The Parting Words of the Mystic Anthony deMello

How do you get a person from Point A to Point B? You give them a map. If you’re the mystic Anthony de Mello, you might be more like a mountain sherpa, leading people up a road that forces you to pay attention to your steps, breathe the air deeply, look around and observe the view in awe, and make it as wordless an experience as possible.

Those who know of Antony deMello probably know of the circumstances of his death. Born in India, he became Jesuit in his teens. As a priest, he developed his calling as a retreat master, teacher, and writer. As such, his popularity grew tremendously in the eighties.

His talent was his ability to zero in on spiritual truths that transcended dogma, culture, and even words. People were simply drawn to “Tony” because he clearly was walking the walk. As a pied piper of mystics, he implored his followers to come on the journey to awareness–to leave the sad, confused, world behind and wake up!

From May 20-25, 1987, Tony delivered a seminar in Pune, India, to an estimated 300 priests and nuns. He expected to deliver it a few days later in the United States. Sadly, that seminar never happened. Tony passed away very unexpectedly in New York the night before he was to deliver it.
His brother Bill de Mello, who has authored Tony’s biography, The Happy Wanderer, was able to collect detailed notes from the participants of the Pune sessions and put together a transcript of that last seminar–the same one that the US participants were robbed of by his untimely death. So this book, Swansong, is a true blessing to be shared! It’s our last chance hear what he had to say–to hear the words that wound up being his Swansong.

The book is short and organized by the days in which the presentations were delivered. Each day had an overarching theme, with a progression from awareness through love, holiness, the ineffability of God, “living” with God through meditation, and finally, release of ego.

Many mystics have provided a similar road map, which often start with the opening the heart and end with the abandonment of self. This short book is not a long, daunting tour through seven mansions, like St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle; nor is it a pedantic treatise on the mystic way, like Evelyn Underhill.

This mystic journey more like a fun adventure–a road trip with a sherpa who had a darned great time pointing out the scenery. This sherpa tells jokes, he tells you how wise you are to have embarked on this trip and he tells you to put away the guide book and just see and hear and experience and be.

Here are some of my favorite quotes for each Day:

Day One. 20th May 1987

We humans have scriptures and all we do is feed on words. It’s like going to a restaurant and eating the menu.

The finest act of love you can perform is not an act of service but an act of contemplation, of seeing. When you serve people, you support, alleviate pain. When you see them in their inner beauty and goodness, you transform and create.

Day Two. 21st May 1987

In a conflict between Nature and your brain, back Nature; if you fight her, she will eventually destroy you. The secret therefore is to improve on Nature in harmony with Nature. How can you achieve this harmony?

Think of some change that you wish to bring about in your life or in your personality. Are you attempting to force this change on yourself through effort and through teh desire to become something that your ego has planned? That is the serpent fighting the dove. Or are you content to study, observe, understand, be aware of your present state and problems, without pushing, without forcing things that your ego desires, leaving reality to effect changes according to Nature’s plans, not yours? Then you have the perfect blending of the serpent and the dove.

We are here, not to change the world but to love the world and in that love, change may come. If I try to change you and you don’t change, I have resentment. And if I think I have change you, I take pride. Remember – Love is – clarity of perception, accuracy of response.

Day Three. 22nd May 1987

Life to those who have the ears to hear is a symphony; but very, very rare indeed is the human being who hears the music. Why? Because they are busy listening to the noises that their conditioning and their programming have put into their heads. That and something else–their attachments. An attachment is a major killer of life.

Once you pick up these attachments you become a slave to them. Then comes the tension and anxiety which are the very death of love and the joyful freedom that love brings. Love and freedom are only found when one enjoys each note of a symphony as it arises, and then allows it to go, so as to be fully receptive to the notes that follow.

Day Four. May 23rd 1987

When you drop your illusions, you get a sense of space and time. Mystics get this sense of timelessness; of eternity, of everlasting joy; because they have dropped their illusions.

Once a projection is screened before us, we make it a concept–static. When we create concepts we bring out our paintbrushes. We pain things good or bad, according to the concepts we have created. The Mystic does not paint it. The mystic sees everything with a clean slate and experiences what he sees in present moment freshness each and every time.

I can’t put into words what I’ve seen. But now I make a formula and instead of seeing what I am pointing to, I cling to the formula. Therefore your biggest obstacle to finding God is the concept: ‘God.’

Day Five. May 24th 1987

Reality cannot be known through concepts; much less, this reality we call God. He is not virtue and not vice. He is not light and He is not darkness. What is wrong is the use we make of the Bible. Don’t believe that reading the Scriptures will do you any good, unless you start working on yourself. You will not understand the Bible unless your mind, heart and eyes are clean; or else, you give it all sorts of interpretations to suit your own fears.

In order to meditate, you do not need to read the Bible. Instead examine your body, the five senses, the functioning of your mind.

I often hear, ‘I have no time to meditate.’ This is like saying ‘I have no time to breathe.’ Are you awake the entire day? Are you aware of your being, your surroundings? Are you aware of the sounds around you? The colours of nature which beautify this earth we live in? Of the melody of birds singing in the early hours of the morning or late evening? Of the sound of the breeze rustling through the branches of a tree? Staying ‘awake’ and being ‘aware’ for the entire day is meditation. Then you will realise that life is useless, worthless, not worth living, without consciousness. When walking in the jungle, you keep your eyes open to keep your feet from getting hurt. Likewise in life, in your relationships, find time to take the blindfold off.

A man comes regularly into a bar and ‘driving’ an imaginary car he ‘parks’ it in the bar. One day someone tells the bartender to tell him his bar is not a parking lot. ‘Why should I?’ says the bartender. ‘He gives me 10 dollars a week for parking here. If your illusion suit me, I don’t  mind stringing you along.

Swansong–Day Six, May 25th 1987

Remembering is an obstacle to seeing.  ‘Now’ is another name for love.

It isn’t as if God is the big dancer and you are the little dancer. You are not a dancer at all. You are being danced!

Dissatisfaction sets in when you cling to a thing, an event or a person.

If you really enjoy life and the simple pleasures of the senses, you’d be amazed. You’d develop that extraordinary discipline of the animal. Think of your body and compare it with the body of an animal that is left in its natural habitat.

It never eats or drinks what is not good for it. It has all the rest and exercise that it needs. It has the right amount of exposure to the elements, to wind and sun and rain and heat and cold.

That is because the animal listens to its body and allows itself to be guided by the body’s wisdom. Compare that with your own foolish cunningness. If your body could speak, what would it say to you? Observe the greed, the ambition, the vanity, the desire to show off and to please others, the guilt that drives you to ignore the voice of your body while you chase after objectives set by your ego.

Religion is not ritual, not intellectual, but purification. From that purified heart and mind, action will come.

You do not possess the wind, the stars, and the rain. You don’t possess these things; you surrender to them. And surrender occurs when you are aware of your illusions, when you are aware of your addictions, when you are aware of your desires and fears.

Faith, my dears, is the readiness to change in order to follow the truth.

What’s missing here in the words is the soul behind them–Tony’s charisma and presence–and so, I would encourage you to watch one of the many videos that are available for viewing.  Here’s one place you can go for that.

Tony’s passion in life was to get people to Wake Up! He repeatedly quotes Thomas Carlyle:  “The great tragedy of human life is not so much in what they suffer, but rather, in what they miss.”  Swansong is Tony’s last invitation to avert this tragedy–to follow this Mystic Sherpa on the path to a bird’s-eye view of awareness and joy.

Noises off: The two channels of chatter

IMG_0926“In a sense, silence is God.” –Anthony de Mello

No one can dispute the lack of silence these days. Gone are the days when your boss could only contact you between 9 and 5. Gone are the days when you had to actually be home to get a phone call. Gone are the days when TV was a family event that took place after the dinner hour. No Hulu or Netflix or on demand programming to access on a variety of devices in a variety of places. It has all crept up on us so… silently. And now here we are–if our lives were a forest and noisy distractions were weeds–we would be an overgrown mess.

But there is another form of chatter that gets in the way of silence. My husband and I once went to a 3-day silent retreat. Initially I thought it would be great to get away from it all with my book and chill out from my busy life. But this silence? This was deafening silence. It was like quitting  heroin and dealing with withdrawal. I couldn’t focus on my book, because this silence kept ringing in my ears. When I saw my husband at dinner, his face confirmed he had the same experience–but his withdrawal had been even more crippling. “Whoa–that freaked me out!” he told me. “I had to sit with my thoughts!  That was scary!” IMG_1422To go back to the forest analogy, many say that silence is like the sun to us.  Silence is not just a microsecond of space between two sounds. It’s active. It’s real. We need it in order to be a fully realized human being. If we allow the weeds of busyness, human interaction, and constant distractions to proliferate unattended, the sun can’t reach our souls.

When I went on that retreat, I thought that all that was going to happen would be the absence of external noise. But as my husband testified, after the external noise is gone, what is left is an internal noise that remained to be dealt with. Now that’s the hard part. You can shut off your computer, but it’s harder to shut off your thoughts. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this RNST: Radio Non-Stop Thinking.

When we listen to music, read a book, or pick up a newspaper, it’s usually not because we truly need that activity or information. We often do it mechanically–perhaps because we’re used to doing it or because we want to ‘kill time’ and fill up the discomfiting sense of empty space. –Thich Nhat Hanh in Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World full of Noise

So my discovery at that Benedictine retreat is that there are two kinds of noise: exterior and interior. The exterior noise is the bombardment of Facebook news feeds, text messages, advertising messages, ringtones, superficial human interactions, TV shows, CNN headlines.  Interior noise is the mental chatter that keeps our mind from setting down–the replaying of the past and the fears and hopes of the future–in other words, stuff that doesn’t even exist. The antidote to exterior noise is unplugging from the outside chatter. The antidote to interior noise is plugging in–to the present moment.

Thankfully we don’t need a three-day retreat to face silence head-on. All we need is mindfulness and awareness. As anyone who has practiced meditation can attest, growing in awareness is like practicing any discipline–you start and take few steps and expect it to be difficult until it isn’t. But on the other hand, those who are more practiced agree that you can’t “achieve” meditation results, because unlike our bucket lists and our financial goals, success in meditation is success at just being. Often silence and beingness just come in a flash. The Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello, author of Seek God Everywhere, Reflections on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, relays one of his singular experiences in awareness:

The day before yesterday I went to say Mass for some people in the seminary. I rose early in the morning and went outside to wait for a group of scholastics (Jesuits in training who have not taken final vows). It was quite cold. I was looking up at the sky and this thing hit me, this silence. It lasted for about a minute, but I am still experiencing the effects of it. It is the world we know but there is no knowing. We suddenly sense it. Each of us experiences it in different ways.

What has your experience been in mindfulness? How do you cultivate it in your life? When has it caught you by surprise? Please feel free to comment.

If You Like Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, With a Dash of Bill Hicks…

…you will certainly enjoy Anthony de Mello.

Anthony de Mello was a Jesuit priest and psychotherapist.   If his being Catholic leads you to believe that perhaps his view of faith might be different from yours, look further.  He didn’t preach dogma, he preached awareness, which was actually the title of one of his most famous books:  Awareness:  The Perils and Opportunities of Reality.

Reading him is like reading a little Eckhart Tolle (dying to the ego and disidentifying with thoughts), a little Byron Katie (accepting what is) and even Meister Eckhart (detachment). Overall, he embodies the wisdom of the sages and saints throughout time.

His approach is a little different–he’s part Aesop, part Joseph Campbell, part Bill Hicks--making his points with parables, fables and jokes (admittedly his jokes were a little cleaner than those of Bill Hicks).  His reading style is very easy, because many of the books he has “authored” are simply transcripts of seminars he gave to increasingly expanding audiences, up until he died prematurely at the age of 56.

There are some conspiracy theories about his death–he, like Thomas Merton, died an untimely death just when their popularity could be construed as a threat to the strict teachings of the Church.  Both Merton and de Mello melded Buddhism with Christian faith.  De Mello also often drew in teachings of the Bagavad Gita and other sacred teachings of his native India.  I don’t personally have any opinions as to the cause of his death:  as he himself would say, who cares?  But I only mention it because it shows how he, like many spiritual leaders who are most interested in the truth, defied fitting into a box based on ideology or religious precepts.

I read Awareness some time ago, and loved it then.  I don’t know why, but I was compelled to go back and read a little more–I guess as part of my New Year’s resolution to increase my mindfulness.

So, you know how when you go to Amazon, they say, “If you enjoyed THAT book, you might enjoy THIS book”?  Well, if you enjoy Eckhart Tolle quotes, you might enjoy this de Mello quote:

As you identify less and less with the “me”, you will be more at ease with everybody and with everything. Do you know why? Because you are no longer afraid of being hurt or not liked. You no longer desire to impress anyone. Can you imagine the relief when you don’t have to impress anybody anymore? Oh, what a relief. Happiness at last!

If you like Byron Katie quotes, you might enjoy this de Mello quote:

Suffering points out that there is falsehood somewhere. Suffering occurs when you clash with reality. When your illusions clash with reality when your falsehoods clash with the truth, then you have suffering. Otherwise there is no suffering.

And if you like Bill Hicks, you might enjoy this bit of de Mello stand-up:

Angels Dragging Wheelies: Letting Go of Emotional Attachments

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

Let’s just say that no one can be happy unless they can detach. Our attachments make us miserable.  That’s the hypothesis.  That’s a cornerstone of Buddhism.  That’s the point behind Jesus’s telling the young rich man that if he wanted to follow him, he would have to sell everything first.

Many people take that famous Gospel passage to mean that everyone must become an ascetic and give up all they own to follow Jesus.   I’m not a theologian, but I don’t think that’s what it means at all.  The point of that story was that the man turned away UNHAPPY.  He was attached to his stuff.  He wanted to follow Jesus, but he couldn’t see himself releasing the emotional hold he had on his belongings.  Jesus was applying an attach-o-meter to the young man’s spiritual readiness to follow him.

My attach-o-meter rings the bell with some things—old letters from friends and relatives, my John Derian plates, several of my books, my dog’s ashes, the home in which I’ve raised my kids.

Unfortunately they don’t even make an attach-o-meter with enough wattage to register my attachments to people in my life—especially my husband and my children.  Does that make me a good mother, a good wife? 


This image by the indie rock group The Detachment Kit is a wonderful illustration of the bond we often have with others

This image by the indie rock group The Detachment Kit is a wonderful illustration of the bond we often have with others

Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello might say, perhaps not.  What makes prideful ownership of a car any different than prideful ownership of a person?  Isn’t that even worse?   It is so counterintuitive to us, as human beings to realize that we don’t have any personal claim on any individual, even if we’ve been faithfully married for decades; even if we gave birth to those individuals.  But we constantly act as if we do.  Most of us act like emotional Siamese twins when it comes to people we love.


The only way to let go of unhealthy attachments of our relationships is through understanding, according to de Mello in the chapter on Detachment in his wonderful little book Awareness:  The Perils and Opportunities of Reality. 

We’ve been so blinded by everything that we have not discovered the basic truth that attachments hurt rather than help relationships.  I remember how frightened I was to say to an intimate friend of mine, ‘I really don’t need you.  I can be perfectly happy without you.  And by telling you this, I find I can enjoy your company thoroughly—no more anxieties, no more jealousies, no more possessiveness, no more clinging.  It’s a delight to be with you when I am enjoying you on a nonclinging basis.  You’re free, so am I.’  But to many of you I’m sure this is like talking a foreign language.–de Mello, Awareness, p.139


When we attach ourselves to things, people, and concepts maybe it’s out of fear–fear that without these self-imposed bonds we will be less loveable, less secure, less happy.   Maybe we’re like the old Egyptian kings who were so identified with their possessions that they were buried with them.  Is that who we really want to be?  Do we want to be identified by our possessions?  Or would we rather be free?   I picture a scenario where two friends are killed in a car crash.  The two new angels go winging themselves up to heaven—but one looks as if he/she were headed toward some Newark Airport of the sky–weighed down with backpack, wheelie, and laptop bag—and yelling to their unencumbered fellow angel, “Hey, wait up!” 

We also tend to attach ourselves to concepts through ideological labels.  We are Republican, American, Presybterian.  We wear T-shirts that say “Kiss Me–I’m Irish.”   We don’t just work to help the environment, we are “environementalists.”  It’s not that we just stopped eating meat, we are “vegetarians.”  It makes us feel good to identify with people and causes we admire, maybe because of a hard-wired need for people to belong.  Anthropologically, it was probably an important survival skill back in prehistoric times.  But it is self-limiting now. Putting ourselves in a neat box to make it easy for people to categorize us literally boxes us in.


So to create the kind of understanding that de Mello says will lead to true detachment, perhaps we simply examine ourselves.   See what face we would put on if Jesus told us to go and sell our possessions.  Or see how hard it is to hold back if our children or spouse does something that we feel we have to save them from.  Or if, in joining an organization, see if we lose the forest for the trees in the comfort of living out one point of view.  

And think about what the trade-off would be if we relinquish things, or need to control others, or our precious ideas?   Maybe the trade-off is a kind of death to oneself as talked about by Jesus and mystics of every religion.  A losing of ourselves that opens us up to unity and a release from fear. 

Like Tim Robbins’ hole in the wall behind the Raquel Welsh poster in the movie “Shawshank Redemption”—maybe we find the trade-off is a hidden portal that leads to freedom from a prison that we have built around ourselves with the bricks of our attachments; the illusions of our needs.