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On Beauty


We suffer in our culture from a profound lack of appreciation of beauty.  Beauty is not lacking, that’s for certain.  Most days, anyone can see and experience beauty, as subjective as it is, in many different ways: through meetings and chance encounters with beautiful people, through the appreciation of plants and animals, the flow of water, through human design and architecture.  We are fortunate to live in lands of great natural beauty, in societies of material abundance and possibility for wealth; yet so many people speed through their days in a blaze of caffeinated competition and delirious, excessive consumption, failing all the while to ever take a moment to really rest.  Even on breaks from work, people too often devour food, not savoring; run errands for various essentials and inessentials; or simply deny themselves the full experience of a short siesta.

Beauty replenishes our spirits and feeds our capacity to love.  The more I recognize beauty and the pleasures of the senses, the clearer it becomes: beauty is all around us, even in garbage, weeds, menacing storm clouds.  Yet we must consciously intend to be receptive of beauty, to let it work on us and play through our essences.

I am fortunate to be at a point in my life where I am able to take plenty of time to slow down, to enjoy walks and the warmth of sunshine on my skin, to take care of myself and my partner and our animal companions and our home.  In the past, when I have felt compelled by culture or circumstance to "work" at a pace that is unsuitable for my body, mind, and spirit, I have felt bankrupt, numb, devoid of much feeling at all, simply performing a string of automatic motions threaded together in a grueling daily routine that paid off in some amount of cash.  For me, living this way is a sin.  Living driven along by the omnipresent cultural urgings to consume and work more, I find myself trapped in a life that lacks substance and any kind of joy.  Sure, I may in such times experience moments of happiness, laughter, or appreciation, but those moments pass quickly, leaving in their wake once again the underlying strain of emptiness and discontent.

People are not meant to work like machines.  We are meant to work, definitely, but to our capacity and no more, and we are meant to work with joy and loving devotion.  Work also should not define us.  We should define our work; work should flow from our personalities naturally, like language, laughter, or perhaps, at times, sweat.  To work compulsively for money, status, or other societal achievements is to become a slave.  Indeed, in a true free society, individuals would not feel the pressure of achievement and the strain of financial struggles.  Am I suggesting utopia?  Perhaps, although I do believe what I envision is possible.  What we lack and so desperately need in our individual lives are qualities like trust and love. 

These essential human soul foods–trust, love, beauty, a search for truth, communion–are all to be found by creating and establishing community.  Western society is deprived of community.  Impoverished by our lack of connection with others, we strive boldly and brazenly to build walls and create fortresses or islands in which we can live.  Sometimes we may invite others into these fortresses and share our resources with them, but this we only offer to a select few, and never really those who need it most.  Often  motivated by status, career, culture, or religion, we chose carefully who we invite into our inner circle.

I believe that we should all be choosing carefully who we invite into our inner circles, but that our care should be based on qualities of establishing relationships, of sharing love, of giving of ourselves but also receiving from others.  When people are in relationships of trust and love, the walls begin to grow thin.  Doors open, small holes appear, someone opens a window.  In doing so, and in giving and receiving not necessarily material goods but the great intangibles–smiles, hugs, kisses, laughter; friendship, security, honesty–we strengthen ourselves and other individuals.  We strengthen community.

Many Native American or Indian peoples find it essential to "walk in beauty."  Beauty is of course not fashion (although it may be complemented by fashion!), not to be found in idealized patriarchal images of women’s and men’s bodies.  I believe that appreciation of beauty, immersion in beauty, and outward expression in beauty must be desired, found, and explored by each individual in our collective communities.  Then by sharing our joyful beauty with others–the colors, the tones, the music and shapes and forms of beauty–we create positive cultural feedback.  Other may derive aesthetic and sensual pleasure from our sharing; they may be inspired to great beauty themselves.

A question I ask myself now is, "Does beauty have the power to transform the world?"  I think it is an important, essential quality, and I do believe that without the appreciation of beauty in our communities, the world will continue to be lacking in substance.  Material things, of course, only last so long.  Beauty, like life, is born and breathing anew in every moment.  Beauty moves, and so must we.  We must change ourselves and our attitudes to be truly beautiful, and in doing so–in embodying and knowing and appreciating beauty–we contribute to the harmony and peace of this miracle planet that we have been blessed to come into service upon.

[Originally written and posted elsewhere on July 30, 2007]

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