Wednesday, 25 March 2015

In praise of uncertainty

All too often, I plan my life away. I make arrangements way ahead, work out what I’m going to be doing weeks or months in advance. It gives me a sense of security, the impression that I’m in control of my life. And when things go wrong - or seem to go wrong – then it’s all about how to fix it. What can I do right now, straightaway, to make it better?

There’s also a strong sense of that when I’m in my GP surgery. People come to see me with problems, often hugely distressing problems. It feels like it’s my job to help to fix them – in just 10 minutes.

And when I’m working as a researcher, there’s continual pressure to come up with quick answers and solutions.

But, let’s just hold on a minute…… Perhaps that’s not always the best way to go.     

Being uncertain, not being sure, not rushing to make my mind up: perhaps that has some advantages.

‘Negative capability’ is the term created by the poet John Keats. In a letter to his brothers in 1817, he writes about how achievement is linked with the capacity of ‘being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

The Irish poet Aubrey de Vere speaks for ‘the doubt of one who would rather walk in mystery than in false lights, who awaits that he may win, and who prefers the broken fragments of truth to the imposing completeness of a delusion’.

This is important not just in poetry (or in research), but in life, particularly when we are facing our own distress, or the distress of others.

Maybe we don’t need to try to work everything out so quickly. Maybe it’s better to wait, to reflect, to allow events to unfold for a while. Maybe it’s better to let the mysterious or doubtful remain just that, rather than rushing to conclusions that may be false, or making decisions that could turn out to be damaging.

As Beth Rushing says, there is ‘hope, and truth, and beauty in the practice of negative capability, in listening patiently, having a certain level of comfort with uncertainty, and in recognizing that what appears to be given, is not necessarily so’. For the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, it’s about listening ‘without memory or desire’.

We do well to cultivate our ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing - rather than imposing our ready-made certainties on ambiguous situations or challenges.

And by resting in uncertainty, we allow space for something new, something transformative, to emerge.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Breathing Space

I’m doing a lot of meditating these days, with the help of Headspace.  Twenty minutes or so, every morning, sitting in my favourite chair.  Often with a dog curled up near me.

The focus of the exercise is very much on my breathing. Not trying to alter it, or breathe in any particular way. Just observing it. Noticing each time I breathe in and out, how my chest moves out and in, the rise and fall of my belly. How each breath is always just a little bit different from the next one. Some are quicker, some slower; some are deeper, some shallower.  The pauses between the breaths: how the pause after the out-breath is usually longer than the pause after the in-breath. A wisp of air on my upper lip.
Maybe counting each breath, one in, two out, three in, four out…..up to ten, then starting over again. Or maybe not, maybe just letting each breath come and go. Resting my attention on the breath. Observing, watching, noticing, witnessing, all in a relaxed sort of way. Nothing too intense.

Sometimes it feels like I’m sitting on the sea shore, watching the waves coming in to land on the beach. They keep on rolling. They are endlessly different, and endlessly fascinating.  And you don’t have to do anything about waves. They just happen.

You might think it is boring, but it isn’t. It’s gentle, kind and enjoyable. I often find I’m smiling quietly to myself.  

It’s important, in a subtle, understated sort of a way. It creates more space for me. It puts other things, my everyday busyness and concerns, into perspective. And if I do get hassled during the day, I can take a few seconds out, just to breathe. I’m finding all those things I have to do, somehow may not be as important, as urgent, as serious or as worrying as I thought they were going to be.  

So making time for breathing now, creates more breathing space during the rest of the day.  Seems like a good deal to me!