Change as Greed
The following is the 28th 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
“That still leaves us with a big question: 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.
Think of somebody you are living with or working with whom you do not like, who causes negative feelings to arise in you. Let’s help you to understand what’s going on. The first thing you need to understand is that the negative feeling is inside you. You are responsible for the negative feeling, not the other person. Someone else in your place would be perfectly calm and at ease in the presence of this person; they wouldn’t be affected.
You are. Now, understand another thing, that you’re making a demand. You have an expectation of this person. Can you get in touch with that? Then say to this person, ‘I have no right to make any demands on you.’ In saying that, you will drop your expectation. ‘I have no right to make any demands on you. Oh, I’ll protect myself from the consequences of your actions or your moods or whatever, but you can go right ahead and be what you choose to be. I have no right to make any demands on you.’
See what happens to you when you do this. If there’s a resistance to saying it, my, how much you’re going to discover about your ‘me.’ Let the dictator in you come out, let the tyrant come out. You thought you were such a little lamb, didn’t you? But I’m a tyrant and you’re a tyrant. A little variation on ‘I’m an ass, you’re an ass.’ I’m a dictator, you’re a dictator. I want to run your life for you; I want to tell you exactly how you’re expected to be and how you’re expected to behave, and you’d better behave as I have decided or I shall punish myself by having negative feelings. Remember what I told you, everybody’s a lunatic.
A woman told me her son had gotten an award at his high school. It was for excellence in sports and academics. She was happy for him, but was almost tempted to say to him, ‘Don’t glory in that award, because it’s setting you up for the time when you can’t perform as well.’ She was in a dilemma: how to prevent his future disillusionment without bursting his bubble now.
Hopefully, he’ll learn as she herself grows in wisdom. It’s not a matter of anything she says to him. It’s something that eventually she will become. Then she will understand. Then she will know what to say and when to say it. That award was a result of competition, which can be cruel if it is built on hatred of oneself and of others. People get a good feeling on the basis of somebody getting a bad feeling; you win
over somebody else. Isn’t that terrible? Taken for granted in a lunatic asylum!
There’s an American doctor who wrote about the effect of competition on his life. He went to medical school in Switzerland and there was a fairly large contingent of Americans at that school. He said some of the students went into shock when they realized that there were no grades, there were no awards, there was no dean’s list, no first or second in the class at the school. You either passed or you didn’t. He said, ‘Some of us just couldn’t take it. We became almost paranoid. We thought there must be some kind of trick here.’ So some of them went to another school. Those who survived suddenly discovered a strange thing they had never noticed at American universities: students, brilliant ones, helping others to pass, sharing notes. His son goes to medical school in the United States and he tells him that, in the lab, people often tamper with the microscope so that it’ll take the next student three or four minutes to readjust it. Competition. They have to succeed, they have to be perfect. And he tells a lovely little story which he says is factual, but it could also serve as a beautiful parable. There was a little town in America where people gathered in the evening to make music. They had a saxophonist, a drummer, and a violinist, mostly old people. They got together for the company and for the sheer joy of making music, though they didn’t do it very well. So they were enjoying themselves, having a great time, until one day they decided to get a new conductor who had a lot of ambition and drive. The new conductor told them, ‘Hey, folks, we have to have a concert; we have to prepare a concert for the town.’ Then he gradually got rid of some people who didn’t play too well, hired a few professional musicians, got an orchestra into shape, and they all got their names in the newspapers. Wasn’t that wonderful? So they decided to move to the big city and play there. But some of the old people had tears in their eyes, they said, ‘It was so wonderful in the old days when we did things badly and enjoyed them.’ So cruelty came into their lives, but nobody recognized it as cruelty. See how lunatic people have become!
Some of you ask me what I meant when I said, ‘You go ahead and be yourself, that’s all right, but I’ll protect myself, I’ll be myself.’ In other words, I won’t allow you to manipulate me. I’ll live my life; I’ll go my own way; I’ll keep myself free to think my thoughts, to follow my inclinations and tastes. And I’ll say no to you. If I feel I don’t want to be in your company, it won’t be because of any negative feelings you cause in me. Because you don’t anymore. You don’t have any more power over me. I simply might prefer other people’s company. So when you say to me, ‘How about a movie tonight?’ I’ll say, ‘Sorry, I want to go with someone else; I enjoy his company more than yours.’ And that’s all right. To say no to people—that’s wonderful; that’s part of waking up. Part of waking up is that you live your life as you see fit. And understand: That is not selfish. The selfish thing is to demand that someone else live their life as YOU see fit.
That’s selfish. It is not selfish to live your life as you see fit. The selfishness lies in demanding that someone else live their life to suit your tastes, or your pride, or your profit, or your pleasure. That is truly selfish. So I’ll protect myself. I won’t feel obligated to be with you; I won’t feel obligated to say yes to you. If I find your company pleasant, then I’ll enjoy it without clinging to it. But I no longer avoid you because of any negative feelings you create in me. You don’t have that power anymore.
Awakening should be a surprise. When you don’t expect something to happen and it happens, you feel surprise. When Webster’s wife caught him kissing the maid, she told him she was very surprised. Now, Webster was a stickler for using words accurately (understandably, since he wrote a dictionary), so he answered her, ‘No, my dear, I am surprised. You are astonished!’
Some people make awakening a goal. They are determined to get there; they say, ‘I refuse to be happy until I’m awakened.’ In that case, it’s better to be the way you are, simply to be aware of the way you are. Simple awareness is happiness compared with trying to react all the time. People react so quickly because they are not aware. You will come to understand that there are times when you will inevitably react, even in awareness. But as awareness grows, you react less and act more. It really doesn’t matter.
There’s a story of a disciple who told his guru that he was going to a far place to meditate and hopefully attain enlightenment. So he sent the guru a note every six months to report the progress he was making. The first report said, ‘Now I understand what it means to lose the self.’ The guru tore up the note and threw it in the wastepaper basket. After six months he got another report, which said, ‘Now I have attained sensitivity to all beings.’ He tore it up. Then a third report said, ‘Now I understand the secret of the one and the many.’ It too was torn up. And so it went on for years, until finally no reports came in. After a time the guru became curious and one day there was a traveler going to that far place. The guru said, ‘Why don’t you find out what happened to that fellow.’ Finally, he got a note from his disciple. It said, ‘What does it matter?’ And when the guru read that, he said, ‘He made it! He made it! He finally got it! He got it!’
And there is the story about a soldier on the battlefield who would simply drop his rifle to the ground, pick up a scrap of paper lying there, and look at it. Then he would let it flutter from his hands to the ground. And then he’d move somewhere else and do the same thing. So others said, ‘This man is exposing himself to death. He needs help.’ So they put him in the hospital and got the best psychiatrist to work on him. But it seemed to have no effect. He wandered around the wards picking up scraps of paper, looking at them idly, and letting them flutter to the ground. In the end they said, ‘We’ve got to discharge this man from the army.’ So they call him in and give him a discharge certificate and he idly picks it up, looks at it, and shouts, ‘This is it? This is it.’ He finally got it.
So begin to be aware of your present condition whatever that condition is. Stop being a dictator. Stop trying to push yourself somewhere. Then someday you will understand that simply by awareness you have already attained what you were pushing yourself toward.”