be brainwashed. Or else you are going to be influenced by forces within you of which you have no awareness at all. And even if you’re aware of how you react to me, are you simultaneously aware of where your reaction is coming from? Maybe you are not listening to me at all; maybe your daddy is listening to me. Do you think that’s possible? Of course it is. Again and again in my therapy groups I come across people who aren’t there at all. Their daddy is there, their mommy is there, but they’re not there. They never were there. “I live now, not I, but my daddy lives in me.” Well, that’s absolutely, literally true. I could take you apart piece by piece and ask, “Now, this sentence, does it come from Daddy, Mommy, Grandma, Grandpa, whom?”
Who’s living in you? It’s pretty horrifying when you come to know that. You think you are free, but there probably isn’t a gesture, a thought, an emotion, an attitude, a belief in you that isn’t coming from someone else. Isn’t that horrible? And you don’t know it. Talk about a mechanical life that was stamped into you. You feel pretty strongly about certain things, and you think it is you who are feeling strongly about them, but are you really? It’s going to take a lot of awareness for you to understand that perhaps this thing you call “I” is simply a conglomeration of your past experiences, of your conditioning and programming.
That’s painful. In fact, when you’re beginning to awaken, you experience a great deal of pain. It’s painful to see your illusions being shattered. Everything that you thought you had built up crumbles and that’s painful. That’s what repentance is all about; that’s what waking up is all about. So how about taking a minute, right where you’re sitting now, to be aware, even as I talk, of what you’re feeling in your body, and what’s going on in your mind, and what your emotional state is like? How about being aware of the blackboard, if your eyes are open, and the color of these walls and the material they’re made of? How about being aware of my face and the reaction you have to this face of mine? Because you have a reaction whether you’re aware of it or not. And it probably isn’t your reaction, but one you were conditioned to have. And how about being aware of some of the things I just said, although that wouldn’t be awareness, because that’s just memory now.
Be aware of your presence in this room. Say to yourself, “I’m in this room.” It’s as if you were outside yourself looking at yourself. Notice a slightly different feeling than if you were looking at things in the room. Later we’ll ask, “Who is this person who is doing the looking?” I am looking at me. What’s an “I”? What’s “me”? For the time being it’s enough that I watch me, but if you find yourself condemning yourself or approving yourself, don’t stop the condemnation and don’t stop the judgment or approval, just watch it. I’m condemning me; I’m disapproving of me; I’m approving of me. Just look at it, period. Don’t try to change it! Don’t say, “Oh, we were told not to do this.” Just observe what’s going on. As I said to you before, self-observation means watching—observing whatever is going on in you and around you as if it were happening to someone else.”