The Nettle and the Bluebell
Kevin Statham asks: What is beauty?
What triggered this reflection on beauty was one of our daily lockdown walks in the local woodland park. I have previously mentioned the stunning display of cherry blossom but deeper in the woods, under the dappled light of the trees, the bluebells were offering a merry dance of colour. Close by were clumps of nettles. Now, for me, the nettles have little beauty. Maybe because of my conditioning or maybe because of the occasional sting as a child. But looking closer, the leaves have a stunning saw-tooth shape, even the hair-like stings have a delicate beauty. So why do I see the bluebell as beautiful and nettles as ugly? Why do we see the greenfinch as more beautiful than the sparrow? Is it that sparrows are common so we do not see them as special?
Is our sense of beauty ‘given’ to us as we are growing up? Does our culture, the media and our friends colour our views of what has beauty and what does not? I have read that for one aspect of our aesthetic appreciation we can thank the Grecian and Roman architects. Their love of symmetry and clean lines has coloured the western view of beauty for many generations. But there is another perspective. The Japanese have an aesthetic called Wabi Sabi. As I understand this, the Wabi Sabi perspective admires the imperfections in an object. As nothing can be perfect in this world, the craftsman’s marks and the chips and scratches from years of use represent this imperfection. For anyone with a crafting hobby this aesthetic is quite useful when we are frustrated with trying to achieve perfection. This way of looking at things certainly takes a lot of pressure off my woodworking projects!
I avoided the usual technique of looking up beauty in the dictionary or thesaurus but typed it into Google images expecting to see sunsets, flowers and landscapes. Instead, all but a few images were of women’s faces. I assume this was because of makeup and beauty products. It’s interesting to reflect that research has shown conventionally beautiful faces to have a similar proportion together with a symmetry. It is also interesting to reflect that beauty is a matter of distance. Too far away and the face is a blur (unless i put my glasses on) and as we move in closer the face becomes a pattern of skin flakes, pores, grease and sweat. Maybe beauty is not skin deep after all.
Watching a DVD the other night about the beauty of Leonard Cohen’s poetry, Bono, from the band U2, said “truth is beauty”. I feel this warrants some reflection. What is truth? From a Buddhist perspective, truth is impermanence, no self and unsatisfactory. At first thought there doesn’t seem to be beauty in this list. I wonder how the Buddha saw this reality? I wonder if he would have used the word beautiful?
Can all things be beautiful?
The ocean is magnificent and inspiring but can it be considered beautiful? There is no benevolence or compassing in the ocean. Ships are lost in storms, fish eat or are eaten, the ocean itself is pulled and pushed by the moon. Can a clear winter’s evening be considered beautiful? When the first hard frost of winter arrives, we can enjoy the cool night air and starry sky but millions of slugs, snails and insects die that night in the cold.
So if we move away from a cultural or personal definition of beauty then why can’t we see all things as beautiful? Letting go of our preferences and views is not easy as this is what defines us. If we believe we can see everything as beautiful, then we will have to see rats, pain, rot and even the virus as beautiful. See the beauty in the grey squirrel as much as the red. Enjoying a field of nettles as much as a woodland filled with bluebells. This is a tall ask but maybe we can start to see a beauty in the flow of reality, the arising and passing.
Sometimes when I am sitting in meditation and my mind is swirling instead of settling I see a beauty in the swirling, an aliveness, and I whisper the word: beautiful.
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