Excerpts from Paula Arai’s talk, “The Healing Power of Beauty”
January 9, 2013
“The places the eyes of the flesh see have a limit. The places the eyes of the heart see have no limit.” –Gyokko Sensei. The pithy yet profound words of an elderly Japanese Buddhist woman suggests the wisdom of viewing the world through one’s heart. When the heart looks out, it can see the boundless connections that weave everything together in a beautiful and vast web of compassion. The Dalai Lama suggests that, ‘Often it is through the expression and appreciation of beauty that we unlock the compassionate potential in the human heart.’ Beauty is the fullest manifestation of the present moment and it has the power to focus one’s being on the life-affirming aspects of the present. In other words, beauty has a seductive power to draw one to see the myriad of connections that embrace one in a universe of compassion.
The key to the healing power of beauty is to experience interrelatedness – not just have an intellectual understanding of it. Such is possible through complete body-mind engagement with a meaningful activity in the present moment. To experience this not only nurtures the self, but gives rise to a sublime joy in living. Being fully present requires having an open and accepting heart, which in turn cultivates gratitude because one can see from an expanded perspective. Beauty heals because it is an immersion in immediate and positive sensorial, somatic experience of the present moment.
The enigma is to appreciate the present moment as beautiful precisely because it is ephemeral. Contemplative arts can be experienced as a healing in so far as they direct one’s attention to the present activity with full body-mind engagement. Each motion is carefully crafted to be the height of respect and efficiency, every gesture meaningful. When treating everything with which one comes in contact with respect and awareness of interrelationship, one feels respected in return and supported by a vast web.
One of the dimensions of the practice of beauty as healing that is especially amenable to daily activities is the beauty of physical movements. Beauty in motion occurs when one acts with full mindfulness on the present moment, embodied awareness of the meaning of each movement, and treats everything with respect. Therefore, when doing domestic tasks as beauty-making activities – including hanging laundry, cooking, serving food, cleaning floors, and washing dishes – they become healing activities.
Beauty also sustains through its capacity to soften the rough spots in one’s heart, enabling one to be more flexible in living with present circumstances. Once one is aware of beauty in one’s midst, it works as an antidote to bitterness and it stops calcification in the heart. It acts as a solvent that loosens debris in the heart. Beauty can engage one further in the fullness of the present moment in which one can recognize oneself as an integral part, a participant. Perceiving beauty is an act of recognizing the value of something. In so doing, it awakens the beauty in oneself, to one’s bigger nature. In these ways, beauty helps one feel deeply connected and whole.
Whether engaged in a formal tea ceremony or enjoying a cup at home, tea as aesthetic mode of ritualized motion is about embodying tranquil beauty. In tea ceremony, artistry and healing come together in powerful ways.
Subtlety is especially treasured in the tea world. It activates your creativity. Tea teaches the method of moving in the most beautiful way to do a task. Tea centers on beauty. The aim is that it is carried into daily life. Tea becomes part of who you are, the way you move and see, what you notice. It takes a long time to cultivate this.
Let’s take a glimpse of this refined and subtle world of healing beauty through tea. It begins with the first step into the garden. Join me in visualizing the recently moistened rock path meandering through the garden, generating an inviting sense of fresh life, as we walk toward the tea hut. With each step, the strains and weariness of stressful demands are left behind, as each stone leads us deeper into the tranquility of the garden. On arriving at the well, pause to reflect on the carving in the stone basin: “I only know satisfaction.”
Reaching right hand to lift the long, thin-handled bamboo dipper is an occasion for reflecting on how it would feel if all one knew were contentment. Gingerly scoop water into the dipper and slowly pour it over your left hand.
After removing your shoes and placing them neatly out of the way, kneel at the tea room door and slide it open with both hands, showing high respect. While sitting in silence, drink in the carefully and thoughtfully arranged items. Feel respected. Someone cared enough to tend to each detail, creating a soothing harmony of elements that draw out the tranquil beauty of the season, time of day, and qualities of the relationships of those to be gathered.
Harmonizing diverse elements into an integrated whole is beauty-making activity in its highest and strongest mode. Expansive beauty provides a safe space for healing to occur. The larger the context in which one perceives oneself to be, the stronger the support one feels. When one feels alone and perceives things narrowly, it is easy to experience suffering. Beauty draws one’s attention beyond this illusion and directs it to the proverbial Jewel Net of interrelationality.
Beauty entices one to engage in an act with one’s full being, whereby the distance between things dissolves.