The cusp of knowing and unknowing

Negative capability | Aeon

Negative capability



Forget memory. Kill desire. Open up in the moment to unleash creativity, intuition, and even political transformation

by Paul Tritschler + BIO

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Pablo Picasso was in his late 20s when he learned to paint like the Old Masters, but it took 30 years more to learn to paint like a child. His journey towards childlikeness, which he said he achieved through a process of self-forgetfulness, was fruitful but arduous, a lifelong fight against social influences. Finding a purer, more instinctual vision of the world required getting to know himself outside the boundaries of his social group. The task of finding a truly original voice while bound to a group is analogous to looking for your keys under a streetlight because it is too dark to search for them where they were lost. In both instances, we might improve the search by not looking: lost things often materialise when we shut them from our mind. In fact, we are not closing our mind but opening it, waiting for the unconscious, that great unknown, to solve the riddle. And quite often it does.

The unconscious can perform astonishing feats of memory, but it can also play a remarkable role in creativity: sudden insights, solutions and life-enhancing ideas sometimes surface unbidden when the mind is adrift in unconscious reverie. If such chance awakenings are possible, how can you replicate those conditions to become more the author, and less the reporter, of your own meaningful life story? To find that elusive voice, we’ve got to search in the ‘now’, in the moment of true, lived experience that fleetingly exists between past and future. It is within that space that we must seek the locus of personal transformation and change.

But being in the moment, developing an awareness of ‘now’, means gaining control over our thoughts and the unconscious patterning of memory so that they don’t intrude. If we can’t wrestle control over things, then something has gone awry in the master-servant relationship – there is truth in the old aphorism: ‘The mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ To overcome this complex bind, we must identify how the mind constrains us, and then we must break free. Among the traps of the mind, there is preoccupation with the past (including attachment to intrusive memories) and preoccupation with the future (including continual desire). By definition, these lures are incompatible with being in the moment. We must offload this excess baggage to glimpse what we are and what we might become.

There might be none who has given voice to the process more eloquently than the mid-20th-century British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. It was Bion who said that one discovers truth, the ingredient essential to psychic growth, on the cusp of knowing and not knowing. On the cerebral map, not knowing is located somewhere at the edge of the world, and Bion demands that we stretch ourselves to the precipice and face it unflinchingly.

Bion’s approach can seem paradoxical because it restricts memory and desire while operating within the bounds of psychoanalysis, a profession that rests on the twin pillars of memory and desire. Yet the approach has been embraced by philosophers and self-seers for thousands of years. The practice has its beginnings with Plato, who contemplated the divine as something that was at once knowable and unknowable: knowable by way of all-pervasive beauty and perfection in the Universe, and unknowable by way of rational intellect. The thread of the idea was carried into history by the Christian mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing. This 14th-century work asks us to immerse our thoughts and desires under a cloud of forgetting, to surrender our ego to find some measure of reality. The Cloud’s intensely meditative and contemplative approach focuses on a single object or monosyllabic word – ‘God’ or ‘love’. 

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