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  • The Aesthetics of Meaning
  • In a world of global communications and culture, educating our perceptions – at the periphery – entails returning to fundamental teachings.
  • Our emotions imprison us, but spirituality is both an inspiration and a quest for freedom. The teachings of ancient spiritualities, modern psychologies, philosophies and religions are always the same; we have to become aware of how we function as individuals and communities, establish a critical distance between both ourselves and the world around us, learn to listen and learn to speak and to communicate, and to understand at last our own complexity and that of the other. It may seem strange and paradoxical to say so, but the first act of spiritual liberation lies in the initial attitude adopted by the subject. The lived experience of spirituality demands of the human subject three things that are implicit in all the traditions: the autonomy of the subject (as opposed to dependency on that which affects the subject), the conscious acceptance of responsibility (as opposed to the victim mentality), and a hopeful and constructive attitude (as opposed to despair, defeatism or the nihilism that does not believe in the possibility of change). Whilst emotion can be something we undergo, spirituality requires an initial (and determined) act of the will to assert our ontological freedom, no matter where the individual finds himself. The individual must also assume a basic responsibility for his own transformation, and sustain the profound conviction that everything is possible . . . always, and for the better.

    These are, as should be obvious, the three preconditions for self-confidence. How can we acquire this individual and collective self-confidence in an age characterized by fear and the obsession with security? Spirituality liberates and gives things meaning: it is based upon an initiation into, and education in, self-awareness, maturation, the acceptance of responsibility and gradual transformations. Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticisms constantly remind us of the archetypal stages of this spiritual awakening: for the initiate, they are basically expressions of the most natural and banal experience of common mortals. When we are faced with external signals and stimuli that threaten to seize power inside our brains and/or hearts (and consciousness), we must be forearmed if we wish to remain in control of our reactions. If we can do that, we remain free and human. Education therefore begins at what appears to be the periphery. It begins with the individual’s senses and perceptions, because they are the channels through which the first stimuli reach us, and the paths of emotional reactivity. Both children and adults have to be taught to see, touch, listen, smell and taste: we must take the time to reflect and meditate upon the feelings that invade us when we see certain landscapes, or the people we love (or hate). We must study the meaning of listening, and of ways of hearing . . . learn to touch, taste and smell the material world, scents, nature and human beings. But that is not all. We have to breathe meaning into our senses and so spiritualize our perceptions that we are not overwhelmed by our immediate emotional reflexes, but greet them with the confidence of an awareness that has been enriched, that has succeeded in taming itself and that has therefore set itself free.

    In a world of global communications and culture, educating our perceptions – at the periphery – entails returning to fundamental teachings. It in fact seems that every consciousness must acquire some knowledge of the principles and histories of spiritualities and religions, master some philosophical notions and have an elementary understanding of the arts and their evolution. Religions and spiritualities, philosophies, and the arts are the three disciplines that should be on the core curriculum of every intellect if we wish to give it the wherewithal to become autonomous, free and responsible. No matter whether we are believers or not, it is vitally important to understand the basic principles of the world’s spiritualities and religions. Spiritualities and religions can sometimes allow human beings to blossom and can sometimes protect them from their fears, but they always make sense and confer meaning.

    We are all free to choose our own path, but we must do so with full knowledge of the facts. If we state that we are giving an individual the freedom to choose when we have deprived that individual of knowledge, we are dishonest: freedom in a state of ignorance is an illusion. Philosophy shapes the critical consciousness and the critical mind: it forces the intellect to observe, to know how to ask questions, and to take its time. Nothing is simple, and even simple things are complex: studying philosophy should be a lesson in detachment and humility that teaches individuals to suspend their judgement. Arrogant philosophies that ‘know’ the ultimate truth and judge or despise the truths of others are not philosophies: they are ideologies.

    We would all benefit from observing a philosopher just before he reaches his conclusions and certainties: the intellectual exercise consists in recalling that philosophy is indeed a quest in the course of which we put forward a series of hypotheses and postulates. Such is man’s intellectual destiny: without critical questioning, he falls short of his humanity; when he asserts that his truths are ‘the truth’, he arrogantly oversteps the limits of his humanity. We have to be initiated into art, creativity and the human ability to explore the paths of beauty. Beauty imparts meaning, and aesthetics is in effect a twofold quest: it is both a quest for meaning and a quest for beauty. Socrates thought that there was a continuum – or a generic unity – between the physical beauty of bodies and the metaphysical Beauty of essences and ideas.

    The applied exercise of philosophy allows us to rise above ourselves: Beauty is the marriage of philosophy, spirituality and art. All spiritualities associate the encounter with the sacred or the divine with the proximity of beauty and with the transcendence that, thanks to the aesthetics of form, recalls the meaning of its substance. ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty,’ says an Islamic prophetic tradition that synthesizes the import of these all these teachings. The arts, with or without the sacred, call upon man to discover within himself the resources that allow him to transcend himself through an imaginary that can give him meaning and inspiration. The Romantic poet John Keats, who wanted his epitaph to describe him as one ‘whose name was written in water’, was the bard of self-transcendence in the proximity of Beauty: ‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.’ Our life on earth is brief, and ‘that is all we know.’ As he encounters Beauty, the poet speaks the meaning of the eternity on whose shores his morality has cast him up. The poet will pass away like a wave, and all artists with pass away with him … the ocean, works of art, Beauty and Meaning will remain. It is as though the beautiful Moon goddess (Selene) had bathed in the ocean and then, as she watched over the beauty of the shepherd (Endymion), opened up the path that leads to eternity and the divine. ‘Truth is Beauty’, and Beauty is the proximity of the Sacred.

    Educating the heart, the mind and the imagination in order to train ourselves to see better, hear better, smell better, taste better and touch better is one of the requirements of the autonomy and freedom that lie at the heart of modernity, of advanced technologies and of the globalization of the means of communication. In an age of global communications, anyone who has not been trained to be critical of information is a vulnerable, fragile mind who is open to all kinds of potential manipulations. We also need the time to distance ourselves, to analyse situations and to evaluate critically what we perceive. Nothing is easy. This spiritual exercise is crucially important because it gives meaning to the most elementary actions in life: seeing, hearing, touching . . .  and thinking, praying and creating. Spirituality consists in the added meaning that is inherent in even the simplest human actions. It may take the form of faith, thought, art or love, but it always involves a choice, and act of the free will, as opposed to emotion which is a passive reaction, imposed and sometimes uncontrolled: an ocean of difference between the two. Emotion is to spirituality what physical attraction is to love.

  • 09.03.2015

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