The value of therapy can be somewhat of a mystery, even with a general consensus agreeing that it is a tool used to improve one’s life and solve problems. However, to an educated clinician, the very word “therapy” is a meta-tool beneath which are many smaller concepts and methods to support any person with any given set of problems. These more concise tools generally focus on problem solving, either from a philosophically explorative standpoint or a practically directive standpoint (not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive). There is a place for this, and yet somehow I have often felt that this focus on the problem could quite possibly reinforce the problem.
I want to clarify that I am an existential psychotherapist for a very specific reason: I believe that the more frightening, darker aspects of existence should not be ignored. However, that does not mean that I advocate “falling down the rabbit hole.” I believe that there is a space in therapy for improving quality of life, beyond the focus on a central problem. In fact, the recycling of a problem and incessant focus can possibly truncate a client’s ability to develop a different kind of awareness. After all, as Rollo May said, one of the goals of psychotherapy is to bring the unconscious into the conscious with the goal of expanding the person. Exposure to the dark side may be a critical aspect of this, and yet, what if we encounter a person who is so preoccupied with the dark side that their shadow may actually be the aspect of personality that is able to pause, reflect, and appreciate the gifts of our natural world? This is where noticing beauty may be advantageous.
In her Journal of Humanistic Psychology article “A New Aesthetic for Environmental Awareness: Chaos Theory, the Beauty of Nature, and Our Broader Humanistic Identity,” Ruth Richards (2001) explored the appreciation of beauty as a purposeful activity that can raise awareness and expand consciousness. It is the light-bulb that goes on and illuminates what may be taken for granted. More importantly, it can serve as a reprieve from the templates we have grown so accustomed to: the very painful and limiting templates that block us from other possibilities within both ourselves and others. In reference to the beautiful qualities around us that we bypass in our ongoing daily lives, Richards stated:
We may as well have been asleep. These qualities will stay incognito until something else arrests us and helps us to notice. Happily, without the need for immediate action, for fight or flight survival responses, fear or aggression, we can still be brought to awareness. Beauty can do this. (p. 65)
This statement highlights the importance of learning to “notice” the beautiful in service of developing a life that is not lived merely for survival, but for greater appreciation, joy, and awe. When we are continuously hijacked by our neurotic strivings for safety and safeguarding of the ego, we miss out on experiences that can help us move beyond the confines of our ego and into connection with a world larger than the prepackaged notion of “self.” After all, it is often in preservation of the self that we neglect ourselves. This feeds the illusion that our experiences are mutually exclusive, and our suffering is somewhat the very thing that makes us “special.” However, when we connect with outer beauty, we mend the split of self and other, and thus feed the self that presents through other. It is a fascinating paradox.
As a clinician, I often ask my clients what it is that gives them that special feeling of enjoyment in life. I encourage clients to be concrete in this exploration. What are some things they have actually done that help them feel connected and bring their lives meaning? I remind them that just like in our relationships with others, with ourselves we must develop times of good feeling in order to have the resilience to withstand the inevitable pains and problems we face. Often times, our inefficacy in solving our problems lies in the very nature of over-focusing on a problem. We neglect to build up our inner resources with what feeds our soul. However, making time to experience beauty can replenish our often depleted reservoirs. It can be the very thing that alerts us to something beyond the addiction we have to our problems. It is sometimes setting aside the problem and focusing on beauty that expands us.
I appreciate Richards’ assertion that, contrary to Kant believing that beauty has no utility, beauty actually has an evolutionary function. This can be both personal and global. Regardless, I encourage anybody reading this to explore something beautiful today. Try to make it a practice every day. That experience of the beautiful may be the tipping point that pushes you into greater wellness.
Richards, R. (2001). A new aesthetic for environmental awareness: Chaos theory, the beauty of nature, and our broader humanistic identity. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41(59), 59-94.
— Candice Hershman