Negative capability is an acknowledgement of complexity, a mature respect of life’s shades of grey, an understanding that despite what the strident headline, indignant tweet or demanding placard says, the situation is probably not quite so simple.
Negative capability is an embrace of doubt. It is greeting the world and people in it as if for the first time, without preconceived ideas or old habits, scripts, stereotypes. It is the opposite of prejudice. A willingness to say three simple yet hard to utter words: I don’t know.
The western world, however, is defined by irritably reaching after fact, reason and certainty. In case you hadn’t noticed, life is complicated, and we’re hungry for clarity and simplicity. We tend to be extremely doubtful as to any merits of doubt.
We like to think in black and white, left and right, good guys and bad guys, mars and venus, heaven and hell. We demand decisiveness from our politicians, generals and CEOs—being unsure is a much greater crime than being wrong. All the question marks must be changed to exclamation marks. We want bullet points to help us lead our lives: 10 commandments, 7 habits, 5 ways to achieve success, fame, fortune, happiness. We want yes or no in a world of maybe.
But to live without negative capability is to be enslaved (there’s supposedly a Sanskrit word that means both “certainty” and “imprisonment”). It is to be closed-minded, dogmatic, fanatic, having a resolute, immutable opinion about everything, or an unwavering fidelity to one or another “ism” or “ology.”
It is sticking rigidly to an absurd little book of rules, and ignoring all the red lights on an uncompromising march to the completely wrong place: to war, ethnic cleansing, bigotry, economic collapse, physical collapse, psychological collapse.
Certainty blinds us to possibility. We’re so fixated on some notion of how things are “supposed” to be that we totally miss the gift of how things are. We march right past the treasures in the Louvre because we’re on a grim, joyless Mona Lisa box-checking mission. We’re so frenetic, addicted to our busy-ness, that we don’t notice when someone we love needs help or is trying to tell us something important. We’re so wedded to an idea of the person we think we should be with—our “type" or our “soul mate”—that we don’t even look at the amazing person in the very next cubicle. We are completely surrounded by beautiful opportunities, gifts and invitations which we are oblivious to because we are not present, stuck in the past or marching ahead in search of some imagined, more certain future.
We attempt to navigate the turbulent waters of love, too, with an out-of-date map of a different ocean. The English poet-philosopher David Whyte summarizes this beautifully in Consolations, his new book of spare and soothing reflections. He offers this profound incantation:
• Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”
• David Foster Wallace: “A huge percentage of stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded”
• Voltaire: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition. But certainty is absurd”
• Pliny the Elder: “The only certainty is that there is nothing certain”
• Margaret Drabble: “When nothing is sure, everything is possible”
Richard Wiseman, a magician turned popular psychologist, conducted some research on luck. He advertised for people who considered themselves very lucky, or very unlucky and received many replies. The lucky people seemingly had led charmed, successful, happy lives. They were always in the right place at the right time, and good things inevitably just happened to fall in their lap. The unlucky people? The opposite. An extraordinary catalogue of calamities, disastrous romances, failed businesses, missed connections, lost harvests.
Wiseman conducted a series of tests on these people. One was to count the number of photos in a newspaper. The unlucky people took a few minutes to complete the task. The lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because on page 2, half the page was devoted to a notice that said, in large letters: “Stop counting: There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” The “unlucky” people, blinded by the certainty of the task, never saw it.
According to Wiseman, people make their own luck. The house of uncertainty holds no fear for lucky people.
Which side are you on?
Our brains have two hemispheres: the intuitive, holistic, creative, transcendent “right brain,” and the more logical, rigid, pedantic, detail-focused “left brain.” Iain McGilchrist calls the former the “Master” and the latter the “Emissary.” The problem, he says, is that the Emissary is supposed to be in service to the Master, but somehow he has taken over the controls. As a result, he has profoundly changed us—and our world. All power, says McGilchrist, now rests with the Emissary “who, however gifted, is effectively an ambitious regional bureaucrat with his own interests at heart. Meanwhile the Master...is led away in chains.” (A simplistic binary split of the brain into left and right perhaps shows a lack of negative capability—it ignores all the shades of grey matter. But we'll stick with it.)
Instead of working together, our bird-brained inner accountant turned on our wise and thoughtful inner poet and, in a desperate ontological battle, the latter was slain. The poet, needless to say, embraced negative capability; she lived it. The accountant however, clipboard, ruler and calculator in hand, can tolerate only certainty. He has created a fragmented, western world of technology, mechanisation and bureaucracy, a world of alienation, where love is hard to find, and beauty gets bulldozed, a world of spreadsheets instead of sonnets, a world where everything is measured, itemized, indexed, where the little picture matters and the big picture doesn’t.
Einstein had a sign hanging in his office which read: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
Doubt in the consulting room
The Emissary’s hand can be seen in every detail of our lives—in tax returns, Ofsted reports, market research. In doomed attempts to deconstruct jokes or works of art. And, as I wrote earlier this week, in the field of mental health.
The Emissary wants to shoehorn your troubles into a neat, clearly-labelled pigeonhole. He wants to eradicate your symptoms with a drug and, if you insist, a bit of talking in the form of some short-term cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). A little adjustment to your levels, a bit of soldering under the bonnet, and you should be good to go—back to your spreadsheets.
If it were that simple, we would not be human. On the first page of the introduction in her book The Impossibility of Knowing, psychotherapist Jackie Gerrard writes: “I am sure that I, like many of my colleagues, started my training eager to learn and to know, and I have subsequently spent the years post qualification learning that I do not ‘know,’ cannot ‘know,’ and, indeed, should not ‘know’ . . . by saying I do not ‘know,’ I am continually endeavouring to hold a state of mind that can tolerate remaining open, bearing uncertainty, and avoiding, wherever possible, omnipotence and omniscience.”
Not “knowing” is not the same as indecision or ignorance. In Tales of Un-knowing, existential therapist Ernesto Spinelli says therapists should aspire to be un-knowing—as opposed to “unknowing”—they should “attempt to remain as open as possible to whatever presents itself in our relational experience.”
The Emissary therapist reaches for theories, models, personality tests and questionnaires about your mental state so that he can enter your score on a spreadsheet. He reaches for the manual to find a clinical diagnosis such as “generalized anxiety disorder” or “oppositional defiance disorder” and some techniques to make it go away. American existential therapist Irving Yalom marvels that anyone can take diagnoses seriously, adding: “Even the most liberal system of psychiatric nomenclature does violence to the being of another. If we relate to people believing that we can categorize them, we will neither identify nor nurture the parts, the vital parts, of the other that transcends category.”
The Master therapist, by contrast, see you—all the vital parts, all of you. All her senses are alive to you and your experience of distress. This level of presence and empathy was memorably expressed by British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, who wrote that every therapeutic session should be approached “without memory and without desire.” Even the therapist’s wish for their client to be, say, less depressed is, according to Bion, an imposition that will cloud that therapist’s mind. He believed that in every session there had to be a genuine open-mindedness and freedom.
All too often therapist and client conspire to flee from uncertainty. The therapist who claims to be “sorted” might be cut off from their own vulnerability and woundedness, and perhaps not be the best guide to accompany a client as they traverse a landscape of despair.
Integrative psychotherapist Diana Voller writes: “The tension of the experience of being in uncertainty brings the person of the therapist well and truly back into the therapy.” The therapist, too, needs “the scariness and excitement of being willing to be in the unknown, allowing oneself to be temporarily overwhelmed, feel stupid for a while...gaining new perspectives and growing.” (I am grateful to Voller for a presentation she made on negative capability years ago in London—thank you.)
Increasing your negative capability
So perhaps we would be better people if we could cultivate a little more negative capability in our lives. There'd be more good things like luck, love, empathy. Negative capability transforms a profane world into one of poetry.
For Keats, ways to cultivate more negative capability were: “books, fruit, French wine, fine weather and a little music out of doors played by someone I do not know.”
Voller suggests that films, TV, art, literature and the theatre are all “rich everyday resources for choosing to be temporarily unsettled and ready to be ultimately changed by other ways of seeing things.”
Here are 9 tips for a greater capacity for uncertainty:
1. Have therapy
There’s no better way to experience the discomfort of uncertainty, to encounter those frontiers of yourself that you have for long retreated from, than to be a client. The consulting room is a safe place to explore your distress, your history, your way of being in the world, all your secrets and shadows. Processing such dark matter affords some control over it rather than the reverse.
2. Keep a journal
Another great way of exploring, of cultivating a better relationship with our self—or rather, disparate selves. Start the conversation.
Now and again, put away the instruction manual, or the sheet music, or the cookbook, and just do it.
4. Meet new people
Hurl yourself into unfamiliar social situations. Interact with a wide range of people. Richard Wiseman wrote of how some of his “lucky” participants often sought out ways to force them to meet different people. One noticed that whenever he went to a party, he tended to talk to the same type of people. To disrupt this routine, he now thinks of a colour before a social event and then speaks to people wearing that colour of clothing.
5. Get lost
Take a different route to work, take your watch off, travel without a map, go somewhere new on holiday, camp in the wilderness, explore a very different country, travel alone. Develop a sense of what psychoanalyst Nina Coltart called xenophilia. Lose yourself in nature. Gaze at trees, clouds, thunderstorms. Waste time.
6. Spend time with children
Learn from their streams of consciousness and ability to play, and to be spontaneous and joyful and un-selfconscious. They haven’t yet learned, as we have, to filter, to not see. Negative capability is the antidote to old age. Viewpoints, like arteries or neural pathways, can become clogged, fewer, narrower, less fluid.
7. Have new experiences
Sign up for that retreat, workshop, meetup.com event. Do things that you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t because they scare you a little. Try different genres of art and music and film and food.
8. Be with your body
Dance. Play. Sing. Act. Exercise. Move. Do yoga. Touch and be touched. Our psychology affects our body—the reverse can also be true: putting your body into unfamiliar, freeing positions can also free your mind.
9. Stop making lists!
Ultimately, negative capability is a stance, a state of mind, an awareness. A willingness to give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you, as American mythologist Joseph Campbell so succinctly put it.
It’s not easy. There are times when we need to be on autopilot, or seek refuge from the world under a giant metaphorical duvet. But we are only fully alive in those fleeting moments when we are brave enough to throw away all the old rules and maps and guidebooks and lists and embrace living in a state of uncertainty, eyes wide open to the world, engaging our fluid self with a fluid environment in original, creative and spontaneous ways.
I’m pretty sure there some truth in that.
But of course, I can’t be certain.