The following is the 39th 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 DeMello Stroud Spirituality Center.
“I want to say one more thing about our perception of reality. Let me put it in the form of an analogy. The President of the United States has to get feedback from the citizens. The Pope in Rome has to get feedback from the whole Church. There are literally millions of items that could be fed to them, but they could hardly take all of them in, much less digest them. So they have people whom they trust to make abstracts, summarize things, monitor, filter; in the end, some of it gets to their desk. Now, this is what’s happening to us. From every pore or living cell of our bodies and from all our senses we are getting feedback from reality. But we are filtering things out constantly. Who’s doing the filtering? Our conditioning? Our culture? Our programming? The way we were taught to see things and to experience them? Even our language can be a filter. There is so much filtering going on that sometimes you won’t see things that are there. You only have to look at a paranoid person who’s always feeling threatened by something that isn’t there, who’s constantly interpreting reality in terms of certain experiences of the past or certain conditioning that he or she has had.
“But there’s another demon, too, who’s doing the filtering. It’s called attachment, desire, craving. The root of sorrow is craving. Craving distorts and destroys perception. Fears and desires haunt us. Samuel Johnson said, ‘The knowledge that he is to swing from a scaffold within a week wonderfully concentrates a man’s mind.’ You blot out everything else and concentrate only on the fear, or desire, or craving. In many ways we were drugged when we were young. We were brought up to need people. For what? For acceptance, approval, appreciation, applause—for what they called success. Those are words that do not correspond to reality. They are conventions, things that are invented, but we don’t realize that they don’t correspond to reality. What is success? It is what one group decided is a good thing. Another group will decide the same thing is bad. What is good in Washington might be considered bad in a Carthusian monastery. Success in a political circle might be considered failure in some other circles. These are conventions. But we treat them like realities, don’t we? When we were young, we were programmed to unhappiness. They taught us that in order to be happy you need money, success, a beautiful or handsome partner in life, a good job, friendship, spirituality, God—you name it. Unless you get these things, you’re not going to be happy, we were told. Now, that is what I call an attachment. An attachment is a belief that without something you are not going to be happy. Once you get convinced of that—and it gets into our subconscious, it gets stamped into the roots of our being—you are finished. ‘How could I be happy unless I have good health?’ you say. But I’ll tell you something. I have met people dying of cancer who were happy. But how could they be happy if they knew they were going to die? But they were. ‘How could I be happy if I don’t have money?’ One person has a million dollars in the bank, and he feels insecure; the other person has practically no money, but he doesn’t seem to feel any insecurity at all. He was programmed differently, that’s all. Useless to exhort the first person about what to do; he needs understanding. Exhortations are of no great help. You need to understand that you’ve been programmed; it’s a false belief. See it as false, see it as a fantasy. What are people doing all through their lives? They’re busy fighting; fight, fight, fight. That’s what they call survival. When the average American says he or she is making a living, it isn’t a living they’re making, oh no! They have much more than they need to live. Come to my country and you’ll see that. You don’t need all those cars to live. You don’t need a television set to live. You don’t need makeup to live. You don’t need all those clothes to live. But try to convince the average American of this. They’ve been brainwashed; they’ve been programmed. So they work and strive to get the desired object that will make them happy. Listen to this pathetic story—your story, my story, everybody’s story: ‘Until I get this object (money, friendship, anything) I’m not going to be happy; I’ve got to strive to get it and then when I’ve got it, I’ve got to strive to keep it. I get a temporary thrill. Oh, I’m so thrilled, I’ve got it!’ But how long does that last? A few minutes, a few days at the most. When you get your brand-new car, how long does the thrill last? Until your next attachment is threatened!
“The truth about a thrill is that I get tired of it after a while. They told me prayer was the big thing; they told me God was the big thing; they told me friendship was the big thing. And not knowing what prayer really was or not knowing what God really was, not knowing what friendship really was, we made much out of them. But after a while we got bored with them—bored with prayer, with God, with friendship. Isn’t that pathetic? And there’s no way out, there’s simply no way out. It’s the only model we were given—to be happy. We weren’t given any other model. Our culture, our society, and, I’m sorry to say, even our religion gave us no other model. You’ve been appointed a cardinal. What a great honor that is! Honor? Did you say honor? You used the wrong word. Now others are going to aspire to it. You lapsed into what the gospels call ‘the world’ and you’re going to lose your soul. The world, power, prestige, winning, success, honor, etc., are nonexistent things. You gain the world but you lose your soul. Your whole life has been empty and soulless. There is nothing there. There’s only one way out and that is to get deprogrammed! How do you do that? You become aware of the programming. You cannot change by an effort of the will; you cannot change through ideals; you cannot change through building up new habits. Your behavior may change, but you don’t. You only change through awareness and understanding. When you see a stone as a stone and a scrap of paper as a scrap of paper, you don’t think that the stone is a precious diamond anymore and you don’t think that that scrap of paper is a check for a billion dollars. When you see that, you change. There’s no violence anymore in your attempt to change yourself. Otherwise, what you call change is simply moving the furniture around. Your behavior is changed, but not you.”