To become spiritually well we have to be on the lookout for beauty. Sometimes beauty is easy to see, especially when we are surrounded by nature, art, culture, and love. Other times we have to look hard, such as when we suffer the indignities and shattering blows of life. Either way, embracing beauty will lift the human soul and move the human community in the direction we need to go.
As I write this, two things are true. First, I have spent the week on vacation at The Chautauqua Institution (www.ciweb.org). Second, the world has spent the week on alert in response to terrors of both natural (e.g. Hurricane Dennis) and human (e.g. the London bombings) origin. In both instances, embracing beauty stands out as a practice and an opportunity to become spiritually well.
To be on vacation at a place like The Chautauqua Institution is almost like cheating when it comes to embracing beauty. Beauty is dished up, multiple times a day, in every imaginable form. To mention seven:
(1) Nature. If you have never been to The Chautauqua Institution, then it will be hard to appreciate the rich and diverse beauty of the environment. Chautauqua is famous for its lovely gardens, quaint Victorian houses, lake vistas, and wooded paths. As an erstwhile gardener myself, the gardens at Chautauqua are an inspiration. The flowers and plants bring me no end of delight and, to be honest, occasional envy. When I see a flower I like, I go back to it repeatedly in order to appreciate its beauty and learn its characteristics.
The lake vistas, particularly around sunrise or sunset, are breathtaking. The cloud patterns, with occasional wisps of low-lying fog, can make the lake and its reflections all the more dramatic. This year we were on the grounds for the 4th of July, the Independence Day holiday for the USA. At 10:00 pm, the lake (with a circumstance of about 40 miles or 65 kilometers) was illuminated all the way around by red signal flares. The quiet glow of those flares imbued the natural beauty of the lake with both mystery and hope.
(2) Art. As a community dedicated to the arts in its many forms, art abounds at every turn at Chautauqua. Yesterday, as I went out on my morning run, someone was setting up her easel to paint a landscape. As I ran around the grounds, I could enjoy her progress. Later in the day, I saw someone else painting a large modern canvass on his front porch; and when I got home I found my wife painting a watercolor still life on our second-floor porch. I gave her a kiss and a couple of chocolate treats I’d brought for her, before curling up with a good book.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Expressive and creative yard art is the order of the day. In addition, there are permanent art galleries and as well as occasional weekend art fairs on the plaza (my wife just returned with her own delightful find). Many of the houses are themselves works of art. And then there are those artistic surprises such as the rainbow currently being generated by the sprinkler across the way.
(3) Music. As I write this, the music of a rehearsal and sound check for tonight’s concert at the outdoor amphitheater surround me. The theme from Chariot’s of Fire was playing for a time, bringing back fond memories of not only the movie but also of my own running exploits. During the past week, we have heard three symphony concerts, including one by the young people in Chautauqua’s Music School Festival Orchestra. Two of the concerts featured piano soloists, with demanding and beautiful pieces that brought back memories of our Bosnian exchange-student daughter, Dina, and her impressive abilities on the piano.
Beautiful music fills the air at Chautauqua, with snatches of music floating on many a breeze throughout the grounds. There are practice halls everywhere, and young people offer impromptu concerts on the plaza. People also sing, dance, perform, and entertain to music, as was the case on Wednesday night when we witnessed the gymnastics of the Russian American Kids Circus. The artistic beauty and gymnastic talent of those tweens and teens put everyone in a Chautauqua mood.
(4) Rest. One of the delights of vacation, whether at Chautauqua or elsewhere, is the chance to catch up on our “beauty rest.” It’s hard to beat going to sleep when one is tired and waking up when one is refreshed. That is part of the beauty of Chautauqua. There are no deadlines, televisions, phones, cars, or obligations. One can do as much or as little as one wants. Talk about refreshing! People seem to become more beautiful as the tensions and stresses of daily life melt from their faces.
(5) Recreation. In addition to the delight of uninterrupted and restful sleep without deadlines is the delight of uninterrupted and active recreation without deadlines. There is nothing better than playing without a sense of pressure as to when one has to be done or what one has to do next. Twice this week I went cycling around the lake, several times I went running around the grounds, and once I went golfing with my father. In every instance I enjoyed the beauty of being in the moment with my chosen interest. Whether I was gone for 45 minutes or 3 hours made no difference. I was blessed to be freely and fully engaged.
That sense of free and full engagement brings an incomparable degree of mindfulness to exercise, recreation, and play. When the past and future disappear from view the beauty and magnificence of the present moment can loom large. When we take a vacation from our vocation, when we have a break from our calling, we can connect with our true selves even after months or years of neglect.
(6) Information. Chautauqua is like one continuous, multimedia seminar. From early in the morning to late at night there are lectures to attend, classes to take, books to read, and people to engage with. Of course, none of this is mandatory. It is simply there, for the taking, if one is so inclined. The theme for our week was The World of Work, giving me plenty to chew on as a business and life coach. Two of my favorite speakers were Juliet Schor (author of The Overworked American, The Overspent American, and Born to Buy) and Daniel Pink (author of Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind). I’m sure you will be reading more about these authors in future issues of Provisions!
There is perhaps nothing more beautiful than a truly fresh idea, especially when that idea is evidence-based with far-reaching ramifications. Such ideas are hard to find, but I encounter them regularly when I come to Chautauqua. In fact, that’s a big part of why I come to Chautauqua. It stretches me • body, mind, and spirit • as it introduces me to new material that I can later incorporate into my life and work. Last year, for example, one lecture completely changed my diet. You can listen to the lectures yourself by visiting TheGreatLectureLibrary.com. I recommend them highly.
(7) Inspiration. A vacation would not be a vacation without some leisure reading, and this year I took a great book given to me by my new daughter-in-law, Michelle. The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb is the true story of three young men, in the early 1950s, who were vying with each other for the honor of being the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes. Michelle wrote on the cover page that it was an “inspirational running story for the most inspirational runner I know.” That inscription meant a lot to me as did the book. It was a beautiful, well-written story.
Inspiration is the heart and soul of Chautauqua, whether light-hearted or hard-hitting. Our chaplains for the week were Jim Wallis (author of God’s Politics: Why The Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It) and his wife, Joy Carroll. They challenged people to address such moral issues as global poverty, climate change, and the spiral of violence. They sought to inspire people to go beyond personal aspirations for success and fulfillment in work all the way to social justice. The worship and conversations around these themes were compelling.
They were also timely. With a hurricane in the Caribbean, the G8 summit in Scotland, and the bombings in London there was plenty of grist for the mill. What business do we have enjoying the beauty of Chautauqua through nature, art, music, rest, recreation, information, and inspiration when the world seems to be coming apart at the seams? Perhaps more business than we know.
While at Chautauqua I was reminded again of the classic work by Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and the founder of logotherapy, suffered greatly during World War II at the hands of the Nazis. He and his wife were interned at several concentration camps, suffering forced labor and indignities which, in her case, eventually led to death.
In trying to make sense of his experience, Frankl notes that there are basically three ways to discover meaning in life: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” Since the first and most common path to meaning was proscribed to these oppressed, political prisoners, the second and third paths became even more important. They also became inextricably linked.
“As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense,” wrote Frankl, “he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor • or perhaps because of it • we were carried away by nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”
“In camp, too, a man might draw the attention of a comrade working next to him to a nice view of the setting sun shining through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods (as in the famous water color by D•rer), the same woods in which we had built an enormous hidden munitions plant. One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy grounds reflected the glowing sky. Then, after a moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”
“Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of an ultimate purpose.”
“At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet”• and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours, I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.”
Frankl goes on to describe other ways, including art, music, poetry, and humor, in which beauty was able to lift the spirits and form the attitudes of those who were suffering the great terrors of their day. Beauty became a healing balm that saw people through the horror and provoked those inner decisions that enabled people to retain their human dignity even in a concentration camp.
That is how we transform suffering into something redemptive. By consciously embracing beauty, especially when we have to look hard to find it, we rise above the degradation, subjugation, and privation of life with a spiritual freedom that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
From that vantage point, one can embrace the beauty of Chautauqua not as an escape from reality but as a training ground for life. The more we know about beauty in any setting the more we will be able to find beauty in every setting. And, I for one, cannot think of a better way to become spiritually well.
Coaching Inquiries: Do you embrace beauty? Or does beauty pass you by, unawares? How could you become more cognizant of beauty? What choices would you have to make? Is there someone who could become your partner in the search for beauty? Are their tough situations where beauty is cracking its way through, like a weed in the sidewalk? Stop right now and look around to see what beauty you can find.
To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
In your Provision, Embrace Humility, you wrote that people “act as though everything depends upon us, revolves around us, and belongs to us. So we proceed with a sense of entitlement and consumption rather than of stewardship and service.” With that statement you have described why we have the conditions and problems on our planet.
You also wrote regarding Quadrant 1, the “I Don’t Know That I Don’t Know” quadrant, that “This is our condition when we make our appearance into the world at birth.” I disagree and feel that this is a condition that we have most of our lives. That quibble notwithstanding, this was a very good read for the 4th of July. (Ed. Note: Your point is well taken. Thanks! And thanks too for seeing the connection between humility and the 4th of July. We can all use more of that!)
Thanks again for sharing another insightful Provision, Embrace Humility. Your analogies and personal experiences hit home for me too!
Thinking about your Provision, Embrace Hope, I thought of a book you might want to include as a reference: The African-American Teenagers Guide to Personal Growth, Health, Safety, Sex and Survival by Debra Harris-Johnson Amazon. (Ed. Note: Thanks for the reference.)
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
Phone: (757) 345-3452 • Fax: (772) 382-3258
Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
Subscribe/Unsubscribe: Subscriber Services