Philosophers throughout history have asserted that “the fundamental nature of the world is aesthetic” (Alfred North Whitehead, Gregory Bateson,James Hillman, Martin Foss,Donald Winnicott to name a few.) The word aesthetics comes from the Greek word “aisthenesthai” which is the ability to perceive. James Hillman writes, “Aesthetics in this primordial sense involves sensing the things of the world in their particularity and being affected by the many ways things present themselves.” Hillman often quotes an ancient philosopher named Marsilio Ficino who said that the world is an animal (meaning the world is alive and speaking to us.) The world shows itself to us as a living being; each thing has a face and calls for our attention. Our response to this call is aesthetics.
Hence the word “aesthetic space”…because it’s only when we make space for beauty, that beauty presents itself to us. We pause, take a moment to notice and appreciate the particulars of some thing, and enter aesthetic space.
Much of the impulse for writing my book, Getting Messy: A Guide to Taking Risks and Opening the Imagination, stemmed from my sorrow and despair at spending so many years in dry, joyless educational settings. I have always had a strong yearning to reframe the experience of teaching and learning as beautiful, life-giving, creative processes. To teach (as well as to learn), requires courage, an open heart, and the willingness to be vulnerable. But instead of noticing, appreciating and honoring this inherent beauty and vulnerability, our focus in education has been on achieving goals–which focuses our attention on some abstract thing in the future. When we’re focused on the distant future, we’re not in the beauty of the present moment….we’re not in a place of depth.
Getting Messy is a call for aesthetic space in teaching, training, coaching and mentoring relationships.
Aesthetics is closely linked to beauty, if we define beauty not as “refinement” or “polish,” but rather as feeling the depth of something. Another way to think of beauty is feeling with our hearts. Elaine Scarry, professor at Harvard, wrote in her book On Beauty and Being Just:
* beauty attends with it a sense of abundance
* beauty makes possible a moment of largess or generosity
* beauty can usher in forgiveness
* in the presence of beauty, we have an opportunity to heal
In A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce wrote that beauty is “the communication of the hidden power behind the world, shining through some physical form.”
When we teach, train, coach, and mentor, we’re serving something beyond ourselves. If we’re aware, we can recognize beauty shining through the physical form of our clients, students, or group. Ideally, we can make space for that beauty. Paradoxically, making space for beauty greatly facilitates learning, because it fuels inspiration and passion–the desire to learn.
The writer Iris Murdoch said that beauty is anything that aligns us with unselfishness. Or to say it another way, beauty is the “process of un-selfing.” At our best, as teachers, trainers, coaches and mentors, we are serving something greater than ourselves. This is aesthetic space.