Wisdom from Anthony de Mello

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The heart in love remains soft and sensitive. But when you're hell-bent on getting this or the other thing, you become ruthless, hard, and insensitive. How can you love people when you need people? You can only use them. If I need you to make me happy, I've got to use you, I've got to manipulate you, I've got to find ways and means of winning you. I cannot let you be free. I can only love people when I have emptied my life of people. When I die to the need for people, then I'm right in the desert.

In the beginning it feels awful, it feels lonely, but if you can take it for a while, you'll suddenly discover that it isn't lonely at all. It is solitude, it is aloneness, and the desert begins to flower. Then at last you'll know what love is, what God is, what reality is. But in the beginning giving up the drug can be tough, unless you have a very keen understanding or unless you have suffered enough. It's a great thing to have suffered. Only then can you get sick of it. You can make use of suffering to end suffering.

Most people simply go on suffering. That explains the conflict I sometimes have between the role of spiritual director and that of therapist. A therapist says, "Let's ease the suffering". The spiritual director says, "Let her suffer, she'll get sick of this way of relating to people and she'll finally decide to break out of this prison of emotional dependence on others". Shall I offer a palliative or remove a cancer? It's not easy to decide.

A person slams a book on the table in disgust. Let him keep slamming it on the table. Don't pick up the book for him and tell him it's all right. Spirituality is awareness, awareness, awareness, awareness, awareness, awareness. When your mother got angry with you, she didn't say there was something wrong with her, she said there was something wrong with you; otherwise she wouldn't have been angry.

Well, I made the great discovery that if you are angry, Mother, there's something wrong with you. So you'd better cope with your anger. Stay with it and cope with it. It's not mine. Whether there's something wrong with me or not, I'll examine that independently of your anger. I'm not going to be influenced by your anger. The funny thing is that when I can do this without feeling any negativity toward another, I can be quite objective about myself, too. Only a very aware person can refuse to pick up the guilt and anger, can say, "You're having a tantrum. Too bad. I don't feel the slightest desire to rescue you anymore, and I refuse to feel guilty". I'm not going to hate myself for anything I've done. That's what guilt is.

I'm not going to give myself a bad feeling and whip myself for anything I have done, either right or wrong. I'm ready to analyze it, to watch it, and say, "Well, if I did wrong, it was in unawareness". Nobody does wrong in awareness. That's why theologians tell us very beautifully that Jesus could do no wrong. That makes very good sense to me, because the enlightened person can do no wrong. The enlightened person is free. Jesus was free and because he was free, he couldn't do any wrong. But since you can do wrong, you're not free.


Mark Twain put it very nicely when he said, "It was so cold that if the thermometer had been an inch longer, we would have frozen to death". We do freeze to death on words. It's not the cold outside that matters, but the thermometer. It's not reality that matters, but what you're saying to yourself about it. I was told a lovely story about a farmer in Finland. When they were drawing up the Russian-Finnish border, the farmer had to decide whether he wanted to be in Russia or Finland. After a long time he said he wanted to be in Finland, but he didn't want to offend the Russian officials.. These came to him and wanted to know why he wanted to be in Finland. The farmer replied, "It has always been my desire to live in Mother Russia, but at my age I wouldn't be able to survive another Russian winter".

Russia and Finland are only words, concepts, but not for human beings, not for crazy human beings. We're almost never looking at reality. A guru was once attempting to explain to a crowd how human beings react to words, feed on words, live on words, rather than on reality. One of the men stood up and protested; he said, "I don't agree that words have all that much effect on us". The guru said, "Sit down, you son of a bitch". The man went livid with rage and said, "You call yourself an enlightened person, a guru, a master, but you ought to be ashamed of yourself". The guru then said, "Pardon me, sir, I was carried away. I really beg your pardon; that was a lapse; I'm sorry". The man finally calmed down. Then the guru said, "It took just a few words to get a whole tempest going within you; and it took just a few words to calm you down, didn't it"? Words, words, words, words, how imprisoning they are if they're not used properly.


There is a difference between knowledge and awareness, between information and awareness. I just said to you that one cannot do evil in awareness. But one can do evil in knowledge or information, when you know something is bad. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do". I would translate that as "They're not aware of what they are doing". Paul says he is the greatest of sinners because he persecuted the Church of Christ. But, he adds, I did it in unawareness.

Or if they had been aware that they were crucifying the Lord of Glory, they would never have done so. Or "The time will come when they will persecute you and they think they are doing a service to God". They aren't aware. They're caught up in information and knowledge. Thomas Aquinas puts it nicely when he says, "Every time someone sins, they're sinning under the guise of good". They're blinding themselves; they're seeing something as good even though they know it is bad; they're rationalizing because they're seeking something under the pretext of good.

Someone gave me two situations in which she found it difficult to be aware. She was in a service industry where many people were lined up, many phones were ringing, and she was alone and there were distractions coming from a lot of uptight, angry people. She found it extremely difficult to maintain serenity and calm. The other situation was when she was driving in traffic, with horns blowing and people shouting four-letter words. She asked me whether eventually that nervousness would dissipate and she could remain at peace.

Did you pick up the attachment there? Peace. Her attachment to peace and calm. She was saying, "Unless I'm peaceful, I won't be happy". Did it ever occur to you that you could be happy in tensions? Before enlightenment, I used to be depressed, after enlightenment, I continue to be depressed. You don't make a goal out of relaxation and sensitivity. Have you ever heard of people who get tense trying to relax? If one is tense, one simply observes one's tension. You will never understand yourself if you seek to change yourself.

The harder you try to change yourself, the worse it gets. You are called upon to be aware. Get the feel of that jangling telephone; get the feel of jarred nerves; get the sensation of the steering wheel in the car. In other words, come to reality, and let tension or the calmness take care of itself. As a matter of fact, you will have to let them take care of themselves because you'll be too preoccupied with getting in touch with reality. Step by step, let whatever happens happen. Real change will come when it is brought about, not by your ego, but by reality. Awareness releases reality to change you.

In awareness you change, but you've got to experience it. At this point you're just taking my word for it. Perhaps also you've got a plan to become aware. Your ego, in its own cunning way, is trying to push you into awareness. Watch it! You'll meet with resistance; there will be trouble. When someone is anxious about being aware all the time, you can spot the mild anxiety. They want to be awake, to find out if they're really awake or not.

That's part of asceticism, not awareness. It sounds strange in a culture where we've been trained to achieve goals, to get somewhere, but in fact there's nowhere to go because you're there already. The Japanese have a nice way of putting it "The day you cease to travel, you will have arrived". Your attitude should be "I want to be aware, I want to be in touch with whatever is and let whatever happens happen; if I'm awake, fine, and if I'm asleep, fine". The moment you make a goal out of it and attempt to get it, you're seeking ego glorification, ego promotion.

You want the good feeling that you've made it. When you do "make it", you won't know. Your left hand won't know what your right hand is doing. "Lord, when did we do this? We had no awareness". Charity is never so lovely as when one has lost consciousness that one is practicing charity. "You mean I helped you? I was enjoying myself I was just doing my dance. It helped you, that's wonderful. Congratulations to you. No credit to me".

When you attain, when you are aware, increasingly you will not be bothered about labels like "awake" or "asleep". One of my difficulties here is to arouse your curiosity but not your spiritual greed. Let's come awake, it's going to be wonderful. After a while, it doesn't matter; one is aware, because one lives. The unaware life is not worth living. And you will leave pain to take care of itself.


The harder you try to change, the worse it can get. Does this mean that a certain degree of passivity is all right? Yes, the more you resist something, the greater power you give to it. That's the meaning, I think, of Jesus' words: "When someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer him your left as well". You always empower the demons you fight. That's very Oriental. But if you flow with the enemy, you overcome the enemy.

How does one cope with evil? Not by fighting it but by understanding it. In understanding, it disappears. How does one cope with darkness? Not with one's fist. You don't chase darkness out of the room with a broom, you turn on a light. The more you fight darkness, the more real it becomes to you, and the more you exhaust yourself. But when you turn on the light of awareness, it melts.

Say this scrap of paper is a billion-dollar check. Ah, I must renounce it, the gospel says, I must give it up if I want eternal life. Are you going to substitute one greed - a spiritual greed - for the other greed? Before, you had a worldly ego and now you've got a spiritual ego, but you've got an ego all the same, a refined one and one more difficult to cope with. When you renounce something, you're tied to it. But if instead of renouncing it, I look at it and say, "Hey, this isn't a billion-dollar check, this is a scrap of paper", there is nothing to fight, nothing to renounce.


In my country, lots of men grow up with the belief that women are cattle. "I married her," they say. "She's my possession". Are these men to blame? Get ready for a shock: They aren't. Just as many Americans are not to blame for the way they view Russians. Their glasses or perceptions simply have been dyed a certain color, and there they are; that's the color through which they look at the world. What does it take to make them real, to make them aware that they're looking at the world through colored glasses? There is no salvation till they have seen their basic prejudice.

As soon as you look at the world through an ideology you are finished. No reality fits an ideology. Life is beyond that. That is why people are always searching for a meaning to life. But life has no meaning; it cannot have meaning because meaning is a formula; meaning is something that makes sense to the mind. Every time you make sense out of reality, you bump into something that destroys the sense you made. Meaning is only found when you go beyond meaning. Life only makes sense when you perceive it as mystery and it makes no sense to the conceptualizing mind.

I don't say that adoration isn't important, but I do say that doubt is infinitely more important than adoration. Everywhere people are searching for objects to adore, but I don't find people awake enough in their attitudes and convictions. How happy we would be if terrorists would adore their ideology less and question more. However, we don't like to apply that to ourselves; we think we're all right and the terrorists are wrong. But a terrorist to you is a martyr to the other side.

Loneliness is when you're missing people, aloneness is when you're enjoying yourself. Remember that quip of George Bernard Shaw. He was at one of those awful cocktail parties, where nothing gets said. Someone asked him if he was enjoying himself. He answered, "It's the only thing I am enjoying here". You never enjoy others when you are enslaved to them. Community is not formed by a set of slaves, by people demanding that other people make them happy. Community is formed by emperors and princesses.

You're an emperor, not a beggar; you're a princess, not a beggar. There's no begging bowl in a true community. There's no clinging, no anxiety, no fear, no hangover, no possessiveness, no demands. Free people form community, not slaves. This is such a simple truth, but it has been drowned out by a whole culture, including religious culture. Religious culture can be very manipulative if you don't watch out.

Some people see awareness as a high point, a plateau, beyond experiencing every moment as it is. That's making a goal out of awareness. But with true awareness there's nowhere to go, nothing to achieve. How do we get to this awareness? Through awareness. When people say they really want to experience every moment, they're really talking awareness, except for that "wanting". You don't want to experience awareness; you do or you don't.

A friend of mine has just gone to Ireland. He told me that though he's an American citizen he's entitled to an Irish passport and was getting one because he is scared to travel abroad on an American passport. If terrorists walk in and say, "Let me see your passport," he wants to be able to say, "I'm Irish". But when people sit next to him on the plane, they don't want to see labels; they want to taste and experience this person, as he really is. How many people spend their lives not eating food but eating the menu? A menu is only an indication of something that's available. You want to eat the steak, not the words.


Can one be fully human without experiencing tragedy? The only tragedy there is in the world is ignorance; all evil comes from that. The only tragedy there is in the world is unwakefulness and unawareness. From them comes fear, and from fear comes everything else, but death is not a tragedy at all. Dying is wonderful; it's only horrible to people who have never understood life. It's only when you're afraid of life that you fear death.

It's only dead people who fear death. But people who are alive have no fear of death. One of your American authors put it so well. He said awakening is the death of your belief in injustice and tragedy. The end of the world for a caterpillar is a butterfly for the master. Death is resurrection. We're talking not about some resurrection that will happen but about one that is happening right now. If you would die to the past, if you would die to every minute, you would be the person who is fully alive, because a fully alive person is one who is full of death.

We're always dying to things. We're always shedding everything in order to be fully alive and to be resurrected at every moment. The mystics, saints, and others make great efforts to wake people up. If they don't wake up, they're always going to have these other minor ills like hunger, wars, and violence. The greatest evil is sleeping people, ignorant people.

A Jesuit once wrote a note to Father Arrupe, his superior general, asking him about the relative value of communism, socialism, and capitalism. Father Arrupe gave him a lovely reply. He said, "A system is about as good or as bad as the people who use it". People with golden hearts would make capitalism or communism or socialism work beautifully.

Don't ask the world to change - you change first. Then you'll get a good enough look at the world so that you'll be able to change whatever you think ought to be changed. Take the obstruction out of your own eye. If you don't, you have lost the right to change anyone or anything.

Till you are aware of yourself, you have no right to interfere with anyone else or with the world. Now, the danger of attempting to change others or change things when you yourself are not aware is that you may be changing things for your own convenience, your pride, your dogmatic convictions and beliefs, or just to relieve your negative feelings. I have negative feelings, so you better change in such a way that I'll feel good.

First, cope with your negative feelings so that when you move out to change others, you're not coming from hate or negativity but from love. It may seem strange, too, that people can be very hard on others and still be very loving. The surgeon can be hard on a patient and yet loving. Love can be very hard indeed.


But what does self-change entail? I've said it in so many words, over and over, but now I'm going to break it down into little segments. First, insight. Not effort, not cultivating habits, not having an ideal. Ideals do a lot of damage. The whole time you're focusing on what should be instead of focusing on what is. And so you're imposing what should be on a present reality, never having understood what present reality is. Let me give you an example of insight from my own experience in counseling.

A priest comes to me and says he's lazy; he wants to be more industrious, more active, but he is lazy. I ask him what "lazy" means. In the old days I would have said to him, "Let's see, why don't you make a list of things you want to do every day, and then every night you check them off, and it will give you a good feeling; build up habit that way". Or I might say to him, "Who is your ideal, your patron saint"? And if he says St. Francis Xavier, I would tell him, "See how much Xavier worked. You must meditate on him and that will get you moving". That's one way of going about it, but, I'm sorry to say, it's superficial.

Making him use his willpower, effort, doesn't last very long. His behavior may change, but he does not. So I now move in the other direction. I say to him, "Lazy, what's that? There are a million types of laziness. Let's hear what your type of laziness is. Describe what you mean by lazy"? He says, "Well, I never get anything done. I don't feel like doing anything". I ask, "You mean right from the moment you get up in the morning"? "Yes", he answers. "I wake up in the morning and there's nothing worth getting up for". "You're depressed, then"? I ask. "You could call it that", he says. "I have sort of withdrawn". "Have you always been like this"? I ask. "Well, not always. When I was younger, I was more active. When I was in the seminary, I was full of life". "So when did this begin"? "Oh, about three or four years ago". I ask him if anything happened then.

He thinks a while. I say, "If you have to think so much, nothing very special could have happened four years ago. How about the year before that"? He says, "Well, I was ordained that year". "Anything happen in your ordination year"? I ask. "There was one little thing, the final examination in theology; I failed it. It was a bit of a disappointment, but I've gotten over it. The bishop was planning to send me to Rome, to eventually teach in the seminary.

I rather liked the idea, but since I failed the examination, he changed his mind and sent me to this parish. Actually, there was some injustice because. . . Now he's getting worked up; there's anger there that he hasn't gotten over. He's got to work through that disappointment. It's useless to preach him a sermon. It's useless to give him an idea. We've got to get him to face his anger and disappointment and to get some insight into all of that. When he's able to work through that, he's back into life again. If I gave him an exhortation and told him how hard his married brothers and sisters work, that would merely make him feel guilty. He doesn't have the self-insight which is going to heal him. So that's the first thing.

There's another great task, understanding. Did you really think this was going to make you happy? You just assumed it was going to make you happy. Why did you want to teach in the seminary? Because you wanted to be happy. You thought that being a professor, having a certain status and prestige, would make you happy. Would it? Understanding is called for there. In making the distinction between "I" and "me", it's a great help to disidentify what is going on. Let me give you an example of this kind of thing. A young Jesuit priest comes to see me; he's a lovely, extraordinary, gifted, talented, charming, lovable man - everything. But he had a strange kind of a kink. With employees he was a terror. He was even known to assault them. It nearly became a matter for the police.

Whenever he was put in charge of the grounds, the school, or whatever, this problem would keep coming up. He made a thirty-day retreat in what we Jesuits call a Tertianship, where he meditated day after day on the patience and love of Jesus for those who were underprivileged, etc. But I knew it wasn't going to have an effect. Anyway, he went home and was better for about three or four months. (Somebody said about most retreats that we begin them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and we end as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.)

After that, he was right back to square one. So he came to see me. I was very busy at the time. Though he had come from another city in India, I couldn't see him. So I said, "I'm going for my evening walk; if you want to come with me on the walk, that's fine, but I don't have any other time". So we went for a walk. I'd known him before, and as we were walking, I had a strange feeling. When I get one of these strange feelings, I generally check it out with the person in question. So I said, "I have a strange feeling that you're hiding something from me. Are you"? He became indignant. He said, "What do you mean, hiding?

Do you think I'd undertake this long journey and come to ask for your time in order to hide something"? I said, "Well, it's a funny feeling I had, that's all; I thought I should check with you". We walked on. We have a lake not far from where I live. I remember the scene distinctly. He said, "Could we sit down somewhere"? I said, "O.K". We sat on a low wall that skirts the lake. He said, "You're right. I am hiding something from you". And with that he burst into tears.

He said, "I'm going to tell you something I've never said to anybody since I became a Jesuit. My father died when I was very young, and my mother became a servant. Her job was to clean lavatories and toilets and bathrooms, and sometimes she'd work for sixteen hours a day to get the wherewithal to support us. I'm so ashamed of that that I've hidden it from everybody and I continue taking revenge, irrationally, on her and the whole servant class". The feeling got transferred. No one could make sense of why this charming man was doing this, but the moment he saw that, there was never any trouble again, never. He was all right.


Meditating on and imitating externally the behavior of Jesus is no help. It's not a question of imitating Christ, it's a question of becoming what Jesus was. It's a question of becoming Christ, becoming aware, understanding what's going on within you. All the other methods we use for self change could be compared to pushing a car. Let's suppose you have to travel to a distant city. The car breaks down along the way. Well, too bad; the car's broken down. So we roll up our sleeves and begin to push the car. And we push and push and push and push, till we get to the distant city. "Well", we say, "we made it". And then we push the car all the way to another city!

You say, "We got there, didn't we"? But do you call this life? You know what you need? You need an expert, you need a mechanic to lift the hood and change the spark plug. Turn the ignition key and the car moves. You need the expert -- you need understanding, insight, awareness you don't need pushing. You don't need effort. That's why people are so tired, so weary. You and I were trained to be dissatisfied with ourselves. That's where the evil comes from psychologically. We're always dissatisfied, we're always discontented, we're always pushing. Go on, put out more effort, more and more effort. But there's always that conflict inside; there's very little understanding.


One red-letter day in my life occurred in India. It was a great day, really, the day after I was ordained. I sat in a confessional. We had a very saintly Jesuit priest in our parish, a Spaniard, whom I had known even before I went to the Jesuit novitiate. The day before I left for the novitiate, I thought I'd better make a clean breast of everything so that when I got to the novitiate I'd be nice and clean and wouldn't have to tell the novice master anything.

This old Spanish priest would have crowds of people lined up at his confessional; he had a violet-colored handkerchief which he covered his eyes with, and he'd mumble something and give you a penance and send you away. He'd only met me a couple of times, but he'd call me Antonie. So I stood in line, and when my turn came, I tried changing my voice as I made my confession. He listened to me patiently, gave me my penance, absolved me, and then said, "Antonie, when are you going to the novitiate"?

Well, anyway, I went to this parish the day after my ordination. And the old priest says to me, "Do you want to hear confessions"? I said, "All right". He said, "Go and sit in my confessional". I thought, "My, I'm a holy man. I'm going to sit in his confessional". I heard confessions for three hours. It was Palm Sunday and we had the Easter crowd coming in. I came out depressed, not from what I had heard, because I had been led to expect that, and, having some inkling of what was going on in my own heart, I was shocked by nothing. You know what depressed me?

The realization that I was giving them these little pious platitudes "Now pray to the Blessed Mother, she loves you", and "Remember that God is on your side". Were these pious platitudes any cure for cancer? And this is a cancer I'm dealing with, the lack of awareness and reality. So I swore a mighty oath to myself that day "I'll learn, I'll learn, so it will not be said of me when it is all over, 'Father, what you said to me was absolutely true but totally useless.'"

Awareness, insight. When you become an expert (and you'll soon become an expert) you don't need to take a course in psychology. As you begin to observe yourself, to watch yourself, to pick up those negative feelings, you'll find your own way of explaining it. And you'll notice the change. But then you'll have to deal with the big villain, and that villain is self-condemnation, self-hatred, self-dissatisfaction.


Let's talk more about effortlessness in change. I thought of a nice image for that, a sailboat. When a sailboat has a mighty wind in its sail, it glides along so effortlessly that the boatman has nothing to do but steer. He makes no effort; he doesn't push the boat. That's an image of what happens when change comes about through awareness, through understanding.

I was going through some of my notes and I found some quotations that go well with what I've been saying. Listen to this one: "There is nothing so cruel as nature. In the whole universe there is no escape from it, and yet it is not nature that does the injury, but the person's own heart." Does that make sense? It isn't nature that does the injury, but the person's own heart. There's the story of Paddy, who fell off the scaffolding and got a good bump. They asked, "Did the fall hurt you, Paddy?" And he said, "No, it was the stop that hurt, not the fall." When you cut water, the water doesn't get hurt; when you cut something solid, it breaks. You've got solid attitudes inside you; you've got solid illusions inside you; that's what bumps against nature, that's where you get hurt, that's where the pain comes from.

Here's a lovely one: It's from an Oriental sage, though I don't remember which one. As with the Bible the author doesn't matter. What is said is what matters. "If the eye is unobstructed, it results in sight; if the ear is unobstructed, the result is hearing; if the nose is unobstructed, the result is a sense of smell; if the mouth is unobstructed, the result is a sense of taste; if the mind is unobstructed, the result is wisdom."

Wisdom occurs when you drop barriers you have erected through your concepts and conditioning. Wisdom is not something acquired; wisdom is not experience; wisdom is not applying yesterday's illusions to today's problems. As somebody said to me while I was studying for my degree in psychology in Chicago years ago, "Frequently, in the life of a priest, fifty years' experience is one year's experience repeated fifty times." You get the same solutions to fall back on: This is the way to deal with the alcoholic; this is the way to deal with priests; this is the way to deal with sisters; this is the way to deal with a divorcee.

But that isn't wisdom. Wisdom is to be sensitive to this situation, to this person, uninfluenced by any carryover from the past, without residue from the experience of the past. This is quite unlike what most people are accustomed to thinking. I would add another sentence to the ones I've read: "If the heart is unobstructed, the result is love." I've been talking a great deal about love these days even though I told you there's nothing that can be said, really, about love. We can only speak of non-love. We can only speak of addictions. But of love itself nothing may be said explicitly.

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