My friend and fellow poet Dana Guthrie-Martin recently inspired me with her Compassion Project, daily meditations and reflections on the role of compassion in our lives.
For several months, I've been considering the idea of returning to some sort of daily meditation practice. Many years ago, in my usual habit of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, I gave up meditation and “spiritual seeking” after an extremely traumatic and volatile break with a spiritual leader I'd been mentoring under for much of my early thirties. Shortly thereafter, I also gave up my massage and energetic healing practice. I'm not going to describe the reasons for or results of these actions in this particular post. I mention it only because over the last year or so, I have felt a persistent tug to return to, if not meditation per se, a regular practice of some kind that connects me to something beyond my own anxieties, obsessions, and chronic dysthymia.
I once wrote about seeing with the poet's eye; a way of being continuously open and aware of our surroundings, always ready for and even expecting something surprising and incongruous to happen during our normal, everyday lives. However, lost in a mire of stress, life events, chaos, and the ongoing demands of work and relationships, I myself am always forgetting to look. Or, I dismiss the importance of looking with a poets' eye, because the need to meet the external demands of each moment overtakes me.
Recently I went on vacation to Southeast Alaska, and was shocked out of my usual mindset by the sheer stunning beauty of the place. I wrote in an earlier post about being completely overwhelmed—to the point of tears and tremors—by my surroundings. I was taking it into myself on cellular level to a degree that was too much for my body to process. It was a transformative experience, but there was another level at which it was also a consumption experience. I noticed that much of the absorption of this beauty for us tourists revolved around recording, documenting and preserving what was seen: beauty as an object, beauty as the other, as something outside of ourselves to be filed, categorized, and presented. Something that, once it is documented, becomes available as another yet another item for consumption. Although I have always been deeply ambivalent about photographing experiences, I am just as implicit in indulging in this aspect as every one else.
Yesterday, I sacked out on the futon and watched a few hours of America's Next Top Model reruns. (So shoot me). Some of the girls are mesmerizingly beautiful, but their beauty itself is packaged for consumption at the same time that they are tasked with selling their beauty to further the consumption of products. We are a visual culture, constantly exposed to stimulus and aggressively manufactured excitement around physical beauty, whether it be a woman, a car, a gadget, or an appliance. We are told continuously what is and what is not beautiful—not just in faces and bodies, but in the natural and material world around us. I'm afraid this constant, low-level hypnosis is eroding our ability to develop our own perceptions of beauty. A few years ago, one of my artist friends proclaimed, “I am really sick of pretty faces,” and I knew exactly what she meant.
The trip to Alaska allowed me to hit the reset button on my mind, to connect to beauty, to be, in fact, bowled over by it, but I don't believe that being in constant survival mode, then recovering with an exotic vacation, is a sustainable solution to being disconnected from beauty in our day-to-day lives. The fact is that every day, I make a choice to abandon myself. All of the vagaries of daily living--my job, my commute, my relationships, tasks that must be attended to--can only distract me from perceiving beauty if I allow them to. As a poet, it's my responsibility to see in this way, to keep myself alive, open, and willing to find beauty in surprising places.
Even while prepping this project, almost every permutation I could think of (well over twenty-five) for a project title with “beauty” in it was already taken as a domain name. We are obviously fascinated with beauty, but I don't know that that means we fully understand it as other than a momentary pleasure that we partake in, a pleasure to be skimmed, then disgorged when the next stimulus arrives.
When Dana and I spoke today about partnering on this project, we talked at length about the poison of cynicism. I don't want to say that we don't know how to do anything in this culture but consume—spirituality, beauty, tragedy, even concepts such as selflessness and compassion. But I do think that it's our cultural go-to; our primary way of understanding and incorporating every idea that we come into contact with. And I think that we need to have a measure of patience for ourselves around this, because it's so ubiquitous and ingrained that it can be difficult to recognize and stop even when we're trying to be conscious of it.
With “Beauty Breathes”, I want to explore an alternative to beauty as an object of consumption. I want to explore how we interact with beauty in our everyday lives; where we find it, how we react to it and perceive it, what is surprising or joyful or savage or mournful about it. What it means to seek it, to see it, and to share it. This is a companion project to Dana's Compassion Project, and we will be working together in the coming year, exploring areas where compassion and beauty intersect.
“Beauty Breathes” is a community project. Please join the conversation by including your own thoughts and experiences in the comment section, and by checking out Dana's daily writings on compassion. Coming soon: Day One—The Beauty Sit.
Photo by Laurie Toby Edison from her book, Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes