from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday 23 October 2011

negative capability: contradiction, paradox and non-duality


A friend has asked me if I know more about Keats' notion of negative capability, as mentioned in my blog of the other day. Well, no, I don't know more about what he personally had to say about it.

But the concept of staying with an unclear situation, sitting at the fulcrum, stillpoint, of the creative tension between two apparent contradictions without forcing a decision, is a familiar one to me. I think about it a great deal, in fact, as it seems to me that our habitual ways of dividing the world into polar opposites is responsible for a great deal of the suffering in the world, our own and others'. This is a book-length thesis – and indeed there are many books out there on this subject in the fields of psychology, spirituality and philosophy. I can't possibly do justice to this in a brief(ish) post, but what lies behind this concept seems so crucial for the evolution of consciousness of our species that I can't let it pass without a few words.

We tend, at least in the West, to think of everything as pairs of opposites: good/bad, right/wrong, masculine/feminine, love/hate, this/that, thinking/feeling, your views/my views, duty/pleasure, work/play, sex/celibacy, and so on. Typically we grab on to one pole and push the other away. We're brought up to imagine that one pole is the 'correct' pole and the other inferior, unthinkable, or even downright wicked.

Something in us believes that we have to cling on to one pole or we'll go under, incur disapproval, be wicked people, be punished, etc. From this pole we then judge or condemn not only ourselves and impulses which seem to belong to the other pole (if we are aware of them at all), but the rest of the world. This becomes, sadly, sanctioned and then calcified in State, or State Religion, in which 'our' views are the only correct ones, and we are duty-bound to stamp out the infidels in their heresy – whether the 'infidels' are those who don't share our political views, our skin colour, our religion (which of course is the only 'true' religion), our gender, or our relationship to sexuality. History is a catalogue of such atrocities.

What happens in us when we push away one of the poles? Split off like this from our conscious mind, it constellates energy in our individual or collective unconscious and becomes a neurosis. If it gathers enough energy to itself it can be a force for huge harm, acted out in the world.

The saddest thing is that that which we most revile in another is a split-off part of ourself. How would we be – how much wholer would we be, how much more tolerant, loving, compassionate would we be – if we could bring that part home, name it, take away its sting? There are many examples of this repression acted out every day, but a recent one is that of a not-insignificant number of members of the Catholic priesthood so recently called to account in Ireland and in America for raping young boys/girls entrusted to their care. In a religion that places so much emphasis on chastity – and that judges homosexuality – what happens to the sexual impulse if it's repressed for long enough? It has to burst out somewhere eventually. (And, conversely, what does the promiscuous person do with their unrecognised need for sexual containment?)

Doing the work of retrieving our split-off parts, lifting the projections of them off others, claiming our own darkness, partiality, harmful impulses, might seriously take us a long way towards changing our society; indeed it might be the only thing that will.

However, if instead of seeing things as polar opposites and feeling we have to align ourselves with one pole or another, we choose instead to see them as paradoxes, and our task as being to bring them together ('both this/and this' rather than 'either this/or that'), something completely different is made possible.

Being able to stay with paradox – similar to Keats' negative capability – requires the maturity to recognise that we do not, actually, live in a black-and-white world in which everything is certain and clean lines are drawn, but one in which everything ultimately is part of everything else. In this, I can recognise as co-existing within myself my ability to love and my ability to cause harm; my need to be right and my awareness that there is no one right way. I can see that thinking without feeling is arid and dangerous but feeling without thinking is flaccid and, in a different way, also dangerous. I know that as a woman I have a masculine component, just as a man has a spark of the feminine in him. (You will recognise the yin/yang symbol in the crop circle image above: this is the elegant symbolic expression of the fact that every apparent pole contains the other within it.)

I can choose to look at the coin of the whole rather than get fixated on one side. What's more, everything cycles, and in getting stuck on one 'pole' we miss the bigger cycle that is inclusive.

Holding 'both' aspects of an apparent contradiction simultaneously results in an immensely creative tension that can bring the birth of something new, if we realise that the apparent duality is our perception, and our job is to synthesise the poles, recognise all potentials within ourselves and transcend the dualism.

Our true state is one of wholeness.Our work is towards unitive consciousness.

This is what Zen Buddhism speaks of in its emphasis on non-dualism – it's not about choosing one pole over the other, but in recognising that seeing the world in terms of pairs of opposites is not a helpful viewpoint, or 'skillful means': that this is a relative choice, and that looking directly into the nature of everything, perceiving the whole interconnectedness, allows us to see that these are arbitrary distinctions that we make, and that we have a choice about whether we buy into them, or whether we choose to work to bring the poles together in ourselves and thus in the world.

The Middle Way. Both/and. This is the way we move beyond brokenness.

the triskele symbol occurs in various traditions, notably the Celtic. Here the 'third' is the result of the marriage of the 'two', all within the circle of spirit, or wholeness


  1. Only just picked this up. It makes tremendous sense.

  2. This makes no sense im sorry. I tried.

  3. Anonymous, if you could tell me what you were hoping to find when you sought out this post and what aspect makes no sense to you, I'll try and unpack it further.

    Perhaps it's the whole worldview, that of nondualism, with which you're struggling?

    Or maybe you were looking for crop circle 'explanation, given the image, which I didn't address?

    But what I was doing was exploring the Eastern view of yin/yang both being needed in order to make the whole, and how we tend in our Western society to buy into one view (eg the rational, the logical) and make the other (eg the emotional, the intuitive) unacceptable.

    If you were looking for further scholarly/poetic thoughts on Keats' phrase 'negative capability', then all I can offer, myself, though no doubt others have much more to say, is the view that he was saying that 'negative capability' is the willingness to simply accept the tension of contradictions; until one is clear about a situation, anything we do will tend to be a kneejerk rather than a wise response.

    If anyone else visiting this post has more to offer, please do!


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