The Illusion of Beauty
Beauty is an amorphous concept. It means something different to everyone, which is why we say it’s in the eye of the beholder. And how we perceive beauty—whether it’s in a person’s face, a sunrise, a daisy—reflects, to some degree, who we are. Beauty, of course, is everywhere, but according to Los Angeles–based psychotherapist Barry Michels, that’s not the whole story. There’s a negative force at work, too. Michels calls this negative force Part X, a name for the inner voice inside of each of us that prevents us from appreciating the true beauty in the world. Michels is a coauthor of Coming Alive, which focuses on defeating Part X. Here, he provides three practices to help us reconnect with beauty and, ultimately, help inspire more of it in the world.
P.S. Michels will be joining us at In goop Health Vancouver later this month. He’ll be giving one of his signature incredibly affecting and effective workshops on the Shadow—the pieces of us that we judge and hide. The talk is in Stanley Park Pavilion on Sunday, October 28, at 2 p.m. You can find out more and get tickets here.
The Three Principles of True Beauty
Beauty is a force that’s alive and intelligent. It is trying to reach out to you from behind the surface of the ordinary world. In our book Coming Alive, Phil Stutz and I explain how to tap into this force from inside yourself. But this force is also outside you. It animates people and inhabits objects—buildings, streets, railroads, telephone poles, etc. The life force inside these things is what provides them with real beauty. If you can perceive it, even something that appears ugly on the surface can come to life and inspire you. If you can’t perceive it, you’re cut off from a powerful ally in your fight against Part X—an inner enemy determined to sabotage every aspect of our lives.
Beauty is bountiful and ever-present. Part X has conditioned us to perceive beauty as confined to certain places or people, but it isn’t—it’s everywhere. Shimmering underneath the surface of everything, beauty makes even ordinary things sparkle with life—the weather-beaten face of someone who’s lived a long, full life; a street blighted with billboards; a leaf being blown by the wind. Beauty comes from beyond the visible world and has the potential to break you open and change your life.
Why Beauty Matters
But why should we care about beauty—why does it matter? Beauty provides us with something we can’t get anywhere else: the inspiration to fight as hard as we can against Part X. The enemy’s most powerful weapon is the sense of impossibility it creates: Part X makes it seem impossible to resist temptation, overcome obstacles, meet life’s demands, and so on. This constant thrumming—“Give up, you can’t, it’s impossible”—destroys our dreams and aspirations before we even act on them.
“Beauty touches everyone’s life differently. It will inspire you in a way that’s unique to you.”
That’s why beauty is so important. By revealing an entire dimension of life that’s untouched by Part X, beauty pierces through the miasma of impossibility like a ray of sunlight, injecting us with the sense that everything is possible. Beauty inspires us to live a life that says “I can” rather than “I can’t.”
Beauty touches everyone’s life differently. It will inspire you in a way that’s unique to you. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t felt beauty free them from their limitations—if only momentarily. Hearing the rhythms and harmonies of a particular song can impel you to exercise harder and longer than normal. The jubilation of a child’s laughter can awaken you from the doldrums. An unusually vivid sunset can motivate you to express yourself creatively.
Beauty is a unique resource in the fight against Part X because it’s everywhere; you can tap into it wherever you are. It’s available to everyone. It is given, not earned or purchased. And you never have to worry about running out of it because it’s infinite—it has never been depleted and never will be.
One of the ways Part X gets us to believe that beauty doesn’t matter is by convincing us that life is all about just getting by, as if we’re barely surviving. “Beauty seems frivolous in a world where you could die at any moment,” Part X tells us. But beauty is like the air surrounding us; we can breathe it in whenever we need to.
The Attack on Beauty
So how does Part X stop you from doing that? It substitutes a false version for the real thing. While real beauty is infinite—available to all people at all times—the false version is finite, available only to an elite few. And because it’s finite, the false version inspires only competition; the conquest and ownership of it become the currency by which we measure our status. It’s not enough to appreciate a Picasso; you must acquire one to get a leg up on those who can’t afford one.
But if beauty is everywhere, then who cares if someone else buys a Picasso? Why not be happy for them and go on admiring that beautiful piece of trash dancing in the breeze? Getting us to compete for beauty when it’s infinitely available requires Part X to perpetrate a mass delusion. Remember that beauty is part of the life force—a diffuse, intangible energy shimmering underneath the surface of everything. Trying to possess it is unthinkable; like grabbing a fistful of water, it would slip through your fingers. So Part X convinces you that the life force isn’t everywhere but rather centralized in certain objects—a stunning actress, a luxury car, an expensive home with a view, etc. Then it convinces you these objects are “beautiful” (and worth possessing), while others have no value at all.
“Beauty cannot be captured, owned, or possessed. It’s just the opposite: The mission of beauty is to find you, open your heart, and inject it with the inspiration to fight Part X.”
Part X doesn’t stop there. It strengthens this mass delusion by providing us with a standardized metric for determining which things are beautiful and which are not: A work of art is beautiful if buyers are willing to pay top dollar for it. If Part X can get all of us to agree to these standards, it’s difficult to see beauty in things that don’t live up to them.
Worse, we regard these criteria as absolute—standing for all time—when in reality, they’re constantly changing. Throughout history, societies have conceived various false standards to try to define what makes a person beautiful. Van Gogh made very little money from his paintings in his lifetime; now they sell for hundreds of millions of dollars. The paintings haven’t changed—our standards of beauty have. If the metrics we use to measure beauty are ever-changing, then even if you attain the false version of beauty today, it will slip away from you tomorrow.
“The heart can do what the head can’t do: penetrate the surface and perceive the beauty of the world moving invisibly beneath it.”
It’s time to accept the truth. Beauty cannot be captured, owned, or possessed. It’s just the opposite: The mission of beauty is to find you, open your heart, and inject it with the inspiration to fight Part X. If you allow that, you’ll find yourself spreading the seeds of beauty to everything and everyone around you.
There are three principles that will help you differentiate true beauty from Part X’s false substitute. If you live according to these principles, you won’t have to travel to a tropical paradise, have cosmetic surgery, or buy expensive clothes to find beauty. You’ll see it inside yourself and surrounding you in daily life.
Principle 1: Beauty Can Be Seen Only by the Heart
The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
How can we train ourselves to perceive the beauty around us? We have to stop looking only at the surface of things. Real beauty moves surreptitiously underneath the surface of the visible world. To learn about something visible, you use intellectual tools. With a couch, for example, you can measure its length, analyze the way it’s upholstered, make calculations to figure out whether it will fit in your living room, etc. You do all this with your head.
Beauty is different. The only way to know it is by the awe it inspires in your heart. The heart can do what the head can’t do: penetrate the surface and perceive the beauty of the world moving invisibly beneath it.
You may not think you know how to see beauty with your heart, but you do. In childhood—before Part X took control of your perception—you saw everything with your heart. I remember this from my own childhood. I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, and almost every day, the beauty of the world bombarded my senses like a spraying hydrant on a hot summer day. I found it mesmerizing: the sun warming the dew, the breeze whispering through the trees, everything swaying in perfect harmony.
“The real value of early life is that it helps you remember a time when you looked at the world through different eyes—and reveled in the beauty around you.”
In adulthood, Part X moves the center of perception from the heart to the head. As a result, I now live in nicer surroundings, yet I struggle to see beauty anywhere. I walk out my front door focused on where I’m going and what needs to be done when I get there. If I notice anything, my concerns are purely practical—the leaves need raking, another car is blocking mine, someone tipped over a trash can, etc. That’s all Part X wants me to see.
Because children see with their hearts, they derive the benefits of beauty: They have more energy, play with abandon, and often adapt to changes more quickly (and with fewer complaints) than adults. Without knowing it, they are inspired by the beauty surrounding them. Any adult can recover these childhood abilities. Try this exercise:
Close your eyes and go back to your childhood. Pick out someone or something that seemed beautiful at the time. It might have been a stuffed animal, a member of your family, or something less personal, like the sound of rain. Whatever you choose, focus on it until it drowns out everything else.
Now imagine the same thing from an adult’s point of view. How are the two perspectives different? Which perspective inspires you to fight Part X?
Adults see things with their heads. That vantage point screens out the aesthetic, narrowly focusing on the practical: “The rain reminds me that the roof might leak.” That’s how Part X nullifies the power of beauty. Traditional psychology puts a lot of emphasis on childhood to explain the origin of your problems. But the real value of early life is that it helps you remember a time when you looked at the world through different eyes—and reveled in the beauty around you.
Principle 2: Beauty Hurts
Part X’s ability to blind us to the beauty that surrounds us is abetted by a great ally: pain. It actually hurts to perceive the beauty of the world around you. The pain can be sweet and liberating, but it hurts nonetheless. Most of us are so pain-avoidant that we sacrifice beauty’s inspiring power, living in a purely functional world.
Why does it hurt to take in something as salutary as beauty? Beauty is life—when it enters you, it forces your heart to expand beyond where it’s been before. Just like a physical muscle stretching past its normal limits, that hurts. Unlike a physical muscle, however, your heart can expand without limit, encompassing more life than you’ve ever known. The writer Andrew Harvey put it this way: “If you’re really listening, if you’re awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly. In fact, your heart is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold ever more wonders.”
These heartbreaking wonders make beauty not only painful but scary. It’s inevitable that beauty will inspire you to take risks you wouldn’t otherwise take. You may break out of your comfort zone and try something new—risk rejection by expressing love more passionately or risk failure by starting a new pet project. It makes sense that if beauty can inspire you to expand your life, Part X will use fear to stop you.
“There are people who move through life with a kind of beauty, handling difficult situations with delicacy and poise. When you react to someone’s insults with forgiveness, when you show kindness to a stranger who’s down on his luck, when you comfort someone who’s grieving, you personify beauty.”
Beauty isn’t only about pain and fear; it can also fill you with intense delight. At some point, you’ve probably been entranced by a meteor blazing across the night sky, a song that sent your body swaying, or the grandeur of a summer thunderstorm. But beauty is a force, and your encounters with it can also cause you to “come undone” or lose your composure. That’s why we cry when we hear certain pieces of music or see certain films. The Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence, Italy, is accustomed to treating tourists who become dizzy and faint after gazing at Michelangelo’s statue of David and other art treasures of the city. The same thing can happen when people are awed by natural beauty. Traditional psychology attributes this to a psychosomatic disorder (meaning it’s all in your head) because it can’t acknowledge that these people are actually responding to a force from beyond. But that’s disrespectful to the power of beauty and to the human longing for its heart-expanding powers.
If it doesn’t move, hurt, or scare you at least a little, you probably aren’t dealing with the real version of beauty. To experience these feelings, try this:
Close your eyes and think of something you find beautiful. It might be a person, an inspired work of art or music, a shaft of light slicing through a dense forest, or anything else that has moved you with its beauty. Whatever it is, focus all of your attention on it.
Now imagine that there’s a powerful force—the force of pure beauty—emanating from it. Feel the force approaching you, piercing your heart, and filling it with so much inspiration that it feels like your heart could burst. Feel the pain. Relax and let the force flow through you.
Think of the pain you just experienced as the price you pay for the inspiration you receive. If you’re willing to pay the price, you’ll receive the reward: Your heart will expand, you’ll fight harder against Part X, and you’ll live an inspired life.
Principle 3: Beauty Is as Beauty Does
There’s a final way you can tell the difference between beauty and Part X’s false substitute. Real beauty must be reflected in the way you live your life. To understand this, we must realize that there is a kind of beauty reflected in things we don’t normally assess in aesthetic terms. A relationship can be beautiful when two people weather many storms together and emerge loving and respectful of one another. Likewise, there are people who move through life with a kind of beauty, handling difficult situations with delicacy and poise. When you react to someone’s insults with forgiveness, when you show kindness to a stranger who’s down on his luck, when you comfort someone who’s grieving, you personify beauty. In truth, every human endeavor has the potential to bring beauty into the world.
Let’s see how you might choose to act with beauty. Think of someone who is so difficult, they’re able to get you to act in an ugly way. Try this exercise:
Go back to the last exercise and reexperience the force of beauty piercing your heart and filling you with inspiration.
Place yourself in front of the difficult person and imagine them doing something provocative that would normally trigger the worst in you.
Before you respond, reconnect to the flow of beauty welling up inside your heart. Use the other person’s ugliness to strengthen, rather than weaken, your connection to it. If you were able to do this in real life, how would you respond differently to the other person?
When the ugliness of another person strengthens your inner commitment to beauty, you’ve accomplished something profound. You’ve freed yourself from the noxious influence of another person. More important, you’ve solidified your connection to beauty as a force. When you can align yourself with something greater than yourself—and remain true to it no matter the provocation—life becomes meaningful. You are dedicating yourself to something that transcends the pettiness of everyday life, and you are bringing more beauty into the world.
Barry Michels has a BA from Harvard; a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley; and an MSW from the University of Southern California. He has been in private practice as a psychotherapist since 1986. With Phil Stutz, he is the author of Coming Alive and The Tools. Michels is giving one of his signature workshops on the Shadow, with goop, on Saturday, October 28, in Vancouver. You can get tickets here.