A Master Key
Beauty is an experience and not the property of any object or thing. Beauty, deconstructed, comprises the relational values of balance, harmony, proportionality and rhythm. When we understand the real meaning of beauty, we can apply these relationships to resolve some of the fundamental problems of our time.
SERENDIPITY, AND THE generosity of the organisers, enabled me to attend the Resurgence Readers’ Summer Camp this year. I was invited to speak on ‘Beauty and its Resurgence’ in an enormous tent, with an array of velvet-covered hay bales for seating! It was a beautiful sunny morning, after weeks of wet weather.
The wonderful response from the many diverse people who attended was further evidence that, rightly understood and skilfully used, beauty may be a master key to solving a range of problems that stem, in part, from a profound confusion and misunderstanding of beauty.
Beauty is a fundamental organising system in the ‘relational’ world. If we understood and were attentive to beauty as a cluster of organising values for all relational systems, we would not have many of the systemic problems we face today: the growing environmental crisis, an economic system that leads to increased disparities of income, wasteful consumption, and the depletion of resources our children will need in the future. But first, let’s briefly consider how beauty has become trivialised and de-legitimised in the last couple of hundred years.
In the first place, ‘beauty’ – the word itself – has lost much of its meaning. It has become a general and amorphous adjective, used interchangeably to denote something that is ‘good’, ‘pleasing’, ‘terrific’, ‘wonderful’, ‘great’ and ‘excellent’. We might say we had “a beautiful meal”, meaning it was delicious, or we had “a beautiful day”, meaning everything went rather well, or we might say that was “a beautiful goal”, in talking about a football event, when we meant it was a skilful goal. It has even been used to describe bombs and wars: “It was a beautiful war”, or “It’s a beauty of a bomb”!
Secondly, we have made beauty completely superficial. “Is beauty skin deep?” is a question that has been asked, and for all practical purposes, the answer we have collectively given is “yes”, because that is exactly where we locate beauty: on the surface of things, on the visible form, and even quite literally on the skin (as is evident when a new book on cosmetics and skin care is published under the title of ‘Holistic Beauty’!).
Two other points must be made regarding the confusion about beauty. One is the subjectivity associated with beauty, captured by the popular adage “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The other is the idea of fixed definitions of beauty, which qualify some things and some people as beautiful, and others as not. Here we face the problems of who decides what or who is beautiful, and the culture and gender issues that are wound up with the idea that beauty is fixed and definable. It isn’t.
The issues of the slippery subjectivity of beauty and the tyranny of absolutism in beauty are, in a sense, related misunderstandings. Is beauty subjective? Yes, it is. But that does not diminish its importance. That is the fallacy of a worldview – which has fortunately begun to recede – that gives undue importance to the non-subjective, measurable and absolute; a worldview that has been out of touch with the dynamic, changing, interlinked and relational reality of the world we inhabit.
These problems of subjectivity vs absolute inherence, of surface vs structure, and of looking vs being, are largely obviated by a very important concept about beauty in the wisdom traditions of India, where beauty is understood to be an experience and not the property of any object or thing. Objects, or other stimuli, can and do cause and create the beauty experience in people. And the beauty experience, like all experiences, is temporal and relational.
Two corollaries flow from this understanding, and both emphasise the relational nature of beauty: it forms in the relationship between viewer and object; and, deconstructed, it comprises the relational values of balance, harmony, proportionality and rhythm. The first corollary is that different objects may create the beauty experience in different people, so while one object may be beautiful to one person, it may not to another; and the experience of beauty, though triggered by different stimuli, has some commonality across people. For example, a field general may get the full range of feelings and thoughts of the beauty experience at the site (and sight) of a brilliantly executed battle manoeuvre that has decimated the opposing army, while a lover may feel the same thing in the arms of a beloved.
The second corollary is that though the stimuli may be very different, the feelings are structurally similar; the beauty experience is pleasing and it makes us feel good. This happens because we feel attracted and connected. Beauty is experienced as pleasure, gladness, wellness, delight, joy, spaciousness, connectedness, timelessness, integration and wholeness. Deep beauty experiences are imbued with feelings of harmony and balance, and of proportionality and rhythm. These experiences of profound and absorbing beauty induce a bliss, ananda, that is transformative.
The beauty experience usually begins with our senses, but it can cascade into our feelings and emotions, can engage our reason and intellect, and can move us at the levels of ‘consciousness’ or ‘spirit’. This is of course what many artists strive for, though it has rather fallen out of favour in recent times.
One other point must be stressed. Beauty is a dynamic experience, rather than a static condition. Balance, harmony, rhythm and proportion: the qualities of beauty are all relational, dynamic and contextual. There is nothing fixed about them, and therefore nothing can be absolutely beautiful forever. I would even go further and suggest that the deepest experiences of profound beauty are subtly imbued with the taste of transience.
Beauty is relational and can be integrative. Beauty is more than the absence of ugliness. Profound experiences of beauty bring together and integrate opposites. They create higher levels of transformative understanding of harmony and balance, and of the cycles and rhythms of life. Beauty becomes integrative when it transcends the difficult polarities, such as ‘Life is beautiful’ and ‘Death is ugly’. Beauty is actually experienced in the understanding that life and death co-exist and need to be balanced and harmonised (an understanding that could lead to new approaches to social, cultural and medical/health systems). It was perhaps this level of understanding of beauty that led to it being placed in the lofty trinities of West and East: ‘Truth, Beauty, Goodness’, and ‘Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram’.
IN ALL CULTURES there have been attempts to discover patterns of harmony and rhythm, proportion and goodness. Such universal and enduring patterns have been found in physical, spatial and mathematical relationships, in sound and music, in colour and form – such as the Golden Mean and the musical scales. There are many examples of the use of these in the traditional arts and sacred architecture around the world, and they are in use in some contemporary design as well.
Though there is no ‘absolute’, ‘permanent’ and ‘timeless’ beauty – because beauty is a subjective, contextual and temporary experience – creating beauty in the design of buildings, products and even social systems through attention to the quality of relationships can become an engagement of priority for all of us. The enormous importance of ‘beauty’ is that it is about the qualities in and of all relationships. It affords us a relational value system.
There is a new holistic understanding forming in the post-Newtonian, post-Galilean and post-Cartesian science about living systems and our world: that it is completely interconnected and interrelated. In the new thinking about Nature, environment, technology, health, sciences and economics we need a relational framework that emphasises balance, harmony, proportionality, rhythm, appropriateness, contextuality and fairness, and that is what I believe ‘beauty’ offers us.
Beauty is the ‘key’ principle, the master key in reordering our values and systems – in economics, in governance, in education. We should start to seek beauty in every activity – questioning, for instance, whether a business plan is beautiful, and whether a new product design is beautiful in its micro and macro interrelationships.
To revitalise our understanding of beauty there is much more to be learnt from Nature, which is rich in beauty because it has to be. Without harmony, balance, proportion, rhythm and context it would not have been possible for the amazing relational complexity to evolve from the growth of the first cell, its membrane (its early skin?) forming the permeable container that enabled complex evolution within the membrane, and the dance of its complex relationships outside the cell with the rest of the environment. There remains more to be discovered about the systemic beauty in Nature, and this knowledge needs to be used to inform and design more beautiful human systems.
IT IS TIME for a resurgence of beauty. To understand beauty from many perspectives we need evolutionary biologists to tell us about the role of beauty in evolution; neuroscientists to tell us what happens in the brain when the beauty experience occurs; environmental scientists to tell us about the beauty of natural systems; bio-ethicists to tell us about beauty in living systems; economists to tell us what beauty might be in economic systems; physicists to tell us about beauty in physics; mathematicians to tell us about beauty in their knowledge system; meditation masters to tell us of their understanding of inner beauty; artists, architects and designers to tell us about beauty in their practices.
Bringing together experts from many disciplines to share their perspectives on beauty – and exploring how changes can be made in ecological, economic, social, technological and knowledge systems is the vision of the ‘Beauty Dialogues’ initiative. If you wish to join or contribute to this effort, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
Shakti Maira will give the keynote address at the Mystics and Scientists Conference ‘The Science of Well-Being and the Experience of Bliss’ which will take place at University College, Winchester, 3rd–5th April 2009. Details can be found at www.scimednet.org