Forget memory. Kill desire. Open up in the moment to unleash creativity, intuition, and even political transformation.
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’. Here, the divine is a mystery beyond all imagination, unavailable to the senses, to logic, reason or argument; we can no more understand God than a bug perched on a roof antenna can grasp satellite communications. We can, however, see beauty in art, in the idea of the common good, and in wonder itself.
According to Keats, ‘negative capability’ requires the poet to be receptive to artistic beauty, even if it comes at the cost of philosophical certainty
This form of focused contemplation is precisely the same as that practised in Buddhist meditation. The object in Zen philosophy, as in Bion’s psychoanalysis, is a heightened awareness of meaningful existence through the lens of the moment. This is achieved by uncoupling self-identity from the train of memories and the chain of desires, and by developing intuition as a counterbalance to cognitive analysis and the endless striving for facts.
In developing this line of thought, Bion declared a debt to the Romantic poet John Keats. Instead of taking preconceived notions of nature as the starting point, or vainly attempting to gain absolute knowledge of all life’s mysteries, Keats described a quality called ‘negative capability’ that requires the poet be receptive to artistic beauty, even if it comes at the cost of philosophical certainty.
In a letter to his brothers in 1817, Keats wrote that the true artist had to feel ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. For the ‘great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration’. In short, a dynamic tension existed at the edge of knowing and not knowing, and its resolution was truth.
But achieving that state of mind is difficult. Just as some longterm prisoners attach to their place of confinement so that they fear freedom at the point of release, just as the abused become willingly yet helplessly bound to their abusers, so it is that, for many, the sudden prospect of truth is perceived as a threat, and provokes resistance. Individuals can express anger or anxiety at the moment of revelation; they might deny, deflect, redirect and rationalise – opting for the sort of security that being stuck in a tub of treacle provides.
In a series of lectures given in New York City and São Paul in the mid-1970s, Bion tackled the problem head-on. Following Keats’s lead, the psychoanalyst suggested that true psychic growth required the capacity to feel and immerse in uncertainties, to be open to the prospect of thoughts in search of a thinker:
Discard your memory; discard the future tense of your desire; forget them both, both what you know and what you want, to leave space for a new idea. A thought, an idea unclaimed, may be floating around the room searching for a home.
Once more, we can widen the boundaries of our search by not looking.
Within the therapeutic context, negative capability required the individual to develop a radically different concept of self. Most analysts had their clients search for the self in ever-deeper layers of memory and desire. But Bion believed that negative capability – the ability to let go of these things entirely – enabled even greater self-knowledge and success. On one level, negative capability would help us to manage the emotional challenges associated with uncertainty. On another level, it could reveal the unconscious as a reservoir of possibility and hope.
That reservoir would be a fount of intuition and creativity – a link supported by a growing body of research evidence. In essence, both Bion and Keats saw negative capability as an added dimension, one beyond the mere logic of reality – one that relied on intuition and sensation, providing an alternative to the incessant search within ambiguous circumstances for rational, empirically based narratives.