In response to one of my entries earlier in the week, a dear friend of mine emailed me with the question "Have you read this book by Anthony deMello called Awareness? I love it! You should check it out." So, in light of my words about accountability and community, I walked over to the library, found a copy and surrendered to the pool of collective wisdom my community so generously offers. The book, Awareness, is less generous. Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest who spent much of his life in India, writes in short concise sentences that leave me gasping for an imaginary breath. Reading each chapter, I feel like I'm listening to a slightly annoyed, arrogant, middle schooler who has written a report and has to present in front of the class. The student reads a series of simple sentences that obviously make a point to the orator and the delivery is finished with a sense of "there it is, take it or leave it, but I'm right!"
Yet regardless of this jarring and often irritating writing style, Anthony de Mello makes some really great points about awareness, identity, self and society. I'm only half way through and I will write more about the book's wisdom in completion, but I wanted to share a few thoughts.
In my travels and experiences, I've often been accompanied by naturalists of one sort or another. My cousins were big advocates of developing skills in nature awareness and introduced both my brother and me to the worlds of Tom Brown and John Young. The Art of Mentoring, a class taught by John Young's Wilderness Awareness School, has influenced several people I know and how they teach nature awareness to others. One part of the learning process is finding a secret sit spot; a place in the woods that you visit daily for significant periods of time. Since when we enter nature, our presence interrupts the natural behavior of animals, from this spot you learn how to be still and through your stillness the wild world adjusts to your presence. Slowly, the birds begin to sing again, the insects return to the flowers, and the wildlife moves around you.
By returning to this spot day after day, you begin to see the daily patterns of the life around you; the seasonal changes; and especially intrusions. You begin to see how the different systems interact and adapt. With eyes wide open, the peripherals of your vision reveal to you the shyest of inhabitants. If you're really lucky, you find a feather or a nut in your sit spot-as if the wild world is saying to you that you are now part of the web.
In Anthony deMello's book, he writes about urban awareness:
"...imagine a good driver, driving a car, whose concentrating on what you're saying. In fact, he may even be having an argument with you, but he's perfectly aware of the road signals. The moment anything untoward happens, the moment their's any sounds, or noise, or bump, he'll hear it at once...The focus of his attention [is] on the conversation, or argument, but his awareness is more diffused. He was taking in all kinds of things... When awareness is turned on, there's never any distraction, because you're always aware of whatever happens to be." (72)
Urban awareness is like nature awareness on steroids. There is so much more that the body takes in when it opens itself up to a sense of awareness. Stillness is replaced with movement. Peripheral vision includes the sounds, lights, and smells from media and advertising. Daily routines situate you into an urban web, but if we aren't awake to what is going on around us, what do we really see? what do we learn from the patterns before us? What do the people and bits of the world revel to us about ourselves and our humanity?
I've taken some of the nature awareness techniques and applied them to my travels, but I haven't used them in my daily life. As a Quaker, I'm used to being aware of what is happening inside me when I sit still and listen; but where is the worship in the middle of chaos and movement? where is the awareness of the world around me and my own participation in it? Anthony deMello writes:
"The only way someone can be of help to you is in challenging your ideas. If you're read to listen and if you're ready to be challenged, there one thing you can do, but no one can help you. What is this most important things of all? Its called self-observation. No one can help you there. No one can give you a method... [self observation] means to watch everything in you and around you as far as possible and watch it as if it were happening to someone else... Don't "fix" anything. Watch! Observe! The trouble with people is that they're busy fixing things they don't even undertand. We're always fixing things aren't we? 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." (35-36)