May 15, 2020

Seeing Beauty: A Balm for Uncertain Times. A Key to Survival.

There is a well-known Zen story about a rather non-conventional response to impending doom.

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted! [Translated by Paul Reps (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1958, pages 22–23)]

A simple story with a simple message: Right there. Amidst all the difficulty. Sweetness.

Some seem to have a preternatural orientation towards always managing to find the good. But the rest of us mere mortals often need support and training to get better at seeing it.

Meditation, currently all the rage, certainly can increase your awareness and ability to notice what might get overlooked in the face of so much stress.

There is a gratitude and reflection practice that originated in Japan call Naikan. This is also a great foundation to develop your ability to see beauty and experience gratitude.

But you don't need to cross your legs on a cushion or study another culture. Just nightly, ask yourself and your loved ones this question: "What was the most beautiful thing you experienced today?

Multiple benefits flow out of a practice like this. First, just reflecting on your day and revisiting the beauty you encountered is its own reward.

Second, the more you look for it, the more you are going to see. As the question becomes a habit, it primes the pump to be on the look out for beauty. Not a bad outcome.

Finally, it might even cause you to go beyond passively noticing beauty to actually creating play beautiful music on your stereo or through your instrument, to make memorable moments, to go out of your way for others, to seek out and share beautiful art, to create meaningful connections. More people adding to the beauty in the world at a time like this is certainly not going to hurt.

Coaches are always encouraging people to "be in the moment." And the Tiger and the Strawberry allegory reminds us that that there can be sweetness amidst the drudgery and difficulty.

Though we don't know what happened to the guy running from the tigers, it turns out that seeing Beauty might be a key to actual survival when facing perilous situations and life threatening uncertainty.

Lawrence Gonzales wrote the book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why to summarize his research about who survives life and death situations. He found an eerie uniformity in the way people survive seemingly impossible circumstances. Decades and sometimes centuries apart, separated by culture, geography, race, language, and tradition, the most successful survivors go through the same patterns of thought and behavior, the same transformation and "spiritual discovery," in the course of keeping themselves alive.

According to the author, there are 12 traits that many survivors seem to share. The eighth one is See the Beauty. Survivors seem to be attuned to the wonder of their world, he says, especially in the face of mortal danger. The appreciation of beauty, the feeling of awe, provides a respite and also a sense of hope. It is purported to cause the pupils to dilate, which can open the senses to the environment and that might help you see options.

There are many stories in the book about people's ability to find beauty while fighting to survive another day. But the Viktor Frankl story in Man's Search for Meaning is especially raw:

“One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, "How beautiful the world could be...”

How about you?  There is a lot of challenge and uncertainty right now.  Do you recall encountering any beauty today?

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