Awakening to beauty

In one of the instalments on the theme of initiation, Hazrat Inayat Khan sets out five principal steps the student must pass through on the journey to the goal. Some of these are perhaps not very surprising to us, but when we examine the list carefully we might be startled by the order in which they come. If someone says, ‘One step is, you must be tolerant and forgiving,’ we might say, ‘yes, that is probably the first step,’ for we assume that the spiritual person should be unfailingly sweet and kind. But if we are told that another step is to accept what one dislikes, what one cannot stand, as if it were a pleasure, we will say, ‘Ah, yes, that sounds more like the first step!’ for even before goodness and sweetness, we have a conception that the spiritual path must be difficult; the harder it is, the more spiritual it must be!

But in truth, these steps come later in the process. The first step, Hazrat Inayat Khan tells us, is simply responding to beauty – beauty of music, of word, of line, of colour – beauty of every kind. The thoughtful person might wonder why responsiveness to beauty should be so important.

Beauty is not quantifiable or comparable by degrees; it is not possible to say how beautiful a flower is, nor that this flower is more beautiful than that one, and much less can we say that one person is more beautiful than another. This is because beauty, as Plato observed, is in the eye of the beholder. When Majnun was questioned as to why he was so madly in love with Leilah and not with some other girl, for many seemed just as attractive, he replied, “To see the beauty of Leilah, you must borrow Majnun’s eyes.” To be more precise, though, it is not his eyes we must borrow, but his heart, for beauty is recognised not with the visual system, nor with the intellect, but with the feeling.

Therefore the ability to respond to beauty becomes a sort of measure of the student’s state of preparation for the journey. If the heart is closed – and, regrettably, a frozen heart is the general condition of the world today – there will be no great response to anything, neither to nature, nor art, nor personality, and in that case, what hope can there be of knowing the One who is the Perfection of Beauty?

And, we might ask, how can we awaken to beauty? We only need to look around. There is no shortage of beauty, no matter where we are, but we need to take the trouble to look – not as we usually do, with our eyes and our thoughts, but with our hearts. And when we truly begin to recognise the beautiful, we will be ready for the second step in the process: allowing ourselves to lifted up from our usual state by the exaltation that only beauty can inspire.

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