Beauty and Spirit
I’ve been reading Ken Wilber for over seven years, through more than a dozen books, held in a vision of What Is that continues to elude me, even as I grasp ever so slowly the particles of Truth that he holds in his hand, letting it sift past his fingers like gold dust flashing in a sunlight streaming from an Unknown Source. Sometimes his words seem as dry and obscure as an equation in a mathematics far beyond my feeble mind to parse. But now and then, something he says touches me deeply, beyond the words, even beyond my comprehension. Such a moment was just now, as I read his words on art:
"When I directly view, say, a great Van Gogh, I am reminded of what all superior art has in common: the capacity to simply take your breath away. To literally, actually, make you inwardly gasp, at least for that second or two when the art first hits you, or more accurately, first enters your being: you swoon a little bit, you are slightly stunned, you are open to perceptions that you had not seen before."
When I first read these words, I felt disappointed. I didn’t remember ever having such a reaction to a piece of art—certainly not a Van Gogh. Perhaps my soul is so constricted that I simply do not truly experience anything. Maybe I live in a gray tunnel, crawling along toward a distant dim and uncertain light, unable to really see anything.
Then I remembered music. If my eye is clouded over so that I cannot perceive Beauty, I know my ear is not. Untrained and awkward as I am in the presence of music, I nevertheless gasp sometimes, just as Wilber describes. The sonorities of Brahms leave me breathless; the intricacies of Vivaldi weave incredible flowing patterns in my head. I hear things I had not heard before, no matter how many times I’d listened to those sounds. Now I understand what he is saying!
He goes on:
"You just want to contemplate; you want it never to end; you forget past and future; you forget self and same. The noble Emerson: ‘These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time for them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.’"
Ah, yes. Even as I recognize that music usually affects me that way—immediately and deeply in the present moment—I know that sometimes I anticipate as I listen. Sometimes, I can’t wait for that next familiar passage. I ignore the beauty of the moment and wait impatiently for the next. I need to learn to just listen.
Visual art such as painting and sculpture has no time line to distract me. Perhaps I am not moved as much by those media because I do not stop to see. I am so accustomed to being lead into the work, such as in music or sometimes in film, that I do not know how to be present in this moment.
Occasionally, however, something stops me in my tracks. When I try to recollect the experience that Wilber writes about, moments come to mind.
Recently, a few members of the camera club I participate in were practicing the craft of portraiture, each of us taking turns directing several subjects and experimenting with lights and camera angles. I’m more comfortable, for some reason, simply watching for something to appear that I can capture with my camera. I hesitate to direct my subjects, preferring to wait for an expression or a pose that speaks to me.
A young woman and her younger sister were sitting in the middle of the studio, patiently following instructions and suggestions from several other photographers. The lights had been set, and there was a pause in the activity behind the cameras. The older girl relaxed against her sister, enfolding her in her arms and resting her cheek on the young head. I pressed my shutter release, it seemed, because I just had to.
It wasn’t until later at home, viewing my images in my computer, that I really experienced what I had captured. Click here to see image. I take no credit for the image; it was a gift from—what? Who? I don’t know, for sure. I was, and still am, whenever I look at the photograph, stunned. I was all of those things that Ken Wilber said:
"What great art reminds us of; not by its content, but by what it does in us: suspends the desire to be elsewhere. And thus it undoes the agitated grasping in the heart of the suffering self, and releases us—maybe for a second, maybe for a minute, maybe for all eternity—releases us from the coil of ourselves. . . . great art is judged by its capacity to take your breath away, take your self away, take time away, all at once.
"And whatever we mean by the word ‘spirit’—let us just say, with [Paul] Tillich, that it involves for each of us our ultimate concern—it is in that simple awestruck moment, when great art enters you and changes you, that spirit shines in this world just a little more brightly than it did the moment before."
Emerson’s roses under his window; two young girls in a circle of light. What speaks to us, not to our intellects but directly to our souls, allows us to experience beauty and to partake of spirit. Something, at that instant, caused me to snap the shutter. I was only vaguely aware of the moment itself. Only later did I realize what I had. Were I as perceptive as Wilber, I might have savored that moment instead of snapping a picture. Were I as eloquent as Emerson, I might have written, as he did, to share the vision. I am fortunate enough to have the photograph. Perhaps it will remind me from time to time to pay more attention to the moment.
A picture of a rose is not the rose. It may not even be great art. But the rose always is.
Donald Skiff, January 3, 2005