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Negative capability – why it is more positive than you might think

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Have you heard of the term ‘negative capability?’ I hadn’t until I had to write a reflection piece on my own leadership challenges as part of a unit in my Masters called ‘Leading.’ Since discovering this term, I’ve been curious about how a regular mindfulness practice (as developed through courses such as the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program can assist to cultivate negative capability – a quality that is much more positive than you might actually think.

As I learnt in ‘Not Doing’, a book written by Diana Renner and Steven D’Souza, the term negative capability was first used by the poet John Keats and implies the capacity to engage in a non-defensive way with change, without being overwhelmed by the ever-present pressure merely to react. Keats observed this quality in Shakespeare who he considered to ‘be capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Positive capability is the other side of the coin. This type of capability refers to the knowledge, skills and competencies one possesses based on knowing manifested through activity, work and achievement.

While we generally all possess and demonstrate a mixture of positive and negative capabilities, those of us in workplaces that reward and recognise action, speed, confidence and technical expertise may tend to emphasise positive over negative capabilities such as patience, pausing, slowing down, taking time to reflect, etc. Given a mixture of positive and negative capabilities are essential in order to be effective at work, and I have a tendency to favour positive over negative capabilities, my reflection piece concluded that I needed to take more time to reflect and create space for new ideas to emerge to be more effective in my role at work, and more content in life more generally.

For many people that I have the pleasure to work with, a regular meditation practice assists them to become more aware of the positive and negative capability imbalance in their life. It is also a practice that assists them to cultivate and carve out more negative capability in their life. In addition, not only is meditating an ‘act’ of negative capability, its very practice can assist to create more negative capability in their life. Why? Because once they get a taste of its benefits (I’m a convert, I know!), they know that this so called ‘in action’ of pausing, reflecting, slowing down is action worth investing time in. This brings me to some of the benefits of cultivating negative capability.

Benefits of negative capability

  • Can lead to better decision making

Rather than springing into decisive action, what leaders may need to do instead is to wait a while before acting and to resist the temptation to act from tried and tested positive capabilities. As outlined by Simpson et al in ‘Leadership and Negative Capability’, the emphasis on patient waiting and on containing the pressures evoked by uncertainty can help to create a mental and emotional space in which a new thought may emerge than can itself become the basis for decisive action.

  • Creates the conditions for responding rather than reacting

As suggested by Marisa Guerin, a patient, attentive stance makes it more likely that you can accurately observe what is happening in complex and stressful circumstances when your usual reaction might be to fight, resist or flee (your emotions, a particular situation, etc). Rather than reacting habitually, negative capability creates the space in which you can choose your response in the next moment. A great deal of suffering is created when you react against some feeling, thought or sensation which you don’t like. Simply giving your attention to a mindful appreciation of what the experience is, rather than ruminating about how to change it, can interrupt a spiral of distress. Suffering = Pain X Resistance

“Between the stimulus and response is a space, in that space lies your choice, in your choice lies your power and freedom”

Viktor Frankl

  • Creates space for new ideas to emerge

According to Keats, as shared by Leah Fessler, creative genius requires people to experience the world as an uncertain place that naturally gives rises to a wide array of perspectives.


Learn more at our next How to Meditate workshop in Preston, Melbourne in November 2019 and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course in Preston, Melbourne commencing February 2020.


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