Seeking Negative Space


Chris Messina writes beautifully (if at times incoherently) in the essay "Seeking Genius in Negative Space" about looking at and thinking about negative space — the complement-inverse-dual that defines and surrounds every object. It's a concept in art and Zen (and everywhere else!). As Messina meanders through both he quotes John Keats, via the Brain Pickings short piece "The Art of 'Negative Capability': Keats on Embracing Uncertainty and Celebrating the Mysterious"). From a letter dated 1817-12-22:

... what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakspeare 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 ...

Messina's musings conclude with nine notions:

  • Be deeply curious about the world around you.
  • Become aware of your thoughts and learn to think about thinking. Practicing metacognition will help develop a sense for the tricks your mind plays, and how to overcome them.
  • With this awareness, learn to overcome automatic processing. When confronted with something new or unfamiliar, withhold judgment; if you see something you don't understand in the negative space, go with it and see where it leads. Remember that impossible geometry exists, and your mind is constantly trying to force you to see things that you already know how to see. It's learning to see the unseen that makes this practice valuable!
  • Be aware of the limitations of the labels that have been applied to the world. Keep in mind how small the grid of words is compared to the wordless plane. Opportunity exists where words don't exist, yet.
  • Learn to sit with Keats in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without grasping for conventional explanations. Allow time to visit the fantastic and the unconventional, and become aware of the moments when you're avoiding staying in these contexts. Meditation can be essential here.
  • Once you've discovered something in the negative space, use narrative to bridge the well-known with the unfamiliar. This is critical to helping others see the opportunities that you see.
  • Be persistent, and be contrarian. Learning to see the unseen is a personal skill, and getting others to share your vision is a longer term project. You must be willing to hold on to your vision, even when others struggle or refuse to see it.
  • That said, be polite and patient. Time is relative; if you can convince people to see the world as you do, then anything is possible. It just may not happen immediately.
  • Don't let fear or insecurity drag you down. People avoid the negative space for a reason.

... nice thoughts on mindfulness and meta!

(cf Great Ideas (1999-05-03), No Concepts At All (2001-02-22), Dalai Lama Birthday Gift (2004-08-24), Kenosis (2008-09-21), Poetry 180 (2009-09-30), Zen Soup (2012-02-09), O (2012-10-24), Notice and Return (2013-03-11), Space Between (2013-10-13), Countdown Breathing (2013-12-18), Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain (2014-01-18), Swiss Cheese (2014-07-04), 0-1 (2014-08-29), Learning to Pause (2015-08-10), ...) - ^z - 2016-04-21