by Michael McGinnis
Our world is made of matter and energy, and our attentions are often held by the patterns of energy and power in the world: violent crime, war, and feats of great endurance or effort. It is natural for us to identify with feats of strength of one kind or another, as we all need a certain amount of energy to survive. Our society has another name for energy -- money -- and insists that it is vital to have as much as possible. Thus our fascination with riches, speed, political power, intelligence, celebrity and brute strength: all of these are examples of different kinds of intense energy.
Within each of us, however, there is another kind of ideal that each of us identifies with, that of beauty. Just as there is an inner sense of balance, there is something in the human constitution that senses, appreciates and hungers for the harmony that strikes a responsive chord deep inside each person.
The effects of beauty are well known -- feelings of excitement, joy and energy, of communication without words, of powerful significance, truth and insight -- but are often passed over with little comment in day to day life. Neglecting a chance to appreciate beauty, "not stopping to smell the roses", means making of life a darker and meaner place than it needs to be. When the waves and storms of our problems threaten to o'ertop our flimsy coracle lives, it may be only the fragrance of a flower, the vision of beautiful eyes, or the ecstatic sounds of a favorite piece of music that give us the encouragement to carry on.
Beauty really is "in the eye of the beholder". This has two interesting results. First, standards of beauty differ from person to person, and from culture to culture. Even one person's perception of what is beautiful will change as his mood and sensitivity does. And beauty also causes a reaction in the nervous system -- in extreme cases, such a strong reaction that there is a feeling of pain because the beauty is so compelling. Like a jolt of electricity, the mind is shaken by a sense of wonderful order and proportion, a magical "rightness"; some part of the mind tasked with weighing the esthetic merits of sensory information decides it has hit the jackpot and goes "TILT!".
The most hopeful aspect about appreciation of beauty is that it can be learned, and become more cultivated and refined. Any time a new field of knowledge is opened up to an interested person, there is a chance for a greater experience of beauty. Become a birdwatcher, a geologist, an astronomer, and new vistas of beauty are opened to the observant eye and ear. When the mind and heart are open to new experiences, life gradually provides the experiences to open the consciousness to new horizons of beauty: for example, music that most teenagers finds boring and tedious may be revealed to the older person as wonderfully delicate and ethereal.
What we experience as beautiful is some indication of our greater and growing awareness as Soul to what is around us. This growth does not happen quickly -- it is often a matter of decades while one's tastes in music, for instance, steep and mature. One of the objectives of our school system is fostering a sense of beauty. When we can do well with this goal, we help students feel the sense of joy that beauty ignites within each of us, and shows them that that joy and beauty is part of them. The study and appreciation of beauty is one of the best ways to find meaning in life, and to feel by appreciating and expressing beauty that those most valuable parts of life are also part of you.