By John Lee Pendall
We’re going to go off into left field today and talk about how beholding beauty can lead to a good, full life.
So, for shiggles, we can call the philosophy beholdism.
I ask you, Dear Reader, please don’t hold me to this philosophy. I’m a full-time Zennist and a part-time philosophy generator. If you dig it, feel free to run with it, because I probably won’t. I owe this school of thought to K, a close friend and artist. She was showing me some of the blue fabric she bought, and it was so freaking beautiful.
We talked about all the things it made us think of: the sky, clouds, water, moonlight, serenity—all of the good stuff. That made me think about philosophical aestheticism. I listened to a podcast on it a few weeks ago (because that’s my idea of a good time. In my defense, the podcast is called Drunken Philosophy, so there’s that).
Aesthetic philosophers are all about the function and form of beauty. It’s messy philosophy with dozens of different schools of thought in it. I shared it with K like, “Ya know, sometimes I kinda side with the aesthetic philosophers; that beauty is the highest good. So, the Good Life would be a life where we surround ourselves with beauty, inside and out, and try to expand our minds to find beauty in as many things as possible.”
After that, I spent a few hours diving into aesthetic philosophy a bit and realized that I didn’t define it very well at all. What I found was just page after page of stuffy white guys talking about beauty in heady, almost mathematical, ways. One dude even tried to use a formula to explain why a particular poem was objectively beautiful. Come on, man. Take it easy.
Apart from Immanuel Kant, no one really talked about how beholding beauty can be a life goal in itself.
So, let’s make my crappy definition of aesthetics into its own paradigm. I mean, why not? It’s two in the morning, what else am I supposed to do? Finish cleaning the dishes? They’re not done soaking yet!
There’s so much madness and ugliness in the world, it’s all over the news. There’s so much pressure at work and in the family—it’s nice to just stop and think about beauty every now and Zen.
First off, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we all know that. There are traits to different shapes, smells, sounds and whatnot that make them more likely to be experienced as beautiful (by humans), but that’s not set in stone. One person might see a gorgeous diamond, another might see a really expensive earth turd.
The standards of beauty differ from culture to culture and era to era. On the personal level, they change with our moods, desires and experiences. That’s where our journey starts, in this wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, inconstant mess of, “Wtf is going on?”
But, before we get started, we need a healthy dose of skepticism. We all start this journey finding certain experiences beautiful and others neutral or ugly. Most of those judgments come from biology, past experiences, and cultural conditioning. Our end game is to give society the middle finger by setting all of that aside.
We’re finding beauty apart from those conditions by making it depend on just one thing: our own minds. Scary.
The more beautiful our minds and moods are, the more beauty we’re going to see in ourselves and the world around us. We’re lucky because, even as a beautiful mood can make a beautiful world, a beautiful moment can make a beautiful mood; they’re interdependent. So, we do have a way in.
The logic is simple: beauty makes us feel good, so the more beauty we experience, the better we’ll feel. The better we feel, the better we’ll do, so the more beauty we’ll bring to the world.
The central point of all of it is learning how to behold. Beholding is attending to something, anything, in an intimate way. That means practicing ADREI (pronounced like Padre without the P): Attend, Deconstruct, Reconstruct, Expand, Introspect.
Attend. This all depends on attention. If we’re not immersing attention in the sights, sounds, tastes, and the respective thoughts and feelings they evoke, then beauty is going to be elusive. All but the most obviously beautiful things are going to be literally invisible to us. The less attention we pay to our senses, the more caught up we get in our own inner narratives and the moods they elicit.
Deconstruct. Once we spot something, say a cloud, after looking at it as a whole, we can start paying attention to all the traits and characteristics that make it up. Immerse attention in each texture, shape, color, light and shadow. Then, if it’s possible, deconstruct those parts into more parts.
Reconstruct. Move attention from the parts and back to the whole again. You might find that your perception of the whole has changed. Maybe there’s a new appreciation for it, a sense of savoring its being, its place in the world and the marvel that it exists in the first place.
Expand. This is the opposite of deconstructing. We’re expanding attention to include everything that’s around or interacting with our chosen object. If we were looking at a cloud before, now we’re widening focus to include the rest of the sky with all of its textures, shapes and colors. There’s no limit to how far you can expand. Preferably we can even include ourselves, our own senses and minds, in the experience, beholding it all as one Whole.
Introspect. Then we can take a deep breath and let attention contract and wander again, taking stock of how the whole experience made us feel. Did any comparisons, memories, metaphors or symbols pop up? Did it move us or inspire us? How has it altered our state of mind? Ya know, crap like that.
It’s easiest to start practicing ADREI with things that we already find pleasing or beautiful. Then we can move on from there to neutral experiences, and even ugly or unpleasant ones. This brings us closer and closer to the Profound.
Profundity is what life’s all about for me—having my mind blown and my heart cracked open. To be awed, to be submersed in wonder. To burst.
Profundity is unity. Our criteria for beauty and ugliness separates us, it reinforces the view that we’re alone here. But when two people can experience beauty in the same thing, there will be togetherness and understanding.
The beauty of the Profound is that, if everything seems perfect and beautiful—even just for a moment—then we’ve truly bridged the subjective divide between us. We’ve made contact with something deep, a common ground that transcends our individual narratives and senses.
Profundity is pure intimacy—bliss, love, peace and appreciation so complete that not even a single blade of grass seems separate from the Whole.
At the root, what can be more meaningful than diving into life as it is? Awash in the senses, losing ourselves in the thrill of absolute being. Breaking through all barriers, shrugging aside all social constructs, and facing—with awe—the fragile magic of this moment.
In all honesty, I can see no higher aim than beholding life as beautiful, and no higher purpose than sharing it. All of that said, if someone’s being an asshole, I’m still gonna tell them to fuck off, and that’s beautiful too.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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