I came across a new (to me) term today. Apparently coined by the poet John Keats in 1818, in a letter to his brothers.
Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason
Negative Capability, then, something I aspire to. It aligns with the Buddhist concept of groundlessness, which asserts that the nature of life is to be uncertain and it’s…well, it’s our job to cope. In as gracious a manner as possible. And definitely without a fight, as this only causes us suffering.
Empirically, I see that many of us have been fairly exercised in that particular skill in 2020 – coping with reality, just as it is, without trying to change anything. Recognising that everything that happens in this moment is essentially perfectly ordered and a manifestation of enlightenment.
Bit of a stretch?
Most of us would like very much to change reality. Even at the level of a car cutting in front of us or someone leaving the cap off the toothpaste.
We struggle to sit with the hot, edgy, restless energy of uncertainty.
Humans are meaning-makers. We want to make sense of things and we crave the known and reject the unknown. This is a survival mechanism, but in modern life we have been persistently encouraged to think we SHOULD have what we want; that we SHOULD be able to control our lives and excel in all our endeavours. We’ve been sold a bit of a pup there, if you ask me. The culture of individualism doesn’t appear to work out well. Humans are pack animals. Trying to control our world corrodes supportive relationships and hampers the kind of success that flourishes with teamwork.
Just the same, when a car cuts in in front of us and this doesn’t make sense to us, we get upset. Our thoughts churn on it and we can’t just let it go.
Suffering = resistance to reality
We know we make our own suffering worse when we react badly to things. Yet, we still do. Our (ego’s) need to be right is very strong.
So when we get Yeats’ uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, we often DO respond with irritable reaching after fact and reason.
The other thing we reach for is a quick fix – anything to shift mood or state, or to make us forget about our annoying inability to influence the universe in our favour. Happens a lot – becomes addictive.
Finding a bit of peace
If we want a peaceful life, we can simply learn to live with our reality. We can stop the war with our world and the people in it. But only so we can feel better and sleep at night.
Most of the work we need to do to be happy little vegemites consists of undoing our need to control our environment. Letting go. Believe me, I should know! And to do that, we need to create safety and resilience within.
If you are struggling with stress, anxiety, fear, resistance, self-criticism, judgment, irritability, frustration, anger, perfectionism, insecurity – give yourself a break.
Your inner resilience is overlooked and under-used. Develop it, as Negative Capability.
Want more peace?
Have you lost contact with the peace inside you? Are you bogged down with the demands of work and life?
If you’d like to cultivate Negative Capability, come and talk to me, free.