An Irish poet examines the global crisis over the nature of beauty
WE LIVE BETWEEN the act of awakening and the act of surrender. Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day in the world of time; each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world of dreams where time is no more. At birth we were awakened and emerged to become visible in the world. At death we will surrender again to the dark to become invisible. Awakening and surrender: They frame each day and each life; between them is the journey where anything can happen, the beauty and the frailty.
The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere -- in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion, and in ourselves. No one would desire not to be beautiful. When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful, for it meets the needs of our soul. For a while the strain of struggle and endurance are relieved and our frailty becomes illuminated by a different light in which we come to glimpse behind the shutter of appearances the sure form of things. In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. We find that we slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.
THESE TIMES ARE riven with anxiety and uncertainty given the current global crisis. In the hearts of people some natural ease has been broken. Our trust in the future has lost its innocence. We know now that anything can happen, from one minute to the next. Politics, religion, economics, and the institutions of family and community, all have become abruptly unsure. At first, it sounds completely naive to suggest that now might be the time to invoke and awaken beauty. Why? Because there is nowhere else to turn and we are desperate; furthermore, it is because we have so disastrously neglected the Beautiful that we now find ourselves in such terrible crisis.
In a sense, all the contemporary crises can be reduced to a crisis about the nature of beauty. When we address difficulty in terms of the call to beauty, new invitations come alive. Perhaps, for the first time, we gain a clear view of how much ugliness we endure and allow. The media generate relentless images of mediocrity and ugliness in their talk shows, tapestries of smothered language and frenetic gratification. Beauty is mostly forgotten and made to seem naive and romantic. The blindness of development creates rooms, buildings, and suburbs that lack grace and mystery. Socially, this influences the atmosphere in the workplace, the schoolroom, the boardroom, and the community. We are turning more and more of our beautiful earth into a wasteland. Much of the stress and emptiness that haunt us can be traced back to our lack of attention to beauty. Internally the mind becomes coarse and dull if it remains unvisited by images and thoughts that hold the radiance of beauty.
Sadly, whether from resentment, fear, or blindness, beauty is often refused, repudiated, or cut down to the size of our timid perceptions. The tragedy is that what we refuse to attend to cannot reach us. In turning away from beauty, we turn away from all that is wholesome and true, and deliver ourselves into an exile where the vulgar and artificial dull and deaden the human spirit. In their vicinity we are unable to feel or think with any refinement. They cannot truly engage us because of their emptiness; they pound our minds and feelings because they lack the coherence to embrace the inner form of the soul. They are not a presence but rather an absence that evicts and vacates.
A CULTURE IS a complex network of tradition, convention, radiance, memory, dream, and darkness. In our times, travel and especially technology have transformed the boundaries of culture to bring us closer together. Yet the world was never more threatened by raging conflicts of inequality, hatred, and terrorism. It is the ultimate paradox of our times. Why does emerging global unification have such a sinister underside? Perhaps because the engine of unification has been economics and it has no destination other than acquisition; consequently, it has squandered the privileges and duties of encounter for the sake of economic and industrial connection.
But connection is not encounter. This is precisely where the neglect and repression of beauty lead to disaster. The heart of beauty is loyalty to wholeness and symmetry, and the effect is illumination and radiance. This is always evident in the simplicity and complexity of human encounter. Two humans can meet at an obvious conscious level, but the subconscious of each is always in play and sublimely alert. If this powerful unknown domain between two individuals is not attended to but pushed aside, their encounter will lack depth and often unwittingly activate unexpected negativity and destructiveness between them. Our global unification has been raging on but merely at a superficial, conscious level. As with an individual, a culture has a subconscious too. We need to acknowledge the subtle yet powerful subconscious of different cultures. A culture's subconscious must be given space and patience in order that it can show itself and guide us in our duties of care, attention, and encounter.
The origin, evolution, and definition of a culture is always an incredible narrative. As well as being a social creation, at its heart a culture is primarily a creation of imagination and spirit. We cannot encounter the heart of a culture unless we attend to its inner creative impulse whose vision and intention is ultimately the Beautiful. A culture that denies beauty sows the seeds of its own destruction. Within every culture there are huge archives and fountains of beauty. The 'royal road' to true cultural encounter brings us to its fountain of beauty. When we are admitted there, we stand on universal ground, on a level where conscious and subconscious are in harmonious tension; this is the depth below fear, threat, and otherness.
This is the fecund Field of Springtime within a culture, the one field where the seeds of true beginning can germinate. We need to refine our attention and purify our urgency to make ourselves worthy to enter there. When we do, caricature and hatred of the Other begin to melt away and we are able to meet in our difference, without fear and threat. Otherwise, the lethal pendulum of attack and counterattack will prevail and destroy us all. Imagine the harvest of possibility that would open if the West could attend to the neglected and forgotten creative subconscious of Islam and China -- that Field of Springtime where the beauty of Islam and China await to enrich us all. Beauty is another order, a deeper level. When we allow ourselves under the persuasion of beauty, our encounter gains integrity, and integrity is the heart of integration, which is the gift we most desperately need now.
Excerpted from Kosmos (Fall/Winter 2004), a magazine that explores 'global awakening.' Subscriptions: $16/yr. (2 issues) from Box 2102, Lenox, MA 01240; www.kosmosjournal.org.