It isn’t, to the Western mind – schooled as it is in science and reason – a comfortable place to be. It feels risky, subversive almost. There are times when even the most hardened venturers into this zone yearn for more solid ground. Many have teetered on the edge and scurried back to the reassurance of what, in their world, is believed to be real and provable.
The poet Keats coined the term Negative Capability to describe this other state. He defined it thus:
Capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
I found that quote in the second of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books – The Subtle Knife. His character Mary sees it as the frame of mind one needs to access in order to open to communication from a level of consciousness normally concealed behind the current world view. Lyra, his young heroine, immediately recognises it as the state she enters to read the alethiometer – her divination machine.
If you are reading this, you have almost certainly experienced that state. It has overtaken you as you painted, wrote, sang, created or became so absorbed in any task that you moved beyond time and rationality, lost yourself in something wider, stronger and vaster and briefly allowed it to override your thoughts and rationally derived aims. What you created during that period of Negative Capability will have been sublime. If it is a work of art or craft, you may have wondered where the inspiration came from and why it surpasses what you produce while striving to impose order and perfection in the accepted way. You will be aware – and perhaps alarmed – that time has passed of which you have little or no memory.
A musician friend tells of how she would enter the space during an operatic performance and ‘come to’ afterwards in a panic, wondering whether her singing had kept pace with the accompanists. Poets and writers are, of course, able to review the words which arrived from their sojourn in this otherworld, but are still left wondering where the inspiration came from. I’ve often been aware that certain passages in my books ‘wrote themselves’. They are easily the best passages – far superior to those where I’ve wrestled with syntax and thesaurus to capture the right mood.
As should be obvious, though, the ‘irritable reaching’ towards the rational and familiar is difficult to resist. It’s like trying to remain in a dream once you have realised that you are dreaming. There is no proof, and proof for us has become the touchstone of all that is rational and acceptable. Whenever we stray there, despite the inspirations and gifts we receive, we must tolerate as our companions Uncertainty and Doubt.
What a choice!
For poets and artists it’s one thing; for those who venture into the world of the seer, the channel, the diviner or the clairvoyant, the experience is harder yet. This extract, for example, written by my friend and erstwhile collaborator William, hints at the complex balancing act involved in remote viewing:
It is necessary to be able to correctly focus at the correct time while ensuring the knowledge held is sufficiently minimalistic to avoid involuntary logical assumptions clouding the receipt of information through remote viewing, but sufficient to ensure the information received can be interpreted correctly.
So the person who strays into the realms of Negative Capability must be willing to retain only a modicum of what we commonly know as logic and fact while being prepared to accept a quite different and infinitely more nebulous source of psychological information.
The rewards can be astounding but the path takes courage and a willingness to embrace, or at least make close contact with, what Keats calls, “sensations rather than thoughts”.