Negative Capability – Carve My Cup Deeply

by Florian Birkmayer, MD

“In order for the branches of the tree of life to grow into heaven, the roots have to grow into hell.” –C. G. Jung in the “Red Book”

Some years ago, I came across the term “Negative Capability” in an article by Philip Pullman (who wrote the magical ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy) in which he reminds us that we as humans have a deep need for magic, for the deep emotional relationship to the world around us. To me this sense of mystery is a core aspect of embodying our personal myth. As much as we need to feel a deep sense of mystery for the world around us, the journey of Individuation also continues to give me a deeper sense of mystery for myself, my inner world, my roots in the Collective Unconscious, my Shadow and all the other parts of myself I would often rather pretend didn’t exist.

‘Negative Capability’ is a term coined by the romantic poet John Keats and is defined as ”a writer’s ability… to accept uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. As I wander along on my journey, I find more uncertainties, mysteries and doubts and am less and less willing to try to explain them away with fact and reason, including psychologizing. The sense of mystery has become a more permanent companion.

‘Negative Capability’ reminds me of a line by the Jungian writer Paul Levy—that we often quote when we teach—the wounded healer refers psychologically to the capacity ‘to be at home in the darkness of suffering and there to find germs of light and recovery with which, as though by enchantment, to bring forth Asclepius, the sunlike healer.’

Both in the microcosm and macrocosm, both within us and around us, it feels to me there is a lot of darkness and suffering which we cannot help but feel. Negative capability is not an intellectual attitude, but a willingness to—or better yet the inevitability of having to—feel, deeply, all the sorrow and sadness and challenges and loss of perspective that personal growth and evolution demand.

Khalil Gibran said it this way: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. / Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

In this time, in my personal life and in the world that I am inescapably part of, I feel my cup is being carved more and more deeply. To be able to hold joy (I hope), but also to have more and more capacity to allow the pain and suffering to reside. This to me is the meaning of Jung’s quote at the beginning. As I grow into my personal myth, the branches (the hopes and dreams, the glimpses of the big picture, the new growth) grow into heaven. At the same time my roots—that which nourishes me, that which goes down deep underground, breaking up the ancient sedimentary layers—grow into hell, the darkness, the suffering, feeling it more and more as the roots dig deeper and deeper. These growing roots carve my cup. They excavate and force me to confront the ongoing power of personal traumas and historical traumas and how they move through me, how I may perpetuate them and how I may transform them and be transformed. That excavation is really the personal myth, the true myth, not our ego explanation of it.

In a very important talk called “The Hidden Promise of Our Dark Age” Joanna Macy talks about the gift of uncertainty, in the context of trying to cope with the pervasive environmental damage caused by humans. She reminds us that “The pain for the world and the love for it are two sides of the same coin.” In the climax of her speech (at 25:15 in the video), she recites the last Sonnet to Orpheus by R. M. Rilke: ‘let this darkness be a bell tower / and you the bell / and as you ring / what batters you becomes your strength…’ She goes on with Rilke: ‘in this uncontainable darkness, be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses.’ This is the same mystery, the being at home in the darkness, that continues to carve my cup and my personal myth.

What we must not forget is that we are not alone in this. As Jung said in a letter to a friend and fellow seeker: “An old alchemist gave the following consolation to one of his disciples: ‘No matter how isolated you are and how lonely you feel, if you do your work truly and conscientiously, unknown friends will come and seek you.‘” We are all fellow travelers on the road to individuation and knowing I am not alone sustains me. I hope it sustains you. Let’s honor the mysteries that we are, together.

If you want to join other unknown friends for a while along this road of individuation and are ready to do your work truly and conscientiously, consider applying to our in-person retreat.

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