Anthony DiMello begins his book Awareness with two sentences that will frame well the contents of what follows: 1) Spirituality means waking up, and 2) Waking up is unpleasant. DiMello will go on to talk about happiness, but, for DiMello, happiness lies on the far side of waking up. In other words, unpleasantness hopefully leads to something much lighter and better.This is because “contact with reality” is the only way to get rid of most of the unpleasant feelings that plague us, according to DiMello. Awareness makes a difference in the quality of our lives and relationships. Contact with reality is a therapeutic as well as a spiritual goal.
While reading this book I was reminded of my role as a counselor. What is it exactly that I am here to do? I can’t fix anyone. I learned that right out of the gate close to a decade ago when I first started working with people.
At the same time, we’ve all heard of (or maybe experienced ourselves) that form of counseling that seems to amount to little more than the counselor sitting and saying “mmmm. Mmm-hmm…” as we speak. Most of us are looking for more than this in our counselors, teachers, and mentors.
But what is it that the counselor does? As a counselor I know I can’t directly change anyone. But it is good if I say something – anything – that’s helpful. DiMello writes:
“So, I can speak to you, not of the truth, but of obstacles to the truth. Those I can describe. I cannot describe the truth. No one can. All I can do 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 the belief system that makes you unhappy. All I can do for you is help you to unlearn. That’s what learning is all about where spirituality is concerned: unlearning, unlearning almost everything you’ve been taught. A willingness to unlearn, to listen.” (16)
I resonate with this statement. I even usually end up making a similar statement in my practice, with my clients, but I use different words and phrases. I may express it like this:
“My job is not to tell you what to do. My job is to help you paint a picture or draw a map. – of your story, of your life. Hopefully, this results in a deeper understanding of who you are. Hopefully, it results in getting a better picture not only of where you came from but also where you find yourself now, “good,” “bad,” and everything between. But it needs to be your map, not mine. After all, you are the expert on your life, not I.”
DiMello holds what some might consider a “radical” view of change. Change comes not so much through effort as through understanding. “It never strikes us that things don’t need to be fixed. They really don’t. This is a great illumination. They need to be understood. If you understood them, they’d change.” (35)
Is DiMello saying just get some accurate concepts that map onto your life well and your problems will go away? Not quite. But he is saying something about the importance of having accurate names for things. Besides, change is hard. It does take some work. In fact, it takes a lot of work.
Let’s say for example that I am really angry. If someone asks me how I’m doing, I say “I’m furious!” If that same someone slowed down enough to ask why I would most likely point out the fault in another person or the unsatisfactory outcome of some event. But what is my contribution? What have I brought to the table? Reminiscent of Matthew 7:1-5, am I willing to slow down and “remove the log from your own eye so that you can see clearly to remove the speck”?
Once I do this, I see how the “problem out there” is not just “out there.” There is something I am contributing. What is that something? See why “waking up is hard”?
DiMello is advocating change that comes through deep awareness, not just of the other person, but especially of oneself. I often take clients to Psalm 139 to make a similar point: the posture of “show me, Father, any wayward way within me,” is a very different posture than the one we normally take when a conversation or relationship isn’t going well.
When you talk to someone, are you aware of it or are you simply identifying with it? When you got angry with somebody, were you aware that you were angry, or were you simply identifying with your anger?
Later, when you had the time, did you study your experience and attempt to understand it? Where did it come from? What brought it on? I don’t know of any other way to awareness. You only change what you understand. What you do not understand and are not aware of, you repress. (56)
I agree with DiMello that we must get into a new habit of studying ourselves and staying with the investigation. Isn’t that hard? The last thing I want to do when something says something offensive to me is to wonder with pure curiosity and maybe even a little delight “Hmmm, I wonder where that came from?”
When we get hurt, we tend to speak in sentences that end in periods. But the posture of the curious questioner is different. This person asks questions and wants to know the answers. This person allows for the possibility of not seeing everything perfectly and clearly. There is room to grow and learn.
I have practiced an approach to working with people, especially in any kind of conflict, that deeply involves the story of the person with whom I am working. Why is this? Well, because none of us show up empty-handed to our relationships. We all arrive carrying experiences, ideas, traumas, hurts, hopes, fears, expectations, and unfulfilled longings from the past.
To know what these items are, we must put the suitcase on the bed, open it up, and survey the contents. Is everything in here appropriate to where I am now? Do all of the reactions, strategies to get and keep love, offenses, boundaries, and beliefs, apply to where I am today?
Doing this work is the work of making sense of our story. DiMello writes of our individual paths as mirroring the story of the Bible. The narrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration can be seen in both.
We’re invited, not to become children, but to become like children. We do have to fall from a stage of innocence and be thrown out of paradise; we do have to develop an “I” and a “me” through these concepts. But then we need to return to paradise. We need to be redeemed again. We need to put off the old man, the old nature, the conditioned self, and return to the state of the child but without being a child. (126)
Being redeemed again does not mean being saved again. That only needs to happen once. What DiMello is talking about is continual renewal, growth, and transformation. Redemption, in other words, is an ongoing and active process in which we are participating with every breath.
Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. – 2 Corinthians 4:16
If you are looking for a beautifully written, brief yet deep book, I highly recommend Awareness. And if you have been thinking about some of these issues already, and would like to walk through them with someone safe and experienced, I or another SCC Counselor would be honored to hear from you.
“Clean Lenses”, Courtesy of Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Difficult Roads”, Courtesy of Hello I’m Nik, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Clear Water”, Courtesy of Josh Spires, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sitting on the Beach”, Courtesy of Erwann Letue, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.