It seems awfully naïve, and perhaps a bit idealistic to ponder such a question – but in this article I want to explore if art and beauty save the world. What did the existentialist writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky mean by such an ambiguous statement, and how can art make a difference in a world divided by conflict, strife and division?
It was when I was travelling in Europe, and sitting in one of the many breathtaking cathedrals, that I was filled with inner calm – a sense of peace and solitude swept over me. External events and the frivolous pursuits of the everyday world felt insignificant, so trivial. Existential worry and anxiety became drowned out by the beauty and wonder that was revealed to me in that moment. Nothing else mattered.
Great art, that which has been able to stand the test of time, points to the transcendent, the infinite, and the absolute.
Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience. Through art we are sometimes visited – dimly, briefly – by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.
Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see – not yourself – but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly. And only the soul gives a groan
Throughout history, religions understood that the communal experience of the arts in practices of worship provided us with a glimpse of the sacred. Rituals of worship including art, music, and dance lured people to cherish the spiritual side of human existence. It drew us towards altered states of consciousness and higher truths, unveiling the illusive nature of material things and earthly pursuits. Connecting to something greater than ourselves, awe and beauty signal to us that there was something beyond the limited constructs of the human mind – a reality which words and language cannot fully describe.
Beauty presents us with an ideal to strive towards. Further, it provides us with meaning, our ‘why’ and purpose to help us conquer the many uncertainties in life. Coming to us through flashes of insight or intuition, beauty acts as a signpost which reveals the path towards the good life.
In the final analysis, it is the gift of aspiration as well as of hope.
It is said that Dostoyevsky’s idea of beauty is characterized by the love of God. Jesus’ death and resurrection is one of the many reminders for humanity that redemption, joy and bliss can be found on the other side of suffering. The cross presents us with a symbol of hope, representing the idea that good will always transcend over evil. Our suffering is not in vain, but is a guide towards a higher purpose.
This experience of awe, reverence and beauty in art and in life is of course is not exclusively limited to the domain of religion. Nietzsche, an atheist, was particularly fond of the idea that life itself can be treated as a work of art. Nietzsche thought of humans as inherently creative beings, who wish to assert their individuality by bringing something original and authentic into existence.
Art presents us with the opportunity us to rise above hardship by using difficult experiences as inspiration and raw materials in working towards a more wholesome meaningful life. We turn chaos into order and the apparent randomness of our existence into wonderful harmony. Think of the many great songs that reflect on the common experiences of sorrow, heartbreak or grief.
Through this catharsis we realize we are connected through a common bond with the rest of humanity as we share those same feelings and emotions with others. We hear the same story over and over again just with different words.
Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows.
Within this enduring beauty and truth that is illuminated in great art, we can arrive at a better understanding of citizens from different cultures and traditions. Art offers us portals into the worlds of those who are seemingly different from us. Rather than acting in hesitancy or suspicion, we can come towards greater empathy and compassion.
For we all have the same drives to experience beauty, moments of awe and wonder in which our consciousness transforms from ‘me’ to ‘we’ or from ‘I’ to ‘us’. For a brief period, selfish egotism all but vanishes, and new possibilities arrive. A new door opens for us all.
In beauty, and through beauty we are united as one.
So much of our lives in spent trying to plan for the future and control the outcomes of events. We meticulously schedule our time expecting everything to unfold just as how we imagined.
Then 2020 came – the year of uncertainty. We realized that the world is indifferent to our preferences and desires. So how can we remain grounded and put things into perspective in this chaotic time?
I met Paula through the mindfulness program at my work, and reached out to her thoughts and insights on how mindfulness can help us deal with many of the challenges we face today.
Paula Vital is an award-winning coach, speaker and writer dedicated to helping you move from striving to thriving by accessing the power of the present moment. A lawyer by training and senior advisor in the Ontario Public Service, Paula is very familiar with the challenges of balancing a stressful work-life with time for family and self-care.
Paula has been involved in health and wellness for over 20 years, and is a certified yoga teacher, Body Flow instructor, National Fitness instructor, and avid mindfulness practitioner and coach.
Paula has completed Levels I and II of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training, has two yoga certifications (Classical Hatha and Vinyasa), attended numerous silent meditation retreats, and studied with world-renowned yoga and meditation teachers such as Sharon Salzberg, Phillip Moffitt, Stephen Cope and Michael Stone. She is in the process of becoming an Internationally Certified Yoga Therapist (IAYT 2021).
Paula is committed to finding joy and balance in her own life and helping others to do the same.
You can learn more about her work through her free course of 3 Minute Meditations: 3 Minutes to Your Greatest Self on her website, www.livethepresent.ca.
How did you first learn about and begin practicing meditation and other contemplative practices?
I was a lawyer on Bay Street and after having worked so hard to achieve that, I felt disappointed and let down by the experience.
My whole life I had spent chasing after the next achievement, and eventually began to realize that no matter what I gained in the outside world – job success, travel, material goods, even relationships – there was nothing that was bringing me a true sense of contentment and satisfaction.
Luckily my sister meditated – and I thought that was so weird! Why sit and do nothing when there is so much to DO!!!
But I ran out of options and got curious. Together we did a course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, based on the Jon Kabat-Zinn model. During that course, I realized that there is value in just Being, and that I am more than my thoughts.
This insight was revolutionary! If I am more than my thoughts, and my thoughts are not always true or helpful, then who or what am I?
This was in 2006, and I have spent my life since that point exploring, and eventually teaching, that very question. Once we can observe our thoughts without judgment, we realize our unlimited and interconnected nature, tapping into and endless wellspring of love, compassion and joy.
2. What changes have you noticed since you began practicing meditation?
My whole perspective on life is completely different!
I used to spend my days planning for the future and tackling my To-Do list, never feeling completely satisfied and always feeling rushed, and that I had not done enough.
Now, my only job is to reconnect with the present moment and the one that is observing the whole thing. I then take one small action at a time and do it with complete love and surrender, to the best of my ability.
Turns out that when we worry less about outcomes and relax our expectations about the future, a beautiful future unfolds effortlessly.
3. The concept of ‘Acceptance’ or ‘Surrender’ is commonly discussed amongst spiritual practitioners such as Eckart Tolle. What does this idea mean to you?
We have no control over the outcomes of our actions. We have full control over our intention and the actions that we take in the present moment. Surrender is to let go of the fruits of your action, but completely devote yourself to bringing your full energy and heart to each and every moment.
Surrender also involves checking in at a deep level to see which is the correct action to take in each moment. This requires practice and an increasingly deepening connection to the stillness or witness within. Your very own wisdom.
4. We are living in times of uncertainty amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us know family, friends and loved ones who have been impacted. Further, we don’t quite know when we will get ‘back to normal.’ What advice do you have to stay grounded during this time?
Have compassion for yourself. This is a very difficult time! Just getting up, getting dressed and getting through the day is an accomplishment. Congratulate yourself for this.
Develop a very simple but nourishing self-care practice. It could be a walk in nature, 5 minutes of deep breathing, a mindful cup of tea, or some gentle stretches… whatever makes you feel cared for. Take care of yourself, and everything else will unfold.
Connect with another being in some way. If you live alone, consider adopting a pet. Human beings thrive on connection. If you can’t see other people in person, find ways to connect online that are meaningful to you. Write a letter. Start a blog. Whatever will get you in touch with the reality that we are never alone. Turn loneliness into solitude by recognizing your inherent interconnectedness with all beings.
5. Some have looked at this time as an opportunity critically look at how we were living prior to the pandemic and make broader societal changes. How can we create a more beautiful world after the pandemic? What changes do you hope to see?
There is always something to learn from difficult situations. Here is what I have learned so far from Covid-19.
Working with uncertainty is a very helpful skill. We can practice this in heaps right now. We don’t know what tomorrow (or the next hour) will bring… how can we let go of the need to know and just enjoy what is already here? My mother is dying, and each day that I am able to be with her I feel so blessed. If we are breathing, there is more right with us than wrong with us. Covid provides an opportunity to recognize this.
We go too fast. In the pre-Covid days, we were all rushing here and there. Rush rush rush. Never enough time. For some of us, the cancellation of everything (and the realization that anything can be cancelled!) gave us a much needed breather and an opportunity to sloooooow down… slow is good.
Flexibility is the key to continuing to make a contribution. I have needed to learn much more technology than I am comfortable with, and had to homeschool my kids while working during a large chunk of the pandemic. I tend to enjoy plans, routines and structures, and while I still had these they often went out the window with crying and fighting children or zoom calls that dropped. I learned to have a sense of humour and trust that things don’t need to be perfect. I can adapt, we can work together, and somehow we will get through it all. Working from home has been a huge gift to me as well!
Connections, connections, connections. It is so easy to feel lonely and overwhelmed in this scary and unpredictable world. But we are not alone! We are all in this together, literally the whole world!!! I have found ways to connect with teachers that I could only have dreamed of learning with as they now have offerings online, found a new yoga studio I never would have gone to as it is far away (but now virtual!), and cherished my friends and family and our loving connections, whether distanced or online. Nothing is more important than our relationships, and Covid has taught us that.
Hopefully our post-Covid world will not forget these lessons of relaxing with uncertainty, slowing down, staying flexible, and connecting with others. And of course the environmental benefits!!! May those continue!!!
6. Lastly, any final thoughts, books, articles etc. you would like to share?