Monday, September 04, 2006

Review of Awareness

“The perfect review should indeed allow a reader to determine whether he or she is likely to enjoy or appreciate a film--but that does not require the critic to agree with the reader. The critic who tries to reflect public taste casts himself in the role of the ventriloquist's dummy, with the public of course acting as the ventriloquist. Opinion often varies between critics and the public, if I may say so, because critics know more about film, have seen more films, have thought about them more, are more experienced at viewing them, and are looking for more than immediate escapism.” – Roger Ebert (Rotten Tomatoes interview)

I don’t believe that I’ve read enough books yet to qualify as a “book critic” or to give out a meaningful star rating, like Ebert does for movies. What I will do for my next few posts though, is look at excerpts from some books that have been influential to me, and try to explain what I found relevant and affecting about the book. I’m starting with Awareness by Anthony De Mello.

It’s almost dangerous pulling out isolated quotes from a writer like Anthony De Mello, because De Mello often communicates through contradiction. For instance, he tells us “The only way someone can be of help to you is in challenging your ideas." (Awareness pg. 35) No doubt, all of us can think of countless other ways and specific situations in which someone could be of help to us in a way other than by “challenging our ideas”. However, this is a style De Mello has intentionally chosen in order to battle the sea of misconceptions that he sees over flooding our society. Rather than go through the semantic hoops that are technically necessary in order to make the subtle distinctions that he is after, De Mello chooses to “shock the truth out of us”. He says things that are not intended to be completely accurate, and are sometimes even logically inconsistent, but rather contradict our culture’s common assumptions, forcing us to either totally dismiss what he says or, if we read with an open mind, to consciously think about the point that De Mello is trying to communicate.

The backbone of this sort of “non-logical” communication is De Mello’s belief in logic’s inability to fully capture reality. He explains, "the guru cannot give you the truth. Truth cannot be put into words, into a formula. That isn't the truth. That isn't reality. Reality cannot be put into a formula. The guru can only point out your errors. When you drop your errors, you will know the truth. And even then you cannot say." (Awareness – pg. 99)

I’ll start with how De Mello starts, his message of “waking up to life”:

“Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don't know it, are asleep. They're born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence. You know, all mystics—Catholic, Christian, non-Christian, no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion—are unanimous on one thing: that all is well, all is well. Though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox, to be sure. But, tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep.” Awareness – pg. 5

“I was saying that we don’t want to be happy. We want other things. Or let’s put it more accurately: We don’t want to be unconditionally happy. I’m ready to be happy provided I have this and that and the other thing. But this is really to say to our friend or to our God or to anyone, “You are my happiness. If I don’t get you, I refuse to be happy.” It’s so important to understand that. We cannot imagine being happy without those conditions. That’s pretty accurate. We cannot conceive of being happy without them. We’ve been taught to place our happiness in them.”– Awareness pg. 11

Before I really begin commenting on these passages, I want to examine more closely De Mello’s claim that “most people are asleep.” This passage I found on Wikipedia’s entry for “hypnosis” makes an interesting point about how different levels of “hypnosis” occur all around us.

“Harry Cannon (FNRAH) defines hypnosis: "a psychological mechanism by which a suggestion moves directly to and is accepted by the subconscious mind." For this (hypnosis) to take place you require four things:

1. A focus of attention 2. A heightened emotion 3. The suggestion itself 4. No critique of the suggestion by the conscious intellect.

When these four requirements are met, suggestion takes root in the subconscious and so has action out in motor function. This simply means that the suggestion is acted upon by the mind.

Harry postulates that we are constantly being affected by hypnotic process. He gives the following example: “Imagine a small child being caught by their mother taking something that does not belong to them from another child. Imagine then the mother chastising her child for this action (the child now has a focus of attention and a heightened emotion). She then instructs her child to stop it and not do it again (the given suggestion). This suggestion, laid down during the child’s formative years has, by the criteria above, moved to the subconscious mind without any intellectual argument from the child. Because of this experience, a new social boundary has now been placed upon the child who, in later life will definitely ‘feel’ those same feelings and emotions whenever it finds itself in a similar situation.”

So hypnosis is all around us and is happening all the time. The level and apparent intensity of the ‘hypnotic state’ is the witnessing of an individuals subjective experience of it, and nothing more.” -

So we are “hypnotized” by certain emotional suggestions that, to a large extent, dictate the way we behave around other people. I can think of numerous examples of this within our society. Society tells us, “Be friendly and helpful to everyone you meet, but most people are too busy to care how you really are feeling.” “It’s not proper to talk about private personal issues when you’re in a group activity.” “Whether you realize it now or not, showing up on time to all your classes and getting all A’s will make you into a good citizen in the future.” “Accept people as they are, and let them live their own life and make their own decisions.” “Education is key to being able to contribute to society.” I’m sure there are many other similar “common sense rules” we use to define the social norms of our culture. Some of these I agree with, others I don’t, but whether we agree with them or not is not the point here. De Mello is saying that we should not let any these “rules” affect our ability to be happy. Whether you’re friendly to everyone, or act like a jerk on occasion; whether you're too nosy around others or too distant, don’t worry about it; you can’t change yourself through worry.

That’s all I really have that’s worth saying, I think. Anything else I want to say would just be me repeating De Mello’s message. So, I posted some of my favorite passages from Awareness, for those who find this kind of stuff interesting. Of course, I’d be happy to lend out my copy if anyone wants to read the whole book, or it can be bought new for about $11 or $12 from (cheaper new) or Amazon (cheaper used and good user reviews).

There's a lot of good advice in this book that has helped me to get past (to some extent, at least) the messages society tells us about what it takes to be a "success." I highly recommend for anyone who is feeling at all disillusioned with Western culture and is willing to read with an open mind.

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