Meet the beautiful people

So I’ll confess – I’m kind of addicted to Doctor Radio on Sirius XM. The satellite radio show from the NYU medical center features programs dedicated to different medical specialties, with opportunities for calling in and talking to medical experts. But there are two programs that I don’t listen to – the plastic surgery show, and often the dermatology show – because they make me start obsessing too much about my appearance.

Screenshot 2015-11-19Recently, however, I did listen to a dermatology program because the topic was about beauty and our perception of it. One of the guests had done research using before and after photos of facial rejuvenation patients, to see if people rated the faces differently on a list of perceived personality traits. Basically, the question was, what do others think your face says about you? That discussion led to talk of other research showing that people who exhibit positive traits, such as honesty and helpfulness, are perceived as better looking. People who are smiling are perceived as more attractive than people who have neutral expressions.

It’s not news that our expressions and behaviors affect people’s perceptions and judgments. But have you thought about them as what makes you beautiful to someone else? One of the themes of the show was about investment in beauty, not by having plastic surgery or buying cosmetics, but by thinking about what’s shining out of us. Do you smile? Are you kind? Do you look people in the eye? Are you healthy and rested and compassionate?

After listening to the program, I started thinking about some of the truly beautiful people I know, and what makes them beautiful. There’s my sister-in-law, who is unfailingly encouraging and hopeful, with a wonderful, infectious laugh. There’s the friend I met at yoga class a few years ago, who chatted with and befriended literally every person who walked through the doors of the yoga studio. There’s my son’s childhood friend, who never wavered from being kind, even in adolescence when most kids are jerks at least some of the time. There’s my sister’s husband, who will help anyone with anything, at any time; whenever he comes to visit, he fixes something in my house or brings me something he thinks I need. There’s my painter, who had a casual conversation with my neighbor months ago about something that wasn’t working in her apartment; last week, when he came back, he brought her something to fix it.

These are just a few examples of people who are beautiful because of the positive traits they exhibit on a daily basis: kindness, friendliness, helpfulness, integrity and honesty.

A few weeks ago, I met a woman while I was working who was very beautiful, physically. She had lovely skin, beautiful hair and stylish clothes; I couldn’t help admiring her. But then I heard her ask a co-worker to do something that clearly wasn’t the co-worker’s job. The “beautiful” Spain-Barcelona (9)woman was exercising the power she had due to her position in the office hierarchy. My admiration for her was immediately diminished because of her behavior.

My dictionary defines beauty as “The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.” While people who possess physical beauty may give pleasure to the senses, the people I know with true beauty give pleasure to my mind. They have a harmony of spirit, and values, that transcends anything on the exterior. People often talk of inner beauty, but I would argue that it can’t exist alone; anyone with inner beauty has a beautiful outer light that shines on everyone they meet.

Seeking truth and beauty

On our journey to better health and wellness, the spiritual dimension can be like the elephant in the room. We know somehow that it is important, but talking about it and figuring out what it means can be uncomfortable. So we avoid it as long as we can, before realizing that a fit body and mind only go so far if your spiritual health is struggling.

What is spiritual wellness? Every definition stresses that it is personal and individual. No one can create a mold for spiritual wellness and fit you into it. It involves your values and beliefs, the meaning you attach to life events and your existence, your sense of purpose in life. But some general components of spiritual wellness include having and demonstrating some purpose, the ability to be compassionate to others, the ability to forgive, the ability to spend solitary time in reflection, and aiming for a certain harmony about your relationship to the world. One of the things that make people squirmy about spirituality is confusing it with religious practice. But while religion certainly encompasses a sense of spirituality, the inverse is not true. Spirituality does not have to include any religious belief.

When we write goals for wellness, we can include spiritual values and goals as part of the overall plan, as John Evans suggests in Wellness and Writing Connections. He also proposes affirming spiritual wellness by writing “notes to yourself when you notice beauty, truth, peace, hope, courage, kindness, love, compassion.” These notes can be an antidote to our daily dose of stories about conflict, violence and hate. Writing them down helps us to remember them, and gives us something to return to repeatedly for spiritual nourishment.  A few months ago, for instance, I wrote myself a note about a 10-year-old boy who was learning how to grow a garden. He told a newspaper reporter that, “You give it love and care like you would a baby. You feed and water it.” I often like to let my mind rest on that child’s simple message of truth and love.IMG_0121

I also wrote myself a note when I read And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. He included part of a poem by the 13th century poet Jelaluddin Rumi that goes like this:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense.

Here too, I find truth and beauty that resonate with each reading.

Author Gail Radley writes that “Human beings are meaning-makers,” but “to make meaning and find purpose, we must expand our vision [by] stepping into the realm of spirituality, into belief in something larger than ourselves.” Stepping into the realm of spirituality means sensing unity with other people, with other creatures, and with nature, and seeing your connection to the larger environment. It means meeting the world from that inner soulful place that is your best self. That’s the place from which we say “Namaste” at the end of a yoga practice. It translates to something like, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” It is a way of expressing gratitude for the spark of goodness and beauty in another.

Where is the field of grass where you can let your soul lie down? Where do you find truth and beauty, hope and courage, kindness and compassion?