I am reading Awareness by Anthony DeMello. One of the comments on the book’s back cover is “You may not have even realized you were sleepwalking.” I remember having a dream in which I woke up remembering my dream, but then realize that I was yet asleep and that my waking up was part of my dream. I had only entered a new place that felt more like being awake. Awareness, it seems, is a relative thing. One is never fully awake, only more awake than yesterday or than a few minutes ago.
DeMello was a psychologist/therapist as well as a Jesuit concerned with spirituality. “I have this great conflict within me when I choose between psychology and spirituality,” he wrote. All a psychologist can do, he says, is relieve pressure. (But) “nothing is more practical than spirituality.”
This idea seems strange to me. While spirituality feels good and important to me, to understand how my psyche works seems much more useful in the workings of the world and in my relationships with those around me.
What is spirituality? I separated it out of my religious experience a long time ago. Religion is a tool that can assist me in finding and staying on a spiritual path, but it is not the path. Spirituality, I have come to realize, is a relationship with God or with Spirit or with whatever that is that is not material. Words like “Higher Power”, “Divine Energy,” and “Life Force” come to mind. These are pretty lame yet useful attempts to describe an indescribable reality. “Love” serves well if it were not for the misuse of the word.
Psychology is the study of the psyche. I understand the psyche to mean the mind. This is why I would go to a psychologist, to discover how my mind works, how I think about and interpret the world. The role of a psychologist is to help a client see where their perceptions are misguided and then help them understand why. The “why” is not necessary but can be very helpful in order to move beyond misconceptions.
This sounds very practical to me. DeMello says that spirituality is even more practical than this. Understanding or realizing that we have been misinterpreting the world (or asleep) is no small accomplishment. In other words, waking up is when we see that what we thought was true isn’t. But psychology is less about finding truth than realizing our obstacles to the truth. “I cannot describe the truth,” he says, “No one can. All I can do (as a psychologist) is give you a description of your falsehoods so that you can drop them. All I can do for you is challenge your beliefs and belief system that makes you unhappy. All I can do for you is help you to unlearn. That is what learning is all about where spirituality is concerned – unlearning almost everything that you have ever been taught. It is about a willingness to unlearn and listen.” This reminds me of a well-known book on spirituality, The Cloud of Unknowing. But not knowing is very painful and scary. Not knowing why things happen or why people are acting as they are, not knowing outcomes, not knowing why I do what I do or think the way I think (remember Paul?)…this is very frightening, indeed.
DeMello says that most people listen for what confirms what they already think. It is hard, he says, to listen in order to discern something new. We want to think we know – it feels safer and powerful. I think DeMello is suggesting surrender, or a leap into the unknown ie. faith! Faith, he says, is an openness to the truth, no matter the consequences, no matter where it leads you and when you don’t even know where it is going to lead you. Your beliefs give you a lot of security, but faith is insecurity. (Ouch!) Faith, he says, is “being ready to listen.” He says to be open does not mean being gullible, swallowing whatever (someone) is saying. Challenge everything, he suggests. But if you want to wake up, you have to be open to the possibility that you have been asleep, or that what you believed is not the truth. Like my dream experience. “When you do that,” he says, “that is the first step to waking up.”
This is spirituality as I understand it. Much of my prayer consists of sitting in silence. My silence is not necessarily peaceful. Sometimes it feels like sitting in shackles. It is a place of not understanding what is happening around me much less what to do or say. As one who seeks God’s will in my life, it is frustrating to not know clearly what that is. Jesus said in the end, “Not my will, but thine.” Don’t deceive yourself into thinking he understood what God was up to and therefore surrendered. He had not a clue and all he could do is either fight or surrender while the shackles were attached to chains that had soldiers on the other end pulling him to places he did not wish to go.
Aware of the circumstances of my life at any given moment, I don’t know whether to act or to wait, to speak or be quiet, to let others guide me or to take control. I am in the Cloud of Unknowing. Strangely, it is out of this place that I seem to act rightly, but that is beside the point. The reason spirituality is practical is that it enables me to walk forward even when I don’t know what comes next. I may not see the road before me. I may not have the assurance that what I say or do next is the perfect thing to do or say.
In my twelve step program, we say to people who struggle to find the will of God in their lives, “Just do the next right thing.” Deep down inside we know what that is. It is the kinder of two choices. It is whatever we committed to, the responsible thing to do. It is simple. It is putting the left shoe on after the other shoe is already on the right foot. It is answering the phone with a cheery hello even when we don’t know who is on the other end. It is letting interruptions come when someone needs us more than we need to be doing our thing. It is listening more than talking because we don’t really know much anyway. It is suiting up and showing up to life as life is, not trying to recreate it into the way we would prefer it.
Waking up is what I do as I walk this spiritual path. I am aware of my steps even though I can see only a few feet before me. Once in a while, the cloud lifts and I can see the landscape. But that is temporary, for I am yet a little asleep. But I am learning to be okay with seeing only a little way before me…it is enough. This is what spirituality does for me.