Shinichi Suzuki, the founder of the Suzuki method of music, is famous for having said, “Practice only on the days you eat.” It is an admonition repeated often in Suzuki households. (I know because we said it often to our younger son.) Suzuki wanted to make music as much a part of a child’s daily life as the desire and need to eat. More than this, he wanted to help rebuild Japanese society after WWII in a way that would insure that it would be defined by beauty and morality. “I want to make good citizens,” wrote Suzuki. “If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.”
In this time of pandemic, when our days are frayed by apprehension and so much has been brought to a standstill—and when the sting of loss is sharp--the practice of beauty is a powerful antidote. Under beauty’s spell, we surrender our self-concern and remember that underneath and alongside the present disorder of life are patterns of relations that sustain life.
But in our American culture, beauty is hardly ever declared a principle for shaping lives. Instead, it is mistrusted as a form of sexual and commercial manipulation, demeaned as superficial, reduced to personal opinion, and removed from the public sphere. And yet we pursue beauty in our gardens and on our vacations, in our subscriptions to House Beautiful and Dwell, and in our postings on Pinterest.
There is no doubt that beauty is one of life’s great pleasures. And because it is, we desire it, seek it out, and sometimes fixate on it. I know a man who almost missed his train stop in Frankfurt, so taken was he with the beauty of the young woman seated across from him. That man was my husband and the only reason he told me this story was to confess the utter thralldom he’d experienced. But beauty is more than pleasure and its importance in these times deserves attention. Beauty is intimately and evolutionarily connected to the urge to live. It is the value associated most keenly with experiences that affirm our vitality in relation to the vitality of other beings. In the presence of beauty, we feel more intensely alive.
The practice of beauty, like any other practice, requires intention and repetition. In the ball field behind my house, now off-limits to summer leagues, I heard a father and son at practice. “Watch the ball, watch the ball!” urged the father as he sent a grounder out. “Stay low; use your short hop.” Over and over, they rehearsed the kinesthetic motions until bat, ball, body were no longer unaligned objects and “playingball” was one action. The practice of beauty is strikingly similar, a fine-tuning of feeling the world. The world comes to us like a fast pitch—directly and all-at-once. To catch it, we have to be as agile as an outfielder, able to coordinate ourselves with life in its abounding forms.
For years, the architect Christopher Alexander devoted several hours each day to an exercise in receptivity, looking at pairs of objects—ceramic bowls, woven rugs, tiles, metal utensils, etc.—and asking: “Which has more life?” His aim was to feel the energy in the structure of things. He did not ask, “Which do I like better?” a question that sinks us into the quicksand of personal pleasure and human ego--and destroys the connected life of observer and observed. To be attuned to beauty involves a shift away from my feelings about the world and toward the feeling in the world and the world as felt in me.
The ability to feel is synonymous with being alive. “The truth of a thing,” said filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, "is in the feel of it, not the think of it." In the modern world, we have given a lot of time to disciplining our thinking and hardly any to amplifying our capacity to feel. But beauty’s kinship with life is disclosed through feeling and so the practice of beauty involves training ourselves to feel the rush of relations that support life.
It also involves familiarity with the relational patterns that intensify the energy embodied in forms. Through his daily practice, Alexander found fifteen such patterns, including boundaries, rhythm, contrast, and strong centers that appear in both the human-made world and the natural world. Each pattern enlivens the relations between things. A strong border strengthens both what is enclosed by it and the relation between the one and the many. Think of a garden bed, set off by timber beams; the inside plant life is accentuated while the plant bed as a whole contributes more forcefully to the overall landscape. Attention to these intensifying patterns unites the receptivity of feeling with precision. The vividness of life becomes even more apparent.
The poet Mary Oliver offered these now-famous “instructions for living a life.” “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” I think of them as a short hand for practicing beauty. Pay attention to the patterns of relations that sustain, generate, and enhance life. Lose yourself in them. And talk about them, even though the words are hard to come by.
It takes practice to break old habits and develop new ones. But practice is not just necessary; it is in itself gratifying. In this time of the great disruptions brought on by the coronavirus, the practice of beauty keeps us centered on the ultimate importance and worth of the world in which we live.