Four Steps to Wisdom
The following is the 25th 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 first thing you need to do is get in touch with negative feelings that you’re not even aware of. Lots of people have negative feelings they’re not aware of. Lots of people are depressed and they’re not aware they are depressed. It’s only when they make contact with joy that they understand how depressed they were. You can’t deal with a cancer that you haven’t detected. You can’t get rid of boll weevils on your farm if you’re not aware of their existence. The first thing you need is awareness of your negative feelings. What negative feelings? Gloominess, for instance. You’re feeling gloomy and moody. You feel self-hatred or guilt. You feel that life is pointless, that it makes no sense; you’ve got hurt feelings, you’re feeling nervous and tense. Get in touch with those feelings first.
The second step (this is a four-step program) is to understand that the feeling is in you, not in reality. That’s such a self-evident thing, but do you think people know it? They don’t, believe me. They’ve got Ph.D.s and are presidents of universities, but they haven’t understood this. They didn’t teach me how to live at school. They taught me everything else. As one man said, “I got a pretty good education. It took me years to get over it.” That’s what spirituality is all about, you know: unlearning. Unlearning all the rubbish they taught you.
Negative feelings are in you, not in reality. So stop trying to change reality. That’s crazy! Stop trying to change the other person. We spend all our time and energy trying to change external circumstances, trying to change our spouses, our bosses, our friends, our enemies, and everybody else. We don’t have to change anything. Negative feelings are in you. No person on earth has the power to make you unhappy. There is no event on earth that has the power to disturb you or hurt you. No event, condition, situation, or person. Nobody told you this; they told you the opposite. That’s why you’re in the mess that you’re in right now. That is why you’re asleep. They never told you this. But it’s self-evident.
Let’s suppose that rain washes out a picnic. Who is feeling negative? The rain? Or you? What’s causing the negative feeling? The rain or your reaction? When you bump your knee against a table, the table’s fine. It’s busy being what it was made to be—a table. The pain is in your knee, not in the table. The mystics keep trying to tell us that reality is all right. Reality is not problematic. Problems exist only in the human mind. We might add: in the stupid, sleeping human mind. Reality is not problematic. Take away human beings from this planet and life would go on, nature would go on in all its loveliness and violence. Where would the problem be? No problem. You created the problem. You are the problem. You identified with “me” and that is the problem. The feeling is in you, not in reality.
The third step: Never identify with that feeling. It has nothing to do with the “I.” Don’t define your essential self in terms of that feeling. Don’t say, “I am depressed.” If you want to say, “It is depressed,” that’s all right. If you want to say depression is there, that’s fine; if you want to say gloominess is there, that’s fine. But not: I am gloomy. You’re defining yourself in terms of the feeling. That’s your illusion; that’s your mistake. There is a depression there right now, there are hurt feelings there right now, but let it be, leave it alone. It will pass. Everything passes, everything. Your depressions and your thrills have nothing to do with happiness. Those are the swings of the pendulum. If you seek kicks or thrills, get ready for depression. Do you want your drug? Get ready for the hangover. One end of the pendulum swings to the other.
This has nothing to do with “I”; it has nothing to do with happiness. It is the “me.” If you remember this, if you say it to yourself a thousand times, if you try these three steps a thousand times, you will get it. You might not need to do it even three times. I don’t know; there’s no rule for it. But do it a thousand times and you’ll make the biggest discovery in your life. To hell with those gold mines in Alaska. What are you going to do with that gold? If you’re not happy, you can’t live. So you found gold. What does that matter? You’re a king; you’re a princess. You’re free; you don’t care anymore about being accepted or rejected, that makes no difference. Psychologists tell us how important it is to get a sense of belonging. Baloney! Why do you want to belong to anybody? It doesn’t matter anymore.
A friend of mine told me that there’s an African tribe where capital punishment consists of being ostracized. If you were kicked out of New York, or wherever you’re residing, you wouldn’t die. How is it that the African tribesman died? Because he partakes of the common stupidity of humanity. He thinks he will not be able to live if he does not belong. It’s very different from most people, or is it? He’s convinced he needs to belong. But you don’t need to belong to anybody or anything or any group. You don’t even need to be in love. Who told you you do? What you need is to be free. What you need is to love. That’s it; that’s your nature. But what you’re really telling me is that you want to be desired. You want to be applauded, to be attractive, to have all the little monkeys running after you.
You’re wasting your life. Wake up! You don’t need this. You can be blissfully happy without it.
Your society is not going to be happy to hear this, because you become terrifying when you open your eyes and understand this. How do you control a person like this? He doesn’t need you; he’s not threatened by your criticism; he doesn’t care what you think of him or what you say about him. He’s cut all those strings; he’s not a puppet any longer. It’s terrifying. “So we’ve got to get rid of him. He tells the truth; he has become fearless; he has stopped being human.” Human! Behold! A human being at last! He broke out of his slavery, broke out of their prison.
No event justifies a negative feeling. There is no situation in the world that justifies a negative feeling. That’s what all our mystics have been crying themselves hoarse to tell us. But nobody listens. The negative feeling is in you. In the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred book of the Hindus, Lord Krishna says to Arjuna, “Plunge into the heat of battle and keep your heart at the lotus feet of the Lord.” A marvelous sentence.
You don’t have to do anything to acquire happiness. The great Meister Eckhart said very beautifully, “God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction.” You don’t do anything to be free, you drop something. Then you’re free.
It reminds me of the Irish prisoner who dug a tunnel under the prison wall and managed to escape. He comes out right in the middle of a school playground where little children are playing. Of course, when he emerges from the tunnel he can’t restrain himself anymore and begins to jump up and down, crying, “I’m free, I’m free, I’m free!” A little girl there looks at him scornfully and says, “That’s nothing. I’m four.”
The fourth step: How do you change things? How do you change yourselves? There are many things you must understand here, or rather, just one thing that can be expressed in many ways. Imagine a patient who goes to a doctor and tells him what he is suffering from. The doctor says, “Very well, I’ve understood your symptoms. Do you know what I will do? I will prescribe a medicine for your neighbor!” The patient replies, “Thank you very much, Doctor, that makes me feel much better.” Isn’t that absurd? But that’s what we all do. The person who is asleep always thinks he’ll feel better if somebody else changes. You’re suffering because you are asleep, but you’re thinking, “How wonderful life would be if somebody else would change; how wonderful life would be if my neighbor changed, my wife changed, my boss changed.”
We always want someone else to change so that we will feel good. But has it ever struck you that even if your wife changes or your husband changes, what does that do to you? You’re just as vulnerable as before; you’re just as idiotic as before; you’re just as asleep as before. You are the one who needs to change, who needs to take medicine. You keep insisting, “I feel good because the world is right.” Wrong! The world is right because I feel good. That’s what all the mystics are saying.”