“Too often, beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy…. Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence.” – Pope Benedict XVI Speaking to a collection of artists.

The wounding, eye opening, joyful, grasping of profound meaning that the Pope described is an experience I’ve had. In fact I’ve had this experience many times and I now spend most of my free time putting myself in contexts where it might occur. It is not, of course, subject to any predictable formula.

Golden Hour

Beauty has this power to elevate us. But plunking ourselves down in front of an alpine lake, a great sculpture, or a symphony will not immediately trigger the experience. Neither can we easily work ourselves into the necessary rapture. Clamping our jaw and straining our brains doesn’t see to help. In fact the opposite is the case. The more we let go and relax, the more likely we are to be touched by beauty.

This is the wisdom I found in Kanjaku. I embraced the idea of Kanjaku as a way to deeply explore sabi, and over time I noticed that the emergence of sabi is triggered by encounters with beauty, but on a relaxed time-frame. The more hurried and time-aware I am, the less likely I am to experience it. When it occurs, however, time definitely seems to be involved.

“Wow,” I exclaim, “that is so beautiful!” And as my inner dialogue is abruptly interrupted, as my attention is arrested by the beauty, I am transported out of self and time seems to fall away. In that expelling of breath, in the wow wow wow, I am carried away just as Benedict describes. It is as if my observation fills with joy and wonder.

One thing that helps is to go out into nature without expectation, go out with a canoe, or a walking stick, or a camera, and just be there, not seeking an experience, not seeking a photo, not seeking anything in particular, but not denying my goal either. I go out expectant, interested, alert, but not attached to a particular outcome.

I practice being with an open hand, an open mind, an open heart. Not demanding — well, sometimes I descended into that. Find that I’m upset at not getting what I wanted. But frustration, judgement, anger –even hoping — all these cognitive elements are like fog and foliage and brambles that get in the way. It is better to just say, “what will be will be, if beauty is here, and my mind is ready, it will happen.” And often, after persistently moving past those bushes and impediments, it does.

“No goal” you might be thinking, doesn’t sound like the Pope’s description. What about that yearning and desire Benedict talked about?

I know what he means. I’ve experienced it and you probably have too. It is as if the beauty is hinting at something bigger, deeper, or more substantial. And that is often what we think of as God, or Nirvana, or Bliss with a capital B.

Beauty does often evoke a longing for those things, and I think in the end it is really a longing for understanding, realization, and awakening. The yearning is a kind of grasping, and the best thing to do with this very human state of mind, I find, is to name it as such. “This beauty makes me long for insight. I welcome the darkness and ignorance I feel. I welcome my state of glimpsing something in the beauty, of being touched, without grasping after it.” I might say.

I feel the feelings, let them move me and move through me, and then I let go of the desire for that larger awareness, or for awakening, or for transcendence.” As long as the yearning drives deepening, I feel it, but when it wains, then I relax into the clarity of surrender.

This letting go, is in some sense, a giving up of enlightenment or heaven, and when I manage it, the letting go allows me to simply continue to wander, feel tethered to that bigger mystery, or maybe connected simply to a wider perspective than I will ever fully have. Letting go allows me to simply loiter in the woods and get, and enjoy getting, gently lost.

Gently Lost

Freidrich Von Schiller said, “Beauty is indeed the sphere of unfettered contemplation and reflection; beauty conducts us into the world of ideas, without however taking us from the world of sense… By beauty the sensuous man is brought back to matter and restored to the world of sense.” 

Freidrich, who was called Fritz by, apparently, nearly everyone who knew him, dedicated some time to reflection on the role of beauty in the world. Philosophical by nature he eventually concluded that the decline of culture can best be prevented by a kind of education in beauty.

The decline of culture can be prevented by an education in beauty.

Fritz thought it was possible to elevate the moral character of a people by first touching their souls with beauty.

Morning Gate

“Only through Beauty’s morning-gate,” he said, “do you penetrate the land of knowledge.”

I think he is right, but it reminds me of the joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a light bulb. Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change. The same must be said of dim whits, I’m afraid. Nothing will light up a person who is enamored of darkness. And by darkness I mean ignorance. And a great many are enamored by ignorance. I used to wonder why, but then I remembered that ignorance is bliss. This is not just a platitude.

People residing in ignorance are not facing the expansive terrifying reality all around them. They are happily distracting themselves with uncomplicated answers, simple solutions, and dogmatic belief systems. I know all about it, I spent a lot of time doing that.

The terrifying reality that is all around us is not something that is easy for me to look at. I think our brains are designed to filter out a lot of reality. We can’t take it all in big bites. We must have little bites. Manageable bites.

But perhaps that isn’t the right metaphor either. Maybe that garden gate idea is worth a closer look. Regardless of the fact that it has obvious sexual overtones, we do penetrate knowledge through beauty’s morning gate. Let me give you an examples from my life.

The Nook at Trail Pond

Trail Pond

I’ve written about Trail Pond before. The first story is about a turning point in my own personal development that I called The Duck, and another account is a nostalgic reflection when I returned to the pond after being away for about 6 years.

Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own.


– NAOMI SHIHAB NYE

I love to paddle Trail Pond. It is one of my all time favorite places and it is no longer easy to get to. At one time a beautiful rural road went right by it, then the hillsides around the pond were logged and a gate was erected to keep vehicle traffic out.

The pond is like many wetlands in the region. A collection of water in a low area, often aided by beavers, where life gathers in abundance. These places have an abundance of shorelines and transition zones, the Vita Ora, or vital edge. I’ve always loved the margins of lakes and ponds, partly because that is where life tends to abound, and partly because with life, comes a certain kind of beauty.

The Vital Edge

Trail Pond has become a sacred place for me because it predictably exposes me to the factors that allow me to see beauty and be effected by it. You can read those other posts for the details, but in summary, the environment with it’s inherent beauty, opened me to see some of the dark threads of nature, some of the darkest threads in fact, but these insight allowed me to accept reality and experience freedom and become unstuck.

Beautiful things are things that evolution has primed us to enjoy and want to come back to and feel pleasure in experiencing.

– Frank Wilczek in conversation with Krista Tippett at ON BEING.
A Sacred Place

Beyond Our Current Imagining

The things we find beautiful are likely, as Frank Wilczek says above, things which gave our ancestors pleasure and advantage. We are drawn to the edges of wetlands, for example, because there is abundant food there.

But as our brains evolved, the function that beauty played in our life also evolved. It became a reliable key to unlock deeper understanding and development. It became a way of coming to seem more clearly.

It may just be that in working with beauty, we can continue our evolution towards something beyond our current imagining. Who knows where such work may lead?

It may be, as Dostoevsky famously said, that beauty will save the world.

Beauty will save the world.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

Posted by Richard

writer | canoeist | photographer | contemplative | My highest value is the appreciation of beauty and excellence. I notice it in nature, ideas, and people. My second highest value is truth. I seek it in thinking, relationships, and perception. I trust the great traditions, science, and I study religion, literature, and art tuned as they are for the heart. I appreciate the sparks of genius that come to all who think and question and ponder. It remains strangely evident -- the truth sets us free.

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