Advent is here. I always loved the word “advent,” and the notion of preparing ourselves for the coming of something extraordinary, something that is yet to be. Advent has a special resonance for me today because I’ve been reflecting about what it means to observe ourselves and to be open to others. In the “Love” issue of Parabola, I interviewed David Rome, a student of the technique called focusing and a teacher of a Buddhist version called Deep Listening. Since then, I’ve become more and more aware of the potentially transforming power of this seemingly humble, seeming passive act: Listening and watching deeply makes it possible to bring down the walls of separation between self and other. Like Advent, this way of being is quietly miraculous. It calls what is beyond the ordinary world of appearances towards us. It hinges on the ability to be patient, to be with what is, to let experience unfold as it will without poking and prodding at it in any way (even with the best of intentions). It requires that we be able to make a space inside for the stranger to enter. At the risk of making another Christian allusion, we have to make room in the inn. The readiness is all.
To come out of our usual isolation and welcome what is coming towards us we need to practice noticing how own needs and interests color everything we see. Everything we take in is tinged with an automatic bias. We like or don’t like or are indifferent to what is happening or what is being said based on how it affects us. Oftenwe interrupt (or find other ways of hurrying the speaker along) because we already know what we think and are just waiting for a chance to say it, or we’re uninterested in what is being said and want to change the subject. When we do respond, we’re often either repeating something we’ve heard or read before or we’re scrapping to argue and prove we are right. One way or another, we want to win, to affirm ourselves (even though that might take the pervers form of being the worst). How rare it is to sit back and take in what someone is saying, listening not just to the words but to where the speaker is coming from–to the longing or aspirations beneath the words. Rarer still are those times when we are so grounded and still inside–so free of self-interest and attentive of heart–that we can see or hear an ordinary person or scene before us and see in them the advent of a much greater truth about interconnection or divinity.
The poet John Keats described this state of openess and preparedness for the advent of extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary “negative capability.” He defined this as “when a man is capable of of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” What might support such a state? For me, the first step is coming down out of my thoughts and settling down in the sensation of being present. Next comes a very gentle movement of allowing everything to be as it is, inside and out. This takes faith that is an opening outward, an acknowledgement that more is coming, maybe even something wondrous. This also takes acceptance and kindness towards oneself, an acknowledgement that no bias or limitation is final. More is possible. As Rilke said: “Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart. And try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.”
This Advent, I intend to try to watch and listen deeply, to see what it takes to be open and prepared to receive.