It’s well over twenty years since this book was published – “Awareness” is a collection of material from Anthony De Mello, a monkish guy who encouraged people through retreats, workshops and therapy courses to discover their true selves. To become aware of who they truly were and their potential. This great little book is one I keep coming back to – to remind myself of some of his great stories and illustrations, but primarily for his ability – with incredible brevity – to sum stuff up. For example, I have been to a shed load of conferences and seminars where someone is trying to define or articulate exactly what “spirituality” is (an hour long seminar with death by PowerPoint and I am more confused than I was before), De Mello tackles that in the opening line of this book,
“Spirituality means waking up.”
That is it. Becoming aware of this beautiful thing we call human existence. This is a difficult book – you will find yourself saying “what!” (Surely he can’t mean that!), but just as you are getting ready to throw the book at a wall he comes out with a piece of brilliance . . . De Mello makes spirituality incredibly practical, it is not some ethereal feeling, he doesn’t even make it about the transcendent, the “other” who we worship. De Mello makes it about us, how we live, how we treat each other, what we value and – ultimately – whether we are awake and aware of what we are doing, or whether we are asleep . . . The following quote is one of the best (but most challenging) things I have ever read,
“I challenge anyone to think of anything more practical than spirituality as I have defined it – not piety, not devotion, not religion, not worship, but spirituality – waking up, waking up! Look at the heartache everywhere, look at the loneliness, look at the fear, the confusion, the conflict in the hearts of people, inner conflict, outer conflict. Suppose someone gave you a way of getting rid of all that? Suppose someone gave you a way to stop that tremendous drainage of energy, of health, of emotion, that comes from these conflicts and confusion. Would you want that? Suppose somebody showed us a way whereby we would truly love one another, and be at peace, be at love. Can you think of anything more practical than that? But, instead, you have people thinking that big business is more practical, that politics is more practical, that science is more practical. What’s the earthly use of putting a man on the moon when we cannot live on the earth?”(page 11)
Through the book he talks about our need to listen and unlearn some of the things we have come to believe – how many of us are only listening for something in a conversation that confirms what we already think – rather than engaging in genuine listening? How true is the following statement he makes, think of this in relation to a whole variety of challenges the Church faces at the moment,
“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 involve change. Most particularly if it involves saying, “I was wrong!” (page 18)
In leadership, in ministry we just don’t like saying we were wrong – we live in a world of personal theological, ministerial, this-is-how-i-do-things – and, (men especially) find it so hard to say “I was wrong”. When we do, we usually stuff in a whole load of caveats (because etc – which of course we can trace right back to the garden of Eden). Awareness that De Mello opens up for us is staggeringly unusual, but we should be living in a place of open awareness to ourselves and others! It should come with the territory of being a leader, of being in ministry.
In some ways, this book is looking at the same kind of stuff, thoughts, the world, how we live and how our lives are guided and determined as Freire (in Pedagogy of the Oppressed), he challenges our desires for programmes or techniques or tools that will aid our thinking – as this limits our ability to “self-observe” – some of this thinking might take up to crazy places, our ability to have compassion and be empathetic with those we serve and minister to might be challenges by the following,
“The trouble with people is that they are busy fixing things they don’t even understand. We’re always fixing things, aren’t we? It never strikes us that things don’t need to be fixed. They really don’t. This is a great illumination. They need to be understood. If you understand them, they change.” (page 37)
This is not (I don’t think) about huge injustices that need challenging and just observing them changes nothing, good people need to ACT and bring about change – but, in our daily lives, in leadership and ministry, our time can be spent trying to be the answer and trying to fix things (whether in our own lives or the lives of those around us), understanding needs to be part of this picture before we blunder in and try and “fix it”, but – to understand we need to be aware, to be aware we need to be awake!
As you can see (hopefully!) this is a challenging book to read – there are more ideas, challenging thoughts and moments of amazing insight that in any other book I have read of its size (just 184 pages) – this observation has nothing to do with De Mello as such, but have you noticed how slim many spiritual classic books are – in comparison with much that is written today? What does that tell us? Those with spiritual insight (like De Mello) don’t need 500 pages to get their ideas across, they don’t need bluff and bluster and padding. Every sentence is saying something meaningful that requires our attention.
It would be easy to read bits of the book and, in isolation, dismiss the whole thing. I don’t agree with De Mello’s conclusions on everything (but then, maybe I am simply pulling out the bits I already agree with than genuinely listening to what he is saying!) – however, when I think of ministering to young people and equipping others to do the same, there is much in this book I have found essential fuel for the journey over the last 25 years – not necessarily embedded in my practice, but – having read “Awareness” there are moments when I can see exactly what he is getting at. My final quote to share with you,
“think of a little child . . . this is what your society did to you when you were born. You were not allowed to enjoy the solid, nutritious food of life – namely, work, play, fun, laughter, the company of people, the pleasure of the senses and the mind. You were given a taste for the drug called approval, appreciation, attention.” (page 162)
Being a disciple, and seeking to nurture that desire to follow Jesus in others, we are constantly coming up against the things “of this world” that tell our young people what will make them happy, successful and popular. The disastrous thing in our own attempts at being disciples is that we want to be happy rather than holy, we want to be in a successful ministry, church, team, etc (and often measure success in a way that seems to lack Kingdom values) and we want to be popular in the Church or Christian ministry circles. Who cares! Seriously, does this matter – we exchange one drug from society for another when the Church places similar values and ethos around “Christian things” . . . we are in a mess, we need to wake up.
This funny, challenging, hard, inspiring, crazy little book is an essential tool on my shelf – I suggest you get it. Become aware, wake up! Paul got it,
“Wake up O Sleeper and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)