Why Beauty Matters

Beauty is an essential ingredient of life.

It is a gateway to a freedom from suffering.

But how?

Yosemite Falls. Yosemite Park. California. Paddy Barrett, 2019

Beauty does not need to announce itself.

When we look upon a scene or hear a piece of music that makes the hairs on our neck stand up, we do not need to have its significance explained.

Beauty focuses our attention on the present moment and distracts us from our continuous internal narrative. A narrative that is often unhelpful, maladaptive or simply a distraction from the present.

We spend our lives lost in thought.

Beauty is a universal solvent for this problem and leaves us with a feeling of presence. Our thoughts fade, and for a brief moment, there is no problem to be solved. Only a moment in time to be fully experienced.

The reason the world collectively gasped in response to images from the James Webb telescope wasn’t because of the engineering that made it possible but because we immediately knew we were in the presence of cosmic beauty.

NASA’s Webb Reveals Cosmic Cliffs, Glittering Landscape of Star Birth. Creative Commons.

This level of beauty goes beyond the ordinary.

We were undeniably in the realm of awe.

This is what is known as the ‘numinous’.

The term numinous was brought into everyday use by the German philosopher Rudolph Otto who derived it from the Latin word ‘numen’, which means spiritual, mysterious or awe-inspiring. He described it as a combined sense of fascination and terror. As if in the presence of something unworldly and powerful.

In his 2018 book, ‘How to change your mind’, the author Michael Pollan describes the sense of the numinous after ingesting the hallucinogen DMT:

“Here, words fail. Only afterwards did I wonder if this is what the mystics call the mysterium tremendum—the blinding unendurable mystery before which humans tremble in awe.”

All of us have experienced beauty.

Many of us have experienced the numinous.

It is essential to point out that the numinous does not require invoking any ideas of superstition or faith.

It is the simple recognition that there is an infinite mystery of existence at our backs, and we briefly recognise we are in its presence.

Bearing witness to the cosmic significance of deep space by way of the imagery provided by the James Webb telescope was a way of allowing humanity to feel in the presence of the ‘divine’, the ‘sacred’, or the ‘transcendent’. Whatever term you chose, its significance was undeniable.

But as we descend back to Earth from the stars, how do such images of beauty and awe help us in our daily lives?

Firstly, beauty allows us to discover that moments without a constant stream of internal chatter are possible. If even just briefly.

And with that knowledge, we can begin working towards extending those moments.

St Paul's Cathedral High Altar, London, UK. Creative Commons.

Secondly, an experience of the numinous allows us to feel in the presence of something ‘greater than ourselves’. As Carl Jung notes:

“The decisive question for man is:

Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life.”

Regardless of your beliefs, faith or ideology, these are two universal ideas we can bring into our lives to enrich it.

The final step in this journey is to recognise that the sense of the numinous and the cessation of suffering from the internal narrative of our minds can be achieved in each and every moment.

That there is beauty in the ordinary and the numinous is available at any time.

This is the true purpose of meditation.

To recognise that this very moment is enough.

That in this very moment, we are in relationship to a mystery we cannot explain.

And in doing so, we find that everything is as it should be.

That there really is no problem to be solved.

This is the goal of transcendence. And why contemplatives for millennia have sought it out.

For most of us, we will never achieve that goal.

But maybe, just maybe, on a clear night, with the stars in full view, we can realise we are in the presence of a beautiful mystery, that simply being alive is enough, and that right now is all we will ever have and all we will ever need.

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