Tony deMello on the Power of Awareness

Tony deMello’s books have innocent titles such as The Song of the Bird, Taking Flight, and The Way to Love

These might lead you to expect pleasant homilies, New Age affirmations, and an author’s uncritical love.

In reality, Tony confronts our illusions and challenges us to change at a deep level.

Tony was a Jesuit priest steeped in mysticism. He directed the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counseling near Poona, India, wrote best-selling books, and gave many public talks. (There’s a bunch on YouTube.)

Tony also displayed a healthy cynicism about the spiritual games that people play. 

To begin, Tony described our normal waking consciousness as a delusional kind of sleep.

“Most people don’t live aware lives,” Tony wrote in Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality. “They live mechanical lives, mechanical thoughts — generally somebody else’s — mechanical emotions, mechanical actions, mechanical reactions.”

His core message, reduced to its essence is: Cut the crap and wake up.

If you want a solid introduction to Tony’s work, then Awareness is the place to start.

This book is a near-verbatim record of talks that Tony gave shortly before he died. What we get in these pages is his mature understanding.

I return to Awareness often. What stands out for me are the following ideas. I’ll introduce each one with a quote from Tony.

We resist real happiness

I want to run your life for you; I want to tell you exactly how you’re expected to be and how you’re expected to behave, and you’d better behave as I have decided or I shall punish myself by having negative feelings. Remember what I told you, everyone’s a lunatic.

When we suffer, Tony said, we don’t really want to be cured.

What we really want is relief. And this is something that we try to get by making people behave according to our expectations.

Our quest to control other people is doomed, however, because we cannot actually determine what they say or do.

Despite all our efforts, we live with a nagging fear that other people will disappoint us or reject us. Instead of being happy, we get jerked around like puppets.

According to Tony, happiness has no cause. It is unconditional. It does not depend on controlling anyone or having anything.

Happiness arises as our natural state once we drop our illusions and unconditional demands.

Do we even have a natural need to be loved and appreciated?

Tony said no. This is just another demand, another illusion.

What we do have is an urge to love unconditionally.

The path to happiness does not lie in being desired by someone and expecting them to satisfy our needs. It lies in contact with reality — seeing that no one really has the power to make us happy or unhappy.

When we forget this, we are the mercy of circumstance. We don’t act — we simply react to the behavior of other people.

Tony told a story to make this point:

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…. 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?”

We are more than passing mental states and labels

Before enlightenment, I used to be depressed: after enlightenment, I continue to be depressed.” But there’s a difference: I don’t identify with it any more.

In addition to being at war with other people through our unconditional demands, we are at war with our internal states.

When sadness, fear, or anger arise, we try to make them go away. We turn on the television, surf the Internet, head to the bar for happy hour — anything that will distract us from those unpleasant feelings.

Our mistake, Tony said, is to believe that happiness means feeling good all the time.

Actually, this belief is the source of our unhappiness. This is not reality. It is addiction.

The solution starts with language. Stop saying things such as I am depressed or I am anxious. That’s the state of identification — taking some impermanent aspect of our experience as the whole of ourselves.

Instead, say I am experiencing depression right now. Or, I am experiencing anxiety right now.

Does that sound like a verbal game? Actually, it’s a better description of reality.

Our feelings — pleasant as well as unpleasant — are constantly changing. They come and they go, eluding our direct control.

Our job is not to fix feelings. It is simply to witness how they change.

When we do this consistently, we learn something: The observer inside us — which Tony called “I” — doesn’t change. It merely watches the passing show of thoughts and feelings — the ego, which Tony called “me.”

When we relax into the role of observing, we stop identifying with anything. We’re willing to let any thought or feeling arise. We watch them as they pass by like clouds in the sky. We see that anything that comes and goes is not “I.”

Also think about the other ways that you complete the sentence I am…. You might respond by describing a role — I am a writer…a lawyer…a doctor…teacher…a father…a mother. 

But these are merely labels. These, too, are subject to change. Roles and labels are not “I.”

When someone casually asks who we are, we can make the appropriate small talk. But this is mere convention.

Ultimately we know that the best way to complete the sentence I am.… is to remain silent.

Negative emotions offer insights

There’s only one reason why you’re not experiencing bliss at this moment, and it’s because you’re thinking or focusing on what you don’t have…. right now, you have everything you need to be in bliss.

The surest sign that you’re asleep, Tony said, is that you’re suffering. 

Just as persistent physical pain is a sign of underlying disease, persistent dissatisfaction is a sign that we’re not in contact with reality.

In this sense, suffering is a gift. It’s feedback on our spiritual state. 

Suffering exposes our demands for what we don’t currently have. It exposes our attachments and irrational expectations.

Like the Buddha, Tony often used the words clinging and craving. To understand how they work, think about how you would complete the sentence I absolutely refuse to be happy unless I get….

Any answer you give is a form of craving.

Again, self-observation is the antidote:

Think of a time when you were heartbroken and thought you would never be happy again (your husband died, your wife died, your best friend deserted you, you lost your money). What happened? Time went on, and if you managed to pick up another attachment or managed to find somebody else you were attracted to or something else something else you were attracted to; what happened to the old attachment? You really didn’t need it to be happy, did you?

How do we deal with craving? One common response is to renounce or resist it. But this just gives the craving more power, because we get locked into constant battle with it.

Instead, simply observe the craving. Just see through it, said Tony, and it will naturally drop away.

The path is about subtracting — not adding

“God” is only a word, a concept. One never quarrels about reality; we only quarrel about opinions, about concepts, about judgments. Drop your concepts, drop your opinions, drop your prejudices, drop your judgments and you will see that.

All Tony tried to do was describe our falsehoods. When we’re willing to drop those, he said, truth appears. Instead of talking *about* it, we see it directly.

Here Tony echoes the insights of other spiritual teachers.

“If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything,” wrote Seng-tsan, the third Zen patriarch. “To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.”

“God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul,” Meister Eckhart stated, “but by a process of subtraction.”

Being unhappy is a sign that we’ve added something to reality.

“And if you examine what you have added,” Tony said, “there is always illusion there, there’s a demand, there’s an expectation, a craving.”

Do you agree with all this? Do you disagree? Tony didn’t care.

There’s nothing to be gained by arguing about it, he said. All he asked was that we adopt an attitude of openness, observe ourselves, and be willing to discover something new.

Tony insisted that the truth cannot be contained in language, including belief systems and ideologies. Words make distinctions. They divide the world into separate people and objects. Words ignore the concrete differences between things and obscure the fact that things are constantly changing.

Even our attempts to find purpose and meaning in life are doomed. These attempts just lead us to more verbal formulas.

“Meaning is only found when you go beyond meaning,” Tony said. “Life makes sense only when you perceive it as mystery and it makes no sense to the conceptualizing mind.”

Awareness unleashes insight and wise action

No judgment, no commentary, no attitude: one simply observes, one studies, one watches, without the desire to change what is…. The day you attain a posture like that, you will experience a miracle. You will change — effortlessly, correctly.

Do you want to change the world? Then begin with yourself, Tony said.

And do that by observing yourself: “Don’t interfere. Don’t “fix” anything. Watch! Observe!”

This takes effort and the willingness to stop judging ourselves. Insight hinges on acting as an impartial witness.

When we judge ourselves, we fall into the trap of expectation — focusing on what should be rather than what is. We react based on our fears and delusions rather than acting with wisdom and compassion.

We get busy trying to fix things before we have any insight into how they work. And what we judge, we will never understand.

As Tony said, “The beauty of an action comes not from its having become a habit but from its sensitivity, consciousness, clarity of perception, and accuracy of response.”

When we have that clarity, change happens without self-conscious effort on our part. Awareness releases reality to change us. All we have to do is cooperate with the process and let our ego stay out of the way.

This is wu-wei — spontaneous action as described in the Tao te Ching: “When action is pure and selfless/everything settles into its own perfect place.”

Awareness is not a technique

I’m talking about self-observation. What’s that? It means to watch everything in you and around you as far as possible and watch it as if it were happening to someone else…. It means that you look at things as if you have no connection with them whatsoever.

Tony refused to dispense methods and techniques. He simply told us to switch on the search light of self-awareness.

Don’t turn awakening into a goal, however. Don’t try to push yourself into waking up. Enlightenment cannot be planned or scheduled.

When you turn enlightenment into a self-improvement project, your ego gets involved. You start looking for signs that you’ve finally “made it.” You might even judge yourself as superior to the rest of the sleeping people in your life.

The moment that you think you’re a saint is when you stop being one.

Waking up frees us to truly love

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.

Tony described our ideas about relationships as crazy. And the fact that they are widely shared does not make them right: “…if everybody agrees on something, you can be sure it’s wrong!”

Consider the possibility you’re not really in love with anyone. Instead, you’re in love with your impressions of them, which are colored by your hopes, fears, and illusions.

Until we wake up, we can’t really support or help anyone. We’re simply accepting or rejecting our images of each other.

“What does it mean to love?” Tony asked. “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.”

Also remember that loving people is not the same as needing them. If we need someone, we can only use them. We’ll stay focused on ourselves rather than on doing what truly benefits others.

Ironically, Tony said, the requirement for truly loving other people is the willingness to be “utterly alone.” This does not mean becoming a hermit. In fact, we can be alone in the midst of crowds of people.

Solitude means dying to the need for other people. It means that we stop holding them responsible for our happiness or misery. Those things are solely a function of our contact with reality.

Forget success — just wake up

Having a lot of money has nothing to do with being a success in life. You’re a success when you wake up! Then you don’t have to apologize to anyone, you don’t have to explain anything to anyone, you don’t give a damn what anybody thinks about you. You have no worries; you’re happy.

Our endless quest for the passing riches of money, prestige, and popularity distract us from the simple pleasures of life: Work. Play. Laughter. Contact with nature. The company of people who love us without conditions.

Awareness allows us to enjoy these things without over-indulging in them.

Instead, we’re brought up to need other people. We get addicted to their approval and applause — concepts, Tony said, that “do not correspond to reality.”

Tony emphasized that happiness is not the same as excitement, entertainment, or stimulation. Satisfying a desire can be thrilling, but the cost is anxiety about when the next one will be fulfilled.

As we identify less with the ego, we can be more at ease. We release the need to impress people. We can experience pleasures without craving for them to be permanent. The result is that we relax at existential level:

The whole enjoyment of a symphony lies in your readiness to allow the notes to pass…. Learn what it means to experience something fully, then drop it and move on to the next moment, uninfluenced by the previous one. You’d be traveling with such little baggage that you could pass through the eye of a needle. You’d know what eternal life is, because eternal life is now, in the timeless now.