Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Sublime and the Beautiful in Spiritual Life

Patrick Point State Park and the Mad River Mouth, North of Arcata CA

I have often contrasted the sublime and the beautiful after the fashion of the 18th century philosophers like Burke and Kant: the sublime being an aesthetic experience of dizzying heights of awe or infinitude leading to, maybe, "anxiety attacks" in contemporary psychological parlance, while the beautiful being an experience of calmness and color and harmony of form that can soothe or nurture us.

Like these aesthetic philosophers, I also have categorized people's character or attitudes; some prefer the beautiful, others the sublime. They went so far as to categorize nations with Northern Europe aligned with sublimity and the Mediterranean with beauty. I have even suggested that Unitarianism, in its unifying theology is akin to the sublime, while Universalist love is kindred to the beautiful. But I oversimplified and reduced the complexity of spiritual lived experience to two overly constrained boxes.

As I have reflected more deeply on my own experiences in nature, I've grown to realize that the experience of journeying in nature embraces both poles of awe and love and that the structure of outdoor experience alternates between the beautiful and the sublime, like the sonata form in music. In fact, walking in the woods is like the exposition of a plot--from moments of peaceful steadiness immersed in the splashes of the colorful to those heart pounding times standing near a precipice overlooking the vast Pacific. You literally feel almost swallowed up by the sea.

So living out the beautiful and the sublime, is a little like breathing or similar to the dance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system: the former gearing us up for fight or flight; the latter, slowing our breath and restoring calm.

Let us dance in beauty and let us dance in awe.

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