Okay, life isn’t always beautiful. And the ways it can be happy-making in the ordinary sense – good weather, yummy food, a comfortable home, supportive friends, rewarding experiences – aren’t what I’m talking about.
Instead, I’m talking about the way life is beautiful in an absolutely unconditional kind of way. The way you notice out of the corner of your eye – yellow leaves scattered across the green grass… a spider’s web wet with dew… a child’s broad and innocent smile… The kind of beauty that’s not only without fanfare, it’s absolutely silent. This most profound, pure, and unrestricted beauty can’t even be directly shared with other people, except in the intimacy of recognizing someone else has seen it, too.
Before my Zen practice, I was familiar with life’s unconditional beauty, but only as a momentary interlude between the ambiguous and unyielding hard, cold, facts. I believed life was beautiful, but I couldn’t make sense of how that could be so when it was also so incomprehensibly ugly and cruel. My conviction that life was worth it came and went – and when it came, it was often with a strange, poignant sense of sadness and loss because it had been missing for so long.
The greatest blessing of my life has been deepening my relationship to life’s unconditional beauty, which in Zen we call “suchness.” In any moment, in any situation, we have the option to let go of our mental map of the world and open ourselves to our experience. No mental map means no expectations, no shoulds, no assumptions. Just “things-as-it-is,” as Shunryu Suzuki would say. The luminousness of suchness isn’t a passing phenomenon, it’s the way things are when we face reality with complete humility mixed with love.
Therefore my heart is nourished by the birds coming to the feeder outside my office window. Yes, the world is on fire. Yes, bird numbers and species are declining. Yes, I am ready to make sacrifices in order to do all I can to bring about changes in the world. And the delicate little lesser goldfinches, obliviously to all awfulness, stake out good spots on the feeder and sit there munching busily. They cock their heads back and forth, ready to dart away in an instant, but waste no time as long as the coast is clear. Occasionally a Bewick’s wren bounds through the underbrush, bobbing its overlong tail at jaunty angles, and a big smile crosses my face.
This is what sustains me: Beauty that has absolutely nothing to do with denial. Beauty that’s unassailable and ever-present. Of course, birds and sunsets are easy to find beautiful, but even a manhole cover wet with rain can manifest it. Or a Burger King employee enjoying her lunchbreak, sitting rapt while watching videos on her tablet. Or the tangible disappointment at a campaign headquarters whose candidate has just lost. There’s no accounting for where and when suchness shines through, helping me face another day.