How Psychotherapy Helps Us Recover the Beauty in Our Lives

Questions for Helping Therapy Clients Reclaim Meaning

How Psychotherapy Helps Us Recover the Beauty in Our Lives

Many walk into the therapist’s consulting room exactly at the moment, and because of the moment, that they have been stripped to the core of their being. While not at the physical meeting-point of life and death, they are often at its emotional and spiritual equivalent. One element they seek and are desperate for, one element they usually feel they’ve lost, is beauty; they present a situation that’s cut them off from experiencing beauty. They may not articulate it that way, but that’s what’s going on. Yet, beauty has not still been sufficiently recognized as both a healing balm and a necessity—something without which we may die, and through which we may live.

While it is difficult to define what beauty is, because different people find so many different beauties, the experience of beauty is not as hard to define: one’s soul and one’s world are connected in an engagement of wonder. Sometimes we experience this with others—while listening to music, perhaps, or in an intimate moment with someone we love. Sometimes the experience is solitary, and can even come in a dream. But the singular quality, however fleeting, is an awakening of, and a connection to, wonder. The experience of beauty is always one of expansion, of opening, of inclusion—a moment of connection, often mysterious, that extends the possibilities of all connection.

As beauty opens us, ugliness closes us. We shut down. We blunt our perceptions, our sensitivities. We stop seeing, because seeing gives us no sustenance. We enclose ourselves in our own bodies, the personal circle of our own bodies, because it is unpleasant, unrewarding, to see, feel, scent, and touch what’s around us. We become resigned. That is what ugliness, or a continual lack of beauty, conditions us to do. I have seen, more than once, a magnificent rainbow over a city, with thick bands of brilliant color, and no one on the crowded street was looking at it, no one else seemed to notice it. Not because they were insensitive dolts, but because they were so accustomed to the absence of beauty that they’d conditioned themselves not to see anything but what was directly in front of them, not to see anything they didn’t have to deal with directly. So much shutting down, done so automatically and done by so many that it’s taken for “normal,” can’t help but have consequences.

All of which leaves us, each of us, facing one piercing question: What is beautiful in your life?

The therapist-client relationship is just about the last functioning shared space in this country where this question can be asked and, more important, heard. Which is why it’s so crucial that therapists find a way to ask it. Directly or by implication, that question leads to others, questions that would make any of us squirm—and so they need to be asked all the more. Questions such as: Your children, your friends—do you find them beautiful? But what, exactly, is beautiful about them, and do you contemplate it much, does it shine in your behavior? In theirs? Your wife, husband, lover, what is their beauty in your eyes? But how does it play in your life, how does it nourish or inspire or challenge you? How do you acknowledge, salute, and cherish their beauty? And if you don’t, why don’t you? Your home, your city, your town, are they beautiful? How do you enter and celebrate and preserve their beauty, or do you? And if your surroundings are not beautiful or, more to the point, if you can find no beauty in them—what is there to do about this? What is the beauty in your work? And if this question stops you in your tracks, what does that say about your work—and about what your work gives to you and to others? And: What is your beauty? And does that question embarrass, frighten, annoy, or depress you? Why?

In an ugly world, beauty is a revolutionary idea. Which is why these questions strip us of comfortable and/or evasive language, cut through our technical professional language, and demand responses that are specific, concrete, immediate. Psychotherapy is in a unique position to ask these questions, to introduce these questions into our cultural life once more, for people seek therapy in that state of vulnerability in which the discovery of beauty is desperately needed—especially the beauty of relationship.

So the question, “What is beautiful in your life?” goes beyond analysis and into what was always intended as the end result of analysis: experience. Beauty doesn’t matter much as an idea, it only matters, it only gains force, as an experience. A psychology of beauty is a psychology of experience, a psychology that appreciates and teaches an aesthetics of experience. For our very lives depend upon the beauty that we are capable of experiencing in each other and ourselves.

This blog is excerpted from “Beauty Resurrected”. Read the full article here.

Michael Ventura

Michael Venturas biweekly column appears in the Austin Chronicle.