You know that tight little knot we sometimes call our life? Often, all it takes to remind us that life is infinitely spacious, luscious, and forgiving is resting our eyes on something beautiful. The autumn sun splashing through the dining room at 3 in the afternoon. Your grandmother's lace tablecloth. A 100-year-old oak tree. A seashell. A piece of turquoise.
A friend of mine is teaching a course on beauty. She says that we put so much emphasis on function and efficiency that we forget to surround ourselves with beauty. Beauty relaxes our soul because, like a poem, its purpose is simply to be. For the joy of it. For the expression of it. Just because.
Beauty does not further us along in our careers, help us to relate, or instruct us in how to be kind or successful or thin. In our time-crunched, self-important, goal-oriented worlds, beauty reminds us that not everything can, or should, be measured, weighed, or entered into electronic calendars.
When you're not hungry, beauty is better than a piece of cheesecake. Better than mashed potatoes. Better than a burger and milkshake and french fries.
We have the capacity to feel wonderful and expansive, not because we have met our goals for the month or because we have accomplished something big, but just because we are alive. Beauty reminds us of that.
Years ago when my husband and I moved to the country, I spent hours flipping through gardening catalogs and picking out roses with names such as Mister Lincoln, Pure Poetry, and Sheila's Perfume. Then we cleared the space for a garden and planted a few kinds that looked like angel faces and smelled like joy..
When the flowers started to bloom, I was thrilled. But then I got used to their splendor and stopped seeing them. I'd dash out to the garden for a few minutes in the summer, cut some roses, and dash back in the house, where I'd spend the rest of the day on the phone or in front of my computer, working.
Eventually I realized that I was missing the ongoing feast in front of my eyes. I wasn't allowing the beauty of the roses--which was part of the reason we'd moved to the country--to affect me. It was as if, as the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, I were "sitting at the rim of the Grand Canyon with a bag over my head."
It doesn't matter how much goodness or beauty we have in our lives if we're not taking it in. Many of us are so focused on the "getting" part of our lives--what we want that we don't have, what still needs to happen in our lives for us to be happy, how much weight we need to lose to fit into that dress--that we forget to focus on the "having."
We forget to see, absorb, or allow our-selves to be affected by the staggering amount of beauty around us. We're like hungry ghosts seeing only an empty table when there is actually a feast in front of us. It's everywhere. It's called "my life as it is."
My friend Barbara used to say, "What most people consider necessities, I consider irrelevant. What most people consider luxuries, I consider necessities." Most women consider taking a break for beauty a luxury, not a necessity. Like Barbara, I maintain that it's an absolute necessity.
To break the routine and often unkind ways we treat ourselves, we have to create new habits. We have to treat ourselves with unaccustomed grace, with kindness, tenderness, and a great deal of humor. We have to realize that we are hungry for beauty, not just for food.
In the beginning, taking a beauty break will seem alternately frivolous and difficult. It will seem like too much trouble. But remember that depriving yourself of appreciating all the good things you already have in your life is also a habit.
When I talk to my students about taking in the beauty around them, they will say things like "but my mother is dying" or "my child is ill" or "my best friend was just diagnosed with cancer." Others will talk about their credit card debt or the job they just lost or the partner they have yet to meet. To all of them I say: "I'm so sorry you're in pain, but do you think it will help the situation if you ignore the ongoing feast that is also your life? Will you help your recently diagnosed friend or your dying mother if you starve yourself of beauty?"
The truth is that the more you deprive yourself of reveling in the beauty that's all around you, the less effective you are at whatever you do and the less you have to give anyone--including yourself.
I recently read that we Americans are so busy multitasking that we are doing 31 hours of work in each 24-hour period. And if your goal in being alive is to get as much done as you possibly can, then talking on the phone while e-mailing a business associate and IM-ing a friend is a worthwhile way to spend your energy.
But if you have the teeniest feeling that you're missing something in all the busy-ness, I have a suggestion for you: When you're hungry, but not for something to eat, take a beauty break. The effort itself will prompt you to really look, to bathe your eyes in it. Don't stint. Don't be ashamed. Beauty nourishes; it fills you up. Light a gardenia candle. Gaze at the sky. Rediscover the painting you bought 3 years ago and have not truly looked at since.
Beauty is fluffy, buttery, creamy, silky, rich, exquisitely sweet, whole-body food. It feeds your eyes, ears, heart, skin, and soul all at once. And it doesn't have any calories.