Beauty and the Impassioned Heart
How Shall We Live Our Lives:
Beauty and the Impassioned Heart
by Francis Weller
“Beauty is one of the most powerful and subversive ways to change the consciousness of modern industrial society.” Melissa Nelson
When I was growing up in Wisconsin, I was surrounded by beauty. Every season had a brilliance that satisfied something essential to my heart. Spring brought the robins back from their long migration and the violets bloomed offering our noses a sweet scent long absent with the snows. Summer was eternal and full of wandering along river banks and woods. Fall was golden and littered with more colors than I can say. Most astonishing, though long and bitterly cold at times, was winter. I remember many nights when I was out shoveling snow and the darkness was silent and large. The snow would be falling and I would pause in my work, look up at the street light and watch it drift to the ground. Sometimes the flakes were as big as quarters and they would land on my body like lace. I would begin to drift too, transfixed, falling into another time, another place where magic and beauty were all that filled my attention. Beauty remains in the soul, indelible and enduring. It is a grace that befalls us.
I have been in love with beauty for a long time. My childhood fascination has remained with me and the more I notice beauty in the world, the more fully I love the world. We are beckoned by beauty to know the world and to “fall in love outwards,” as the poet Robinson Jeffers advises.
Beauty is a necessity for the indigenous soul, indispensible for our well being. It is one of the primary satisfactions needed as daily sustenance. As Celtic author John O’Donohue said, “Life without the experience of the beautiful would be unbearable.” We require daily meetings with the angel of beauty. Her appearances do not always arrive in the clothing of what is pretty, but more as an arresting quality in which we are drawn into a space of depth and reflection. Beauty is more than the way things reveal themselves to our eyes. Beauty invites us into a deeper conversation between what we see, hear, feel, notice, and the other that invites our attention. It is a sacred dialogue.
There was a thought that emerged during the Middle Ages regarding the nature of the soul. The alchemist Sendevogious wrote that “the greater part of the soul lies outside the body.” This revisioning of soul as a quality of being that is not contained privately in the interior of our bodies, but rather extends and meets the world, was a radical shift in thought. This move put soul back in the world; inner and outer were now touching, overlapping and co-mingled. Soulful moments were now experienced in the relationship between things.
This in-between place has long fascinated me. Something alchemical happens in this intangible place, some mixing of elements that gives rise to a new creation. I call this the Third Body, the soul of the relationship itself. This alchemy between people is a blending of imagination, longings, vulnerabilities, thoughts, and affections, coupled into a third, ordaining another living presence that is tangible, known and felt. There are people in our lives where this is undeniable. We feel something living between ourselves and the friend. And if we nourish this connection, feed it with affection and care, this Third Body grows in density, in lushness. The space between becomes a presence that in turn, nourishes us. We can feel this other whenever we pay attention to what we love. This is where the overlap of soul connection is most developed and deepened. It is here that we experience a communion of subjects rather than the collision of objects, no longer seeing the world as a collection of things to observe, but each possessing an interiority waiting to be met.
All this occurs in what religious philosopher Henry Corbin calls the interworld, the space between that connects through the imagination, through soul, where we experience the relationship that is there. We see one another, sense each other and take each other in through the air, the light, the wind. We enter each other and distill a third essence. Psychologist Ronald Shenk writes “Beauty does not lie within an object to be preserved, nor does it lie in the eye of the beholder; it is an ‘in-between’ phenomenon.” Beauty draws us into these connections, calling us to them through the allure of the space between us.
The Third Body has a life of its own, filled with desires and dreams longing for fulfillment. It too, has intimations of what it could be in the world and wants to move in the direction of becoming itself fully. This is where we often struggle in our lives. Taught to attend primarily to the internal and private, the demands of our relationships are often unwelcome. Yet, we cannot become who we are meant to be without these greater circles of meeting. As Jung said, “The soul cannot become itself without the other, which is always found in a ‘You.’” We circle round each other, becoming ourselves in the meeting. We become bound to the other through beauty, not in an obligatory way, but through the experience of love.
One night some years ago, while at a weekend gathering, several of us decided to get up at 3AM to watch the Perseid Meteor Showers. We were at a camp along the Gualala River in Northern California and it was a cool night. We brought blankets and pads and found a place on the river bank to lie down and watch. For several hours we huddled while the showers hit their zenith. Except for the oohs and ahhhs when a particularly brilliant meteor shot by with its long tail of blue-green light, we said very little. By the time we made our way back to bed, we felt a deepened love between us all.
We are called into the world by the angel of beauty. Through this enticement we fall into the surrounding swirls of color and texture, sound and scent beguiled by the allure of the world. This is essential for us to attend to, for if we do not, if we do not fall into the world through the heart, our world will continue to wither. Archetypal psychologist James Hillman writes,
“We want the world because it is beautiful, its sounds and smells and textures, the sensate presence of the world as body. In short, below the ecological crisis lies the deeper crisis of love, that our love has left the world; that the world is loveless results directly from the repression of beauty, its beauty and our sensitivity to beauty. For love to return to the world, beauty must first return, else we love the world only as a moral duty: clean it up, preserve its nature, exploit it less. If love depends on beauty, then beauty comes first.”
I remember watching the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, when they appeared in the night sky. They shimmered and rolled across the skies, undulating in hues of color: green-purples, ruby, opal, jade, turquoise, lemon, lavenders, iridescent as the back of a beetle or the throat of a hummingbird. The Cree called the Northern Lights, the Dance of the Spirits. The Algonquin believed the lights were made by their ancestors dancing around a ceremonial fire. The lights ignite the imagination and the spirit. The waves of swirling light are permanently impressed into my memory. What remains is the feeling of awe, a sense of silence as I took the beauty of that moment into me. Like silence, the full presence of beauty is often wordless. Beauty calls love out of us and into the world.
Hillman deepens our understanding of beauty’s place in the life of the soul. He says that beauty is “the way in which the Gods touch our senses, reach the heart and attract us into life.” Without beauty, what is it that attracts us into life? What is it that would draw us into the world? It is our ability to be touched by beauty that urges us to pay attention to the life moving around us, the bees and clouds, the wrens and roses. Beauty, in this understanding, is no longer simply concerned with the object of appreciation, but more deeply about our ability to take in the beauty as it arrives in our lives. Our aesthetic response is what we offer back to the world as in my reply to the night falling snow, the Northern Lights or the Perseids; it completes the circle.
Aesthetic comes from aesthesis, which means “to take in, to breathe in.” It’s a perception that moves through the senses when we open to what is present and we breathe it in. It is embodied, not conceptual, not something to be thought about, but to be penetrated by. I remember walking out of my house and weeping at the dew hanging from the apple trees. Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty was present and offering her allure through these tiny droplets clinging to the branches and I was moved to tears.
Beauty enters the heart and we are moved, touched; we are awakened. We have all experienced these times. Something takes our breath away. This response, this taking in and being touched by our world links us intimately with what we are in relationship with at that moment. It is no longer subject and object, something we are observing: now there is immediacy, a coming together into a relational whole, a communion of subjects meeting in the heart.
Recall a time when you were moved by beauty. In those moments we are taken by what we see, or hear, or the taste coming into our mouth and we stop, savoring it like the flesh of an apple. The beauty we take in and digest slowly becomes us. We shiver and move with the fox as it slips into the woods disappearing from our sight, but it remains with us in our quickened hearts. We become part fox, part moon, part snowfall. Beauty arouses us, changes us, enlarges us, makes us recognize an invisible kinship with all things. Light, color, sound, textures, scent, are the visible trace lines of beauty’s trail that we follow day and night. By day we absorb an endless presentation of beauty. At night, in sleep, beauty both sensual and mystifying appears in the other world we occupy of dreams and images.
Approaching these times with an aesthetic sensitivity enables us to meet them with soul. Where beauty dwells, there is soul. Beauty apprehended, awakens us and in turn we extend ourselves back to the world from this renewed place. A heart that has been graced by beauty moves to meet that touch with love in return.
William Stafford offers his poem, Earth Dweller, as a reminder to see more deeply into the world.
It was all the clods at once become
precious; it was the barn, and the shed,
and the windmill, my hands, the crack
Arlie made in the axe handle; oh, let me stay
here humbly, forgotten, to rejoice in it all,
let the sun casually rise and set.
If I have not found the right place,
teach me; for, somewhere inside, the clods are
vaulted mansions, lines through the barn sing
for the saints forever, the shed and windmill
rear so glorious then sun shudders like a gong.
Now I know why people worship, carry around
magic emblems, wake up telling dreams
they teach their children: the world speaks.
The world speaks everything to us.
It is our only friend.
To truly see the world is to see that it is holy. “It was all the clods at once become // precious.” This line should stop us in our tracks. “It was all the clods at once become precious.” They become “vaulted mansions,” and Stafford understands that the “world speaks. // The world speaks everything to us.” Here is someone in full aesthetic arrest, seeing beyond the observable and into the mythic underpinning of the world; the earth as sacred. Holy. Holy. Holy.
Beauty and our aesthetic response deepen our intimacy with life. Without these aspects of our soul life developed, we feel isolated and lonely. Without being attracted into life we are left to inhabit our own solitary world, our heart’s affection for the beauty of the world diminishes and the things of the world lose their luster, slowly corrode and rust and the dream becomes a nightmare. We stop loving the world and our soul withdraws from life.
The view of beauty I am addressing is not one trapped in the way things look or in their appearances. I am advocating a relationship with beauty as a soulful meeting, a place where we touch, mingle and emerge differently from the exchange. Beauty held in this perspective can also possess a darkness that makes us tremble. There is beauty in death, in decay, beauty in the fact that everything passes on too soon from our lives. This edge of beauty is not comforting, but it once again keeps us close to what is most alive in our souls. Without the dark edge of beauty, life would not shine as brightly.
I was sitting with a young man recently who arrived in my office with a sad look on his face. He shared that he had just come back from time with his new love, having had a wonderful weekend with her. He returned home, took care of some things, fixed some dinner for himself and then opened his computer to look at photos of his parents, his girlfriend, and then it hit him. He said, “I realized at that moment that I am going to lose them all.” He wept those bitter tears that melt us and reduce us to the vulnerable truths we must all confront. We need these bitter tears sometimes. They are a tonic, a fortifying essence that helps us digest these difficult realities.
He said he had tried his whole life to keep this truth away, but this day he welcomed the dark angel of beauty, the one holding the sharp truth of impermanence. He told me he wants his heart to stay open and to love big. This was a beautiful moment, a life changing moment for this young man, forged by the dark beauty of loss.
Beauty and the Indigenous Soul
Lately I have found myself teaching with singers and poets, dancers, musicians and writers. My friend Kim Scanlon is a singer and writer from Seattle. She describes her work as being a “beauty consultant.” She is working to help people recover their music, their poetry, their inherent ability to express their native rhythms. She says that most of us had had our music silenced; that we have gone numb and have forgotten what an exquisite instrument the human body is. I like that. She loves vowels and says they should make us swoon. I like that too. We are starving to have our music back, to sing outrageously and understand that we too, are meant to be carriers of beauty in the very way we walk in the world. We have forgotten so much.
One place we can look for examples of people who have remembered the place of beauty in their lives is indigenous cultures. The wide use of adornment, color, markings, drumming, dancing, singing and storytelling display a value at the heart of many traditional peoples: Beauty as being.
Balinese children are taught early on to play instruments and to paint. They learn the rhythms and beats of the gamelan orchestra while sitting in the laps of their fathers or grandfathers or their uncles. They copy the painting styles of others and after a time, they have found their own way with the paint and brush. My poet/singer friend Doug von Koss has spent a good deal of time in Bali. He says it is like being in heaven. Witnessing the daily orchestrations of beauty is what has kept him going back year after year. Everyone is involved in the maintenance of their spiritual world that is infused with beauty. The men are carrying out rituals or shadow puppet performances while “the women make sculptures out of grasses and reeds or colored rice cakes that will be given over to the gods and after two or three days, they disappear.”
What interests me is that their art is their religion. It is in their dance, their music, and their songs. Beauty isn’t separated or compartmentalized; it’s just what they do.
The Navajo people have a similar cosmology where hozho, which translates as beauty/harmony, is at the center of their worldview. It is sometimes called the Beauty Way or Blessing Way and includes an entire pattern of living that incorporates every part of the day to day life.
With Beauty before me, I walk
With Beauty behind me, I walk
With Beauty above me, I walk
With Beauty below me, I walk
From the East Beauty has been restored
From the South Beauty has been restored
From the West Beauty has been restored
From the North Beauty has been restored
From the zenith in the sky Beauty has been restored
From the nadir in the earth Beauty has been restored
From all around me Beauty has been restored
In old age wandering, I walk
Now on the trail of Beauty, I walk
This prayer places everything in the context of beauty and balance. We are, once again, asked to understand beauty in a much larger context that mere appearance. Beauty to the Navajo is an organizing principle around which the entire culture circulates. Beauty, not economics or politics organizes and shapes the patterns of engagement between individuals, clans, families and nature. To the Navajo, beauty is the foundation for right relations with the cosmos. When someone is ill, or there is discord in the community, it becomes the concern of everyone to find their way back into hozho, into beauty.
Every traditional culture is a revelation of beauty, each reflecting a style of living that is adapted to place and to the spirit that dwells in that place. These cultures are unique in their understanding of what it means to be a human being living in relationship with all the other life in that terrain. They possess a living archive of wisdom accumulated over thousands of years revealed in their myths, rituals, songs, botanical knowledge, healing practices and languages. Some of these languages, such as the Navajo, embody a syntax that continuously binds them to the other in a seamless way. There is no tear between subject and object which is intrinsic to western language systems. Martin Prechtel shares a similar perspective from the Mayan culture saying there is no verb “to be” in the language. Everything is in constant connection with everything else.
These complex cultural patterns of wisdom are elegant and nuanced to complement the place where they live. This is a beauty we can hardy understand focused as we are on progress and the technological world. And we are destroying this vast storehouse of beauty every day as we push our monoculture of technotopia everywhere we go. It is essential that we begin to appreciate what these cultures know and remember about how to live here in a beautiful way.
Making Sweet Honey from Old Failures: Finding Beauty in Broken Places
I am grateful to two wonderful poet/writers for the title to this section. Antonio Machado’s line of making sweet honey from old failures comes from his poem, Last Night, as I was Sleeping, and the second comes from the title of Terry Tempest William’s fierce book exploring the place of brokenness in the world as a portal to healing and beauty.
Beauty must once again become a primary concern in our lives. Our psychological well being is hinged to this truth. In the old Greek myth, Psyche was first and foremost known for her beauty. Imagine receiving our sadness, our grief, our fear or shame, whatever arises from the psyche and having our first response be one of beauty rather than one of judgment, assessment, and correction. By that I am suggesting that we greet whatever comes with attention and poetry, an aesthetic response instead of the usual heroic one where we attempt to improve the situation by rising above it, fixing it, or by muscling our way beyond it. Our suffering appears in feeling states, in dreams, in reveries of longing, in moods; each asking to be heard and taken in with a welcoming heart. Beauty opens the heart in love. James Hillman offers an image rooted in beauty for how we might approach our experience of suffering. He writes,
The alchemists had an excellent image for the transformation of suffering and symptom into a value of the soul. A goal of the alchemical process was the pearl of great price. The pearl starts off as a bit of grit, a neurotic symptom, a complaint, a bothersome irritant in one’s secret inside flesh, which no defensive shell can protect oneself from. This is coated over, worked at day in and day out, until the grit one day is a pearl; yet it still must be fished up from the depths and pried loose. Then when the grit is redeemed, it is worn. It must be worn on the warm skin to keep its luster: the redeemed complex which once caused suffering is exposed to public view as a virtue. The esoteric treasure gained through occult work becomes an exoteric splendor. To get rid of the symptom means to get rid of the chance to gain what may one day be of greatest value, even if at first an unbearable irritant, lowly and disguised.
One’s secret inside flesh: when we talk of sorrows with beauty and imagination we move closer to the soul’s way of holding our pain – aesthetically and not morally. Our Christian unconscious interprets our suffering as evidence of sin, failure, or inadequacy; some commentary on our internal life. Our souls, on the other hand, are not offended by our flaws and failures. They are part of who we are, part of what shapes us into the unique person we are. Seeing these imperfections as the necessary grit to form the pearl of great price helps to pry the shame off of our inevitable encounters with suffering.
Some of the most beautiful moments in my life, have been witnessing individual’s sharing their secret inside flesh. The exposure of a vulnerable soul – naked, weak, and suffering, is an act of courage that evokes an aesthetic response in us. Our response is the same as when we witness an exquisite sunrise or hear a piece of music that moves us. We are touched, affected, deepened in the listening and the receiving of what they share. There is something exquisite in the willingness of an individual to reveal their broken places. We feel privileged to be shown these deep stores of suffering when someone offers them to us.
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
~ Leonard Cohen
We are beautiful when we share what is painful to the soul. We often feel reluctant to share our wounds with others however, feeling that they would be a burden to them. And yet, to do so is an act of compassion and we accept our own beauty in these times when we can risk being seen fully. We reveal the beauty of our endurance, that we survived, made it to this time and did not lose our souls. There is beauty in the fierce devotion of the soul to live and not forfeit its unique song while living under conditions that would otherwise lead to self-betrayal.
The Denial of Beauty
Truth, Beauty and Goodness were a trinity in the thought of the ancient Greeks. Beauty was the foundation however, because it was the closest to the senses. The moral virtues of Truth and Goodness were revealed by whether or not beauty was generated by the act. In other words, the decisions we make, the actions we take, are judged as being truthful or good by whether or not the outcome is beautiful. This is a powerful thought. If we follow this as true, factory farming is not beautiful. Mountaintop coal mining is not beautiful. Big Box stores carpeting every city in a bland and homogenized blanket of sameness is not beautiful. Localized cultures living within the means of the land base are beautiful. Localized cultures developing their songs, traditions and rituals are beautiful. What is beautiful moves towards encouraging life and diversity. Robust, juicy, climax forests are beautiful, elegant and vital. Our soul life, when allowed to flourish is beautiful as an eruption of imagination, creativity, sensuality, story and desire.
Beauty receives little attention in our culture, unless it has to do with making ourselves appear more beautiful. Then we have entire industries advising us to spend billions of dollars on polishing our image. But what of beauty as a value of the soul, as a necessity for our lives: Then it is rarely addressed. We are much more concerned with productivity, market shares, bottom line results and efficiency. The recovery of beauty as a requirement of our soul life is essential for our times. Decisions are being made that are ugly; programs implemented that disrupt long established patterns in other cultures, ecosystems are being destroyed that have been reduced to commodities for profit and on and on. A world envisioned without beauty soon loses soul.
Nearly every one of us has been taught to attend to the practical and the profitable while neglecting the erotic and the aesthetic. The unfortunate consequence of this value structure is the numbing of the heart and body. We suffer from a range of aesthetic disorders: depression, rage and addiction each have their connection to the loss of beauty. When we lose the foundation of what animates us as a people, or as individuals, the loss is too much to bear and addictions become our way of medicating the pain. One of the first impacts on tribal people following the loss of their cosmology is addiction.
Depression can be defined as a loss of heart. Recall Hillman’s phrase that “beauty is the way in which the gods touch the senses, reach the heart, and attract us into life.” The pandemic of depression in this culture is related deeply to the repression and denial of beauty. The symptoms themselves are an expression of this exile: we cease caring for our bodies, our homes become untended, we lose interest in our daily lives, we become disenchanted, disengaged, removed from the world: our own beauty banished. Our lives become colorless.
We are surrounded by a constructed world designed for efficiency, but rarely for beauty. We might be amazed by the speed of the computer we work with or impressed by the cell phone we use, but they do not generate the aesthetic arrest so needed by the soul to feel enlivened. The spaces we work in may be adequate towards the end of productivity, but seldom do they inspire us to take delight in their shapes and design.
I worked for a counseling agency many years ago when I had first moved to Sonoma County. My son was one year old and I was anxious to find work in order to support my young family. The agency was located in a cinder block building with windows on one side which looked out onto the neighboring parking lot. Inside were staff offices and consulting rooms. Each of these rooms was furnished with the cheapest couches and chairs imaginable. Like many non-profit agencies, there was little money in the budget for well made furnishings.
The main consulting room had no windows and was paneled with dark grained wood on three walls and painted beige on the other. It was dark, lit with some floor lamps with shades that were torn and hanging by threads. The room was shabbily carpeted and made me claustrophobic. I lasted at the agency four months despite the economic pressure I felt to support my family. The place itself was making me ill. I gave my notice of resignation and said “I cannot work here and healing is not possible in such an ugly space. It is insulting to the souls of those who come here looking for help.” Ironically, the building was the Burbank Building, named after famed botanist Luther Burbank, whose home in Santa Rosa is known for its exquisite gardens. I drive by this building now and then. I have noticed that the agency is no longer there.
I remember reading about the hospitals in Persia and how they were adorned with fountains and gardens; feasts for the senses. Poets and musicians were there to offer their medicine to the healing of body and soul. They recognized that healing required beauty; that pleasure augmented the physical recovery of an individual. Our hospitals are often sterile environments, painted a color of green I still can’t quite define. All I know is that no one wants to be there for long.
The loss of beauty is a topic of great importance. Understanding our fascination with violence and our inability to adequately contain it is at the very heart of this issue around the repression of beauty. When beauty ceases to be included in our lives as part of the care of the soul, then we lack the necessary tools with which to temper violence. Beauty, through art, dance, music, poetry, and song, gave shape and containment to our rage. It was the way in which many traditional cultures worked with the heat of the emerging adolescent fire and shaped it into an energy that served the community. The Celtic traditions required their young men to study poetry, music and justice before being allowed to handle a weapon. This was wise, built on a foundation that was familiar with the ways of the soul.
The core concern I carry around the denial of beauty is our raising the cult of the machine to the level of deity. This cult is a complex system of technologies, ideologies and world views that collectively institute a value system that prizes the following:
1. Control of nature and the sensual. Raising the virtual over the real.
2. Creation of a monoculture. Think, feel, act, look the same. Diversity is discouraged, whether in an individual, a culture or in nature. The narrowing down, the corralling of all that is wild and spontaneous; the beautiful and sensuous domesticated and neutered of its ability to enthrall.
3. Centralization of power. Surrendering of true freedom for the rewards offered by the machine. Servitude to a system disinterested in the fulfillment of our soul life.
4. Consumption and materialism. Continuous consuming as a way of distracting ourselves from the emptiness endemic to the machine culture. Materialism as secondary satisfaction.
5. Speed and efficiency. We begin to match the rhythm of the machine and lose our own ways of moving through the world.
6. Enormity. We like things BIG, megahits, megamergers, Super Bowls, megatons, Whoppers, Big Macs, the bigger the better, while what is essential to the soul is overshadowed and made trivial.
The machine world has tremendous influence over how we live our lives; how we spend our time, construct our dreams and goals. This is the world many of us live in daily and it requires awareness to see how deeply it shapes our lives. We need to recognize the toxic impact of the machine world on our souls. John Taylor Gatto, author of Dumbing Us Down, said, “Everyone who winds their life around a core of machinery, physical machinery or social machinery like institutions and global corporations, is affected profoundly, and comes inexorably, I believe, to be a servo-mechanism of the machinery he or she excessively associates with.”
This is a frightening thought and one we must pay attention to. The denial of beauty is the denial of soul, the deadening of the heart and the loss of the world as a spiritual landscape. The impoverishment that occurs with this loss is devastating to everything it touches. We must recover our connection with beauty and restore the soul of the world.
The Practice of Beauty
Everything is available to the touch of beauty. Our words can be carriers of eloquence, our bodies can dance and move, we can sing praises to the world and lament her sorrows. Our gestures, as rituals, complete the arc between the worlds and we feed the sacred by these acts. This is an ancient knowing and is seen in the range of rituals found everywhere among traditional cultures.
Beauty is an expression of the generosity of creation; boisterous, raucous, abundantly wild, nature inundates the senses with more than enough allure to keep us curious and interested in her ways: Freesias, Daphne, Lilac exuding scents and colors that dazzle us, fruits that tantalize our mouths with textures and juices dripping down our chins, grasses rolling over hills in the wind and sunlight kissing everything. These offerings are constant. Our response is to digest these moments of delight and offer our gratitude back to the earth. This was the basic practice of nearly all indigenous cultures. Beyond gratitude, we are invited through beauty into a place of reflection on the deep story of the world, on eternal matters, on how we each can respond to the beauty of the world in ways that we offer back our most beautiful.
The practice of beauty requires time to re-invigorate our aesthetic responses. Here are some things to do to begin that work:
1. Recover your senses. Spend time cultivating a sensually rich space around you. Bring flowers into your home, fragrances that entice and stimulate your body. Listen to music that moves your soul or practice silence and listen deeply to hear the music of the world.
2. Stopping the world. Carlos Castenada was told by don Juan that in order for him to become a man of knowledge, he had to learn to stop the world. For our use, I am talking about being able to slow ourselves down enough to really become present to all that is.
3. Cultivate trust in your aesthetic responses. If we pay attention, we notice that our soul responds to the world in powerful ways, some expressing pleasure and delight, and at other times, disgust and outrage. We must develop all of the ways we respond to the world. Our holy outrage is one of the most potent ways we can register our aesthetic response. This is our soul’s recoil from ugliness in thoughts or actions. When I hear politicians declare, “No species is worth a single human job,” that offends me, angers me. If we interiorize that as a reaction against something in our personal history, anger at our fathers for example, we lose our soul’s reply to the loss of beauty in the world. We must let the heart be stirred.
Discontent is another of our aesthetic responses. This response reveals the soul’s longing for more. The machine world often defines what our wants are. We need to listen to our divine discontent as William Blake called it, and hear the soul’s longing for something richer than material goods alone.
4. Pay attention to the world around us. I was sitting with a woman in my office filled with despair over the Iraq war and the destruction being done to the people and place. After a while I asked her if she had noticed the mustard in bloom. She paused and said, “No.” And then I asked if she had noticed the plum blossoms. Again, she replied, “No.” I then said to her, “We cannot possibly respond to the horrors of Iraq without the plum blossoms.” Beauty emboldens us to look into the face of what is painful and awful and to act from a soulful place. These horrors contract the heart and without beauty as a tonic to restore the heart, we feel unable to respond or we meet violence with violence.
Beauty also is present in the ordinary moments of our day. Washing dishes, making love, cleaning the home are all invitations to the Third Body and to the recognition of beauty’s presence. The ways we touch one another, the daily rituals of sharing food, a kindness, a conversation; each has its beauty, its ability to stir us awake. It needn’t come as grandly as the Northern Lights, but quietly in the face of someone you love. Beauty arises when we pay attention and notice what is present in the smallest of moments, like those tiny, secretive flowers that come in the spring, the little scarlet pimpernels, barely noticeable unless we are willing to let our eyes fall to the ground and look. Their flowers are delicate and their color is like salmon flesh, soft, lovely, joyous.
5. Deepen your experience of the sacred. Beauty awakens us to the extraordinary richness around us every moment. It evokes wonder and awe. Naturalist philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore writes,
The most reverent thing we can say is ‘Look, just look.’ And the most reverent stance is not on your knees or prostrate on the ground, or kneeling at the edge of your bed with your eyes closed, but standing with your head thrown back, looking into the night. Look, look at the darkness, this moonlight on the water, this wash of stars, as if you were seeing them for the very first time. Then the astonishing fact of the world is revealed to us, that there is something rather than nothing, and that it is so beautiful.”
The machine world reduces the world to a resource bin; dead and expendable. We need to kindle an awareness of the aliveness of the world and of our deep love for all that is.
6. Create meaningful ritual. Rituals are the gestures we make to acknowledge the deep source of life. It is a way we can practice feeding the world, of giving thanks and honoring that everything is a gift. Daily rituals keep us connected to the sacred and move us closer to a soul-centered life in relation with the sacred. Every morning step outside your door and greet the day, the sun, and give thanks for another day of beauty.
7. Cultivate a creative life. John O’Donohue said that “Creativity is meant to serve and evoke beauty.” So many of us have been told that we are not creative. There is absolutely no truth in that curse. We are all creative creatures. We hum our little songs, scribble unconsciously in the corner of the page, pile little twigs together in a circle, even dance once in a while when no one is looking. We have an irrepressible desire to express ourselves creatively. Trust this impulse and let yourself experiment with whatever pleases you. As Rumi would say, “Let the beauty we love, be what we do.”
Beauty mends the soul, offering daily doses of sustenance that keep the heart aroused. We all need beauty, a beauty fierce enough to keep us awake when all around us are the sirens calling us to sleep. I offer this poem by William Stafford as a reminder to pay attention.
Before dawn, across the whole road
as I pass I feel spiderwebs.
Within people’s voices, under their words or
woven into the pauses, I hear a hidden sound.
One thin green light flashes over a smooth sea
just as the sun goes down.
What roses lie on the altar of evening
I inhale carefully, to keep more of.
Tasting all these and letting them have
their ways to waken me, I shiver and resolve:
In my life, I will more than live.
May you walk in beauty.