The Ugliness of Beauty
“I love the world!"
I look over my shoulder at Skye with a sideways glance. She's holding a glass of wine and talking to a friend as they look out on the stunning autumn sunset.
"You didn't just say what I think you said, did you?" I ask.
"I said, 'I love the world.'" She replies with a purposeful innocence.
"That's what I thought I heard." I shake my head, knowing how far from the truth that statement actually is. "No Skye, you love half the world--specifically the half that conforms to your idea of how it should be."
Trapped I am, standing on a sprawling beachside deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu. I'd been invited to teach as part of a brand-named yoga seminar and the hosts decided to throw a gaudy reception for participants and friends on the last night. Nice idea, but I now find myself surrounded by beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes drinking expensive wine and mingling, lots of mingling. It's easy to pick out the professional yoga types; they're either decked out in $500 designer label yoga outfits or draped with flowing fabric and enough beads to open a small jewelry store in Venice Beach. Skye is a designer label type, no beads.
I realize this is likely a situation that most people would relish--a stunning view, free food, and interesting people--yet it gives me a mild case of the heebie-jeebies. Generally speaking, I don't like parties, I'm not a fan of forced interaction, and I abhor small talk (not so much because there is anything wrong with it, it's just that I'm bad at it--like really, really bad; terrible, in fact). For me, it's always the same, feigning interest while lobbing prepackaged questions at a stranger who then feigns a similar level of interest and lobs something back my way. Meaningless questions followed by meaningless answers punctuated by awkward silences. Not my bag.
A friend and fellow teacher dragged me here with an intention of saving me from the T.V. in my hotel room, though I really didn't need saving: I like T.V. and I like my hotel room. Yet I agreed to come, so here I am, leaning up against the railing of the deck with the waves crashing into the rocky shore a hundred feet below. The good news is that the hosts obviously have a lot of money to throw around, so I find myself nursing a martini and chomping down gourmet appetizers as I drink in the splendor of the seascape. It's here that I overhear Skye's conversation and sense an opportunity for an interchange that could involve something a bit more interesting than idle chit-chat.
"No, I love the world, I really do." Skye continues as she motions toward the horizon, "All of it. Look around: the sun is setting in spectacular explosion of orange and crimson, we're in the company of dear friends, the appetizers are delicious…" She strolls over and steals a bit of cheese from my plate and pops it into her mouth.
I again shake my head.
"Weren't you just last night ranting on about how the clerk at the DMV was rude, unhelpful, and never even made eye contact with you?
"And weren't you this morning complaining how Wal-Mart was leading the charge in turning Christmas into nothing more than an exercise in orgiastic consumerism?
"And didn't you spend a good half hour detailing all of the failings and short-comings of the yoga teacher you took a class with last week?
"Well, I'm not certain of the address of that DMV office, precisely which Wal-Mart you're irritated with, or where you took that yoga class, but I'd bet my bottom dollar that they're all on earth, I mean, they're all part of the world, aren't they?"
"So where's the love for that, Yo?" I ask, cocking my head to the side and thrusting my hands over my heart in my best rapper imitation (just call me DJ Jazzy Vanilla E).
Skye is an interesting girl. Over the past week, I've gotten to know her pretty well. We were introduced because someone thought we'd hit it off, having similar interests and all. Unfortunately, I'm interested in Truth; she's interested in spirituality. And in this case they're as far apart as heaven and hell--quite literally.
She's a transplant. Moved to California from some non-descript town, in some non-descript state, somewhere in the middle of the country where a mound of fill-dirt passes for a mountain. She's young, vivacious, and well-intentioned and likes to call herself a yoga teacher. Unfortunately, she's spent too much time sitting at the feet of spiritual teachers encouraging good over bad, right over wrong, and preaching love and acceptance while spewing all manner of condemnations at anyone or anything that doesn't fit their idea of spirituality. As a result, she's come away with a mean case of the spiritual creeping crud--a highly contagious disease carried by spiritual hacks who cause conflict and judgment in the name of transcending conflict and judgment. It's a fabulous ruse.
"Why should I love an incompetent clerk at the DMV?" she asks. "Or get behind Wal-Mart, or shoddy yoga instruction for that matter?"
"It's not really a question of should, Skye," I say, "I'm just reacting to your declaration of love for the world. It just rings a little false given your litany of complaints about people and events."
"Okay, fair enough," she says, "maybe I don't love the whole world. I just appreciate beauty when I see it."
"When you can see it." I add.
"What do you mean by that?"
"I'm going to suggest that what you call beauty isn't beauty at all. But rather it's simply a commentary on your personal opinions." I say, "There's a difference between what you are calling beauty and true Beauty--Beauty with a capital 'B'. When you are appreciating the beauty in some things and ignoring the Beauty in every thing, you're really engaged in a process of judgment, not appreciation."
"So you're saying that my admiration of this majestic panorama" she gestures toward the sunset with her near-empty wine glass, "you're saying that's judgment, not appreciation?"
"I'm saying it's more judgmental than appreciative. What you're appreciating is the fact that this moment has conformed to your own opinions. Your so-called appreciation is really a thinly veiled indulgence in your own personal preferences." I say, "You're not appreciating Beauty, in fact, you're creating ugliness--in the name of your idea of beauty."
Her face twists up in a confused look as if our conversation just lapsed into Aramaic. She looks to the ocean and the back at me.
"You're saying that I'm creating ugliness?"
"Yes, I am." I say, "Unwittingly perhaps, but definitely yes."
The spiritual creeping crud is marked by the desperate attachment to so-called good over bad, the rejection of some of God's creation in favor of another. For this reason, the news that she might be causing ugliness, something she considers bad, lands hard with Skye.
Skye is currently hip deep in a self-inflicted spiritual makeover; an effort to remake herself into a new, shiny, and respectable person--one who others can look up to. She's even gone so far to change her name from Molly to Skye because as she says, "the sky is open and free." Unfortunately her strategy of becoming "open and free" like the sky involves the ruthless condemnation of anything that's not open and free. She's as open and free as the sky alright, so long as the sky you're referring to is made of steel reinforced concrete. So much for progress.
In her defense though, it's a classic malady plaguing many swept up in spiritual endeavors--and one that is promoted by many teachers who should know better. If we turn our back on the unpleasant, if we color it over with niceties, if we slap a new name on ourselves and buy a new flowing wardrobe, then salvation will be virtually guaranteed. It's the spiritual equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. No matter the shade, the pig is still a pig; in the same way, no matter what you call you, you're still you.
"Now that makes no sense at all, how did I create the ugly situation at the DMV?" she rebukes, "I didn't cause that clerk to be rude."
"Fair enough," I say and shift to try another tack. "Skye, what makes you beautiful? Your eyes, your smile, your compassion, your soul?"
"You think I'm beautiful?" a beaming grin erupts on her face.
Note to self, refrain from having meaningful existential conversations over cocktails. I take a breath and try to get the conversation back on subject. I shake my head, "No."
Skye's face drops.
"I mean, yes."
"I mean that's not what I'm getting at." I say, "Here, let me rephrase: what makes a person beautiful?"
"Well," Skye pauses and sips her drink, "that's a good question. Don't they say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder?" She looks up at me for validation.
But her answer lands with me in a wholly unsatisfying way. "Yes, they do say that, don't they…" Her answer is not a bad answer, in fact it's great, but it was delivered with all of the understanding and insight of a parrot screeching the Gettysburg Address. So I press on with my inquiry, "Let's put aside what they might mean by that for a moment. What does that mean to you?"
"You know," she says, "some people prefer blondes, some brunettes. Different strokes for different folks."
I thought so. This 'different strokes' take is how most people read this aphorism. Unfortunately, this common interpretation of is also one of woeful inadequacy. For while it is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what's really being said here is that true Beauty (note the capital) is not derived from how something is, it derives from how something is seen. Beauty is not a quality of being, it appears as a result of a quality of seeing. In other words, all is Beautiful; it's simply a matter of whether or not we can see it.
"So Skye, would it be safe to say, given beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that what might be beautiful to me, could possibly be ugly to you?"
"Like if I found beauty in the celebration of maggots eating away at a rotting corpse?"
"Ewwww!" Her face scrunches up like one of those dried apple dolls they sell at the Cracker Barrel. "In that case, definitely."
"So you're saying that beauty doesn't really exist?" I intentionally throw Skye a curve ball.
"What? Uh, no."
"That's what it sounds like." I say, "I mean if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, if I see beauty where you see ugliness, then beauty is arbitrary and doesn't exist in any objective way. It's all opinion."
"When you put it that way…"
"Don't pin that on me sister," I chide, "that's the way you put it. I'm just echoing you."
"I guess I never really thought it all the way through."
Enter one of the greatest problems plaguing spiritual progress in the world: not thinking things all the way through. It's a monumental obstacle to the evolution of consciousness.
I recently saw an interview with a very famous and well-spoken preacher on television. He has a huge following, has written a number of best-selling books, and is looked upon as one of the more inspirational and authoritative sources on matters of the spirit in the country. In this particular interview, he was praising the all-embracing, all-loving nature of God when he was asked: If God is all-embracing love, wouldn't he even welcome the devil into heaven?
The question brought his flawless and affable presentation to a screeching halt. After a couple of nervous chuckles, some throat clearing, and more than a little shifting about in his chair he answered: "Well, uh, I don't know about that, I mean, I don't think so, I never really thought about it."
Never really thought about it? Come on! How could anyone be seriously engaged in the process of spiritual liberation and make any real progress without thinking about such things? How can anyone mindlessly sweep apparent contradictions under the carpet and expect to experience Truth? Of course, the answer is: you can't. So I've since crossed the good reverend's best-seller off my 'to read' list.
"Look at it this way Skye: if beauty exists in the way that you're describing--simply a function of one's preferences--then what we call beauty isn't beauty at all, it's simply the acknowledgement of the fact that something meets our expectations, yes?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Skye nods tentatively.
"This being the case, our appreciation has more to do with our expectations and our preferences, than it does with what we're admiring." I say, "I mean if your preferences change, so does your appreciation, along with your pronouncement of beauty."
"I suppose that's true."
"This is the thing you want to really understand," I pause to chomp on one of my olives, "What this understanding means is that a diamond ring, dog poop on your new carpet, a child's smile, the death of your friend, the leaves in the pool, a grand cathedral, the headache that's been tormenting you for three days: they're all Beautiful. The only question is: are you able to see it?"
"This is a really new and unique way of looking at things." Skye adds.
"Actually, it's not new at all--this level of understanding has simply slipped through the cracks in our modern interpretation of spirituality." I say, "It's actually an idea that is quite foundational to most spiritual and religious traditions."
"I still don't think I like this idea that I'm somehow creating ugliness."
"I'm not asking you to like it; I'm asking you to verify it."
"How am I supposed to do that?"
"Svadhyaya, my dear yoga teacher, svadhyaya."
"Svadhyaya, it means self-study, it's one of the niyamas of Patanjali's Ashtanga system…" I pause and search for a sign of recognition on Skye's face. Nothing. "From the Yoga Sutras." I add.
Her eyebrows lift, "Oh yeah, the Yoga Sutras, I think we read that in my yoga teacher training program."
A yoga teacher saying I think we read the Yoga Sutras in my yoga teacher training program is a akin to a doctor saying I think we covered anatomy in medical school. It doesn't make me bristle with confidence, but I let it slide.
Self-study is a cornerstone not only for a serious yoga practitioner, but for any serious spiritual aspirant. It's an invitation to pay attention, to be curious, and to really notice how things work in our lives. This kind of introspection, objectivity, and experimentation are all aspects of what unlocks the secret of liberation.
"Self-study is just an invitation to pay attention to our lives--to what brings peace and what brings angst. In this case, it's to notice what effect my pronouncement of something as beautiful has on the world." I say.
"That makes sense, but don't you think this is beautiful?" she again turns toward the sunset defending her original position.
"Yes I do. But we have to remember that it's just our opinion. To a woman whose husband did a double back-flip off a railing at a party like this splattering himself into the rocks below in a bloody heap of broken bone, guts, and sinew--this experience is likely to be god-awful."
"You have a charming way with words." she sneers.
"Thanks." I say raising my glass to her in a mock toast.
We both look down at the rocks below. I continue.
"It's all about what we would call in the Eastern traditions duality, in the vernacular of the Christian tradition we would say 'the knowledge of good and evil.'" I say, "What's been seen uniformly across traditions is that good and evil, right and wrong, and beautiful and ugly are relative positions; they are simple judgments, constructs of the mind--and constructs that can actually inhibit the peace sought that aids liberation."
We're now nose-to-nose with yet another result of not thinking things all the way through: the belief that what my mind says is good is actually good. It's interesting really, for virtually any event or situation the same holds true: you can line up 100 people who think it's a good thing for every 100 who think it's bad. Despite this, most of us insist that we've got the real goods, that our opinion is the true opinion. It calls to mind a quote from celebrated Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh: "Every view is wrong view when it's held as the view that is the true view." Pretty much nails it.
However, more than just clouding our perception of reality, this habit of believing the mind's opinions throws us headlong into a never-ending battle with reality: rejecting and resisting the part of our life that's 'bad' while desperately clinging to the 'good'. It's a game of manufactured conflict and a key symptom of the spiritual creeping crud--the disease that hamstrings many a spiritual teacher, yoga teachers included.
To borrow from an old saying: you can tell a yoga teacher with the crud, but you can't tell him much. These poor souls are usually so deeply entrenched in the rightness of their own spiritually-cloaked opinions that they've unintentionally thrown themselves into perpetual conflict with anything that doesn't fit with their views. They are unavailable to reality and, despite the best of intentions, the crud turns them into scripture-spewing tent-revival moralists masquerading as spiritual guides. I'm hopeful that Skye can let down her defenses enough to consider her predicament.
"What we have to recognize Skye is that there is no such thing as good without bad. It's not good and bad, it's good/bad. They are two sides of the same coin; you literally can't have good without bad." I say, "Good only makes sense when seen in contrast to not-good, or bad. The same holds true with high and low, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly. What this means is that when you pronounce a thing as good, its opposite is automatically by definition bad, the same holds true of right and wrong, and beautiful and ugly." I pause to sip my martini.
"So it's like when I say getting an 'A' in algebra is good; I'm also saying getting an 'F' is not-good." Skye acknowledges.
"Yup, your pronouncement of an 'A' as good makes an 'F' bad. This is why Suzuki Roshi, a great yogi from the Zen tradition used to say: "to call a flower beautiful is a sin."
"That doesn't sound like a sin to me."
"And that's precisely why this teaching is so powerful." I say, "Let's look at it. How do you define sin?"
"When you do something that's wrong, immoral."
I intentionally lob her another mind-bender "The idea that a sin is something that's bad is itself a sin."
"When you call something bad, that is itself a sin." I search her face for understanding. "Ever heard of original sin?"
"Of course, it's what got Adam and Eve banished from the Garden of Eden."
"So break that down." I say, "What does original mean to you?"
"And what was this first sin?"
"They ate the apple." She sips her wine and peers at me over the rim of her glass for confirmation.
"Eeeeaaaaah!" I make the sound of a buzzer indicating a wrong answer. "Not exactly, do you know the exact quote from the Bible?"
"They ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge."
"Knowledge of what?" I coax.
"Of good and evil." She replies.
"Ding, ding, ding!" I put my index finger to the tip of my nose. "The fruit of the knowledge of good and evil." I emphasize.
Webster's defines sin as a transgression against the law of God. And therefore, most of us take Adam and Eve's sin as eating what they were told not to. However, in this case, the law of God had little to do with eating or not eating a fruit. Rather, it had to do with indulging in the knowledge, or we could say believing the mind's idea, of good and evil.
To call a flower beautiful is a sin expresses the same truth in a slightly different way. When we call a flower beautiful, we set up a chain of events that inhibits our ability to see things as they are, and thus to see the Beauty of all things.
"It works like this: when you call a flower beautiful, you actually believe your opinion of the flower to be true. And as such, you're playing a game of personal preferences while pretending to trade in absolutes. The flower isn't beautiful, it simply happens to line up with your preferences regarding how a flower should look. And from here it gets even worse because for once you believe the flower to be beautiful, you then by necessity also believe that something else is ugly (namely, its opposite)--and this obstructs our ability to see the Beauty in everything."
"And this is how I'm suggesting that you're creating ugliness." I toss a deviled egg into my mouth and realize almost immediately the egg is a size 8, my mouth size 6 ½. I chew awkwardly trying to balance the need for decorum with my desire not to have my last moments on earth spent sprawled out on a beachfront deck surrounded by lookie-loos whilst I struggle to clear my windpipe of egg. Somehow I manage and down the last bit of my martini, wishing for the first time that it was water.
"You okay?" Skye's eyes are a bit bugged out from my display.
I nod, take a moment to regain what little composure I can muster, then continue: "We indulge in our opinions, making pronouncements of beauty, again and again, each time creating more ugliness in our world; and each time deepening our habit of making judgments and believing them to be real."
"So you're saying that when we discriminate between the beautiful and the ugly, we have somehow defiled both?"
"Exactly. Through indulging in this habit of seeing only some things as beautiful, we create the illusion of beauty's opposite--and thus cut ourselves off from seeing the true Beauty of all creation. And as I said before, we can see this theme repeated across the ages and throughout cultures, not only in the Bible. The third Zen Patriarch in sixth century China put it this way:
When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.
“Replace "love and hate" with "beauty and ugliness" and you have the complete teaching on Beauty." I say, then add, "And from the Bhagavad Gita and ancient India we have this:
Seeing the same in pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat…then you will be sinless.
“You see, they're all saying the same thing: when you eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, when you set up what you like against what you don't like, instantly you are expulsed from the Garden, heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. This is original sin." I conclude. "What we need to understand is real Beauty isn't the opposite of ugliness; real Beauty is how things are before the ideas of beauty and ugliness are created--and believed."
"It's how things are prior to the knowledge of good and evil." Skye adds. She nods with a real look of understanding on her face. My hope for her is buoyed.
We both pause allowing the conversation to soak in.
"Wow E, that's really profound stuff." she says, taking a sip from her wine and gazing over the now darkened ocean. "You know, it's really beautiful."
And with that, to myself, I think: crud.
About the Author
Eric Walrabenstein is a nationally-recognized speaker, teacher, and author and is one of the most sought-after authorities on the application of yogic technology for self healing and empowerment in the nation. As the founder of one of Arizona’s largest yoga centers, Eric has long been dedicated to making ancient wisdom and techniques practical and relevant for people from all walks of life.
In addition to his work in his wellness center in Phoenix, Arizona, he is the creator of BOOTSTRAP, a yoga-based program to help troops and veterans heal from post traumatic stress as well as BetterBox, a subscription box revolutionizing the self-improvement industry. An ordained Yogacharya (preceptor of yoga), Eric is currently finishing a book on the Science of Happiness.