Negative Capability

John Keats once wrote, while walking home with friends: “several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially Literature…I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

To be lost, without the “irritable reaching after”, is to be present. To let the mystery in and embrace it. This is a true surrender to what swirls around—that which you are unable to control. To go beyond what you know, to go beyond the safe confines of routine and somehow find your way to a place of surrender, a true home in the present.

This morning I woke up and didn’t want to get out of bed. Lately my mind won’t work as I’m used to it working. It’s not “performing” as I’d like it to. I had the idea of just lying in bed and not thinking, not reaching for anything. It worked. I let myself surrender to ignorance, stillness, the not-having-control. And an image that’s been coming back to me quite frequently came again. An image of a door of which I am scared to approach. It’s there, it’s glowing beneath the cracks, and yet I feel my body and mind resisting moving toward it. What is this door? I thought. Where am I going?

I was still lying in my bed, the afternoon sun trying to force its way through my curtains, almost as though saying “why are you still in bed, you lazy girl?” But in my mind I was on a hardwood floor just in front of the door, crying. Frustrated and unsure why I was so timid to approach it. Then a thought came to my head: Just sit here, then. Let the door be there and let you be here.

Negative Capability, as John Keats notes, is a hard thing to sit with. I’m so used to going and doing and my mind rushing with ideas and inspiration. I’m used to goals and reaching for them. I’m used to achievement.

Perhaps my desire to lie in bed this morning was fed by the fact that, earlier in the morning, I woke up briefly and reached for my phone, a habit that I have gotten used to ever since having a phone that notifies of me emails, facebook, etc. It was around 7 in the morning, and I saw I had three emails already. One was a daily Bible verse email that I get every morning at approximately 5:45 am. The other two were from different literary magazines. Oh, here we go, I thought. And sure enough, it was the same old routine: “Thank you for submitting your work to….Unfortunately we cannot include your work in this issue…” I set down my phone and rolled over. When will I get a yes? I thought. Why so many rejections? Then I rolled over again, picked up my phone and read the Daily Bible verse email. Maybe I will find some Good News, I thought, and laughed.

“By faith Moses left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible.” –Hebrews 11:27

As though he saw him who is invisible.

Moses left Egypt to wander, some would say, lost. He didn’t stay in the safety of what was known, but kept going into that which was unknown. Negative Capability. To not know what one is capable of, or if one will fail, but to keep going in the fact of that unknowing.

I feel like this applies to so many areas of life, of being-lost. What if we fail? What if we risk so much for our dreams and keep getting rejected? At what point will we run back to safety? Or will we? At what point will it become too much? Or will it? Can we live in being-lost?

When I have no inspiration, when my mind sets out to write or work on a poem or story and nothing comes, when the door is there, but I can’t quite get to it, I feel terror. I feel like a failure. I feel lost.

When my life seems pointless, when there is no clearly laid path, I feel terror. I’m afraid it will al crumble before my feet. I want to stay in bed and look at the ceiling and surrender. Negative capability is surrendering, I suppose. To cease the irritable reaching after. To lie still and listen to the moment. To let the day pass without being afraid of the ego’s anger. Moses left unafraid of the king’s anger. Perhaps our wandering, allowing ourselves to reach for what is as of yet unseen, is going beyond the ego’s need for safety, accolades and assurance.

I like going back to that verse as a symbol. He persevered as THOUGH he saw him who is invisible. He didn’t see what was invisible. He wasn’t assured of success. If anything, everything around him pointed toward failure. And yet he moves on, wandering. Allowed himself to get lost.

I used to believe in myself more than I do now. I used to go on blithely unaware of what may or may not happen. I’d look at things around me, assured that everything would work out. And, usually, they did. I was never tested in this hypothesis. Or if I was, it was only briefly and with less consequence. Now that I’m older, and things seem to weigh more as far as life decisions and “the plan,” I find myself worried. Looking around me, thinking, Will it all work out? Where am I going? And on top of that, rejections from every side and my brain unable to create like it used to. And though I know this is only for a time, and that the inspiration will return, I am not assured that it won’t be all in vain. This is the real testing ground, I suppose.

And yet, when the anxiety gets the best of me, when it comes knocking so loudly on my door I can’t think of anything else, the image of the door I’m scared to open comes to mind.

This morning, I tried to imagine what might be behind that door. I thought to myself, perhaps it’s the desert, or the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that I had grown to love as a child. And if that was the case, I’d swing open the doors and run into the wilderness. Sure, I’d be lost. I’d be alone. But what would I find along the way? If it was the desert, I’d perhaps find many beautiful stones and cacti. Stones and cacti that simply lie and look at the sun. I’d speak to them. I’d listen. Over there, a lizard, or a wild mustang. The tall pine that go on as far as the eye can see. I’d be lost but free.

Once, a friend of mine saw that I was lamenting missing the desert, living here in New York. She said, You can visit the desert in your heart and mind.

Strange, to think that in certain circumstances, we wouldn’t mind being aimless, lost. But in the illusion of “the real world,” in the pressure of “where we are going” and “what we are achieving,” we panic. We cannot sit with Negative Capacity and watch a sun set. But what is this land? Our life. Our being-lost. What is it? Where are we going? In the present moment, is there a map, or simply an attentive opening-up?

What is that which is unseen that I am running toward? And do I act as though I have seen it? Do I move in myself with confidence as though what I want is possible?

I was reading spiritual poems last night, written by mystics from around the world. There was a lot of writing about calling out. About not fearing being-lost, but to ask for what you want answered. I don’t usually pray out loud, but I had felt so lost that I suddenly found myself saying out loud: “why do you put this desire in me, if I am only to fail?

I sat there in the bath for a long time, letting the words hang in the air. I stared at my toes. The water turned cold. My mind presented this to me, finally:

The desire is already fulfilled, as it is growing in you, and there I am and you are.

I don’t know what this means. I don’t see anything in front of me. I see nothing. But I trust it.

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One Response to Negative Capability

  1. Shaine Parker says:

    I really enjoyed reading this as subscribe to the principle explicated.


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