Listen and Unlearn
The following is the 7th 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.
“Some of us get woken up by the harsh realities of life. We suffer so much that we wake up. But people keep bumping again and again into life. They still go on sleepwalking. They never wake up. Tragically, it never occurs to them that there may be another way. It never occurs to them that there may be a better way. Still, if you haven’t been bumped sufficiently by life, and you haven’t suffered enough, then there is another way: to listen. I don’t mean you have to agree with what I’m saying. That wouldn’t be listening. Believe me, it really doesn’t matter whether you agree with what I’m saying or you don’t. Because agreement and disagreement have to do with words and concepts and theories. They don’t have anything to do with truth. Truth is never expressed in words. Truth is sighted suddenly, as a result of a certain attitude. So you could be disagreeing with me and still sight the truth. But there has to be an attitude of openness, of willingness to discover something new. That’s important, not your agreeing with me or disagreeing with me. After all, most of what I’m giving you is really theories. No theory adequately covers reality. So I can speak to you, not of the truth, but of obstacles to the truth. Those I can describe. I cannot describe the truth. No one can. All I can do is give you a description of your falsehoods, so that you can drop them. All I can do for you is challenge your beliefs and the belief system that makes you unhappy. All I can do for you is help you to unlearn. That’s what learning is all about where spirituality is concerned: unlearning, unlearning almost everything you’ve been taught. A willingness to unlearn, to listen.
“Are you listening, as most people do, in order to confirm what you already think? Observe your reactions as I talk. Frequently you’ll be startled or shocked or scandalized or irritated or annoyed or frustrated. Or you’ll be saying, ‘Great!’
“But are you listening for what will confirm what you already think? Or are you listening in order to discover something new? That is important. It is difficult for sleeping people. Jesus proclaimed the good news yet he was rejected. Not because it was good, but because it was new. We hate the new. We hate it! And the sooner we face up to that fact, the better. We don’t want new things, particularly when they’re disturbing, particularly when they involve change. Most particularly if it involves saying, ‘I was wrong.’ I remember meeting an eighty-seven-year-old Jesuit in Spain; he’d been my professor and rector in India thirty or forty years ago. And he attended a workshop like this. ‘I should have heard you speak sixty years ago,’ he said. ‘You know something. I’ve been wrong all my life.’ God, to listen to that! It’s like looking at one of the wonders of the world. That, ladies and gentlemen, is faith! An openness to the truth, no matter what the consequences, no matter where it leads you and when you don’t even know where it’s going to lead you. That’s faith. Not belief, but faith. Your beliefs give you a lot of security, but faith is insecurity. You don’t know. You’re ready to follow and you’re open, you’re wide open! You’re ready to listen. And, mind you, being open does not mean being gullible, it doesn’t mean swallowing whatever the speaker is saying. Oh no. You’ve got to challenge everything I’m saying. But challenge it from an attitude of openness, not from an attitude of stubbornness. And challenge it all. Recall those lovely words of Buddha when he said, ‘Monks and scholars must not accept my words out of respect, but must analyze them the way a goldsmith analyzes gold—by cutting, scraping, rubbing, melting.’
“When you do that, you’re listening. You’ve taken another major step toward awakening. The first step, as I said, was a readiness to admit that you don’t want to wake up, that you don’t want to be happy. There are all kinds of resistances to that within you. The second step is a readiness to understand, to listen, to challenge your whole belief system. Not just your religious beliefs, your political beliefs, your social beliefs, your psychological beliefs, but all of them. A readiness to reappraise them all, in the Buddha’s metaphor. And I’ll give you plenty of opportunity to do that here.”