Step 8: Seek Beauty & Meaning

by | Mar 21, 2017


And now, the Step.

The Lecture:

There are two main parts of the brain involved with our ability to process meaning and beauty. The neomammalian neocortex, a part of the brain unique to mammals, focuses on connections and consequences, and can take perspective from past, present, and future. The second relevant part of the brain evolved with early reptiles and birds and is commonly called reptilian brain. The reptilian brain is working when we feel threatened. It controls our fight or flight (or freeze) response and is focused on the present and on self-preservation. Responses controlled by the reptilian brain are helpful if I am being directly threatened, but for threats that don’t require an immediate response, the highly evolved neocortex best handles situations.
These sections of the brain compete for activation; they cannot be engaged simultaneously.
We reinforce neuropathways to the reptilian brain or the neocortex by our daily choices. Lee Smith, medical doctor of internal and behavioral medicine, says that our nervous system pays attention to what our mind gives the most attention to, and silences the other portion of the brain. So, in order to have the forward-thinking portion of the brain dominate, we must access and strengthen it. We do this by meditating and practicing mindfulness. If we bring mindfulness, or a concentrated effort to pay attention, into daily life, we’re actively practicing a routine of stillness. With stillness, we accept things as they are, without judgment. When we’re not judging situations or people, we’re more open to embodying compassion.
By training our brains to solve problems from this section of the brain, we have access to a well of resiliency strategies: meaning-making, finding beauty, making connections, and critical thinking.
By engaging the neocortex, we are able to see beyond the direct moment and the current threat. Easy ways to get out of the reptilian brain and tap into the problem-solving, neocortex, brain on a daily basis include: smiling, making gratitude lists, getting physical exercise, and seeking out beauty. As the world grows more chaotic by the day, it’s important to build an arsenal of resiliency strategies.

How Does Beauty Affect You?

We miss so much in our fast-paced lives. It takes effort to slow down; to see the flower growing in the cement crack.
Can you sit, for 1 minute without moving? Without feeling agitated and feeling like you have someplace else to be? Something else to do? 5 minutes? 10?
Try this – Do Nothing For 2 Minutes.How can we control our thoughts? How can we chose a positive disposition? Thich Nhat Hanh says that it depends with seeds we water – are you watering the positive or negative ones? Which seeds will sprout?

Your mind is like a piece of land planted with many different kinds of seeds: seeds of joy, peace, mindfulness, understanding, and love; seeds of craving, anger, fear, hate, and forgetfulness. These wholesome and unwholesome seeds are always there, sleeping in the soil of your mind. The quality of your life depends on the seeds you water. If you plant tomato seeds in your gardens, tomatoes will grow. Just so, if you water a seed of peace in your mind, peace will grow. When the seeds of happiness in you are watered, you will become happy. When the seed of anger in you is watered, you will become angry. The seeds that are watered frequently are those that will grow strong.

– Thich Nhat Hanh in Anh-Huong & Hanh, 2006, 22

So  – we must water the wholesome seeds. But, it’s difficult to be aware of all of the problems that our civilization, species, planet faces and stay positive. It’s a paradox that we must find beauty and meaning & stay present with the destruction that’s occurring.

Do you sense the growing realization of the trouble we’re facing? Do you feel the gains we’ve been working toward for decades have been undone? If you look deeply, you’ll see that the planet is currently undergoing a death and rebirth process. Not all is lost, because it’s a cycle.
Can you open your heart-mind to the universe? Can you sit with the sadness? The aching? Can you rediscover a genuine love for the planet? For the outdoors? Can you see the planet or yourself as nested within deep time? Our story doesn’t start 100 years ago, or even a million. Time is endless and we’re just part of a bigger cosmic story.

Perhaps it is within the breakdown that we break through to new ways of being. I’ve heard that one of the most motivating force of change is extreme discomfort. When we become uncomfortable enough, can we change with compassion? Can we help others change with compassion?

There are several aspects of resilience-building that are underrated or just becoming popular. Things like medicine walks, energy work, acupuncture….haven’t been fully discovered by our culture yet. These are tools to help us see wide and deep. They provide a spiritual perspective — one beyond the limited human mind. We must go deep to find the vast human potential.

And why is this important?

Why can’t we just stick to our day to day, distracted routine? Well, these distractions numb you from connections – being connected to yourself, to other people, to the world around you. Don’t you want to be an active participant in the human experience? Can you take each day in – there is beauty all around you. Each and every day, look for something that elicits AWE. Finding beauty, as you’ll see if you explore some of the resources at the top, is not optional. It’s a necessary condition for being alive as a human being. And when you finally take in the truth that we’re committed to some amount of climate change, and that we’re entering uncertain climactic times, it frees you up to invest more in beauty and making meaning.

Now is the perfect time to be reborn into the way you want to live instead of the way you should be living. 
And note: Individuals within this species value different types of beauty. What I find beautiful may not be the same as what my neighbor sees as beautiful. We cannot discount another’s search for beauty (so long as it’s not causing harm to another being). Can we practice accepting people where they are?

The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All my becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.”

Rilke’s Book of Hours
(translated by Johanna Macy & Anita Barrows)

So, Beauty

There is unlimited, expansive hope in beauty. In awe. In paying attention to the world around us.
Are humans the only beings who see and appreciate beauty? We’re magic-makers. Each of us has the ability to disregard routine – to remember why we’re here on this planet. To remember we’re separate from the routine of our daily lives.
We’re co-creators of beauty —

A man was with his dying wife. She asked to be unplugged from the machines keeping her alive, so that she could experience a sunset. The hospital staff helped wheel her to a window where she and the man sat for a moment. They saw the colors. They saw the sun set. They created a timeless moment – one which they shared with the sun and the sky and the universe. That is theirs to keep.

Can you live like this- creating beauty? Gut-wrenching beauty?
Can you be present like The Little Prince?

Can you be a co-creator of awe? Can you build pathways to your neocortex so that when times get tough you have reserves to keep you going? Can you pay attention, sustain your gaze, even when it’s hard to see? Will you relearn to be a magic-maker in your own life?


As always, there are a million things that happened at our group meeting that cannot be captured. You have a basic summary. To know more, you’ll have to stay tuned and join us as we continue to grow and solidify our steps.

Thank you for your hearts & minds,


Check Out “Listening to the World” an OnBeing episode with Mary Oliver.