The following is the 56th 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.
“If we really dropped illusions for what they can give us or deprive us of, we would be alert. The consequence of not doing this is terrifying and inescapable. We lose our capacity to love. If you wish to love, you must learn to see again. And if you wish to see, you must learn to give up your drug. It’s as simple as that. Give up your dependency. Tear away the tentacles of society that have enveloped and suffocated your being. You must drop them. Externally, everything will go on as before, but though you will continue to be in the world, you will no longer be of it. In your heart, you will now be free at last, if utterly alone. Your dependence on your drug will die. You don’t have to go to the desert; you’re right in the middle of people; you’re enjoying them immensely. But they no longer have the power to make you happy or miserable. That’s what aloneness means. In this solitude your dependence dies. The capacity to love is born. One no longer sees others as means of satisfying one’s addiction. Only someone who has attempted this knows the terrors of the process. It’s like inviting yourself to die. It’s like asking the poor drug addict to give up the only happiness he has ever known. How to replace it with the taste of bread and fruit and the clean taste of the morning air, the sweetness of the water of the mountain stream? While he is struggling with his withdrawal symptoms and the emptiness he experiences within himself now that his drug is gone, nothing can fill the emptiness except his drug. Can you imagine a life in which you refuse to enjoy or take pleasure in a single word of appreciation or to rest your head on anyone’s shoulder for support? Think of a life in which you depend on no one emotionally, so that no one has the power to make you happy or miserable anymore. You refuse to need any particular person or to be special to anyone or to call anyone your own. The birds of the air have their nests and the foxes their holes, but you will have nowhere to rest your head in your journey through life. If you ever get to this state, you will at last know what it means to see with a vision that is clear and unclouded by fear or desire. Every word there is measured. To see at last with a vision that is clear and unclouded by fear or desire. You will know what it means to love. But to come to the land of love, you must pass through the pains of death, for to love persons means to die to the need for persons, and to be utterly alone.
“How would you ever get there? By a ceaseless awareness, by the infinite patience and compassion you would have for a drug addict; by developing a taste for the good things in life to counter the craving for your drug. What good things? The love of work which you enjoy doing for the love of itself; the love of laughter and intimacy with people to whom you do not cling and on whom you do not depend emotionally but whose company you enjoy. It will also help if you take on activities that you can do with your whole being, activities that you so love to do that while you’re engaged in them success, recognition, and approval simply do not mean a thing to you. It will help, too, if you return to nature. Send the crowds away, go up to the mountains, and silently commune with trees and flowers and animals and birds, with sea and clouds and sky and stars. I’ve told you what a spiritual exercise it is to gaze at things, to be aware of things around you. Hopefully, the words will drop, the concepts will drop, and you will see, you will make contact with reality. That is the cure for loneliness. Generally, we seek to cure our loneliness through emotional dependence on people, through gregariousness and noise. That is no cure. Get back to things, get back to nature, go up in the mountains. Then you will know that your heart has brought you to the vast desert of solitude, there is no one there at your side, absolutely no one.
“At first this will seem unbearable. But it is only because you are unaccustomed to aloneness. If you manage to stay there for a while, the desert will suddenly blossom into love. Your heart will burst into song. And it will be springtime forever; the drug will be out; you’re free. Then you will understand what freedom is, what love is, what happiness is, what reality is, what truth is, what God is. You will see, you will know beyond concepts and conditioning, addictions and attachments. Does that make sense?
“Let me end this with a lovely story. There was a man who invented the art of making fire. He took his tools and went to a tribe in the north, where it was very cold, bitterly cold. He taught the people there to make fire. The people were very interested. He showed them the uses to which they could put fire—they could cook, could keep themselves warm, etc. They were so grateful that they had learned the art of making fire. But before they could express their gratitude to the man, he disappeared. He wasn’t concerned with getting their recognition or gratitude; he was concerned about their well-being. He went to another tribe, where he again began to show them the value of his invention. People were interested there, too, a bit too interested for the peace of mind of their priests, who began to notice that this man was drawing crowds and they were losing their popularity. So they decided to do away with him. They poisoned him, crucified him, put it any way you like. But they were afraid now that the people might turn against them, so they were very wise, even wily. Do you know what they did? They had a portrait of the man made and mounted it on the main altar of the temple. The instruments for making fire were placed in front of the portrait, and the people were taught to revere the portrait and to pay reverence to the instruments of fire, which they dutifully did for centuries. The veneration and the worship went on, but there was no fire.
“Where’s the fire? Where’s the love? Where’s the drug uprooted from your system? Where’s the freedom? This is what spirituality is all about. Tragically, we tend to lose sight of this, don’t we? This is what Jesus Christ is all about. But we overemphasized the ‘Lord, Lord,’ didn’t we? Where’s the fire? And if worship isn’t leading to the fire, if adoration isn’t leading to love, if the liturgy isn’t leading to a clearer perception of reality, if God isn’t leading to life, of what use is religion except to create more division, more fanaticism, more antagonism? It is not from lack of religion in the ordinary sense of the word that the world is suffering, it is from lack of love, lack of awareness. And love is generated through awareness and through no other way, no other way. Understand the obstructions you are putting in the way of love, freedom, and happiness and they will drop. Turn on the light of awareness and the darkness will disappear. Happiness is not something you acquire; love is not something you produce; love is not something that you have; love is something that has you. You do not have the wind, the stars, and the rain. You don’t possess these things; you surrender to them. And surrender occurs when you are aware of your illusions, when you are aware of your addictions, when you are aware of your desires and fears. As I told you earlier, first, psychological insight is a great help, not analysis, however; analysis is paralysis. Insight is not necessarily analysis. One of your great American therapists put it very well: ‘It’s the ‘Aha’ experience that counts.’ Merely analyzing gives no help; it just gives information. But if you could produce the ‘Aha’ experience, that’s insight. That is change. Second, the understanding of your addiction is important. You need time. Alas, so much time that is given to worship and singing praise and singing songs could so fruitfully be employed in self-understanding. Community is not produced by joint liturgical celebrations. You know deep down in your heart, and so do I, that such celebrations only serve to paper over differences. Community is created by understanding the blocks that we put in the way of community, by understanding the conflicts that arise from our fears and our desires. At that point community arises. We must always beware of making worship just another distraction from the important business of living. And living doesn’t mean working in government, or being a big businessman, or performing great acts of charity. That isn’t living. Living is to have dropped all the impediments and to live in the present moment with freshness. ‘The birds of the air . . . they neither toil nor spin’—that is living. I began by saying that people are asleep, dead. Dead people running governments, dead people running big business, dead people educating others; come alive! Worship must help this, or else it’s useless. And increasingly—you know this and so do I—we’re losing the youth everywhere. They hate us; they’re not interested in having more fears and more guilts laid on them. They’re not interested in more sermons and exhortations. But they are interested in learning about love. How can I be happy? How can I live? How can I taste these marvelous things that the mystics speak of? So that’s the second thing—understanding. Third, don’t identify. Somebody asked me as I was coming here today, ‘Do you ever feel low?’ Boy, do I feel low every now and then. I get my attacks. But they don’t last, they really don’t. What do I do? First step: I don’t identify. Here comes a low feeling. Instead of getting tense about it, instead of getting irritated with myself about it, I understand I’m feeling depressed, disappointed, or whatever. Second step: I admit the feeling is in me, not in the other person, e.g., in the person who didn’t write me a letter, not in the exterior world; it’s in me. Because as long as I think it’s outside me, I feel justified in holding on to my feelings. I can’t say everybody would feel this way; in fact, only idiotic people would feel this way, only sleeping people. Third step: I don’t identify with the feeling. ‘I’ is not that feeling. ‘I’ am not lonely, ‘I’ am not depressed, ‘I’ am not disappointed. Disappointment is there, one watches it. You’d be amazed how quickly it glides away. Anything you’re aware of keeps changing; clouds keep moving. As you do this, you also get all kinds of insights into why clouds were coming in the first place.
“I’ve got a lovely quote here, a few sentences that I would write in gold. I picked them up from A. S. Neill’s book Summerhill. I must give you the background. You probably know that Neill was in education for forty years. He developed a kind of maverick school. He took in boys and girls and just let them be free. You want to learn to read and write, fine; you don’t want to learn to read and write, fine. You can do anything you want with your life, provided you don’t interfere with the freedom of someone else. Don’t interfere with someone else’s freedom; otherwise you’re free. He says that the worst ones came to him from convent school. This was in the old days, of course. He said it took them about six months to get over all the anger and the resentment that they had repressed. They’d be rebelling for six months, fighting the system. The worst was a girl who would take a bicycle and ride into town, avoiding class, avoiding school, avoiding everything. But once they got over their rebellion, everybody wanted to learn; they even began protesting, ‘Why don’t we have class today?’ But they would only take what they were interested in. They’d be transformed. In the beginning parents were frightened to send their children to this school; they said, ‘How can you educate them if you don’t discipline them? You’ve got to each them, guide them.’ What was the secret of Neill’s success? He’d get the worst children, the ones everybody else had despaired of, and within six months they’d all be transformed. Listen to what he said—extraordinary words, holy words. ‘Every child has a god in him. Our attempts to mold the child will turn the god into a devil. Children come to my school, little devils, hating the world, destructive, unmannerly, lying, thieving, bad-tempered. In six months they are happy, healthy children who do no evil.’ These are amazing words coming from a man whose school in Britain is regularly inspected by people from the Ministry of Education, by any headmaster or headmistress or anyone who would care to go there. Amazing. It was his charism. You don’t do this kind of thing from a blueprint; you’ve got to be a special kind of person. In some of his lectures to headmasters and headmistresses he says, ‘Come to Summerhill and you’ll find that all the fruit trees are laden with fruit; nobody’s taking the fruits off the trees; there’s no desire to attack authority; they’re well fed and there’s no resentment and anger. Come to Summerhill and you’ll never find a handicapped child with a nickname (you know how cruel kids can be when someone stammers). You’ll never find anyone needling a stammerer, never. There’s no violence in those children, because no one is practicing violence on them, that’s why.’ Listen to these words of revelation, sacred words. We have people in the world like this. No matter what scholars and priests and theologians tell you, there are and have been people who have no quarrels, no jealousies, no conflicts, no wars, no enmities, none! They exist in my country, or, sad to say, they existed until relatively recently. I’ve had Jesuit friends go out to live and work among people who, they assured me, were incapable of stealing or lying. One Sister said to me that when she went to the northeast of India to work among some tribes there, the people would lock up nothing. Nothing was ever stolen and they never told lies—until the Indian government and missionaries showed up. Every child has a god in him; our attempts to mold the child will turn the god into a devil.
“There’s a lovely Italian film directed by Federico Fellini, 8 1/2. In one scene there’s a Christian Brother going out on a picnic or excursion with a group of eight- to ten-year-old boys. They’re on a beach, moving right on ahead while the Brother brings up the rear with three or four of them around him. They come across an older woman who’s a whore, and they say to her, ‘Hi,’ and she says, ‘Hi.’ And they say, ‘Who are you?’ And she says, ‘I’m a prostitute.’ They don’t know what that is but they pretend to. One of the boys, who seems a bit more knowing than the others, says, ‘A prostitute is a woman who does certain things if you pay her.’ They ask, ‘Would she do those things if we paid her?’ ‘Why not?’ the answer came. So they take up a collection and give her the money, saying, ‘Would you do certain things now that we’ve given you the money?’ She answers, ‘Sure, kids, what do you want me to do?’ The only thing that occurs to the kids is for her to take her clothes off. So she does. Well, they look at her; they’ve never seen a woman naked before. They don’t know what else to do, so they say, ‘Would you dance?’ She says, ‘Sure.’ So they all gather round singing and clapping; the whore is moving her behind and they’re enjoying themselves immensely. The Brother sees all this. He runs down the beach and yells at the woman. He gets her to put her clothes on, and the narrator says, ‘At that moment, the children were spoiled; until then they were innocent, beautiful.’
“This is not an unusual problem. I know a rather conservative missionary in India, a Jesuit. He came to a workshop of mine. As I developed this theme over two days, he suffered. He came to me the second night and said, ‘Tony, I can’t explain to you how much I’m suffering listening to you.’ I said, ‘Why, Stan?’ He said, ‘You’re reviving within me a question that I suppressed for twenty-five years, a horrible question. Again and again I asked myself: Have I not spoiled my people by making them Christian?’ This Jesuit was not one of your liberals; he was an orthodox, devout, pious, conservative man. But he felt he spoiled a happy, loving, simple, guileless people by making them Christian.
“American missionaries who went to the South Sea Islands with their wives were horrified to see women coming bare-breasted to church. The wives insisted that the women should be more decently dressed. So the missionaries gave them shirts to wear. The following Sunday the women came wearing their shirts but with two big holes cut out for comfort, for ventilation. They were right; the missionaries were wrong.
“Now . . . back to Neill. He says, ‘And I am no genius, I am merely a man who refuses to guide the steps of children.’ But what, then, of original sin? Neill says that every child has a god in him; our attempts to mold him will turn the god into a devil. He lets children form their own values, and the values are invariably good and social. Can you believe that? When a child feels loved (which means: when a child feels you’re on his side), he’s O.K. The child doesn’t experience violence anymore. No fear, so no violence. The child begins to treat others the way he has been treated. You’ve got to read that book. It’s a holy book, it really is. Read it; it revolutionized my life and my dealings with people. I began to see miracles. I began to see the self-dissatisfaction that had been ingrained in me, the competition, the comparisons, the that’s-not-good-enough, etc. You might object that if they hadn’t pushed me, I wouldn’t have become what I am. Did I need all that pushing? And anyway, who wants to be what I am? I want to be happy, I want to be holy, I want to be loving, I want to be at peace, I want to be free, I want to be human.
“Do you know where wars come from? They come from projecting outside of us the conflict that is inside. Show me an individual in whom there is no inner self-conflict and I’ll show you an individual in whom there is no violence. There will be effective, even hard, action in him, but no hatred. When he acts, he acts as a surgeon acts; when he acts, he acts as a loving teacher acts with mentally retarded children. You don’t blame them, you understand; but you swing into action. On the other hand, when you swing into action with your own hatred and your own violence unaddressed, you’ve compounded the error. You’ve tried to put fire out with more fire. You’ve tried to deal with a flood by adding water to it. I repeat what Neill said: ‘Every child has a god in him. Our attempts to mold the child will turn the god into a devil. Children come to my school, little devils, hating the world, destructive, unmannerly, lying, thieving, bad-tempered. In six months they are happy, healthy children who do no evil. And I am no genius; I am merely a man who refuses to guide the steps of children. I let them form their own values and the values are invariably good and social. The religion that makes people good makes people bad, but the religion known as freedom makes all people good, for it destroys the inner conflict [I’ve added the word ‘inner’] that makes people devils.’
“Neill also says, ‘The first thing I do when a child comes to Summerhill is destroy its conscience.’ I assume you know what he’s talking about, because I know what he’s talking about. You don’t need conscience when you have consciousness; you don’t need conscience when you have sensitivity. You’re not violent, you’re not fearful. You probably think this is an unattainable ideal. Well, read that book. I have run into individuals, here and there, who suddenly stumble upon this truth: The root of evil is within you. As you begin to understand this, you stop making demands on yourself, you stop having expectations of yourself, you stop pushing yourself and you understand. Nourish yourself on wholesome food, good wholesome food. I’m not talking about actual food, I’m talking about sunsets, about nature, about a good movie, about a good book, about enjoyable work, about good company, and hopefully you will break your addictions to those other feelings.
“What kind of feeling comes upon you when you’re in touch with nature, or when you’re absorbed in work that you love? Or when you’re really conversing with someone whose company you enjoy in openness and intimacy without clinging? What kind of feelings do you have? Compare those feelings with the feelings you have when you win an argument, or when you win a race, or when you become popular, or when everybody’s applauding you. The latter feelings I call worldly feelings; the former feelings I call soul feelings. Lots of people gain the world and lose their soul. Lots of people live empty, soulless lives because they’re feeding themselves on popularity, appreciation, and praise, on ‘I’m O.K., you’re O.K.,’ look at me, attend to me, support me, value me, on being the boss, on having power, on winning the race. Do you feed yourself on that? If you do, you’re dead. You’ve lost your soul. Feed yourself on other, more nourishing material. Then you’ll see the transformation. I’ve given you a whole program for life, haven’t I?”