Lately I've been thinking about what it takes to expand our capacity for joy. Is the ability to be joyful something that we can improve, much as a swimmer can lengthen the amount of time she can hold her breath, or a weightlifter the total sum of iron he can lift? Meditation techniques show that one can learn to focus the brain, to quiet thoughts, and disengage from negative emotions. What about ways to experience more joy?

While pondering this question, I came upon an equally intriguing topic, one that takes the expansion of one's brain (or soul) in another direction. A post by my friend Robin Bates, whom I've mentioned before, highlighted a speech by Beth Rushing, the Academic Dean of St Mary's College of MD, where Robin teaches. (You can read the entire post at Robin's website BetterlivingthroughBeowulf.) The focus of the talk, given to incoming freshmen, was the cultivation of negative capability. Rushing quotes Keats who describes negative capability as the ability to live with uncertainty, mystery, and doubt, without any “irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Both of these abilities - to experience joy and to live in uncertainty - presuppose a validity. Why would we desire to expand our capacity for joy if we didn't believe that joy was a meaningful and energy-producing part of life? The same is true for negative capability. What could be the reason to become comfortable with being uncomfortable? Rushing goes on to talk about Barbara McClintock, a biologist whose fundamental openness to the situation in front of her allowed her to learn without boundaries; coming without preconceptions, she offered the plant time to unfold its secrets to her. Her ability to interact with plant life without hypotheses, or a necessity to "prove" something allowed McClintock to make surprisingly unique discoveries, for which she was later awarded a Nobel Prize.

We need faith as a foundation for life. If all is uncertainty, then we spin dangerously close to mental illness, questioning everything, unable to get out of bed in the morning, and certainly incapable of engaging in the journey of life. McClintock had to believe that the plant wanted to share itself with her. (Robin Collins, a philosopher whose interests bring together science and religion, describes this as the principle of discoverability.) We, like McClintock have a choice in our core beliefs. We can choose to believe that connections want to happen, that good is meant to come, that love will bring us what we need. But we don't know how that will happen, in what form or at what time the gift will be given.

This gap between what we want and what comes to us is the area in which doubt flourishes. Ambiguity can rock our boats, leaving us yearning to plant ourselves firmly on some stable shore. And yet we can become used to the heave and pitch of the ocean waves, and develop our sea legs, as did crusty sea captains of old. When we do, we can engage on voyages of exploration with a measure of competency and a fresh enthusiasm.

Cultivating the twin capacities of joy and negative capability may seem odd, and yet I think they might actually be best practiced together. Learning how to be OK with discomfort drains our energy as we fight against the urge to DO SOMETHING! and lessen the pressure. Choosing more ways to be joyful, or allowing ourselves to soak in the goodness around us, infuses us with a sense of well-being, allowing rejuvenating energy to enter our minds and bodies.

It's the beginning of the school year, complete with new notebooks and fresh pencils. If you're looking for some assignments, you could try these. And let me know what you discover along the way!

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