Beauty is often at the heart of a lot of people’s deepest personal and spiritual desires.
In our culture, beauty often involves people objectifying what they find beautiful and them wanting to own or control it. It can also be used to create false ideals around perfection.
This is painful for everyone involved and is particularly oppressive towards women, who are expected to be beautiful to be accepted. In our culture, beauty is often considered synonymous with attractive women.
Beauty is incredibly powerful and most people recognise this on some level. But it’s also rarely respected in the same way that intelligence is, for example. Historically, beautiful women and artefacts are something to fight over – to try and own. The difference is subtle, but beauty easily becomes about attracting the attention of the powerful, rather than being respected for being powerful in its own right.
When the power of beauty is deeply respected, then it holds immense capacity to transform people’s experience and behaviour.
In this way of engaging with it, something doesn’t even need to be that pretty or attractive to have this effect. It’s about its ability to evoke strong emotions in people in a way that feels compelling and engaging; it turns experience into something that feels like it has flavours of artistry to it.
A better words for this than beauty, perhaps, is evocative.
“Something can be incredibly evocative without being beautiful. And something can be quite beautiful without being evocative.”
This sense of life being beautiful, evocative, emotionally moving or artistic in some way is a lot of what makes it worth living. This is why it makes sense to cultivate these things through spiritual practice.
In order for it to be whole-hearted and meaningful, we want to focus on the parts of beauty that helps us deepen emotional connection, inspire creativity and connect more fully with all aspects of ourselves and life.
The difference between a pretty status-and-consumption-fuelled beauty and a sense of whole-hearted evocativeness is like the difference between a diamond necklace and a dramatic landscape full of nature’s natural imperfections.
If we can learn to appreciate and seek for the latter, we gain more space for the flaws of ourselves and each other and it becomes easier to love more of life more fully.
This is perhaps the deepest power of beauty or evocativeness in our lives – creating a way for us to love things that otherwise would be hard to engage with or connect with. I write a practical guide for how to engage with this in shared practice here.
To explore all this in all its experiential depths I went on a day-long mission to connect with beauty. I found a lot. I photographed some of it.
Here are the photographs and a running commentary of what I noticed during the day.
A Day of Beauty
While doing this I noticed a few things about beauty and evocativeness.
There is an art-form in trusting what you find evocative. If you start second-guessing and trying to find the things that are “objectively” beautiful, you lose the emotional connection that it’s there to create.
This requires a level of sincerity – an emotional openness, combined with a sharp discernment that comes from being intimately in touch with yourself and your inner world.
I noticed that the evocativeness in absurdity or darkness can be more compelling to me than pure light beauty, but that it is also harder to capture.
I thought about how this relates to sexuality.
It felt important to recognise that not objectifying sexual beauty isn’t about crushing our sexuality, but about learning how to be with this in a spacious way.
I realised that going looking for beautiful absurdity in dark humour becomes a bit of a twisted, black hole; one that I am very familiar with.
Throughout my life I’ve taken a lot of photographs, designed a wide variety of things and collected a lot of imagery that I appreciate. This has given me a knowledge of some basic design principles and a clear understanding of my aesthetic preferences, which help me get in touch with what I find beautiful.
I know that I’m drawn towards practical beauty that has a purpose. And well-worn beauty that feels real and inclusive.
In doing this exercise, I noticed that I find beauty in small ways all the time. In the world and in others.
I noticed that every time I’m sat on a stony beach I make a small piece of temporary art out of interesting stones and objects that I find within arm’s reach.
I noticed that I’m very tactile. That the textures, smells and movement of things were inextricably part of their beauty and evocativeness. And that if they weren’t practical, it was nice if beautiful things were in some way interactive.
During the day I had a WhatsApp conversation with a friend where he shared some difficulties with me. Part of the conversation became describing what the challenge would be like if it was art (somewhere between a Dali painting & Mount Doom).
“Imaginal practice is… The transformation of something painful into something beautiful”
I noticed that even if something was not exactly my aesthetic, I’d be more likely to find it beautiful if I felt it was chosen with care, rather than to be showy.
I noticed how much my ex-husband and I built up a shared aesthetic in the 10 years we were together and how much this still influences my sense of what is beautiful. Realising this was surprisingly emotional for me. I cried sat on a bench and that felt strangely beautiful.
Chatting to a stranger and running into an old friend I hadn’t seen for over 10 years, I noticed that there are subtle and subconscious boundary negotiations that have to happen before you can relax into appreciating the beauty of an interaction. I also noticed that I can find this negotiation process beautiful in and of itself.
I recognised that seeing beauty requires some sharpness and clarity, balanced with a gentleness and a soft focus.
I noticed that beauty is incredibly simple. But that doesn’t make it easy to achieve.
I noticed that experiencing a sense of beauty comes from not needing anything or trying to get anything from the world. It arises when you are in appreciation mode, rather than productivity mode.
There is an element to connecting with more beauty that comes from: redefining what we consider beautiful, learning to focus more on the already present beauty in life and cultivating the skills to do this.
But also in order to appreciate beauty, people need time and space in their life.
I’m currently taking some time off work. I spent almost the entire first two months of that sleeping. People are tired and over-worked.
I live in a very beautiful place and it happened to be a sunny day – this would have been a lot more difficult in most human environments.
For people to be able to appreciate beauty, they need to be somewhat resourced and free from trauma. They need to be relatively safe and free from oppressive or toxic structures that define their worth and exert pressure on them.
They need to be able to recognise and appreciate their own inherent beauty. This needs to include men and be about people feeling beautiful on the inside, rather than people just being perceived as meeting some ideal beauty standard; it’s about recognising the things about people that are beautiful, whether that’s how they look or their personality traits.
Until people are able to connect with their own inner beauty, they will spend their life grasping at external beauty.
People also need to be in environments that are designed with human wellbeing and beauty in mind.
From this place, there is space for people to learn to connect with what is meaningful, beautiful and purposeful in life for them.
Beauty is both inspirational and inherently desirable. It is something that we want to experience in and of itself and it can also inspire us to be our best selves; to be kinder and gentler to each other, to work harder or to give more towards something we care about.
For these reasons it is worth reflecting on the role of beauty in our lives and in our culture; I hope this inspires people to do that.