AWARENESS by Anthony De Mello


The Catholic priest, Anthony De Mello, wrote a book called Awareness (Fount, London, 1997) that became a runaway success. Many retreat centres for Catholics based on his ideas have sprung up. The book is basically about self-help and has some similarities with pop psychology. I will discuss the merits of the book first and then the shortcomings and then how it fails to square with Catholic doctrine. De Mello was a psychiatrist and no one can expect even a priest one to be a real Catholic. The book says that suffering is caused by stupid thinking or delusions and that all you have to do to be happy is to be aware or see through this stupidity for happiness is not caused by you but is intrinsic. You just have to learn how to let it activate. It is there inside you all you have to do is let it out.

De Mello says we hate anything new not because we fear the unknown for we cannot fear what we do not know (page 29) but because we fear the loss of what we are familiar with and are afraid the new will show that we are wrong (page 18). Of course we can fear the unknown for we don’t know what nasty surprises may be in store. His assertion contradicts itself because he says we can’t fear what is unknown and then he says we can for we feel secure with what we know. If we feel safe with things because we know them then it is because we know them and we don't want to risk opting for change.
De Mello says we like security when we should like taking reasonable risks. This draws him to the notion that you must be open-minded on everything and have faith and recognise that faith is insecurity while belief is security and all beliefs should be checked out and questioned. He claims that faith is open to contradicting Jesus and the Catholic Church who have made wilful doubt a sin. How can it be open for the real Catholic when such a person is not allowed to see if there is another side?
He maintains that the only difference between criminals and ourselves is that they have done evil actions but inside we are as bad as them. We are the same as what they are (page 30). And he says we should not expect others to be good to us and then we won’t be disappointed (page 31-32). The truth is that self-esteem comes not from doing good to earn a good self-image but from doing good to see how good you are. It cannot be done any other way. You need to need to do good works despite his claim that you should be detached from everything.
Suppose we are all as bad as each other. It follows then that instead of putting the murderer in prison for his crimes we should give him a medal for being so honest as to carry out what was in his heart. The rest of us who don't murder, would do it and don't because we are hypocrites. We hide what we really are while the murderer was honest. If we are as bad as each other, we cannot condemn anybody as worse than us. Also, it doesn't matter if somebody is falsely accused of a crime. It is not slander. To condemn somebody for committing a crime is more about condemning them for being of bad character than about them breaking rules. With that thought in mind, how can it be possible to slander anybody no matter what you say about them?

He stresses that we must not try to change other people but just observe their behaviour like a scientist would observe ants for the only person that needs to change is the one who wants others to change (page 32,51). He says you are more effective in helping others if you avoid negative feelings and just observe and don’t let the evil done by others affect your emotions and make you negative.

He makes a difference between the I and the me. The I is the part of me that is aware and which is intrinsically and naturally happy if it is allowed to be. The me is the part of me that has the thoughts and the maladjustments. He says I should never say I am depressed but it is depressed meaning the me part. Or it is sick not I am sick. Suffering exists in the me not the I so if I become aware of this though I will experience pain I will not experience suffering for suffering is unhappiness and pain together. The I is what is left when I forget about needing other people and things. That is why he is able to say you can be happy while being depressed (page 61). I don’t see any benefit pretending that when you feel pain that it is not you doing it but an it that is really you. it is unnatural and trying to do it will only add to your distress. It is enough just to reduce your emotional needs.
De Mello says happiness is within everybody's reach and my happiness is my own responsibility and nobody else's. It follows then that if you are kidnapped and kept in a dungeon for a decade and you spend it on the verge of going out of your mind with misery and loneliness then it is your own fault. That could be a consolation for the kidnapper. It denies he is to blame for the victim's misery. The Catholic Church has accepted De Mello's nasty thinking since the time of the incarcerated philosopher Boethius and his imaginary conversations with Lady Philosophy. No wonder priestly paedophiles are exceptional and astonishing in their lack of guilt.

When people praise me, they praise the me not the I and that praise is no good. He says to be happy you just have to waken up and see the illusions that attach you to things and people slip away (page 77). This distinction between I and me means that when people tell me off they are against the me not the I. Also when people praise us or call us geniuses it becomes evil for it forces us to try and live up to what they say and we get depressed and lose the sense of self-worth if we fail (page 113). People understandably will be sceptical of all this because the I has to feel bad because of the me. But what De Mello wants you to do is not make a division but a distinction. There is no division but there is a difference between the I and the me. The good thing about all that is that you see your defects as something the I can prevent from hurting the I for they are outside the I and the I is boss. I am not my feelings but my feelings are something that happen to me and they determine if I will be good to myself and others or if I will be bad.

He says happiness is not a thrill and thrills make you depressed because you want them all the time and can’t have them (page 60). He said this is not happiness for it requires work and is an addiction.

De Mello might seem never to have discussed the question: “If I am happy then is it the I or the me that is happy?” The answer is that the me can feel the good thrill but the I is what is happy and the I is intrinsically happy.


De Mello says that religion is not necessarily connected with spirituality (page 21). Spirituality is what he calls awareness. He says his book is spiritual. That is quite a matter of opinion! Since the book is just commonsense and demands that you use your own material resources, your brain primarily, it cannot have anything to do with spirituality because spirituality is getting emotional help from an unseen plane of existence, like a world of gods and angels, while this is shutting out the other world.

De Mello would say the greatest thing of all is awareness. But Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 says the greatest virtue is charity that expresses faith and the Church believes that God wrote this through him.

When happiness is just being content whatever happens as De Mello asserts then how can rewards be rewards? A reward is supposed to make you feel better but in De Mello’s system you have to be detached from thrills and stuff and therefore rewards. Yet the Bible promises rewards in Heaven. De Mello is accusing the Christian God of being evil and opposed to awareness.
Awareness takes effort in the sense that you have to avoid the bad thinking that destroys your inner peace. But in Heaven there is no need for the effort for God supplies the happiness. So the happiness of Heaven then depends on us being lazy and basking in the peace that comes from God. So much for laziness or sloth being a deadly sin! If you want to go to this Heaven you will end up in Hell if laziness is a sin!

De Mello says that becoming aware makes us have the right kind of selfishness. The person becomes aware, to be happy. When you please only yourself you end up with lots of enemies. When you serve others in case you will feel guilty you will feel enslaved. He rejects these as being of any value. In fact they are perversions of selfishness and not real selfishness for they cannot work and are self-defeating. Jesus said that the man who does good for praise merits no reward. We can say the same of the man who sees how to be selfish and how the other two forms of selfishness could only be adopted by ceasing to be selfish to some degree. He sees the thing that has the most of something in it for him. De Mello admits that his path is hard and blames it on the fact that we allegedly don’t want to be happy but just want relief for a while from our problems. He believes that faults come from the sensation of needing others and needing things for yourself so he is against you being imperfect. It has not occurred to him that some people might find it easier just to find their faults make them see themselves as lovable rogues.

The concept of deserving has to do with needing because rights are based on needs and deserving means you have a right to be made suffer or happy. If you do wrong of your own free will you need punishment for yourself and the Church says that punishment does not degrade human dignity but restores it. De Mello forbids needing so he forbids punishing or rewarding.

The Vatican has issued a warning about De Mello’s writings on the basis that he is too much into Eastern philosophy with the result that he fuses God and nature so that they are one and the same thing and has one religion as good as another and makes Jesus superfluous.

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