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By Natasha Friedman

What is beauty? What makes something beautiful? Is it nice colors, elegant shapes or symmetry? Or is there something more? What does it mean when you look up at a night sky full of stars and something twists inside your chest, like a memory of something so important but you can’t put your finger on it? The experience of beauty for many is a spiritual experience in the deepest sense of the word: an opening to the mysterious reality beyond the limitations of our normal patterns.

Beauty as a spiritual path

Many religions and spiritual traditions throughout history, especially those of the more austere, ascetic and transcendentalist flavor, have rejected beauty as a distraction and a trap. Other traditions, however, have noticed that there is a deep mystery and spirituality in the experience of beauty. In Hindu tantra (and, to a lesser degree, tantric Buddhism), beauty and aesthetics have an important role. Along this path, beauty is both a means to awaken the soul to its own nature and an attribute of that Absolute Reality itself.

Abhinavagupta, the great master who united the schools of Kashmir Shaivism, was also an accomplished poet, musician and philosopher of aesthetics. In fact, his aesthetic theory is a cornerstone of classical Indian philosophy, widely appreciated by many scholars who have no interest whatsoever in spirituality. He teaches that aesthetic appreciation, the experience of being left speechless by a work of art or a beautiful sight, is one of the closest things in normal life to a mystical experience. It is a touch of the Divine that every human is familiar with, even if they haven’t meditated a day in their life.
 
AbhinavaguptaThe Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra, one of the earliest and most celebrated texts of Kashmir Shaivism, lists not one but three yuktis (techniques) to use everyday perceptions of beauty or pleasure as a gateway to profound mystical opening. (I’ll list these at the end of this post, if you want to try them.) These practices are based on the Kashmir Shaivist concept of camatkāra. It’s a delicious word, isn’t it? Camatkāra. Just say it out loud and get a taste of its meaning. It refers to that flash of spontaneous delight, of awe and wonderment that arises when we encounter something beautiful. The moment when you are caught off guard by an enchanting melody, or when you look up just in time to see a bright rainbow glittering across the sky. Time stops and just for that moment, you dissolve into wonder. Usually it only lasts for the blink of an eye. Then the gears of the mind start turning again. From pure experience, your mind says, “rainbow,” then “I am seeing a rainbow,” then “this rainbow is nice but I saw a better one last week.”
 
The trick, according to the Shaivists, is to learn to rest in that first moment of unconditioned delight. It is actually a moment of recognition, pratyabhijna, in which awareness catches a glimpse of itself. Abhinavagupta’s texts drip with wonder at the beauty of Reality, both as pure Awareness and in its expansion into infinite forms. Mystics from many other backgrounds have experienced the Absolute as beauty, as in St. Augustine’s famous cry: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.” Or the words of Rumi: “O God, you are the graceful and the beautiful. You are the highest love, the giver of life.”

Is it beautiful or just pretty?

When talking about beauty in this way, it should be clear that we are talking about something more than just what is pretty or conventionally beautiful. Beauty and prettiness are not the same. Actually, in the spiritual sense they are opposites. Prettiness is something that only conforms to conventional aesthetics and usually takes the viewer deeper into samsara (or the limited reality we tend to identify with on a daily basis). It generates more attachment to the senses, more grasping after sensory fulfillment, more identification with limited form and conventions, and reinforces the ingrained belief that beauty comes from form. This is assuming, of course, that you view it in a normal way. Any object, no matter how pretty or ugly, can reveal deep, transformative beauty when seen with the right eyes. With awareness, you can find beauty in any sense perception. And without awareness, there is no beauty. Just compare two experiences.

In the first, imagine you are looking out on a beautiful landscape at sunset, but you are distracted, worried about how you will pay your credit card bill this month or a difficult conversation you will have to have later. How much of a sense of beauty is there?

For the second, pick up a random object that you have near you right now. A pen, a shoe, an old hat. Hold it close to your eyes and look at it, really look at it, turning off your thoughts for a minute. Forget what the thing is and look at it like a piece of art. See the colors, the shapes, the subtle shadings and how it catches the light.

How much beauty is there? Beauty is universal. Wherever you put enough awareness, you will find it. This is a clue to the deeper significance of aesthetic experience: the transcendent is beautiful and the nature of beauty is transcendence. True beauty takes the viewer beyond form. It isn’t created or confined by appearance. For example, think of an artist who can make amazing art out of junk or create something ugly that still causes a tremor of aesthetic wonder. Just listen to Stravinsky’s dissonant chords or take a look at the frantic scribbles of Cy Twombly.

Seeing the beauty in what is normally considered ugly or just unremarkable is, I believe, a marker of spiritual maturity. The more you can approach every moment with wonder and awe, the more you can appreciate how uniquely beautiful and unspeakably precious is every aspect of this existence, the more you are open to the universe of the Heart. Essentially, what we perceive as beautiful is anything that calls us back to our true nature, that triggers that moment of pratyabhijna. At its core, beauty, is a mystery. If you try to grasp what makes something beautiful, you will always come up empty.

A note on the beauty of painful experiences

I spoke earlier about the joy and spiritual value in discovering beauty in the ugly or mundane. Does this mean then that to progress spiritually, we have to “look on the bright side” of every painful experience? Is it a spiritual failure to feel hurt, sad, disappointed, disgusted or angry? Absolutely not. This is classic spiritual bypassing, a dead-end at best and dangerous at worst. “Negative” emotions have a purpose and a valuable role in our evolution. And you can find beauty in them also, as soon as you let go of the impulse to avoid them or fix them. The next time you feel sad, angry or reactive, try to take a closer look at this emotional energy. With neutrality and curiosity, you might find a special beauty in the intensity of fear, the clarity of anger or the poignancy of sadness. Maybe you have an intuition of this already, a memory of an intense moment of grief, fear or anger where you felt an inexplicable thrill of bliss. It’s a living proof of how – as much we try to put everything in life into boxes of pleasure or pain, good or bad – beauty transcends all limitations.

So where to from here?

Opening to beauty can be one of the most joyful and transformative dimensions of the spiritual journey. It is one of the simplest and most direct ways to catch a glimpse of the ineffable within the space of everyday life, a reminder that something mysterious and transcendent is alive within the ordinary. To connect with it, I recommend spending some quality time with art or music, looking or listening with a quiet mind and open attention to go fully into your own experience.

The time right after meditation is a perfect opportunity to discover beauty. When you open your eyes, try to see the whole scene before you as a work of art, a unique expression of Consciousness.

You can also explore these three yuktis* from the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra (sl. 72-4) as translated by Christopher Wallis:

“One should meditate on the state of fullness that expands due to the delight of savoring good food and drink, and that joy will become sublime.

The yogin who relishes music and song to the extent that he merges with it becomes filled with unparalleled happiness, attains heightened awareness and experiences oneness with the Divine.

Wherever the mind delights, let your attention linger there. In any such experience, the true nature of supreme bliss may shine forth.”
 
* The original text expects the practitioner to have mastered the yogic practices that come before the sensual practices or else the sensual practices will not work as part of a liberation sādhanā.
 
A note to our readers: We want to hear from you! What does beauty mean to you? How do you discover beauty or cultivate a sense of beauty along the spiritual path? Share in the comments below.
  
Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.

New Dimensions of the Practice. Notes and Observations:

  1. Liking the practice:
  • This daily repeated exercise increased my “liking” of the practice to the point that I wish it could last longer.
  • I feel that the number of minutes I reached are not enough for me anymore. I “crave” the practice every morning and I look forward to see the sun rising the next day.

 

  1. Eyes activation in the daily life:
  • My Eyes activation lasts for a long time during the entire day following the practice.
  • Sometimes, during normal daily activities, I feel my eyes just suddenly becoming energised and vibrating, the energy field in the entire area around my eyes becomes expanded and my gaze becomes somehow shifted from the physical world.
  • It becomes temporary difficult to read anything in those moments, and the physical objects look blurred. I have to keep a de-focalised gaze and let my vision field expand.
  • Ajna Chakra is spontaneously activated and vibrating in the same time.

 

  1. Hrid Mudra:
  • I had a spontaneous urge to bring my hands in Hrid Mudra. It felt like inner guidance or some message from the divine consciousness about something I have “next to do”.
  • The practice in this new way felt very good and powerful.
  • The pranic circuit from my hands to the heart area becomes immediately obvious, perceivable and very comforting. I will continue this way for the next weeks.
  • It certainly helps releasing an affective trauma in emotional crisis. Generalised feeling of well-being. Strong activation of Anahata Chakra.
  • The feeling of well-being becomes so strong that it makes me wish to come back to the practice the next day. I long for it during the day.

 

  1. Anjali Mudra:
  • Moving on to Anjali Mudra makes a fine transition from the feeling of well-being and inner emotional comfort to a more meditative state.
  • Keeping centeredness is easy, I completely withdraw from the external world.
  • I find my way “inward” and I continue my gazing practice witnessing the perceptions, both visionary and emotional, from my heart center.
  • I continue the practice alternating Hrid Mudra and Anjali Mudra.

 

  1. Prarthanasana (Prayer Pose):
  • In the last few days of the 3rd month of my Tapas I experiment with the practice standing in Prarthanasana.
  • It is a familiar and confortable pose for me, so I can keep it for a long time while continuing my sun gazing practice with calmness and aspiration, without tension and in complete surrender.
  • I find profound relaxation in that pose, the breath pattern settles in naturally. I try to keep some rhythmic breathing flowing naturally.
  • I keep the awareness of the Heart Center and I continue blowing upon the amber of the heart during the practice.
  • I settle in the Natural State with reverence and devotion.
  • I have the feeling that I am seeking for something precious that is above and beyond ourselves as limited individuals and it will be revealed to me when I am mostly prepared to see.
  • I am certainly seeking for answers and guidance in my path to follow.

I am seeking for directions and a new way in my spiritual quest for bringing the Absolute Truth to the world and liberation to all beings.

  • I am open to welcome anything that may be revealed to me – any inspiration, insights, visions and revelations from the divine consciousness about the physical world and all subtle dimensions.
  • I am maintaining a state of fearlessness to anything I may perceive, non-judgement, non-discrimination, non-prejudice, while gazing and praying in open attention, humbleness and witness attitude.

I find the “gift of grace”.  State of amazing grace in stillness and naturalness.

 

  1. Post-practice:
  • I continue with Phosphene work and inner Trataka, followed by Ajna-focused meditation after the sun gazing practice.

Note: I aim to increase the length of the practice in both the Sun Gazing and Prarthanasana combined in the several months to follow.

 

 

While we want to maintain a committed practice, it is also very important not to lose sight of why we are doing the practice in the first place, what is our intention.

There is an old Zen saying about the “finger that points to the moon.” The practice is just a “finger” and we don’t ever want to mistake it for or lose sight of the moon.

On the one hand, yoga posits that at the core of our being, we are already perfect and whole – we don’t need to do anything except to recognize that and rest in that knowing. And at the absolute level this is very true.

However, at the same time, because of strong subconscious conditioning, most of us find it very difficult to surrender to our Real nature and just be. This is why the practice of hatha yoga and meditation are considered an essential element of the yogic path.

Yoga gives us tools and specific practices that help us to develop greater awareness of our body, breath and the universal energies, while meditation helps us to go further, beyond the mind.

As we purify our being through these practices and develop an ability to dis-identify with old patterns, we gradually begin to remove veils and have a fresh, more intimate sense of ourselves.

 

Seek the Self in the body.

This body is known as the abode of the Self.

Forsaking greed and attachment

will brighten the body.

The body will shine like the sun.

 

Slowly through practicing breath control,

the lamp shone

and I saw my true nature.

The inner light I realized –

caught it in darkness and seized it.

 

Deeds I performed became offerings.

Words I spoke became mantra.

Experiences my body had

were for self-knowledge.

This is the essence of siva’s way.

 

Some renounce their home,

and some their hermitage.

All is futile

if the mind is not under control.

Meditate on your breath

day and night,

and stay wherever you are.

 

-Lalla

Meditation

What is all this love and all this laughter? It’s the joyous sound of a soul waking up.”

~ Hafiz

The Sanskrit root of yoga yuj means to “yoke,” “bind,” or “join together” and also indicates “union” or “oneness.”

At the deepest spiritual level, yoga allows us to reveal the Self, the True Essence of our Being. Ultimately it is the means by which we realize that there is no separation between anyone or anything – everything is One.

Defining yoga in an all-encompassing way can be challenging. There are so many distinct and overlapping aspects, layers, branches, and nuances within the vastness of yoga and a single definition inherently creates limitation.

 

Misconceptions about yoga

For many in the West, yoga is equivalent to asana practice known as Hatha Yoga, the practice of physical postures. The quintessential image of yoga is a beautiful young woman doing some impossible-looking pretzel-like position. While physical postures are indeed a part of yoga and they do improve one’s health, they are only a very small p>what yoga is.

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Yoga has powerful “secondary” benefits that can bring about change in one’s life on a more practical level. These include:

  • Better physical health
  • A calmer mind
  • Increased sensitivity to energy
  • An enhanced ability to embrace and detach from difficult emotions
  • More harmonious relationships
  • More compassion
  • A greater sense of meaning and purpose

Also, pure intention and focused awareness are integral to the practice of asanas and what set yoga apart from other forms of physical exercise. Yoga is an empirical science and a philosophy aimed at understanding life’s most important questions.

And yet the real essence of yoga is about transcending all limitations.

Just as the wave is never separate from the ocean, we are all individual expressions of the Divine. This tenet of yoga is known as advaita or non-dualism and is the core of the Hridaya yoga philosophy.