Negative capability and the capacity to think in the present moment

In contemplative prayer we are trying to create a space which is not full of thoughts; in contrast being able to think is central in analytic work. For the patient or client it is about experiencing or recognising primitive emotions which once processed become feelings – in therapy the unprocessed emotion can be converted into a processed or acknowledged feeling through understanding. For the therapist it is about not imposing their prior knowledge or thoughts but allowing for new aspects of the relationship to emerge.

When the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion urged colleagues to discard their memory and desires, the reason, he suggested, was ‘to leave space for a new idea.’ He described it as though there are ‘thoughts’ circulating in the system – ‘thoughts’ which are, as he put it ‘in search of a thinker’. Such ‘thoughts’ can only find expression in a clearing, in an empty space. He wrote, ‘A thought, an idea unclaimed, may be floating around the room searching for a home. Amongst these may be one of your own which seems to turn up from your insides, or one from outside yourself, namely, from the patient.’

Sometimes in times of contemplative prayer ideas come to mind which are, as far as we know, original – creative thoughts rather than distractions. It is as if in clearing the mind space emerges for something new, perhaps even something divine, or o/Other.

In both contemplation and analytic work to clear the space involves letting go of the security of the known, in order to engage with the truth in the moment. Bion used the simple word ‘patience’ to capture the essence of this capacity. This state of mind – for which he also borrowed from the poet John Keats the term ‘negative capability’ is based on listening and on waiting, on being. It involves a certain capacity to tolerate anxiety and to stay in a place of uncertainty.

Really each potential encounter with God is about being in the moment in a place of uncertainty. But perhaps as in analytic work this is difficult and the desire to leap in with a familiar certainty or prior knowledge or turn to a piece of liturgy is very strong.

In both analytic work and contemplation the purpose of concentrating the mind on the present is to allow space for the experience of the transformative power of ‘truth-in-the-moment’. Bion designated this ‘truth’ as ‘O’, signifying the imminent reality of anything whatever in context so locating this reality very clearly in the experience of the present moment.

He insisted too that whilst the pursuit of such truth is essential, truth itself is also radically out of reach: not only unknown but, ultimately, unknowable. This is why he chose to represent this ‘truth’ with the enigmatic symbol ‘O’.