"The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object....
you experience a radiance.
You are held in aesthetic arrest."
~ Joseph Campbell
A glorious sunset over the ocean. A double rainbow vibrantly arching across the sky. A sculpture of grandeur and poise. The elegant movement of a dancer as she nearly floats through space. A temple, mosque, or church with giant arches rising up towards the heavens. Why is it that we are so deeply affected by beauty?
Joseph Campbell used the term "aesthetic arrest" to describe the state we enter when we encounter what we perceive to be profound beauty. This is a phrase he borrowed from James Joyce, who said that when confronted with beauty, “the mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.”
In the TEDx talk by landscape photographer, Tom Reed, titled Natural Beauty and Aesthetic Arrest, he said, "when we are stunned by what we perceive to be profoundly beautiful, we first breathe in and we are filled with what might be considered divine. Then the mental construct of self can expire.” In Joyce’s words: “the instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani … called the enchantment of the heart” (source). Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler, the authors of
Stealing Fire, would call this "ecstasis."
In the face of profound beauty, we step outside the self. The beholder becomes merged with the beheld. The incessantly chatty mind quiets, pauses. We are left in a moment of stillness, in what Jamie Wheal calls the "deep now."
Like the flow state, ecstatic state, or moment of being overcome with awe, loss of self is a signature feature. Stepping outside of our small self and merging with the moment can be a profound experience. Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler say that during these states people are thought to experience what is called 'transient hypofrontality,' a momentary lessening of activity in our prefrontal cortex. Subjectively we experience this as a place of quiet mind. As my former Professor, Csikszentmihalyi, always said, once we return from such states, by integrating the experience into our mental models, we return as a fuller, wiser, richer person.
“The ego mind is stopped and we are left face to face with the true nature of reality: one immense, infinitely complicated, interconnected miracle that our consciousness is part of yet can be enraptured by." ~ Tom Reed
Before going any further, it must be clarified that I'm not talking about glamorous Hollywood standards of beauty or socially constructed narratives of what constitutes beauty. Such narratives also happen to have billions of dollars of advertising dollars pumped into them in hopes of perpetuating feelings of inadequacy and selling products. I'm talking about a much deeper sense of beauty, something deep in our heart that is awakened by witnessing the magnificence of the Grand Canyon or a shooting star on a clear night. Setting aside debates about aesthetics or what is learned and what is innate, we all know the moment when beauty truly touches our heart. That's the beauty I want to explore.
I am inspired by the perspective on beauty by the Irish poet and philosopher, John O'Donohue. When asked in an interview what pictures come to mind when he thinks of beauty, John O'Donohue responded:
When I think of the word 'beauty,' some of the faces of those that I love come into my mind. When I think of beauty, I also think of beautiful landscapes that I know. Then I think of acts of such lovely kindness that have been done to me by people that have cared for me in bleak and unsheltered times... I also think of those unknown people who are the real heroes who you never hear about, who... manage somehow to go beyond the given impoverishments and offer gifts of possibility.
In the same interview, John O'Donohue also poetically said, "beauty isn't all about just nice loveliness, beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming... Beauty in that sense is about an emerging wholeness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depths, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life."
Alan Watts spoke cheekily about our small notions of beauty in this talk:
You know, we pick up shells. I always keep one around... and say, “My goodness, isn’t that gorgeous? There’s not an aesthetic fault in it anywhere, it’s absolutely perfect.” Now I wonder... if these fish look at each other’s shells and say, “Don’t you think she’s kind of fat? Oh my, those markings aren’t really very well spaced." Cause' that’s what we do. See, we don’t realize that all of us... are just as marvelous – more marvelous, much more complicated, much more interesting – all these gorgeous faces that I’m looking at... – some of them supposedly pretty, some are supposedly not so pretty, but they’re all absolutely gorgeous. And everybody’s eyes is a piece of jewelry beyond compare. Beautiful!
In John O'Donohue's book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, he makes the case that in a sense, our contemporary crises can be condensed into a crisis of the nature of beauty and how much we are willing to tolerate vulgarity, coarseness, and the artificial. When we experience beauty, we come alive, we feel at home, there is a trueness to it, returning us to our higher selves. He asks what the world would look like if beauty were brought into politics, education, healthcare, families, etc. In this recording, when asked how beauty might be an antidote to our pressing global crises, he responded: "I think it's not just relevant, but I think it's actually necessary, because I think beauty is not a luxury, but it ennobles the heart and reminds us of the infinity that is within us."
When I first went to the Hawaiian islands, I found myself getting quite light-headed and a bit dizzy. At first I was confused and wondered if something was wrong. Then I realized what was happening: the beauty was literally taking my breath away! I had been gasping with astonishment over and over, that I'd barely remembered to exhale. Astonishment. Ravishment. Delight. Amazement. I was overcome by the beauty of plumeria flowers, waterfalls, whales, sea turtles, and tropical palm trees swaying in the warm breeze at sunset. I can't remember how many times I was brought to tears each day by being witness to such magnificence.
“Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development,
invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe
What I love is that I don't need to be sitting on a beach on a tropical island to experience that state. There are many ways to find myself lost in aesthetic arrest; one of my favorites these days is macro photography. Any time I put on my macro lens on my phone, a world of wonder is opened to me and I gasp with delight at all the beauty that I've never paused to notice in the utmost ordinary of settings. (See my Finding Beauty in the Ordinary post for just one example of beauty I discovered while washing dishes.)
So why does beauty arrest? According to Jason Silva in this wonderful video of him riffing on the subject, “beauty arrests because it points to something beyond the everyday. Beauty arrests because it hints at a realm of the sacred. Beauty arrests because it awakens the religious impulse in us. Beauty can shake us out of our jadedness. There can be no cynicism in response to being overwhelmed by the beatific.”
What then, brings you aesthetic arrest? What do you find most beautiful? When did beauty last take your breath away? And how can you surround yourself with beauty? What art or places or people or experiences fill you with a sense of beauty?
As John O'Donohue has said, beauty "calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world: to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful." How will you amplify, highlight, and create more beauty in the world? How can your life become a work of art itself?
Remember, my friend, you are stardust; make your life your masterpiece.
This video below, from the amazing Jason Silva, pretty much sums up what I want to say in this article, and does so with with great passion, beauty, and feeling. You can find more of his art at Shots of Awe. Enjoy!
Thank you Patrick Kelley for granting permission to use your gorgeous photos in this article! Check out his work at his website here. The shot of me at sunset was taken by the amazing Loli Jolie Photography, and the macro dandelion seed was taken by yours truly.