To act as if constant Zen were an attainable norm for most people would be deceptive, but reaching a state of peace can improve your expression of beauty whether physically, emotionally, verbally, mentally, or spiritually. Blue zone inhabitants from around the globe often live to be centenarians not only from eating healthfully but also from engaging in daily practices that reduce stress. The average American may feel disconnected from a more traditional way of life that is so beneficial to human health. Even the most laid-back type B personalities have their stressor points, and no honest religion or spiritual tradition glosses over the reality of life’s more damaging tendencies despite common and profane stereotypes about the more spiritually minded amongst us.
The other day, as I was pondering all of this, I drove to the mountains to contemplate the metaphysics of beauty as it stands within the difficult realities and pervasive image fixation of modern living, and I found answers in both the Buddhist tradition and in our own American Emerson. As I sat in the soft, diffused amber of the forest evening and bathed in the soft cool wind that offered a natural sound bath of rustling leaves, I began contemplating my experience working as an editor at the Buddhist temple. The Buddhist way of life sought harmony and simplicity, and the people who found their spiritual home at the temple, regardless of circumstance, exercised beauty in each act. Though an eastern spiritual path, Buddhism is inclusive and popular in the west, and there is much to learn from Buddhist teachings. For example, Buddhism’s approach to tribulation is attractive to many people regardless of their official religion or more atheistic tendencies. For those who take the time for even the most cursory reading of Buddhist texts, it is easy to grasp the wisdom of acknowledging the world’s ills and then pursuing detachment. In western philosophy and culture, there too have been those who recommend detachment from Ecclesiastes to the Stoic philosophers to Boethius to Camus. This spring, I find myself reading Emerson and finding that not only is he a strong source of rational detachment, but many of his ideas complement the Buddhist approach to life. I was delighted to discover the synchronicity between Buddhism and Transcendentalism, both of which offer a path to beautiful living. I was always less of an Americanist, drawn instead to older texts, but I have studied enough American literature to know the transcendentalists have been likened to Buddhist thinkers. Nevertheless, as text and pupil collide in the solitary and deeply ponderous depths of reading, I found the complementary conceptualization captivating since the connections aren’t always easy to discern unless one has studied both.
Most recently I have found myself reading Emerson’s “Compensation,” an essay that guides readers through an obvious but often overlooked examination of cause and effect, for every single thing, however sweet, has its price, and I would argue that cause and effect is the major element affecting beauty. Emerson frames compensation as the effort of production. To eat the bread, we first must make it with ingredients purchased with the money earned through our labor which is then transferred to those who harvested, hulled, and then shipped the grain, their labor justified by such pay. It isn’t quite so simple despite his observations of compensation’s universal verity, for there are always some whose payment is not equally satisfied with reward, or so it seems; however, we can apply his principle to our own experience of beauty. If a person exercises genuine kindness and nurtures her body, that person will drink more deeply of Beauty’s font than someone who is petty and/or doesn’t take care of herself physically. This principle is true if only because of the extremely detrimental effects of stress. Emerson, of course, a devout man, illustrates practical preachings as solutions to the metaphysical problem of cause and effect, yet Emerson refreshingly dismisses religious truisms as logically fallacious (90). This blend of faith and reason is ideal for people in this day and age, many of whom feel disconnected spiritually and physically. What Emerson does is offer spiritual insight while balancing faith with earthly life, and it is in this balance that anyone can find beauty whether of the internal or external variety. It is often the case that imbalance as a result of one’s own actions is what diminishes one’s beauty; it’s cause and effect. Emerson, to my enjoyment, frames the dynamic of cause and effect as one of polarity: action and reaction, as demonstrated in the laws of nature and mechanics, laws not even an existentialist would try to refute as man-made fabrications since nature and mechanics both follow universal rules. Referencing this metaphysical reality, Emerson continues to argue that compensation is a universal balancing. What one gains leaves elsewhere an empty space, and for each space filled there is a ripple effect, ad infinitum. What brings us low results in a corresponding empty space. Likewise, what uplifts us, even if but for a moment, has a ripple effect on the body and the mind as well as our cohabitants of the planet.
The Chan Buddhist perspective harmonizes with Emerson’s assessment of compensation, for all material reality is tied to cause and condition, so merit is always rewarded, according to the Chan, even if that reward is recognized in a future emanation (lifetime). “Things refuse to be mismanaged long and checks to evil exist even if they are not obvious,” Emerson writes (93). The Chan agree, saying “A cause once generated will always produce its appropriate effect” (Yun 6). It is so easy to be swept up in a world of appearances from the smallest particles of nature to more drastic phenomenon. The Buddhists say that appearances are illusion, transitory shape separated by transitory shape, obscuring the all-permeating totality, and if this view is correct, it is easy to see why cause and effect have such a powerful effect on beauty, which is a domain wrapped up in a world of appearances. In the west, it is common to see the separation of things as independent features acting by force of the divine will (with variance from the atomic materialists). However, Emerson frames cause and effect similarly to the Buddhists, seeing all of reality, the shared stuff of being, as “the universe represented in each of its particles” (93). From this lens, we find ourselves as microcosm of a larger, universal being, and the way we maneuver through reality affects our own beauty since what we diminish in turn diminishes ourselves. The Buddhists explain, “…that the seeds we sow with our actions, whether good or bad, will not disappear regardless of how much time has passed. Like a seed that sprouts under the right conditions, our causes will bear effects when the right conditions come to pass” (23), and so we can better understand how our treatment of self and others can affect our own beauty. If we live beautifully as best as we can, then we can come to know ourselves as beautiful even if it takes an entire lifetime. Whatever harm we cause, our beauty is diminished. There is no aged person who does not bear the evidence of this. I view the truth of cause and effect as unavoidable and some what inconvenient, yet it offers us to transmute our reality. We can derive gold from our darkest night and learn to be beautiful in even the harshest of circumstances. The most beautiful flower grows from fertilized earth.
Perhaps, these metaphysical musings weren’t what you expected when you were simply seeking beauty advice. Metaphysical thought can be menacing to some people since it can potentially unbalanced rumination, which tends to be heavy. To others, the connection between cause and effect and beauty is not yet clear. Seeing it could be the work of a lifetime. Either way, who’s to say really what sort of check may reveal itself or what reflection may gaze out from the mirror to upset someone on to a new path of light? The relativist may argue that an ugly action can sew the seeds of Beauty, that the effects of error may bud the sweetness of late fruit. Nevertheless, Emerson writes, “The thief steals from himself. The swindler swindles himself for the real price of labor is knowledge and virtue where of wealth and credit are signs” (101). I would agree with that intellectually beautiful statement as it is wise and enlightening guidance, all balanced with rational experience, yet I find the extremities of its implications too ascetic, unfeasible, unreasonable, or not substantially practical for most people since most people are necessarily caught up in the messy business of living — where what is virtuous and what is not are not always crisp and clear even if weighed by the gaze of someone who is obsessively devout. Lives of commerce and work entangle with relationships and conflicting codes. Some people lose needlessly more exterior pleasure by too strict adherence to the sages, or they may seek to dwell in such controlled expressions of detachment and thus neglect to see their own attachment to detachment, a conundrum pondered throughout time. The relativist could have a point, one that the more devout could agree with: sometimes it is experience of the bad that produces the good. The spiritual person would interpret this as evidence of divine beneficence while the secular person may see it as the learning curve. Humans can’t help but error, so it is reasonable to accept that sometimes bad may lead to good, but it is better to endeavor well in order to diminish the ugliness of ill effects. Excessive cigarette smoking, after all, will accelerate wrinkles even if the pain of lung cancer may turn someone into the most beautiful of spirits.
How then are we to attain beauty within and beauty without?
1. Meditate while using homemade organic facials.
2. Forgive angry, confined people within reason in order to repel wrinkles.
3. Depart from prisons of our own creation even if we must crawl to the light. Vitamin D deficiency is out of style.
4. Become flexible in the stream of emanation and expression. Moisturize daily to facilitate the process.
5. Stretch your body and stretch your mind with some form of yoga. As the yogis commonly say, you are as young as your spine is flexible.
6. Know that whatever nonsense you may hear, if we use poisons to beautify ourselves, we only grow more toxic.
7. Give beauty of expression freely and joyously in order to so receive.
8. Find genuinely positive, sustainable connection in order to reduce stress.
9. Escape fear by confronting power.
10. Express grace to learn freedom.
11. Enfold and complement natural beauty as it suits your own unique D.N.A. vs. fighting nature.
12. Tip your beautifiers well and bring light during your visits. They conspire with the mirrors after all.
13. Elect for slow fashion to reduce waste and exploitation. The clothing may cost more, but it will last longer and resist “out of fashion” sentiment.
14. Some people go vegan to eliminate animal cruelty. Other people honor the lives of the animals by supporting small farms or engaging in sustainable hunting, and still others must eat only what they can afford. Know that what you eat becomes you. Healthy soil (soul) and humble dirt matter so much just as fresh air, clean water, and a clean system do. Eat the best food you can for your budget.
15. If you have the means and will, start early. Adopt beneficial beautifying routines from a young age, and wake up early. Waking up early is good for your circadian rhythms and thus is beautifying.
16. Nurture rest. Make your room a temple to rest, and be compassionate toward your body by giving yourself the space to dream without worrying about the details.
17. If you fuck up, find a way to start anew. By starting fresh, you embody eternal youth.
18. Exercise kindness in a curious and patient way in order to discover untold beautifying miracles.
19. Uphold the duties you elected but depart in peace when you must. Be kind, and if such kindness crushes your heart, let it not diminish your spirit.
20. No matter how much people try to deceive you about your own nature, know your true worth.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Compensation.” The Harvard Classics: Essays and English Traits. Vol. 5. Ed. Charles W. Eliot, L.L.D. P.F. Collier & Sons: New York, 1909
Yun, Hsing, Venerable Master. “Cause and Effect.” Buddhism in Every Step. Vol. A9. Fo Guang Shan International, Hacienda Heights, 2018.