Awareness

A de Mello Spirituality Conference in His Own Words

Category: conclusions

Saying Nothing About Love

The following is the 52nd 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.

“How would I describe love? I decided to give you one of the meditations I’m writing in a new book of mine. I’ll read it to you slowly; you meditate on it as we go along, because I’ve got it put down in short form here so I can get it done in three or four minutes; otherwise it would take me half an hour. It’s a comment on a gospel sentence. I had been thinking of another reflection, from Plato: ‘One cannot make a slave of a free person, for a free person is free even in prison.’ It’s like another gospel sentence: ‘If a person makes you go one mile, go two.’ You may think you’ve made a slave out of me by putting a load on my back, but you haven’t. If a person is trying to change external reality by being out of prison in order to be free, he is a prisoner indeed, Freedom lies not in external circumstances; freedom resides in the heart. When you have attained wisdom, who can enslave you? Anyhow, listen to the gospel sentence I had in mind earlier: ‘He sent the people away, and after doing that he went up to the mountain to pray alone. It grew late and he was there all by himself.’ That’s what love is all about. Has it ever occurred to you that you can only love when you are alone? What does it mean to love? It means to see a person, a situation, a thing as it really is, not as you imagine it to be. And to give it the response it deserves. You can hardly be said to love what you do not even see. And what prevents us from seeing? Our conditioning. Our concepts, our categories, our prejudices, our projections, the labels that we have drawn from our cultures and our past experiences. Seeing is the most arduous thing that a human can undertake, for it calls for a disciplined, alert mind. But most people would much rather lapse into mental laziness than take the trouble to see each person, each thing in its present moment of freshness.”

Getting Concrete

The following is the 37th 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.

“Every time I have a concept, it is something that I could apply to a number of individuals. We’re not talking about a concrete, particular name like Mary or John, which doesn’t have a conceptual meaning. A concept applies to any number of individuals, countless individuals. Concepts are universal. For instance, the word ‘leaf’ could be applied to every single leaf on a tree; the same word applies to all those individual leaves. Moreover, the same word applies to all the leaves on all trees, big ones, small ones, tender ones, dried ones, yellow ones, green ones, banana leaves. So if I say to you that I saw a leaf this morning, you really don’t have an idea of what I saw.

“Let’s see if you can understand that. You do have an idea of what I did not see. I did not see an animal. I did not see a dog. I did not see a human being. I did not see a shoe. So you have some kind of a vague idea of what I saw, but it isn’t particularized, it isn’t concrete. ‘Human being’ refers not to primitive man, not to civilized man, not to grownup man, not to a child, not to a male or a female, not to this particular age or another, not to this culture or the other, but to the concept. The human being is found concrete; you never find a universal human being like your concept. So your concept points, but it is never entirely accurate; it misses uniqueness, concreteness. The concept is universal.

“When I give you a concept, I give you something, and yet how little I have given you. The concept is so valuable, so useful for science. For instance, if I say that everyone here is an animal that would be perfectly accurate from a scientific viewpoint. But we’re something more than animals. If I say that Mary Jane is an animal, that’s true; but because I’ve omitted something essential about her, it’s false; it does her an injustice. When I call a person a woman, that’s true; but there are lots of things in that person that don’t fit into the concept ‘woman.’ She is always this particular, concrete, unique woman, who can only be experienced, not conceptualized. The concrete person I’ve got to see for myself, to experience for myself, to intuit for myself. The individual can be intuited but cannot be conceptualized.

“A person is beyond the thinking mind. Many of you would probably be proud to be called Americans, as many Indians would probably be proud to be called Indians. But what is ‘American,’ what is ‘Indian’? It’s a convention; it’s not part of your nature. All you’ve got is a label. You really don’t know the person. The concept always misses or omits something extremely important, something precious that is only found in reality, which is concrete uniqueness. The great Krishnamurti put it so well when he said, ‘The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.’ How true! The first time the child sees that fluffy, alive, moving object, and you say to him, Sparrow,’ then tomorrow when the child sees another fluffy, moving object similar to it he says, ‘Oh, sparrows. I’ve seen sparrows. I’m bored by sparrows.’

“If you don’t look at things through your concepts, you’ll never be bored. Every single thing is unique. Every sparrow is unlike every other sparrow despite the similarities. It’s a great help to have similarities, so we can abstract, so that we can have a concept. It’s a great help, from the point of view of communication, education, science. But it’s also very misleading and a great hindrance to seeing this concrete individual. If all you experience is your concept, you’re not experiencing reality, because reality is concrete. The concept is a help, to lead you to reality, but when you get there, you’ve got to intuit or experience it directly. 

“A second quality of a concept is that it is static whereas reality is in flux. We use the same name for Niagara Falls, but that body of water is constantly changing. You’ve got the word ‘river,’ but the water there is constantly flowing. You’ve got one word for your ‘body,’ but the cells in your body are constantly being renewed. Let’s suppose, for example, there is an enormous wind outside and I want the people in my country to get an idea of what an American gale or hurricane is like. So I capture it in a cigar box and I go back home and say, ‘Look at this.’ Naturally, it isn’t a gale anymore, is it? Once it’s captured. Or if I want you to get the feel of what the flow of a river is like and I bring it to you in a bucket. The moment I put it into a bucket it has stopped flowing. The moment you put things into a concept, they stop flowing; they become static, dead. A frozen wave is not a wave. A wave is essentially movement, action; when you freeze it, it is not a wave. Concepts are always frozen. Reality flows. Finally, if we are to believe the mystics (and it doesn’t take too much of an effort to understand this, or even believe it, but no one can see it at once), reality is whole, but words and concepts fragment reality. That is why it is so difficult to translate from one language to another, because each language cuts reality up differently. The English word ‘home’ is impossible to translate into French or Spanish. ‘Casa’ is not quite ‘home’; ‘home’ has associations that are peculiar to the English language. Every language has untranslatable words and expressions, because we’re cutting reality up and adding something or subtracting something and usage keeps changing. Reality is a whole and we cut it up to make concepts and we use words to indicate different parts. If you had never seen an animal in your life, for example, and one day you found a tail—just a tail—and somebody told you, ‘That’s a tail,’ would you have any idea of what it was if you had no idea what an animal was?

“Ideas actually fragment the vision, intuition, or experience of reality as a whole. This is what the mystics are perpetually telling us. Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless. A Hindu priest once had a dispute with a philosopher who claimed that the final barrier to God was the word ‘God,’ the concept of God. The priest was quite shocked by this, but the philosopher said, ‘The ass that you mount —and that you use to travel to a house is not the means by which you enter the house. You use the concept to get there; then you dismount, you go beyond it.’ You don’t need to be a mystic to understand that reality is something that cannot be captured by words or concepts. To know reality you have to know beyond knowing.

“Do those words ring a bell? Those of you who are familiar with The Cloud of Unknowing would recognize the expression. Poets, painters, mystics, and the great philosophers all have intimations of its truth. Let’s suppose that one day I’m watching a tree. Until now, every time I saw a tree, I said, ‘Well, it’s a tree’, but today when I’m looking at the tree, I don’t see a tree. At least I don’t see what I’m accustomed to seeing. I see something with the freshness of a child’s vision. I have no word for it. I see something unique, whole, flowing, not fragmented. And I’m in awe. If you were to ask me, ‘What did you see?’ what do you think I’d answer? I have no word for it. There is no word for reality. Because as soon as I put a word to it, we’re back into concepts again.

“And if I cannot express this reality that is visible to my senses, how does one express what cannot be seen by the eye or heard by the ear? How does one find a word for the reality of God? Are you beginning to understand what Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and all the rest were saying and what the Church teaches constantly when she says that God is mystery, is unintelligible to the human mind?

“The great Karl Rahner, in one of his last letters, wrote to a young German drug addict who had asked him for help. The addict had said, ‘You theologians talk about God, but how could this God be relevant in my life? How could this God get me off drugs?’ Rahner said to him, ‘I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, inklings; we make faltering, inadequate attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.’ And talking to a group of theologians in London, Rahner said, ‘The task of the theologian is to explain everything through God, and to explain God as unexplainable.’ Unexplainable mystery. One does not know, one cannot say. One says, ‘Ah, ah…’

“Words are pointers, they’re not descriptions. Tragically, people fall into idolatry because they think that where God is concerned, the word is the thing. How could you get so crazy? Can you be crazier than that? Even where human beings are concerned, or trees and leaves and animals, the word is not the thing. And you would say that, where God is concerned, the word is one thing? What are you talking about? An internationally famous scripture scholar attended this course in San Francisco, and he said to me, ‘My God, after listening to you, I understand that I’ve been an idol worshiper all my life!’ He said this openly. ‘It never struck me that I had been an idol worshiper. My idol was not made of wood or metal; it was a mental idol.’ These are the more dangerous idol worshipers. They use a very subtle substance, the mind, to produce their God.

“What I’m leading you to is the following: awareness of reality, around you. Awareness means to watch, to observe what is going on within you and around you. ‘Going on’ is pretty accurate: Trees, grass, flowers, animals, rock, all of reality is moving. One observes it, one watches it. How essential it is for the human being not just to observe himself or herself, but to watch all of reality. Are you imprisoned by your concepts? Do you want to break out of your prison? Then look; observe; spend hours observing. Watching what? Anything. The faces of people, the shapes of trees, a bird in flight, a pile of stones, watch the grass grow. Get in touch with things, look at them. Hopefully you will then break out of these rigid patterns we have all developed, out of what our thoughts and our words have imposed on us. Hopefully we will see. What will we see? This thing that we choose to call reality, whatever is beyond words and concepts. This is a spiritual exercise—connected with spirituality—connected with breaking out of your cage, out of the imprisonment of the concepts and words. “How sad if we pass through life and never see it with the eyes of a child. This doesn’t mean you should drop your concepts totally; they’re very precious. Though we begin without them, concepts have a very positive function. Thanks to them we develop our intelligence. We’re invited, not to become children, but to become like children. We do have to fall from a stage of innocence and be thrown out of paradise; we do have to develop an ‘I’ and a ‘me’ through these concepts. But then we need to return to paradise. We need to be redeemed again. We need to put off the old man, the old nature, the conditioned self, and return to the state of the child but without being a child. When we start off in life, we look at reality with wonder, but it isn’t the intelligent wonder of the mystics; it’s the formless wonder of the child. Then wonder dies and is replaced by boredom, as we develop language and words and concepts. Then hopefully, if we’re lucky, we’ll return to wonder again.”

Hugging Memories

The following is the 36th 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.

“That brings me to another theme, another topic. But this new topic ties in very much with what I’ve been saying and with my suggestion of becoming aware of all the things we add to reality. Let’s take this one step at a time.

“A Jesuit was telling me the other day how years ago he gave a talk in New York, where Puerto Ricans were very unpopular at the time because of some incident. Everybody was saying all kinds of things against them. So in his talk he said, ‘Let me read to you some of the things that the people in New York were saying about certain immigrants.’ What he read to them was actually what people had said about the Irish, and about the Germans, and about every other wave of immigrants that had come to New York years before! He put it very well when he said, ‘These people don’t bring delinquency with them; they become delinquent when they’re faced with certain situations here. We’ve got to understand them. If you want to cure the situation, it’s useless reacting from prejudice. You need understanding, not condemnation.’ That is how you bring about change in yourself. Not by condemnation, not by calling yourself names, but by understanding what’s going on. Not by calling yourself a dirty old sinner. No, no, no, no!

“In order to get awareness, you’ve got to see, and you can’t see if you’re prejudiced. Almost everything and every person we look at, we look at in a prejudiced way. It’s almost enough to dishearten anybody.

“Like meeting a long-lost friend. ‘Hey, Tom,’ I say, ‘It’s good to see you,’ and I give him a big hug. Whom am I hugging, Tom or my memory of him? A living human being or a corpse? I’m assuming that he’s still the attractive guy I thought he was. I’m assuming he still fits in with the idea I have of him and with my memories and associations. So I give him a hug. Five minutes later I find that he’s changed and I have no more interest in him. I hugged the wrong person.

“If you want to see how true this is, listen: A religious sister from India goes out to make a retreat. Everybody in the community is saying, ‘Oh, we know, that’s part of her charism; she’s always attending workshops and going to retreats; nothing will ever change her.’ Now, it so happens that the sister does change at this particular workshop, or therapy group, or whatever it is. She changes; everyone notices the difference. Everyone says, ‘My, you’ve really come to some insights, haven’t you?’ She has, and they can see the difference in her behavior, in her body, in her face. You always do when there’s an inner change. It always registers in your face, in your eyes, in your body. Well, the sister goes back to her community, and since the community has a prejudiced, fixed idea about her, they’re going to continue to look at her through the eyes of that prejudice. They’re the only ones who don’t see any change in her. They say, ‘Oh well, she seems a little more spirited, but just wait, she’ll be depressed again.’ And within a few weeks she is depressed again; she’s reacting to their reaction. And they all say, ‘See, we told you so; she hadn’t changed.’ But the tragedy is that she had, only they didn’t see it. Perception has devastating consequences in the matter of love and human relationships.

“Whatever a relationship may be, it certainly entails two things: clarity of perception (inasmuch as we’re capable of it; some people would dispute to what extent we can attain clarity of perception, but I don’t think anyone would dispute that it is desirable that we move toward it) and accuracy of response. You’re more likely to respond accurately when you perceive clearly. When your perception is distorted, you’re not likely to respond accurately. How can you love someone whom you do not even see? Do you really see someone you’re attached to? Do you really see someone you’re afraid of and therefore dislike? We always hate what we fear.

“‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,’ people say to me sometimes. But wait a minute. I hope they understand what they’re saying, because we always hate what we fear. We always want to destroy and get rid of and avoid what we fear. When you fear somebody, you dislike that person. You dislike that person insofar as you fear that person. And you don’t see that person either, because your emotion gets in the way. Now, that’s just as true when you are attracted to someone. When true love enters, you no longer like or even dislike people in the ordinary sense of the word. You see them clearly and you respond accurately. But at this human level, your likes and dislikes and preferences and attractions, etc., continue to get in the way. So you have to be aware of your prejudices, your likes, your dislikes, your attractions. They’re all there, they come from your conditioning. How come you like things that I don’t like? Because your culture is different from mine. Your upbringing is different from mine. If I gave you some of the things to eat that I relish, you’d turn away in disgust.

“There are people in certain parts of India who love dog flesh. Yet others, if they were told they were being served dog steak, would feel sick. Why? Different conditioning, different programming. Hindus would feel sick if they knew they had eaten beef, but Americans enjoy it. You ask, ‘But why won’t they eat beef?’ For the same reason you won’t eat your pet dog. The same reason. The cow, to the Indian peasant, is what your pet dog is to you. He doesn’t want to eat it. There is a built-in cultural prejudice against it which saves an animal that’s needed so much for farming, etc.

“So why do I fall in love with a person really? Why is it that I fall in love with one kind of person and not another? Because I’m conditioned. I’ve got an image, subconsciously, that this particular type of person appeals to me, attracts me. So when I meet this person, I fall head over heels in love. But have I seen her? No! I’ll see her after I marry her; that’s when the awakening comes! And that’s when love may begin. But falling in love has nothing to do with love at all. It isn’t love, it’s desire, burning desire. You want, with all your heart, to be told by this adorable creature that you’re attractive to her. That gives you a tremendous sensation. Meanwhile, everybody else is saying, ‘What the hell does he see in her?’ But it’s his conditioning—he’s not seeing. They say that love is blind. Believe me, there’s nothing so clear-sighted as true love, nothing. It’s the most clear-sighted thing in the world. Addiction is blind, attachments are blind. Clinging, craving, and desire are blind. But not true love. Don’t call them love. But, of course, the word has been desecrated in most modern languages. People talk about making love and falling in love. Like the little boy who says to the little girl, ‘Have you ever fallen in love?’ And she answers, ‘No, but I’ve fallen in like.’ “So what are people talking about when they fall in love? The first thing we need is clarity of perception. One reason we don’t perceive people clearly is evident—our emotions get in the way, our conditioning, our likes and dislikes. We’ve got to grapple with that fact. But we’ve got to grapple with something much more fundamental—with our ideas, with our conclusions, with our concepts. Believe it or not, every concept that was meant to help us get in touch with reality ends up by being a barrier to getting in touch with reality, because sooner or later we forget that the words are not the thing. The concept is not the same as the reality. They’re different. That’s why I said to you earlier that the final barrier to finding God is the word ‘God’ itself and the concept of God. It gets in the way if you’re not careful. It was meant to be a help; it can be a help, but it can also be a barrier.”

%d bloggers like this: