WHEN BEAUTY SURPRISES US
The senses and beyond
Beauty is often associated with something that appeals us – a scene in nature, a certain kind of body, an admired artwork, maybe a particular piece of music. That is, our concept of beauty is a personal evaluation or opinion.
Our perception of beauty begins with an experience in our organs of sensing; we respond, and there is an almost simultaneous consciousness of what we are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting etc. After that we decide then whether or not something is beautiful.
But can something have an essence independent of us that makes it beautiful? And is there a quality called ‘beauty’ that is not relative or conditional?
The Classical Greeks thought so, and they were deeply concerned with the source of beauty, which they found in the non-physical eternal world beyond the ever-changing physical experience of the senses. A purpose of Greek philosophy was to discover the truth about the relationship between the physical and metaphysical dimensions of existence. They recognised a harmonious spiritual cosmos, which means ‘place of order’, based on geometric balance and symmetry. Plato called this the realm of Ideas which were reflected in nature, by for example, the golden mean rectangle and the spiral in physical forms and the relationship of tones heard in a circle of intervals. We still ‘feel’ this geometry as harmonious, which is why it has been a basis for art and music for over two thousand years.
The Greeks were still in touch with the spiritual realms and the concepts they formed were alive. This wouldn’t last. Today the physical has become our reality because it’s tangible, viewable, audible, experienced in the body and immediately relatable on that level. Philosophy and indeed our thinking generally is embedded in the material realm, which cannot bring us to any truth beyond itself.
When we encounter something of beauty through our senses, we are mostly unconscious of the source. We seldom pause to consider sense experiences as the means by which we encounter the spirit that weaves through life. Sometimes there’s a vague awareness of something more. And in many souls, there’s a longing to access the beauty intangibly present in what lies beyond and within the physical forms.
Renewal and returning to the source
That longing is because humans are on a return journey. For understanding we need to look way back beyond the philosophers to what was occurring in an age that mirrors ours – to for example ancient Egypt. This is known as the age of the sentient soul beginning in 2907 BCE. Those ancient Egyptians did not experience the physical world as we do. Spirit was most evident for them, while the physical world was not well known. They simply listened to the gods to know how to live. But humans always have the urge to ‘progress’ and leaders among the Egyptians wanted to encounter and know the physical consciously, beyond innate instinctual experience. For them the best way they could get closer to the physical world, including their own physical body, was by experiencing how spirit wrote upon the physical. This is what the initiates, the spiritual leaders had to learn and what they learnt could then be passed on. The Hermetic dictum ‘As above, so below’ comes from this era. Greater sentience was the vehicle for connecting with the physical. Egypt has left us an amazing variety of recipes using the scents of nature. It must have been a highly perfumed society. And artists while portraying the gods and goddesses that guided life, also conveyed countless scenes from daily life and of the living world they were experiencing with such joy through the senses. Through sense experience they had learnt to know and depict beauty.
When I look around me at so much of what we create and absorb in our culture today I know for sure that most of us have forgotten what humanity learnt in ancient days. A child encounters the extra-sensory dimension naturally until it is drummed out of them – nowadays often at a very early age. We live in difficult times. We all know how our senses have been dulled and degraded. We are overloaded by noise pollution, night’s darkness is lost in artificial light, overprocessing kills our sense of taste and smell, we stream and game for hours on end and forget to notice the world around us. How then do we find the reality of beauty?
To know the beautiful, we need to reach beyond sense experience to the source, which is spirit. We need to seek that realm beyond the senses, but not by ignoring the gift of sensing. That was and is the way of the ascetic. Connecting with the spiritual by denial and deprivation takes us away from the earth our dwelling place and our relationship with its life. We need our senses as a conduit between the realms. We need to reverse what those ancient Egyptians achieved. They moved from spirit, which they readily experienced to knowledge of the physical. We need to move from our well-known physical via the senses through to spirit. Our senses are our soul’s means of connecting with the outer world – they could also connect us with its spiritual aspect if we allow it.
Practice and perceiving beauty in a new way
Help is at hand in our challenging world. It lies in the emergence of shifts in our consciousness which offers a more diverse understanding of beauty. Like the classical Greeks we still respond to harmonious, symmetrical and balanced physical forms. But we are developing an ability to attune to a different kind of relationship also existing in nature. It was rediscovered through quantum physics (although we are merely reclaiming ancient pre-classical experience). It’s found in irregularity, dissonance, meandering and the infinite self-similarity of fractals. Perceiving through such a consciousness will enable us to accept so much that classical thinking has seen as random and disordered – twisted, gnarled tree branches, irregular coastlines, capillary networks in our organs, ambling movement of crowds, the arhythmic sounds of children playing, the diverse tastes of national cuisines globalisation has brought us, stories with asymmetrical plotlines, ‘postmodern’ art, and an individual person’s eccentricity or non-conforming physical appearance.
Our main challenge is to become spiritually perceptive enough not to be deluded by outer appearance and personal taste. For beauty is raw and honest and exists beyond our likes and dislikes. We need to discover beauty beyond what gives us pleasure. For the spirit creates what is beautiful.
To regain the ability to really sense consciously in our world today we need to practise. That is, by taking the time to perceive and experience inwardly what is going on - in the difference between sound and silence, between darkness and light, the profound contrast between stillness and movement. Note the inner impressions of familiar and unfamiliar music, observe the impact on you of different colours, the tastes of each mouthful you eat, the variable touch of textures and the effect of temperature changes on your soul as well as the body. Attune especially to the complex goings on in nature itself. You will be refining the senses.
As well as practising sensing we need to learn to become conscious of that moment when the sensation comes to us. There are feelings associated with that moment that have nothing to do with our thoughts and emotions. Deeply feel the life in what comes towards you. Take note of what your soul is revealing to you. For behind each sense experience is the spirit of the object, a spiritual being. When the essence of what you are touching, hearing, seeing etc rides along your senses you receive that beingness. Then beauty surprises us.
It’s so easy to miss this potent yet ephemeral moment. In an instant all our associations come tumbling in, our thoughts and the accompanying emotions. You perceive red, the essence of redness, then you start thinking of a friend’s red car, or how you don’t like red, or how red is the colour of this that and the other. So personal concepts intrude upon the reality of red. You smell the perfume of a rose, and for a moment have the essence of that rose, then you begin to think about that perfume, or remember the person who gave you a rose, or how roses have thorns and yuk, you don’t like roses.
Our minds are so intrusive it is not easy to stay with the experience of rose-ness or redness or indeed the essence of another person. But that is what we must learn to do. We need to discipline the wayward mind.
When we are totally in the moment, open and responsive, then something new awakens within our soul each time we sense. If we truly encounter the spirit that comes to us via our senses something true and good in our soul rises up to meet it.
And to perceive the portrait painted by spirit requires most of all a feeling of awe, a love for divine creation, a willingness to be sensitive and vulnerable and seek for the spirit in all the events around us. We need to be willing to ask the question, what spirit is at work here and how? And let the answer resound in our souls.
And that’s the secret of beauty. Beauty comes alive in that moment when our soul meets spirit – the spirit that lives in a flower, a work of art, an unexpected happening, or another human being.