by Kathryn Gann
Originally printed in the Spring 2011 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Kathryn, Gann. "Beauty Is Not Optional." Quest 99. 2 (Spring 2011): 58-60.
We would like to think that if we were dying of thirst and were surrounded by water, we'd have the good sense to drink. Strangely, though, patients suffering from dehydration often do not experience thirst. Thirst is not always a reliable gauge of the body's need for water (www.mayoclinic.com).
Too often we become starved for beauty in the same way—we simply do not think of it as a necessity. We mistakenly believe that drenching ourselves in beauty is a luxury, something that would be nice to experience someday when we have the time. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Beauty is as essential to the human soul as water is to the human body. When the tiring dissonance of modern life throws us off balance and seems to drain our very life force, beauty is the antidote with the power to restore us. Indeed, it has been described as the manifestation of love and harmony. To the extent that we are in a state of love and harmony, our life force and vitality flow unimpeded to the same degree, allowing a fuller expression of what it is to be human.
In the 1992 movie FernGully: The Last Rainforest, a nature spirit named Magi advises her protege, "There are worlds within worlds, Krista. Everything in our world is connected by the delicate strands of the Web of Life, which is balanced between forces of destruction and the magic forces of creation....Everyone can call on the magic powers of the Web of Life. You have to find it in yourself."
Among the many "magic powers of the Web of Life" to be wielded by human beings, the experience of beauty stands out as one of the most pleasurable. The transformation that occurs deep within us as we enjoy genuine beauty is nothing short of magical. We are free to find beauty in the mundane as well as the extraordinary, in the highs and lows of life, and in doing so we cannot fail to expand and enrich our experience of the world. Unlike many things we enjoy, we simply cannot overdose on beauty!
Treasure in the Garbage
The experience of beauty, like inner growth and "aha" moments, comes spontaneously and unpredictably, then vanishes as quickly. We might spend an afternoon at an art museum and leave quite uninspired, yet be mesmerized on the way home by the beauty of falling raindrops reverberating in puddles. We cannot predict when and where we will experience beauty, but we stand a better chance of fully appreciating those spontaneous moments when we maintain a state of mindfulness attuned to beauty in our everyday surroundings.
There is an eccentric elderly woman, writes Italian transpersonal psychologist Piero Ferrucci, who cannot bear to throw away what others might deem garbage. She sees beauty in the fine skin of an onion, the celery stalk, the smooth, round avocado pit, and in vegetable peels in gorgeous shades of red, purple, orange, and yellow. Unable to part with them, she places them in a transparent jar of water on her windowsill. Gradually, her "bouquet" forms itself into interesting spires, floating clouds, pleasant lines, amazing colors and abstract shapes. At sunset, the light shining through the jar produces an incandescent effect (Ferrucci, 16-17).
What a lovely gift this woman shared—the ability to see beauty in the most mundane of forms. Perhaps part of our task as human beings is to see beauty everywhere, even in mundane objects, and elevate it to an art form. Theosophical teacher Joy Mills has said that "unless we find the beauty of the Spirit in the very midst of the most material forms and convey it pure and unsullied as a gift to Divine Love, we shall really not be able to find it anywhere" (Mills, 49).
In her diary, Anne Frank described the beauty she saw in the graceful curves formed by her hair in the bathroom sink and lamented that the others in hiding with her did not share her appreciation of this artistry. Her experience illustrates the unpredictable nature of beauty—we never quite know when it's coming, and we cannot seem to produce it on demand. Had Anne gone to the sink looking for beauty as an assigned task, she might well have missed it; yet because she was open to the experience, she enjoyed this little respite from the fear and tension of her circumstances.
The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi celebrates the beauty of the mundane, the austere, the transient, the imperfect. Japanese tea ceremonies are often performed with simple rustic pottery as an embodiment of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Looking to the processes of nature, we might find a poignant beauty in the wilting red autumn leaves and accept them as reminders of the transient nature of our world as the yang of summer gradually yields to the yin of winter. This is the wabi-sabi way of seeing.
Nature's cycles are so much a part of our daily experience that it is easy to overlook the miracle of constant change taking place around us. Every twenty-four hours the yang of daytime gives way to the yin of dark night. As this transition unfolds, we are treated to a spectacular light show—a sunset. Each moment of a sunset is perfectly unique and perfectly fleeting. We gaze at it and realize that never before has there been exactly this combination of light, colors, and clouds; and the brilliant combination changes from moment to moment. In appreciating the uniqueness and fleetingness that makes each moment of a sunset exquisitely precious, we are restored to a state of awe, the hallmark of the experience of beauty. As we watch the shifting colors of a sunset, we embody Kahlil Gibran's description of beauty as "a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted" (Gibran, 75).
When we attune ourselves to the beauty in our everyday world, we are changed from within. We become "beauty receptors," and life takes on lovelier colors and a zestier flavor than it had before. Happily, it's as simple as seeing and appreciating the artistry of our commonplace surroundings.
The Riace Warriors
Having accustomed ourselves to finding beauty in the mundane, we are in an ideal position to be transported entirely beyond ourselves when confronted with extraordinary beauty. In 1972, two bronze statues of warriors from ancient Greece were retrieved from an ancient shipwreck at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Riace, Italy. The statues became known as I Bronzi di Riace, "the Riace Bronzes" or "the Riace Warriors." By the early 1980s, they were on display in Florence, Italy, at the Archaeological Museum in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, described by Ferrucci as "one of the most beautiful squares in the world," the "greatest splendor" of the Florentine Renaissance. Yet a friend of Ferruci's who had seen the Riace Warrior statues inside the museum remarked that they were of such a transcendent beauty that when he emerged from the exhibit, the piazza itself had lost its luster and was no longer beautiful to him.
Not believing that an art exhibit could somehow cause the piazza to "lose" its beauty, Ferrucci attended the exhibit himself. The statues were a study in complementary energies. One warrior embodied a youthful, fierce quality; the other portrayed a calm, mature strength. Ferrucci was "transported into another world, to a plane belonging to all men and women, all times and all cultures." His previously held ideas about what was beautiful and what was not seemed to fall away; he was "purified and taken to the essence." He left that exhibit in an altered state and was astounded to find that, just as his friend had described, the Piazza Santissima Annunziata now "seemed old and decadent" (Ferrucci, 58?61). Ferrucci's experience seems to affirm Michelangelo's statement that "beauty is the purgation of superfluities."
The Song within All Songs
Recalling Magi's counsel to find within ourselves "the magic powers of the Web of Life," we instinctively turn to music to restore ourselves to harmony when we've become fragmented by the turmoil and dissonance of daily life. As with all experiences of beauty, musical taste is a deeply individual matter; music that strikes one person as beautiful may leave another cold. But whatever our preferences, we choose music that uplifts when we're discouraged, energizes when we're fatigued, or soothes when nerves are raw. Simply put, we appreciate the power of music to restore ourselves to a state of harmony.
Wisdom teachings from many traditions, as well as science, tell us that the entire universe in which we live was created by sound vibration. After pioneering the science of "cymatics" (from the Greek kyma, "wave"), Swiss scientist and artist Hans Jenny wrote that vibrational effects "may be said to exemplify the principle of wholeness. They can be regarded as models of the doctrine of holism: each single element is a whole and exhibits unitariness whatever the mutations and changes to which it is subjected. And always it is the underlying vibrational processes that sustain this unity in diversity. In every part, the whole is present or at least suggested" (quoted in Hodson, Music Forms, 14).
Like a fish that does not perceive that it lives in water, could we be living within a song but not hearing it? Perhaps the vibration that created and sustains the universe is a continuous song, as suggested by Sir James Jeans when he wrote, "To my mind, the laws which nature obeys are less suggestive of those which a machine obeys in its motion than those which a musician obeys in writing a fugue, or a poet in composing a sonnet" (quoted in Hodson, Kingdom, 19). Theosophical teachings agree that "Life itself has speech and is never silent. And its utterance is not . . . a cry; it is a song. Learn from it that you are part of the harmony" (Collins, 26). Songwriter Michael Stillwater similarly wrote, "There is a cosmic music underlying everything, vibrating throughout the universe, personally accessible through the specific individual filters of language, culture, and individual attunement. When we listen with awareness from a silent place, we can hear and uniquely express this cosmic music, the Great Song within all songs" (St. Vincent, 142).
Little wonder, then, that beautiful music has the power to restore us to a state of harmony. Music resonates with heart and head, power and passivity, the male and female in us, and weaves all aspects of our being back into harmony. It moves us to feel that all possibility lies within us. Our focus changes from things outside us to that which is deep within, and we move just a little closer to "becoming what we have always been," as Carl Jung advised. Pianist and composer Kevin AsbjÃ¶rnson teaches that "music is the medium which creates a bridge between the "doing" and the "being" in life" (St. Vincent, 17). Submerged in our favorite music, we feel that we've come home to our true Self. Singer and songwriter Dennis Merritt Jones sums it up: "Music calls us home. It reminds us that beyond all the apparent differences we seem to have, we all come from the same place—our unity in Spirit" (St. Vincent, 97).
Leaving the Light On
When a person is away from home at night, the family often leaves a light on near the door, so the loved one will easily find his or her way back home. It's a loving act that we can perform for ourselves too—we can always "leave the light on" to find our way by focusing on that which is beautiful. Our internal perception of beauty serves as both a stable foundation and a guiding light that's always shining, ever present to show us the way home.
Going further, an anonymous author known as "The Dreamer" assures us that beauty guides us to our true home, that place in human evolution where saints and sages stand:
Looking for Beauty, which is the manifestation of Love and Harmony, sustained by an ever-growing love and devotion, he is no longer confined even to a Name of the Divine Love and Beauty, and as Plato says of Beauty, he "may no longer be as the slave or bondsman of one beauty or Law but setting sail into the ocean of Beauty . . . . which albeit all other fair things partake thereof and grow and perish Itself without change or increase or diminution endless for everlasting. ("The Dreamer," 104, quoting Plato, Symposium, 192â€“202)
The character Magi spoke truly: If we wish to maintain harmony between the forces of creation and those of destruction, we must look deep within ourselves to find and draw upon the magic powers of the Web of Life. Beauty is among the most magical of such powers, and for the evolving life within us it is a true necessity.
Collins, Mabel. Light on the Path. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989.
"The Dreamer." Studies in the Bhagavad Gita: The Path of Initiation. Chicago: Theosophical Book Concern, 1904.
Ferrucci, Piero. Beauty and the Soul. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.
Hodson, Geoffrey. The Kingdom of the Gods. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1952.
—. Music Forms. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1976.
Mills, Joy. The One True Adventure: Theosophy and the Quest for Meaning. Wheaton: Quest, 2008.
St. Vincent, Justin. The Spiritual Significance of Music. N.p.: Xtreme Music, 2009.
Kathryn Gann has been a student of Theosophy since 1994, and currently serves as president of The Denver Theosophical Society. She enjoys nature photography and appreciates the Rocky Mountains' abundant photo opportunities.