By Tasha Friedman
What is beauty? What makes something beautiful? Is it nice colors, elegant shapes or symmetry? Or is there something more? What does it mean when you look up at a night sky full of stars and something twists inside your chest, like a memory of something so important but you can’t put your finger on it? The experience of beauty for many is a spiritual experience in the deepest sense of the word: an opening to the mysterious reality beyond the limitations of our normal patterns.
Beauty as a spiritual path
Many religions and spiritual traditions throughout history, especially those of the more austere, ascetic and transcendentalist flavor, have rejected beauty as a distraction and a trap. Other traditions, however, have noticed that there is a deep mystery and spirituality in the experience of beauty. In Hindu tantra (and, to a lesser degree, tantric Buddhism), beauty and aesthetics have an important role. Along this path, beauty is both a means to awaken the soul to its own nature and an attribute of that Absolute Reality itself.
Abhinavagupta, the great master who united the schools of Kashmir Shaivism, was also an accomplished poet, musician and philosopher of aesthetics. In fact, his aesthetic theory is a cornerstone of classical Indian philosophy, widely appreciated by many scholars who have no interest whatsoever in spirituality. He teaches that aesthetic appreciation, the experience of being left speechless by a work of art or a beautiful sight, is one of the closest things in normal life to a mystical experience. It is a touch of the Divine that every human is familiar with, even if they haven’t meditated a day in their life.
The Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra, one of the earliest and most celebrated texts of Kashmir Shaivism, lists not one but three yuktis (techniques) to use everyday perceptions of beauty or pleasure as a gateway to profound mystical opening. (I’ll list these at the end of this post, if you want to try them.) These practices are based on the Kashmir Shaivist concept of camatkāra. It’s a delicious word, isn’t it? Camatkāra. Just say it out loud and get a taste of its meaning. It refers to that flash of spontaneous delight, of awe and wonderment that arises when we encounter something beautiful. The moment when you are caught off guard by an enchanting melody, or when you look up just in time to see a bright rainbow glittering across the sky. Time stops and just for that moment, you dissolve into wonder. Usually it only lasts for the blink of an eye. Then the gears of the mind start turning again. From pure experience, your mind says, “rainbow,” then “I am seeing a rainbow,” then “this rainbow is nice but I saw a better one last week.”
The trick, according to the Shaivists, is to learn to rest in that first moment of unconditioned delight. It is actually a moment of recognition, pratyabhijna, in which awareness catches a glimpse of itself. Abhinavagupta’s texts drip with wonder at the beauty of Reality, both as pure Awareness and in its expansion into infinite forms. Mystics from many other backgrounds have experienced the Absolute as beauty, as in St. Augustine’s famous cry: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.” Or the words of Rumi: “O God, you are the graceful and the beautiful. You are the highest love, the giver of life.”
Is it beautiful or just pretty?
When talking about beauty in this way, it should be clear that we are talking about something more than just what is pretty or conventionally beautiful. Beauty and prettiness are not the same. Actually, in the spiritual sense they are opposites. Prettiness is something that only conforms to conventional aesthetics and usually takes the viewer deeper into samsara (or the limited reality we tend to identify with on a daily basis). It generates more attachment to the senses, more grasping after sensory fulfillment, more identification with limited form and conventions, and reinforces the ingrained belief that beauty comes from form. This is assuming, of course, that you view it in a normal way. Any object, no matter how pretty or ugly, can reveal deep, transformative beauty when seen with the right eyes. With awareness, you can find beauty in any sense perception. And without awareness, there is no beauty. Just compare two experiences.
In the first, imagine you are looking out on a beautiful landscape at sunset, but you are distracted, worried about how you will pay your credit card bill this month or a difficult conversation you will have to have later. How much of a sense of beauty is there?
For the second, pick up a random object that you have near you right now. A pen, a shoe, an old hat. Hold it close to your eyes and look at it, really look at it, turning off your thoughts for a minute. Forget what the thing is and look at it like a piece of art. See the colors, the shapes, the subtle shadings and how it catches the light.
How much beauty is there? Beauty is universal. Wherever you put enough awareness, you will find it. This is a clue to the deeper significance of aesthetic experience: the transcendent is beautiful and the nature of beauty is transcendence. True beauty takes the viewer beyond form. It isn’t created or confined by appearance. For example, think of an artist who can make amazing art out of junk or create something ugly that still causes a tremor of aesthetic wonder. Just listen to Stravinsky’s dissonant chords or take a look at the frantic scribbles of Cy Twombly.
Seeing the beauty in what is normally considered ugly or just unremarkable is, I believe, a marker of spiritual maturity. The more you can approach every moment with wonder and awe, the more you can appreciate how uniquely beautiful and unspeakably precious is every aspect of this existence, the more you are open to the universe of the Heart. Essentially, what we perceive as beautiful is anything that calls us back to our true nature, that triggers that moment of pratyabhijna. At its core, beauty, is a mystery. If you try to grasp what makes something beautiful, you will always come up empty.
A note on the beauty of painful experiences
I spoke earlier about the joy and spiritual value in discovering beauty in the ugly or mundane. Does this mean then that to progress spiritually, we have to “look on the bright side” of every painful experience? Is it a spiritual failure to feel hurt, sad, disappointed, disgusted or angry? Absolutely not. This is classic spiritual bypassing, a dead-end at best and dangerous at worst. “Negative” emotions have a purpose and a valuable role in our evolution. And you can find beauty in them also, as soon as you let go of the impulse to avoid them or fix them. The next time you feel sad, angry or reactive, try to take a closer look at this emotional energy. With neutrality and curiosity, you might find a special beauty in the intensity of fear, the clarity of anger or the poignancy of sadness. Maybe you have an intuition of this already, a memory of an intense moment of grief, fear or anger where you felt an inexplicable thrill of bliss. It’s a living proof of how – as much we try to put everything in life into boxes of pleasure or pain, good or bad – beauty transcends all limitations.
So where to from here?
Opening to beauty can be one of the most joyful and transformative dimensions of the spiritual journey. It is one of the simplest and most direct ways to catch a glimpse of the ineffable within the space of everyday life, a reminder that something mysterious and transcendent is alive within the ordinary. To connect with it, I recommend spending some quality time with art or music, looking or listening with a quiet mind and open attention to go fully into your own experience.
The time right after meditation is a perfect opportunity to discover beauty. When you open your eyes, try to see the whole scene before you as a work of art, a unique expression of Consciousness.
You can also explore these three yuktis* from the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra (sl. 72-4) as translated by Christopher Wallis:
“One should meditate on the state of fullness that expands due to the delight of savoring good food and drink, and that joy will become sublime.
The yogin who relishes music and song to the extent that he merges with it becomes filled with unparalleled happiness, attains heightened awareness and experiences oneness with the Divine.
Wherever the mind delights, let your attention linger there. In any such experience, the true nature of supreme bliss may shine forth.”
* The original text expects the practitioner to have mastered the yogic practices that come before the sensual practices or else the sensual practices will not work as part of a liberation sādhanā.
A note to our readers: We want to hear from you! What does beauty mean to you? How do you discover beauty or cultivate a sense of beauty along the spiritual path? Share in the comments below.