A Longing for Beauty


Chumash art near Santa Barbara, CA, photo by Doc SearlsOn a narrow country road eleven miles north of Santa Barbara, California, you will spot the sign for Chumash Painted Cave State Historical Park. Stop and peer through the protective fencing into the small sandstone grotto by the side of the road, and you will see colorful wheel-like and ladder-like designs painted by native people several hundred to a thousand years ago. The figures may be shamanic designs, or they may be depictions of a solar eclipse that occurred in 1677. Nobody can be sure. To me, a nonexpert, they are striking examples of beauty from long ago, created to be seen.

Beauty is everywhere and at every time. Mentally subtract the many experiences of it from your life – music, clothes, gardening, art, landscape, and the inner beauty of your friends and family – and you are left with a shabby existence. The Greek ancients considered beauty to be one of the three eternal verities (the other two being truth and goodness). We are made for beauty!

Yet for all its importance, beauty rarely comes up in conversation. Perhaps one reason is that we live in a heavily visual culture. We are deluged by images on screens for many hours a day, and so, perhaps we are sated. Or maybe, beneath the glamor and glitter, we sense the cravings and desires that can diminish people’s lives. Some may dismiss beauty as not practical, not good for much in itself. Others may even fear it, for they could be transformed, and they would rather not. (Note the powerful adjectives often affixed to beauty, like “stunning” and “awesome.”)

But the pursuit of beauty is worth the effort for, more than ugliness, it represents the deeper truth about existence. As the poet Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty. That is all we know, and that is all we need to know.”

Beauty ignites strong. positive feelings in us. Moments of such experience, though often fleeting, live long in our memories – like your first kiss or the cry of your newborn child. If we try to escape, beauty sneaks back into our lives, for it is a basic need, a longing. It’s the dandelion we see growing out of the trash heap, the smile on a dirty face, the first star appearing at sunset. In Quakerly terms, I think of it as a stealth testimony, breathing life and harmony into the ones written down.

Eighteenth-century Friend John Woolman understood this. Talking about children, he wrote that “to help them against that which would mar the beauty of their minds is a debt we owe them.” (1758) As a child psychologist, I too have marveled at the blooming creativity and ingenuity in young children. On hard days, it’s what keeps me going.

Also, from the PacYM Advices and Queries come these words: “Rejoice in the beauty, complexity, and mystery of creation and call attention to what fosters or harms earth’s exquisite beauty.” This advice reminds us that, amid the too-frequent acrimony in environmental efforts, loving Earth’s beauty is essential in keeping our motivation alive.

Beauty forever surprises us by its infinitely varied expression. Ask any two people to describe an instance of it, and you will get a bewildering assortment of answers. A hiking friend of mine found the rushing and gurgling of waterfalls most beautiful, so would carry a small tape recorder on backpacks to gather their sounds. Another friend dips her hands in clay several times a week to create diverse shapes and glazes, no two alike. I regularly see strolling by my door an older couple, pacing slowly, arm in arm, turning slightly toward each other as they walk.

Might beauty be a powerful way “that of God” becomes manifest in our lives? Here are five ways to connect with beauty, drawn from a variety of traditions:

Stop, look, listen: Beauty is always around us, but only some of us see it, said Confucius. For two decades, I led groups of hikers from Los Angeles on weekend trips to the Sierras, usually arriving late Friday and staying for two or three days. On the Saturday morning hike, I invariably noticed their rapid, urban pace, and would chide them good-naturedly, “You don’t need to hurry. You’ve arrived; you’re already here!” But predictably, their strides would not slow down until late afternoon or the next morning, when smiles would begin to cross their faces, and they would allow themselves to be, here and now, in the natural splendor.

“Hurry sickness” is possibly the greatest barrier to including beauty in our lives. Our minds can attend to only one thing at a time; neurologists say that trying to multi-task usually leads to more stress and less efficiency. Try this: with a good friend, prolong your glances for only two seconds longer. It can transform your relationship.

Remove clutter from your life: Remove the unnecessary from your life so that the necessary can speak. Separate cravings and what you want from what you need. The removal of irrelevant possessions, fears, and moribund relationships is a spiritual process that liberates mind and heart. When our lives are cluttered, the strings of attachment can become ropes that bind a surprising amount of our energy.

Alloways Creek Friends Meetinghouse in New Jersey, photo by SmallbonesI have loved visiting old Quaker meetinghouses in the Eastern U.S., some of them dating to the 1600s, for their simple, unassuming beauty. They fit unobtrusively into the landscape, and tell me that all that is needed is faithfulness. Inside, the absence of elaborate decoration helps us to center on what is most important.

Look for beauty in ordinary things, including the imperfect: In our developed society, we are accustomed to focusing our appreciation on great works of art, music played by professionals, or the sights at national parks. Try practicing the reverse. For centuries, Japanese culture has practiced the custom of wabi-sabi, the enjoyment of flaws and imperfection. In a tea ceremony, the cups often show an uneven shape or partial glaze deliberately put there by the artist. The principle applies to our connections with other people as well. A parent smiles at the amateurish mistakes in her child’s first violin recital (while others may wince!). I look at the cracks and scratches in my old banjo and recall the good times they represent. Wabi-sabi removes us from sleek, mass-produced culture and allows us to enjoy something that may at first appear unsightly or even ugly. “Imperfections” like wrinkles and gray hair also remind us that we are transient beings on this plane.

Notice both outer and inner beauty: Extend your awareness beyond the external to notice the soulfulness in things. See a tiny ant, a small miracle of creation, but also notice its determined, self-sacrificing efforts to do its job.

Enjoy gazing at a beautiful woman or man. Also appreciate the person within. This deliberate balance in our perception introduces a moral dimension. We can hurt others or ourselves by centering on only one aspect of beauty. People hiking along the narrow path down into the Grand Canyon have slipped into it by only noticing its beauty. Others have fallen into one-dimensional love and also been hurt.

Seek out the beauty in nature: The great environmentalist John Muir believed that “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature can heal and give strength to body and soul.” Going for a walk in a nearby park, especially one with lots of trees, never fails to relax and reinvigorate me. We all know this, but apparently, we need reminding. Americans spend over 90% of their time indoors, easily forgetting what it feels to open the door and step outside.

Make being in nature part of your spiritual practice. Walk slowly, re-center your mind from preoccupations, and notice your surroundings, always different each day. I like Strawberry Creek Monthly Meeting’s annual practice of holding a meeting for worship outside at a Berkeley park. We awaken to the Spirit not only inside, but everywhere.

Truly, beauty is a spiritual force. We do well by bringing it into our lives.  ~~~

Joe Morris is a long-time member of Santa Monica Friends Meeting (PacYM). He is convinced that banjo playing is quite beautiful.


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