In the course of a very long letter written in 1817 to his brothers in America, the English poet John Keats describes a sudden realization he had while walking home from the theater with a friend:
“ . . . several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason . . . ”
This brief passage has become famous for the concept of “negative capability.” In calling it negative, Keats does not mean there is anything undesirable about this capacity. On the contrary, it is highly positive for those who possess it. Keats means negative in the sense of empty of specific content, uncertain, unclear. He is pointing to a creative mental state of not knowing that is able to remain calm and open without an “irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Negative capability is crucial to the creative process of artists. It is equally important in contemplative practices like meditation and finding the felt sense. True contemplation, as opposed to ordinary discursive thinking and rumination, involves what biologist and cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela called a “reversal of attention.” One suspends one’s habitual flow of thought and feeling so as to make room for a different way of paying attention.
To say this more simply, we begin by creating a gap in our habitual patterns of physical, psychological, and mental activity. This gap is empty of specific content, yet not empty of awareness. It is simply awareness itself—open and receptive, conscious without needing any object to be conscious of. It is a state of grounded, aware presence.
The following exercise is called GAP, both because it is about creating this particular type of gap in our consciousness and because the letters GAP make a good mnemonic for the state of Grounded Aware Presence.
Exercise: Creating a GAP
You may want to start by stretching your limbs, wiggling your toes, even loosening up your whole body with a refreshing shake-out. Then, find a comfortable seated position and simply become aware of your body. Sense its position, weight, and inner space.
When you feel ready, center your attention at your base, your seat, where your body is supported by whatever you are sitting on. Feel the weight of your whole body and how it is planted on the earth. Trusting yourself to the earth’s solidity, let your body really settle and be at ease. Appreciate the simplicity of being bodily present, here and now. Say the word “Grounded” softly to yourself.
Next, bring your attention to the head region. Close your eyes, or lower your gaze. Concentrate your awareness on your sense of hearing. Be open and sensitive to any sound from the environment, especially the kinds of background noise that we usually don’t notice at all. You can note sounds with a simple mental label—“bird singing,” “traffic noise,” “refrigerator hum,” but try not to enter into a discursive thought process. At the same, try to notice the larger quality of silence that surrounds whatever you hear from moment to moment. Sense the whole space around you, extending even beyond the walls and what you can see from where you sit. Experience the vast, panoramic quality of awareness. Say to yourself softly, “Aware.”
Now move your attention into the center of your chest, place your hand over your heart, and experience the quality of Presence. You are simply here, alive, breathing, feeling, experiencing your basic existence. It is happening right now, at this very moment. Softly repeat the word, “Present.”
Finally, let your attention encompass your whole body and repeat to yourself: “Grounded Aware Presence.” Rest there for a few seconds. Then, gently open your eyes, raise your gaze, and extend your Grounded Aware Presence to include the environment around you.
In addition to being the preparatory step in finding the felt sense, this gap, or state of Grounded Aware Presence, is a place we can always return to in ourselves. Think of it as a trustworthy, neutral home base you can come back to any time that you feel out of balance, pre-occupied, or confused. You can also do the GAP exercise while standing: start by placing your attention on your feet instead of your seat, then move to your head and heart in turn, reminding yourself with the words Grounded, Aware, and Present.