Negative Capability (Skill in the midst of chaos)

I spent New Year’s Eve at the NYC Insight Meditation Center listening to a Dharma talk about the “path to happiness” which is, according to Peter Doobinan, achieved by “skillfully” thinking about our actions — both those that were well executed and those that were not. This “skillful” approach is quite simple to imagine:

It is inevitable, because we are human, that we will continue to behave in ways that hurt ourselves or other people (for example, reacting to someone by unnecessarily yelling at them, or [often worse] behaving passive aggressively). But instead of dwelling on our behavior and starting down the “I suck the world sucks what’s wrong with me” path (which often results in even more lashing out), the “skillful” approach is to stop, take a breath, and think: “well, that didn’t go so well. So I’ll try to do better next time.”

And the same “skillful” thoughts need to be put to actions that were well executed. Instead of doing something cool and just letting the moment slide away, think the words “it felt really good when I _____.” Or, “that’s me in the spotlight” (riffing off R.E.M.). Noticing when you are who you want to be will ensure that you continue to be that person. And what better New Year’s resolution could there be than that?

I’m not sure that “skillful thinking” is the path to happiness because I don’t believe that happiness exists as a permanent state of mind. The circumstances of life are too damn fluctuating for happiness to exist as some permanent entity — and the word “path” suggests that there is an end to the rainbow.

However, there is something that these skillful thoughts can bring, and that’s the ability to be non-reactive when in the midst of uncertainty and doubt. Keats, reflecting on a conversation with a man who annoyed him, called this “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 negatively capable isn’t necessarily to be happy. When you don’t have health insurance, are in the midst of a divorce or any other confrontational situation with another person, aren’t secure in your home, and choose to confront the barrage of environmental, health, and political screw-ups rampant in the world as we know it — there’s no “happiness.” But there is the ability to be who you want to be in spite of all this.

So take some time now to think about all the times in 2010 when you were who you wanted to be in spite of whatever chaos was happening in your life. And then say the words, “that’s me.” And smile.

And take that smile into any uncertainty you will inevitably confront during 2011.

Published On: January 1st, 2011 / Categories: Logopoeia: essays and responses / Tags: , , , /

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