The Via Negativa: Living Authentically into the Yes
I first came upon the phrase Via Negativa when the poet David Whyte spoke of it.
Negativa: what we must say no to in life to find the next step that serves our deeper
The Negative Way, how refreshing! Not negative in the usual way, rather a courageous path of
saying no thank you until the yes is clear. Clearly this is no simple matter at times as we honor
the commitments of our practical life but sense the promptings of inner longings and seeking.
Each phase of life brings particular tasks that evoke what may appear to be opposing forces.
After college shall I travel the world, learning from different cultures as I long to do, or apply
myself to building a resume by seeking employment? Perhaps choosing which field to seek employment
brings questions without clear answers. The pioneering step may be to decline the urge to travel
and build a firm financial footing that can support other creative endeavors, or not. The other
side is to take a leap and follow the less secure route, heeding the call of adventure and
exploration. The connections we make on this journey, both outer in the people we meet and inner,
in the passion we discover may be exactly the route to our lifework. We might meet a mate as we
open to the unknown. The Via Negativa provokes a process of inner listening, a pause from the
usual habits of decision making, to take into consideration our practical life alongside our soul
life. As a parent I want to provide for my children, build intimate bonds with partners and
family, fulfill professional responsibilities and also remain true to a self-relationship that
includes self-care, creative expression, and inner inquiry. Deep life choices of whether to have
children, to marry, ask us to consider what our unique life and needs for satisfaction require.
The choices are complex and multi-layered, even wrenching.
Giving ourselves permission to say no thank you when we are not clear takes courage and
patience. Opening to the Via Negativa requires we sit in the discomfort of uncertainty as we claim
the needs of our soul life beside the more obvious demands of the outer life. Do I deserve to say
no here? Am I selfish, walking away from what appears to be an opportunity? My head is saying yes
but my heart is saying no. Values and issues of worthiness are brought forth for review. Stepping
into the Via Negativa may feel like an empowering moment, permission to broaden the field of
possibilities, yet not without the fear and doubt that accompany entering unknown territory.
People come to therapy sometimes with clear problems that need attention, crises that will not
wait. At other times what moves us to seek time and space to explore ourselves with a therapist,
are vague feelings of discontent or emptiness. Numbing to the soul's calling, not listening to the
needs of our inner life, can trigger symptoms such as anxiety, depression, irritability, or bodily
complaints. We witness our children's developmental milestones yet as adults we may ignore the
passages our developmental moments ask of us. The Via Negativa is one way of framing how we meet
the choices before us, how we pause before moving and creating the next phase of our lives. The
following poem by Rilke speaks to this process of enlarging our capacity for "not knowing" and
feeling our way into the answers we seek:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves...
Don't search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
you will gradually, without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.
---Rainer Maria Rilke
And a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt challenging self doubt, eliciting courage:
"You must do the thing you think you cannot do."