On Beauty, Attention, and the Sacred


Beauty is an achieved state of both deep attention and self-forgetting; the self forgetting of seeing, hearing, smelling or touching that erases our separation, our distance, our fear of the other. … Beauty is the harvest of presence. — David Whyte

Like those nameless ones
who kept painting, shaping, engraving,
unseen, unread, unremembered.
Not caring if they were no good, if they were past it.Rock wools, water fans, earth scale, mouse ears, dust,
Transformers unvalued, uncounted.
Cell by cell, word by word, making a world they could live in.  — Jane Hirshfield


           Home for the holidays, my newly college-going daughter shared with me today a video by a social activist whose work greatly inspires her. The video focused on the young activist’s recent discovery that the one ingredient missing from her passionate life of commitment to social change was an investment in fictional/poetic imagination … and beauty. After many years of study into climate change realities, social systems, political theories—all necessary and vital to her development as an effective agent of change—this admirable thinker and doer realized that she also craves a regular release into the largesse of a story by Ursula K. LeGuin, a poem that cracks open her senses, a walk through the woods of someone else’s untrammeled mind or the woods at the end of her road. This release, she realized, not only refreshes her for the work she has devoted herself to, but opens up new imaginative possibilities into how she might envision the viable, equitable world that she is trying to create.
         I felt like cheering when we finished the video. I’m so inspired by all the dedicated young people I’ve met who are trying mightily to create change in a frightening time (as I am also inspired by the vital, committed adults who have dedicated their lives to this). But I’ve often feared that those of us who are most aware of the danger we are all in are also in danger of losing the very thing that keeps us most invested in the world, in ourselves, and in each other: our imaginative capacity. The human ability to empathize requires a fluid, fertile imagination. And our human aptitude for creating portraits in paint, in words, in notes, for generating stories and characters where none existed, for observing and then mirroring the beauty of the earth through our own creations: this is one of our greatest shared gifts. We simply cannot do without it.
     The video my daughter and I watched together reminded me of one of my favorite books, On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry. As written by Princeton University Press in their introduction to the book on their website, “Scarry argues that our responses to beauty are perceptual events of profound significance for the individual and for society. Presenting us with a rare and exceptional opportunity to witness fairness, beauty assists us in our attention to justice. The beautiful object renders fairness, an abstract concept, concrete by making it directly available to our sensory perceptions. With its direct appeal to the senses, beauty stops us, transfixes us, fills us with a ‘surfeit of aliveness.'”
     Engaging the Senses Foundation was created to explore this “surfeit of aliveness” with our readers and viewers. Envisioned by our Founder and Creative Director Sabrina Coryell, our mission is to awaken ourselves and others to beauty as it unfailingly reminds us of our essential goodness and inherent wellbeing. We are committed to sharing our belief that attentive mindfulness to the beautiful things of this world is what gives us hope and brings us together. We know that if we allow ourselves a full, embodied, daily appreciation of our world as the radiant place that it is, honoring all the divine beings who are part of it, we will also know it as a world profoundly worth understanding, cherishing, and saving.
      As we move through this holiday season, past the winter solstice which began our ascent from days of increasing darkness into a season of slowly expanding light, we can turn, no matter what our situation may be (and truly this is a hard season for many), to beauty, to hope, to the metaphor of new birth. We can look past the deadening over-commodification of Christmas to the elemental possibility of holding one another in kindness and kinship. We can remind ourselves by the best of this season’s spirit to venerate the holy that is always on offer around us when we open our eyes and hearts.
     If you find yourselves overwhelmed these full or frenetic (or sad, or lonely) days, you can center yourself into mindfulness through a simple gratitude meditation for all that is good in your life, or find a release from anxiety through EFT. If you feel your senses are engulfed by too much of the commercial, you can slow down and read a poem of praise, a poem of gratitude, a poem that unlocks the door to joy:

The World Seems …

The world seems so palpable
And dense: people and things
And the landscapes
They inhabit or move through.Words, on the other hand,
Are so abstract—they’re
Made of empty air
Or black scratches on a pageThat urge us to utter
Certain sounds.
And us:Poised in the middle, aware
Of the objects out there
Waiting patiently to be named,
As if the right words
Could save them.
And don’t
They deserve it?
So much hidden inside each one,
Such a longing

To become the beloved.

And inside us: the sounds
That could extend that blessing—
How they crowd our mouths,

How they press up against

Our lips, which are such
A narrow exit for a joy so desperate.

                                   — Gregory Orr

     You can listen to a song so beautiful it will bring you to tears or to laughter. You can write your own poem, paint a picture, take a walk through the breath-taking cold with the crackle of ice beneath your feet and the cloud of your breath before you and wonder, as writer Annie Dillard did one winter: “Is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?” and answer yourself, as she did: “A wind rose, quickening; it invaded my nostrils, vibrated my gut. I stirred and lifted my head. No, I’ve gone through this a million times, beauty is not a hoax… Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it.”
     In all this beauty, you will find the sacred, which is the true meaning of this holiday. And you will know in your bones that the sacred is also found in every day and each moment we are lucky enough to have on this earth, inside these bodies that are both so strong and so fragile, housing our souls that seek self-knowledge and strive to name what it is we love.

     From all of us at Engaging the Senses Foundation —Sabrina, Mona, Ron, Marissa, Teresa, and Alex—we send you love and light, our best words, and our deepest wish for enduring beauty in your life and peace and plenty your heart.


All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole Sky.

— Hafiz