How Should We Respond to the Beauty in This Illusory World?

Question: How does one live in the world where it appears that there is so much to appreciate, such as the beauty of the mountains, the warmth of friendship, the song of a bird, beautiful paintings, and beautiful music, while all the time knowing that it is an illusion? I was shocked to realize that, as a result of denying the reality of these things, I was also discounting, withdrawing, and separating myself, and (as strange as this may sound of a Course student) feeling that I shouldn't be appreciating the beauty of nature and the creative and loving actions of people. Rather than joining my brothers, as the Course asks of me, I was actually separating myself from them.

Answer: My short answer is that there is a Course-based way of appreciating beauty in this world, and we should silently demonstrate this Course-based way as we interact with our brothers. Hopefully, what I mean will become clear as I proceed.

Before I go further, let me say that I can appreciate the issue you're raising. It would be very easy to apply the Course's teachings in a way that is off-putting to say the least. For example, recently I attended a cookout at a retirement home where I sometimes work. It was a gorgeous spring day, and the food was fantastic, featuring Cajun crawfish and shrimp with all the fixin's. (It just wouldn't sound right to say "fixings" in Georgia.)

Everyone was reveling in the beautiful weather and scrumptious food. We were having a grand old time. Imagine the reaction, though, if someone had asked me what I thought of everything, and I said, "Well, something in me is attracted to these apparently pleasing appearances, but I'm trying to get beyond that. After all, the world was made as an attack on God. Hopefully someday I can transcend all this." Talk about a mood killer. I can easily imagine my questioner quickly moving on to a more congenial conversationalist. I will indeed have separated myself from this brother — or rather, this brother would be very eager to separate himself from me.

So how do we respond to the experience of beauty in this physical world in a way that is true to the Course but doesn't turn us into a killjoy whom everyone avoids like the plague? Here are a few thoughts on the matter.

The warmth of friendship…

You referred to "the warmth of friendship" and "the creative and loving actions of people." Actually, I think these things are in a somewhat different category than physical nature and art, because they are expressions of human relationships, and are thus much more matters of content than form (though obviously they express themselves in form as well).

Of course, many elements of our friendships are elements of the special relationship, the content of which is the ugly, ego-based quest for specialness, which is ultimately a quest for death. The "Two Pictures" section of the Text (T-17.IV) uses a memorable image to depict the deception at the heart of the special relationship: the image of a beautiful frame (the form of the relationship) framing an ugly picture of death (the actual content of the relationship). So many of the "beautiful" aspects of our friendships may indeed be death in disguise. We have to be as honest with ourselves as we can about that.

But that being said, authentic friendship and love are things that the Course wants us to see, participate in, and appreciate. In fact, the Course wants us to look selectively upon the world and see only acts of genuine love as evidence of the truth about us. We are to "see only the blameless and the beautiful, the gentle and the kind" (T-19.IV.A.14:3). We are to be "careful to let no little act of charity, no tiny expression of forgiveness, no little breath of love escape [our] notice" (T-19.IV.A.14:4). We are to look upon all of our human interactions with the same charity the Holy Spirit does:

Although you may have made many mistakes…you have also made enormous efforts to help [the Holy Spirit] do His work. And He has not been lacking in appreciation for all you have done for Him. Nor does He see the mistakes at all. Have you been similarly grateful to your brother? Have you consistently appreciated the good efforts, and overlooked mistakes? (T-17.V.11:3-7)

Genuine human friendship is highly valued by the Course. At its pinnacle, it becomes a holy relationship, a relationship in which two people are joined in a common purpose. And the holy relationship is nothing less than the source of salvation itself, for "In this world, God's Son comes closest to himself in a holy relationship" (T-20.V.1:1). The warmth of friendship and the creative and loving actions of people, then, are things we as Course students should be celebrating.

Beauty in this illusory world

What about the beauty in this illusory world, "the mountains…the song of a bird, beautiful paintings, and beautiful music"? How would the Course have us respond to that? I think the Course's full answer is a little more sophisticated than we might imagine. Let me sketch out the components I see.

The Course's basic aesthetic principle: the content of something – what it means – determines whether it is truly beautiful or not

I base this principle on passages like this one (which refers to the body, but could be applied to any worldly form): "The body is beautiful or ugly, peaceful or savage, helpful or harmful, according to the use to which it is put" (T-8.VII.4:3). Expanding on this passage, I think the Course would say that something is "beautiful or ugly" depending on what content it represents, what thought system it expresses, what it means.

We base our aesthetic appreciation largely on form: in our eyes, a flower is beautiful, while a garbage dump is ugly. But by the Course's standard, it unfortunately must be admitted that much of the "beauty" we see around us is not true beauty, because it represents ego-based content. So much of the beauty of nature is really ugly if you think about the death and destruction it actually represents. All those stars and nebulae in space look very pretty from a distance in those Hubble pictures, but are actually horrendously violent and inhospitable up close. As for the living world on earth, so much of its apparent beauty is part and parcel of the ongoing "circle of lunch" in which everything is eating everything else in order to survive, and the parallel "circle of lust," in which everything is reproducing as much as it can in order to replace all those things getting eaten.

In a nutshell, the content of the world the ego made is the same as the content of special relationships: death. But in an effort to pull the wool over our eyes and deny this unfortunate fact, we dress death up to make it look beautiful. In a chilling passage, the Psychotherapy supplement speaks of how the world is singing a "song of death " (P-2.VI.2:2), a dirge of condemnation for our guilt. But in order not to hear the true nature of our song, we distort it until it sounds beautiful to us:

The strange distortions woven inextricably into the self-concept, itself but a pseudo-creation, make this ugly sound seem truly beautiful. "The rhythm of the universe," "the herald angel's song," all these and more are heard instead of loud discordant shrieks. (P-2.VI.2:5-6)

What an indictment of our dewy-eyed adoration of nature! Our reverential worship of "the rhythm of the universe, our celebration of "the herald angel's song," is nothing more than covering our ears and desperately singing "la la la" to drown out the sound that is really pouring forth from this twisted world: "loud discordant shrieks."

One way in which we dress death up to make it beautiful is our adornment of the body. A well-known passage from the "Laws of Chaos" section (T-23.II) speaks of how we "paint rosy lips upon a skeleton, dress it in loveliness, pet and pamper it" (T-23.II.18:8). We make our bodies beautiful and surround them with beautiful things in order to attract special relationship partners and distract ourselves from the fact that we really hate being confined in these fleshy prisons:

Look upon all the trinkets made to hang upon the body, or to cover it or for its use. See all the useless things made for its eyes to see. Think on the many offerings made for its pleasure, and remember all these were made to make seem lovely what you hate. (T-20.II.1:1-3)

I think on some level we do get the idea that the content of something is what really makes it beautiful or ugly. We just apply the standard very selectively. For instance, especially in our ecologically aware times, we tend to see things of nature as beautiful, no matter how destructive they are. Human-made things, on the other hand, are often seen as ugly in comparison to "pristine" nature, even when they are physically beautiful.

Think, for example, of a nuclear mushroom cloud. If we thought it was a natural phenomenon and we saw it at a sufficient distance, we would probably consider its spectacular form quite beautiful. We'd class it with the supernovas and volcanoes, and marvel at nature's awesome power. But of course, we don't see it this way. Why? Because we know what it really is: an insane device we made to bring about death and destruction. It is therefore ugly in our sight. Which begs the question: If, as the Course says, physical nature too is an insane device we made to bring about death and destruction, why don't we apply the same standard to nature?

I think the Course wants us to keep its standard in mind as we look upon what we regard as beautiful in this world. It wants us to remind ourselves of the underlying content of what we see, and look without blinders upon the truth behind the illusions. It wants us to recognize ugliness as ugliness when that is what is really there. But we obviously don't want to do this in our interactions with non-Course students. And there is also more to the story, as we'll see.

The Course's use of our conventional aesthetics

Before we are too quick to just declare everything ugly, though, we should note that the Course itself makes concessions to our conventional aesthetics. For instance, it tells us at one point that idols are "frail as a snowflake, but without its loveliness" (T-20.VI.9:2). This is a fascinating line, because on the one hand it compares snowflakes to idols and highlights their "frailty"—once again, a thing of nature represents death – yet and the same time acknowledges in a positive way that a snowflake is lovely to us.

Moreover, the Course uses many images of what we normally regard as beautiful – verdant gardens, lilies, sumptuous feasts, altars, lovely music, etc. – to symbolize positive things in its thought system like forgiveness and true perception. The fact that these beautiful things are used as symbols is important. The Course isn't saying that they are inherently beautiful. Rather, as we've seen, beauty and ugliness come from what things represent, what they mean. The Course, then, is using our conventional aesthetics in a new way, a way in which things we regard as beautiful are used to represent the Holy Spirit-based meanings the Course is pointing us toward.

One favorite way the Course does this is to use beautiful images of healed nature to represent the healing of the mind brought about by true perception. We see this, for instance, in this passage:

Miracles fall like drops of healing rain from Heaven on a dry and dusty world, where starved and thirsty creatures come to die. Now they have water. Now the world is green. And everywhere the signs of life spring up, to show that what is born can never die, for what has life has immortality. (W-pII.13.5:1-4)

Here, the world's normal content of death is symbolized by a desert (a common Course image for the effects of the ego), and the Holy Spirit's content of life, brought about by the miracle, is symbolized by the rain that brings that desert to life. The desert coming to life symbolizes our awakening to true life, the life of Heaven, the life of "immortality."

The Course, then, makes use of our conventional aesthetics for its own purposes. I don't think, therefore, that it would have us simply reject our appreciation of beautiful things out of hand. Instead, I think it would have us adopt its own aesthetic sensibility and see beautiful things as symbols of a greater beauty beyond them. Which leads me to the next point.

The real source of all earthly beauty is the Son of God in everything

While forms are illusions, there is nevertheless something real behind them if we have eyes to see. As we at the Circle have discussed in numerous articles, the Course suggests that behind every form is a holy Son of God who is dreaming he is that form. And with the eyes of Christ, we can see that holy Son of God in everything—even, as a well-known line tells us, in a grain of sand:

How holy is the smallest grain of sand, when it is recognized as being part of the completed picture of God's Son! The forms the broken pieces seem to take mean nothing. For the whole is in each one. (T-28.IV.9:4-6)

The form of the grain of sand, or of anything else, is not the Son of God. "The forms the broken pieces seem to take mean nothing." The form, then, is not inherently beautiful; it is meaningless, and beauty comes from meaning. But behind the form is a holy Son of God, whose meaning is love and who therefore is beautiful.

Seeing this is beholding the real world, the world that is revealed to us when we forgive, the vision of the Son of God beyond all forms. This is a vision of true beauty far beyond any transient "beauty" we have ever seen before, as this lovely passage from the Text tells us:

Can you imagine how beautiful those you forgive will look to you? In no fantasy have you ever seen anything so lovely. Nothing you see here [in this world], sleeping or waking, comes near to such loveliness. And nothing will you value like unto this, nor hold so dear. Nothing that you remember that made your heart sing with joy has ever brought you even a little part of the happiness this sight will bring you. For you will see the Son of God. You will behold the beauty the Holy Spirit loves to look upon, and which He thanks the Father for. (T-17.II.1:1-7)

The real world is the vision of the holy Son of God beyond forms. Yet the Course also suggests that when we see the real world, the forms too will take on a kind of borrowed beauty, a reflection of the beauty of the Son of God. We see this as the passage continues:

All this beauty will rise to bless your sight as you look upon the world with forgiving eyes. For forgiveness literally transforms vision, and lets you see the real world reaching quietly and gently across chaos, removing all illusions that had twisted your perception and fixed it on the past. The smallest leaf becomes a thing of wonder, and a blade of grass a sign of God's perfection. (T-17.II.6:1-3), emphasis mine)

The last line is the one I'm most interested in here. When we see the real world, "The smallest leaf becomes a thing of wonder, and a blade of grass a sign of God's perfection." I think this primarily refers to seeing the Son of God beyond the forms of these things. But there is also a suggestion here that the forms of the leaf and grass, too, take on the reflected beauty of the Son of God. After all, as we saw above, the Course uses images of healed, verdant nature as symbols for true perception. We see something like that here: the flourishing greenery of leaves and blades of grass is a sign (or symbol) of God's perfection. The beautiful forms point to the true beauty of the Son of God beyond.

Yet if we truly see the Son of God in everything, I think we can see his borrowed beauty in all forms, not just the ones we normally regard as beautiful. This is confirmed by the experience of a good friend of mine, who once had a powerful spiritual experience in which she was transfixed by the beauty of a pile of dirty laundry. It was clear to her that the beauty wasn't in the laundry itself but in the vision of something vibrantly alive beyond its form. Yet this vision also brought beauty to the form as well. Therefore, when we see the Son of God, I don't think our appreciation of earthly beauty won't diminish; rather, it will expand to include things we normally regard as ugly. Imagine what that vision must look like!

How, then, should we respond to beauty in this illusory world?

We are finally ready to answer the title question of this piece. Speaking in general terms, I think we should take the same kind of dual stance that the Course is always encouraging us to take — a stance in which we simultaneously see the darkness of the ego's world with unflinching honesty, and see the light of the real world beyond with equal honesty.

Applying this to the beauty of the illusory world, starting with the ego side: I think we should look without blinders at the world the ego made, and realize that much of what we call "beauty" is death in disguise. We need to see the stars the same way we see the mushroom cloud. We need to see the skeleton behind the rosy lips. We need to hear the "loud, discordant shrieks" behind "the herald angel's song." We need to pull all the pretty masks off and see ugliness as it really is.

But we don't want to stop there. We don't want to just sneer at the beauty we see and say, "It's all ugly illusion!" Instead, at the same time that we see the ugliness for what it is, we need to open our spiritual eyes and see the beauty beyond the ugliness. We need to let our vision be illuminated by the Course's own use of imagery, and see beautiful things of earth as symbols of the healing of the mind brought about by true perception. Above all, we need to see in everything the truly beautiful vision of that which true perception reveals: the holy Son of God beyond all forms. If we see him in everything, whether it be a flower or a pile of dirty laundry, we will see beauty everywhere we look.

How, then, should we apply all this to our interactions with our brothers? In short, as I said at the beginning of this piece, I think we should silently demonstrate this Course-based way of appreciating beauty as we interact with our brothers. Rather than looking down our nose as they appreciate beauty, we should come from a place that actually sees more beauty around us than people normally see. We can unabashedly celebrate with them the warmth of friendship and the beauty of truly creative and loving acts. And even when they see beauty in a way that we believe is a cover for ego-based ugliness, we don't want to arrogantly look down on them or tell them how much we're trying to get "beyond" such petty things. Instead, we can choose within our own minds to appreciate that beauty with them, but in the authentic way I've described in this piece.

If we do this, we will join with our brothers rather than separate from them. And without saying a word, we can gently lead them to an appreciation of the true beauty of the holy Son of God that all of us are.

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