The Eastern religion that I was an active member of for 35 years, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), liked to talk of being on "the path." (One of the RSSB books is called "The Path of the Masters.")
Well, my attitude toward religious or spiritual paths has changed a lot. And it keeps changing.
More and more, I'm convinced that not only is there no evidence that any path leads to God or some supernatural reality, it isn't even wise for someone to consider that they're on a life path in this physical world.
At least, that's how I see it. Naturally others are free to disagree.
Below you'll find some passages I liked in the final chapter of "The Antidote" by Oliver Burkeman. They talk about the desirability of not craving certainty, of not feeling you are on a path that must lead to a certain destination.
This isn't the way life works for most of us. Heck, maybe all of us. I got to thinking about this as I was exercising this afternoon in my covid crisis fashion.
Since my wife and I don't feel comfortable with going to our athletic club, I've been exercising at home. I've bought several pieces of home exercise equipment, including the Nucleus Central Core Pro, a simple device that I'm enjoying.
After exercising a certain way for quite a few years, now I'm doing things differently. And that's been the case my whole life.
From high school into my 30s, I played a lot of competitive tennis. I also jogged. Then I took up karate in my early 40s. For the past sixteen years I've been a student of Tai Chi. So my physical exercise habits keep on changing.
Same with my mental exercise habits.
I've meditated every day for over fifty years, starting in 1969. But I've experimented with different meditation approaches over the years. Mindfulness and following the breath appeal to me now, whereas for a long time I enjoyed mantra meditation, silently repeating a word or words.
Being frozen in place isn't really living. Life is fluid, always changing. That's one of the messages of Burkeman's book, as reflected in these passages.
Sometimes the most valuable of all talents is to be able not to seek resolution; to notice the craving for completeness or certainty or comfort, and not to feel compelled to follow where it leads.
...More loosely defined, 'negative capability' is really just another term for living in accordance with the 'backwards law' -- and it might be a good label to describe the chief talent I kept discovering among the people I encountered in the course of researching this book.
What they all shared was this same turn of mind, which I came to visualise as a sort of graceful mental dance step: a willingness to adopt an oblique stance toward one's own inner life; to pause and take a step back; to turn to face what others might flee from; and to realise that the shortest apparent route to a positive mood is rarely a sure path to a more profound kind of happiness.
The phrase 'negative capability' also helps to clarify a subtle double meaning in the word 'negative'. It refers both to a set of skills that involve 'not-doing', as opposed to doing -- a negative kind of capability -- as well as to the fact that this skill involves confronting negative (as in 'unpleasant') thoughts, emotions, and situations.
The point here is not that negative capability is always superior to the positive kind. Optimism is wonderful; goals can sometimes be useful; even positive thinking and positive visualisation have their benefits.
The problem is that we have developed the habit of chronically overvaluing positivity and the skills of 'doing' in how we think about happiness, and we chronically undervalue negativity and the 'not-doing' skills, such as resting in uncertainty or getting friendly towards failure.
To use an old cliche of therapy, we spend too much of our lives seeking 'closure'.
...For the Stoics, the realisation that we can often choose not to be distressed by events, even if we can't choose events themselves, is the foundation of tranquility. For the Buddhists, a willingness to observe the 'inner weather' of your thoughts and emotions is the key to understanding that they need not dictate your actions.
Each of these is a different way of resisting the 'irritable reaching' after better circumstances or better thoughts and feelings. But negative capability need not involve embracing an ancient philosophy or religious tradition.
It is also the skill you're exhibiting when you move forward with a project -- or with life -- in the absence of sharply defined goals; when you dare to inspect your failures; when you stop trying to eliminate feelings of insecurity; or when you put aside 'motivational' techniques in favour of actually getting something done.
...And the end result of all this? The chief benefit of 'openture', Paul Pearsall claimed, is not certitude or even calm or comfort as we normally think of them, but rather the 'strange, excited comfort [of] being presented with, and grappling with, the tremendous mysteries life offers'.
Ultimately, what defines the 'cult of optimism' and the culture of positive thinking -- even in its most mystically tinged, New Age forms -- is that it abhors a mystery. It seems to make things certain, to make happiness permanent and final. And yet this kind of happiness -- even if you do manage to achieve it -- is shallow and unsatisfying.
The greatest benefit of negative capability -- the true power of negative thinking -- is that it lets the mystery back in.
...The aforementioned Paul Pearsall, inventor of 'openture', spent a large part of his life waging a lonely battle of which John Keats would surely have approved: to get the concept of 'awe' accepted by the psychological establishment as one of the primary human emotions, alongside such standards as love, joy, anger, fear, and sadness.
'Unlike all the other emotions,' he argued, awe 'is all of our feelings rolled up into one intense one. You can't peg it as just happy, sad, afraid, angry, or hopeful Instead, it's a matter of experiencing all these feelings and yet, paradoxically, experiencing no clearly identifiable, or at least any easily describable emotion.'
Awe, he writes, 'is like trying to assemble a complex jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. There's never any closure in an awe-inspired life, only constant acceptance of the mysteries of life. We've never allowed to know when this dramatic voyage might end... but that's part of the life-disorienting chaos that makes this choice so thrillingly difficult.'
...The negative path to happiness, then, is a different kind of path. But it is also a path to a different kind of destination. Or maybe it makes more sense to say that the path is the destination?
These things are excruciatingly hard to put into words, and the spirt of negative capability surely dictates that we do not struggle too hard to do so. 'A good traveller has no fixed plans,' says the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, 'and is not intent upon arriving.'
There could be no better way to make the journey.