Following Beauty

red sand dunesSufis speak of a gentle way of continual blessing available to us — a way of beauty. Following the way of beauty does not require adherence to a special belief or dogma; it is a path that simply reveals itself through our direct, intimate experience. The Greek philosopher Plotinus described it as a way that makes us "godlike." "Never can the soul have vision of the First Beauty," Plotinus wrote, "unless itself be beautiful. Therefore, first let each become godlike and each beautiful who cares to see God and Beauty."

In these pages I would like to contemplate with you this way of beauty, and in particular the possibility that what we call beauty is not simply an aesthetic arrangement of sensations that temporarily pleases "the eye of the beholder," but that it is a vital current in the very life of things, ourselves included.

Let's start first with a definition. What is beauty? Over the centuries countless philosophers and poets have attempted to answer this question—attesting to the importance of the experience of beauty for our species. One of the most famous definitions of beauty to Western ears is the one given by the Romantic poet John Keats in his Ode on a Grecian Urn:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Often criticized as a trite ending to an otherwise admirable poem, it could be that in these two cryptic lines Keats was pointing to a mystery beyond our capacity to conceptually understand. A similar definition expressed 600 years earlier by the Sufi mystic Ibn 'Arabi may give us a clue to the message in Keats's lines. In his treatise On Majesty and Beauty, Ibn 'Arabi writes:

"Beauty is the welcoming openness of the Truth toward us."

To make sense of the meaning here you may need to recall an instance when you directly experienced beauty — perhaps a moment in which you held a sleeping baby in your arms, or smelled the fragrance of fresh mown grass, or stepped into a warm bath at the end of a long day. While these experiences of beauty are pleasurable ones, you could recall as well instances of beauty that are not pleasurable, such as comforting a person you love who is dying, or working at necessary but strenuous manual labor alongside good friends — like repairing a levee with picks and shovels to hold back a flood.

When you recall moments of beauty in this way, you may notice there is a kind of "flowing through," or current, passing from that which is beautiful to you. If you give your attention even closer to what is happening, you may sense this "flowing through" or movement is not simply from the beautiful object to you, but within what could be called a "dimensionless dimension" that includes both the beautiful object and your subjectivity, with this movement exhilarating your heart in an inexpressible way. This vital but unseen movement is what Ibn 'Arabi is referring to as the "welcoming openness" that arises in the occurrence of beauty. The boundaries between self and other — inside and outside — become porous or even non-existent, and there is a sense of being on the threshold of a dimension that is beyond both our senses and our conceptual knowledge.

Here we see why Keats and Ibn 'Arabi point to the presence of what they call "Truth" in the equation of beauty. This formal word "Truth" with its capital "T" may appear meaninglessly abstract to us now, but if we allow the word to represent this dimension beyond our senses and knowledge, we may be able to glimpse how beauty flows as a "welcoming openness of Truth toward us."

This is not as abstract as it may sound in these sentences — you can follow this "flowing through" yourself in your own experiences of beauty. Rather than being an abstraction, following the flow of beauty in us is intimately experiential, since we are recognizing our own direct experience of the ineffable within the occurrence of beauty.

But what can we say about this experience of the ineffable quality, the Truth, upon whose doorstep the experience of beauty leaves us? Probably not much that is reliable — here silence speaks best.

Einstein once remarked that the most fundamental question each of us must come to peace with is: Is the universe benign? How we answer that question reveals the inner destiny of our lives. So we might say the very possibility that beauty could arise in the universe is evidence of universal benevolence — what Plotinus calls "The Primal Good" of the cosmos, what Ibn 'Arabi calls "the Breath of the All-Merciful," and what the 14th century Tibetan mystic Longchenpa describes as a fundamental reality "kindly bent to ease us." And what is this kindness that eases us? The beautiful.

Now let's step back from defining beauty, and consider this "gentle way of continual blessing," as we have called it, in three of the modes it manifests in us: in our vision, in our actions, and in our essence. These categories are described in what follows as: seeing the beautiful, doing the beautiful, and becoming the beautiful.

Seeing the Beautiful

In the field of conservation biology it is said the first sign of loss of health in an ecosystem is loss of beauty. You might look at the environment you experience over the next few days with this observation in mind—is it vital with beauty, or is it tired from beauty's absence? And when you look for the presence of beauty in your environment, what are you looking for?

If we turn again to the field of ecology for instruction we learn that ecologists speak of ecological health as evidencing what they call "good fit." When things fit together they are healthy, and, we might add, they are beautiful. So this evidence of good fitting is one way to describe what you look for when you scan your environment for the presence of beauty. What fits and what does not?

To answer such a question requires more of an intuitive sense than a rational one. Perhaps we can say when we sense things fit, and are thus beautiful, we feel the presence of life in their interrelation, in their fitting. The beautiful is somehow charged with life, whereas when things do not fit or do so only partially, the charge of life is diminished.

Of course, one could object that barren mountains or desert sands, or being with the body of someone we love who has just died can be profoundly beautiful moments although they are not "charged with life." But are they not really charged with life? The austere mountain peaks against an azure sky come alive in our seeing of them. There is a great fitting, not only of the shape and color of the peaks and the sky, but of our tender, shared presence with them. So too there is a similar tender fitting of life as we sit beside our friend who has passed away.

This points to another quality of seeing the beautiful — in addition to good fit and the presence of life — and that is open-heartedness. When we perceive something beautiful we allow our hearts to be vulnerable to its force. To truly see beauty we must be open to it, to let it touch our hearts. It is easy to recognize that people whose hearts are anxious and defended are people deprived of beauty. The same can be said for whole societies: those dominated by mistrust and anxiety over security lose their open-heartedness, and thus they are deprived of beauty.

One last observation: if we are honest we have to admit that every outer appearance of beauty, no matter how pleasurable or thrilling or uplifting, is also somehow tinged with sadness. This may at first sound paradoxical, but notice how in the sight of the beautiful garden and its bright blossoms, or in the beautiful curling waves of surf along the shore, or the beautiful feeling of the three-year old child holding your hand, or in the beauty of a kiss, there is ever in these experiences a slight refrain of poignancy, of the passing of time, of the imminent loss of this precious, beautiful moment. And we know it has to be this way.

The sweet sadness of the world's beauty cannot be avoided. It is the price we pay for being here and being able to love life — we have to say goodbye. Our beautiful youth, our beautiful children, our beautiful friends, our beautiful bodies, this beautiful world — to everything we have to say goodbye. How beautiful even is this sadness!

But this intimate and dear sadness is not the end. Just as the old stories tell, there is beyond our love for the things and people of this beautiful world an infinite source of beauty of which the passing beauties of our lives are momentary reflections. This infinity of beauty has nothing to do with sadness or any other emotion. It is the opening Truth we are welcomed to. Its radiance is present in this infinite living moment that brings into being all of reality forever.

But before we become lost in these lofty realms, let's return to earth and consider a little further how this way of beauty offers to guide us in our lives, especially through our actions.

Doing the Beautiful

Sufis often speak about ihsan. Usually translated as "good deeds," ihsan literally means "doing the beautiful." Here we may remember Rumi's famous line in the same spirit, "Let the beauty you love be what you do."

What counts for beauty in action? Just as with seeing the beautiful, doing the beautiful reveals good fitting. The beautiful act is simply appropriate within the whole context in which it occurs — it fits — even though the beautiful act might be surprising or unexpected. I remember a comment made by Miles Davis when he was asked how he came up with such beautiful improvised melodies. He said, "I think of the next note, and then I don't play it." The idea of good fit in the context of music — as in all realms of doing the beautiful — embraces both the expected and the unexpected, allowing the music to be spontaneously alive.

And this is another way to describe the beauty we love: spontaneous life. The only way we can do the beautiful is to live spontaneously, with complete freshness. The opposite of living spontaneously means living within the awkward habits of self-consciousness and self-preoccupation — and within the approval or disapproval of societal judgments.

A cautious voice here might ask, "What about moral actions? What about self-control and the need to restrain our anger, passions, and selfishness? Wouldn't doing the beautiful simply give license to self-gratification?" It is true that as a commandment "do the beautiful" leaves a great deal of spaciousness around interpreting right action in diverse situations, but this is the very nature of its gift. This is why the poet Gary Snyder remarked, "The key to ethics is aesthetics." The beautiful act is ethical because it allows spontaneous life to arise in a situation rather than forcing a preconceived righteousness to have its way. A case could be made that strictly defined moral laws throughout history have led to as much suffering as they have prevented. Indeed, Romeo and Juliet might have lived happily ever after if their families had been committed to doing the beautiful rather than being obedient to their moral opinions.

gold domeObviously this is a complex subject, one that cannot be covered in a few paragraphs. Still, we might allow ourselves a moment to imagine how the world might change if human beings followed beauty in this way. Imagine if we learned from an early age to recognize and be guided by the revelation of beauty in how we lived our lives, if we learned from our parents and teachers and politicians to value beauty throughout our environment and in the heart of all our interactions. How different our world would look! Buildings and towns and cities would be built for beauty rather than for maximum efficiency. We would value cities that supported life and that were a good fit with the beauty of the whole human spirit — not just an occasional section of a Paris or a Firenze, but everywhere. And how differently would we treat each other if we valued above all beauty in our beliefs, in our religions and ideologies and politics, in the ways we raise our children and educate them, and in how we relate to people different from us.

Of course this is idealistic — indeed the whole notion of "the beautiful" is an ideal, and as a society we are far from following beauty or giving priority to the ideal of beauty throughout our culture. Nevertheless, is it not still possible for each of us to follow the way of beauty in the daily unfolding of our lives? It may not be possible yet for our civilization to do so, but certainly we can. Is there any reason not to?

Becoming the Beautiful

In these few pages I have lightly touched upon the mystery of beauty — its relation to truth, to ecological health, spontaneous life, open-heartedness, and ethical action. For the most part we have imagined the beauty that offers itself to us in the manifest world — in real-life situations like holding the hand of a dying friend, or the beauty of a morning, or of a kiss. Now as we come to the end of this contemplation, let us look to where these outer situations actually touch us. Why, after all, do we experience the beautiful as beautiful? Is beauty something we learn, or is there a capacity or sensitivity for beauty already in our beings? Could it be that our experiences of outer beauty occur because they resonate with a formless source of beauty within us? We may recall Plotinus's admonition: "...first let each become godlike and each beautiful who cares to see God and Beauty." What does it mean to become godlike and beautiful?

My sense is that becoming the beautiful is not a matter of becoming something new, but "becoming" that which we already are. It is a releasing of the constructed identities that have built up in our minds and in the ways we react to things. It is a simple "opening out" into the innate spaciousness and light that is the essence of our being. This clear, identityless light we are is itself the heart of beauty. It is a light that resists all description. We can only say, with Sufi Inayat Khan, that it is "the perfection of beauty" — the transparent beauty we share with all being.

Sufis have often pointed out that the natural human response to God's Majesty is awe, while our response to God's Beauty is intimacy. Consider this a moment: our response to the perfection of beauty is intimacy. The implication is of congruence — God's Beauty is congruent with our most intimate being-ness. As we learn to follow beauty in the outer world — seeing and doing the beautiful — we are simultaneously learning to open to the formless source of Beauty within all.

Let us give the last word to Plotinus, as he helps us to understand this opening:

When you know that you have become this perfect work, when you are self-gathered in the purity of your being, nothing now remaining that can shatter that inner unity, nothing from without clinging to the authentic human, when you find yourself wholly true to your essential nature, wholly that only veritable Light which is not measured by space, not narrowed to any circumscribed form nor again diffused as a thing void of term, but ever unmeasurable as something greater than all measure and more than all quantity—when you perceive that you have grown to this, you are now become vision itself: now call up all your confidence, strike forward yet a step—you need a guide no longer—now, see.

This is the only eye that sees the mighty Beauty.