Conversations with Remarkable Minds: Dr. Piero Ferrucci
This interview with Dr. Piero Ferrucci was conducted by Dr. Gary Null, noted talk radio host, in September 2009 as one of his Conversations with Remarkable Minds (M-F, noon EST at www.ProgressiveRadioNetwork.com).
Hi everyone. I’m Gary Null and I’d like to welcome you to this program. Today we’re going to continue our Conversations With Remarkable Minds series with Dr. Piero Ferrucci, a psychologist and philosopher who today is one of Europe’s leading intellectuals in spiritual psychology. He is also the nephew of the famous philosopher visionary Aldous Huxley and his musician wife Laura Huxley. And he was a major student and later the assistant of the early pioneer of humanistic psychology Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis. We’re going to talk about beauty and the soul, and the role of beauty in intelligence, health, creativity, social action and spiritual awakening.
DR PIERO FERRUCCI
Good afternoon everybody.
It’s nice to have you with us today. (PF: Thank you.) A Swedish study showed that those who go to theater and classical concerts and art exhibits have an increased chance of living more productive lives into old age, and greater longevity. And British studies show post surgery recovery is accelerated in a more naturally serene and beautiful hospital setting and also the influence of bird songs on well-being and beauty.
I believe that we have lost our appreciation for the aesthetic of natural beauty in all things. So my question to you is why is society turning its back on natural beauty and the beauty of higher artistic creation in favor of technology and the mundane? And is there a relationship in your mind between modern society’s growing insecurities and fears and the lack of appreciation of beauty?
DR PIERO FERRUCCI
I have asked myself that same question many times as I’m working with people in my everyday psychotherapy practice. I think there are many reasons, and I would like to start with the deepest one—that we are afraid of beauty. We can be afraid of good things, not just of terrible things, because beauty may change us deeply. It may affect us in ways that we cannot control. It may challenge our way of organizing our knowledge and organizing our world. So deep down we are afraid of it, as we may be afraid of sex, of love, and of many other things, and so we defend ourselves from it. That is probably the deepest reason why we go away from beauty. But there are other reasons, too. Many people feel they are not good enough for beauty. We feel guilty, and we feel we don’t deserve the unconditional joy that beauty can give us. It’s just too easy—there must be some trap in there.
And also I think there are cultural reasons why we are suspicious of anything that has to do with beauty. One is that many of us believe that beauty requires culture. You have to have read many books and you have got to have studied in order to understand and enjoy say music or a beautiful painting. And that is absolutely not true. Reading may help us deepen our appreciation of beauty, but beauty is for everyone. It’s true that we have a possibility of increasing our gamut of beauty, increasing our aesthetic intelligence, our ability to appreciate beauty so that we don’t appreciate it only in great works of art or only in nature or only in music, but we appreciate it also in everyday life.
Some people appreciate beauty even in things that are very banal and obvious. They have a greater aesthetic intelligence in my opinion. And of course there is an enormous world of inner beauty. I think we can learn to appreciate not only outer beauty, but the inner beauty of people. The beauty of honesty, the beauty of kindness, the beauty of intelligence. Appreciating beauty that is not immediately evident may take some time, but once we tune into it it’s there to stay.
There’s one more reason that I can think of for why we shun beauty, and that is that some of us believe that in some way it’s too expensive, that it’s not practical enough. It’s not down to earth. It won’t help me earn money. It won’t help me fix my life. That is not true, and the funny thing is that at the same time that we run away from beauty we also are looking for it desperately.
And one example for instance is that I think this statistic is about America. For example, in America, and it probably is the same in Europe, more money is spent on cosmetics than on education. To me that is a sign that in some desperate and intense way we are looking for beauty, but it’s a too limited conception of beauty. For beauty is everywhere.
Jean Anouilh said, “Things are beautiful if you love them.” And because we are a society that is now based more on fear and obsessive gluttony of possessions, of wealth, of power, of celebrity and also of ugly distractions, like watching people on television, becoming a spectator we have lost almost all sense of subtle expression. We have a whole generation of people under the age of 30 who have lost the beauty in literature. If you ask them about the soft and subtle, it is gone. It’s missing. What is there, however, is working to the bone to get a rock hard body, to buy a new car, to have the latest wardrobe, to have the latest things. Artificial physical attributes are now considered the new stage of beauty. So we’ve lost our appreciation for beauty at all levels in all areas of life. Could you give us your perspective?
DR PIERO FERRUCCI
I want to tie to your observation. I think we are in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, television is evoking the strongest feelings in order to capture a bigger audience. We are in the midst of screaming emotions—other people’s emotions. And every day we’re subject to an unbelievable mass of stimuli in this direction of horror, of aggression, of being shown all kinds of intimacies because strong emotions attract people.
On the other hand, we also live in a digital world that is colder than the one that used to be. I mean a world that’s more impersonal, more efficient, faster, but that doesn’t take into consideration the heart. So in the midst of all of this, where are our deeper feelings? We have lost them, and I think that getting in touch with beauty is the way to get in touch again with the deeper fount of our more pure and authentic feelings. And I must say that I am a pessimist as you were a few moments ago, but I also am an optimist because I think that a lot of good things are happening.
I see people appreciating beauty. Maybe they don’t make the headlines, but I know for example that in your country there are many courses for doctors and nurses to read poetry and literature and to appreciate art so that they can have greater empathy with their patients. I think this is extraordinary, and there’s a lot of good stuff going on.
One more thing I wanted to say is that beauty has a lot to do with peace. In my opinion it is the exact opposite of war because the moment we really appreciate beauty we are completely open and we are vulnerable. We don’t have any mask anymore, we don’t have any role, and that is scary. That’s why people can get nervous about it and not want it. Beauty can be risky, and at the same time beauty is subtle. It requires at least a bit of work because deep down we are all – we all know what it is.
I made many interviews with people in order to prepare my book, and I just asked them what happens to you when you appreciate beauty in your life, whatever beauty it is, of nature, of people, of mathematics, of philosophy, of every day life? And they instantly knew what beauty is. Nobody had to ask me what do you mean by beauty? Because beauty is part of our evolution. We started appreciating beauty a long time ago. It’s certainly part of our survival. However, there is also fear and running away from it—it’s an ambivalent relationship. It’s there and it’s not there, both.
I want to expand on that concept because I believe that we have made the mistake of commodifying beauty in our society, as if the average person would not be able to discern for themselves what is beautiful, and as a result we have lost the connection with beauty around ourselves, within ourselves and with others. I believe that beauty teaches us about living more spontaneously, and we’ve explored studies that show a relationship between beauty and our innate healing process. When we take what is beautiful and we commodify it, by the time people say, yeah give me some of that, there's no natural beauty left in it. A whole generation is afraid to go where nowhere else is. So we’re terrified of being alone. We’re terrified of doing anything spontaneously. We’re terrified of being with nature in its natural beauty. We’re terrified of being with people who are spontaneous and open and cannot be controlled. Your thoughts.
DR PIERO FERRUCCI
I agree with you, and it’s painful. I think it’s a war between beauty and ugliness and sometimes ugliness wins, and just as beauty heals ugliness hurts. If we think about all the ugliness that is around us we hurt and it has the power of disconcerting us, of tensing us, of making our illness and our pain greater.
And yet, while the irony of ugliness has advanced quite a bit, I don’t think this is a lost war. I want to tie in to what you said about people being afraid of being alone and making independent choices. I think beauty can be a great help in this because often in the beginning we tend to be shy about our own tastes about what we find beautiful. And so we will accept what is trendy, but if we keep treading the way of beauty we’ll find more and more that we have our own tastes, our own preferences. Maybe we won’t like the great artists that everybody is supposed to like. Maybe we will like a lesser-known artist or some particular aspect of beauty that maybe nobody else appreciates.
Building our own taste becomes very intimate, very personal and very spontaneous, because we cannot program beauty, we cannot commodify it. We’ll try hard, but we cannot say, okay now I’m going to experience beauty at 5:30 this afternoon. We can create the possibility of beauty happening, but the Goddess of Beauty or the God of Beauty will come to us when it wants. So we have to be ready and attentive and maybe it will come and may be it won’t, for it is spontaneous and it is uncontrolled. That’s why I ask people to write a diary of beauty. When you experience beauty write down what happened to you. What happened in your mind? Did you think in different ways? What happened in your feelings? Did you feel healed? Or did your behavior change? Did your relationships change? If we write about our experiences of beauty as they happen in our life, I think that our experience of beauty will become deeper and it will help us to be more secure and more trusting of our own feelings and tastes.
Also, I think beauty is a powerful healing factor for making our relationships better and deeper—and it's the best aphrodisiac. Enjoying beauty happens for many people when we think of the people that we love, our friends or our lover or wife or husband or children. When we are in front of a beautiful landscape or we’re looking at a movie and we find it beautiful we naturally want to share it because beauty that is appreciated with another person is multiplied. People who appreciate beauty together will be better lovers or better friends or better relatives because they’ve been together in a very deep place.
I also want to mention that I know and appreciate your work, and I very much agree with you. I think inner beauty has to do also with what kind of food we eat. When we look at raw fruits and vegetables we are instantly attracted, there is something that happens in our being that tells us this is right. When we eat them we can feel that we are introducing order and color and beauty and harmony in ourselves. I don’t think that happens if we eat junk food.
Thank you, I appreciate that insight, and I really support all the people who have made changes in their diets. I realize that they’re undoing a highly conditioned process because a lot of the foods we eat, even the worst foods, are frequently comfort foods. Imagine then that you go out in a garden and you’ve grown something with your own hands and you pull off a tomato. At every level of growing it right up to when you eat it you are appreciating the beauty of the experience, the beauty of the vegetable or the fruit whatever it is. This morning I had a peach that came right off a tree that was organic. It was just unimaginably delicious, but it was also the experience of picking it that was beautiful.
Now you don’t see what happens to the cattle. You don’t see how they’re fed and abused in factory farms and the torturous process of getting them to the slaughterhouse. So the ugliness of how animal food is produced must be compared to the natural beauty of how nuts and seeds, legumes, grains, herbs, tubers, vegetables, and leafy vegetables are grown and consumed. Could you share your thoughts on that?
Well personally I happen to be a vegan, although I don’t consider it part of my work to convince people to change their diets. But I am completely in agreement with what you say. And as you were talking I thought that if you go in even the most conventional supermarkets the first thing that you see is fruits and vegetables, and they are put first so that you are attracted by the beauty of the produce. We have an innate reaction to the beauty of natural foods, especially of raw foods, and we often forget about it. We may not be confident enough or too conditioned by the way we were brought up and we forget about that, but it’s all in there.
Deep down I think that we all have inner beauty. Sometimes it comes out. It radiates naturally without any effort. It’s just there. Everybody can see it, but mostly it’s not like that. It’s more hidden. But it’s there, and I think we can learn to see it. We need to catch glimpses of it in ourselves, in others, and then little by little it will come out if it is seen. One of the biggest motivations that we may have in saving our environment may be not just fear of the catastrophe that pollution may evoke, but appreciation of the wonderful beauty of nature. If I go on a beach and I see the wonderful beauty of the shells and the transparency of the sea and the jewel that this beach is, then I will become indignant if anybody is trying to spoil that beauty, and I will want to save it.
So I firmly believe that cultivating an awareness of beauty in all its forms is a very powerful factor in saving the environment around us, and of course the environment within us, because if I’m aware of beauty then I’ll be aware of what I put in my body, and it’s such a relief to experience beauty being introduced in one’s organism. You can feel the healing almost before it happens, just like the energy emanating from raw fruits and vegetables.
Well you have to have both realities. One reality is that you feel good being around beauty and participating in it and taking it in, whether it’s a concert, a poem, watching a little baby laugh, watching a puppy, looking at a natural sunset. That’s the innate beauty that we are given as gifts. The opposite reality is how we feel when we’re around ugliness. The ugliness of war, the ugliness of contempt, the ugliness of racism and sexism, the ugliness of homophobia, of bias, of the fear mongers, of exclusion, the ugliness of the gated mindset that says you can’t come in here, you’re not welcome.
That also is out there. Ask yourself, how do you feel being around that kind of ugliness? Do you come around feeling good and energized? No.
DR PIERO FERRUCCI
I think there is probably ugliness that is unredeemable, like most of your examples. I also think there is ugliness that ultimately is not ugly, and we can see beauty in it. I’ve heard many people in my research say that they found beauty in something that is considered usually banal if not ugly. My aunt Laura Huxley would collect garbage, that is fruit peels, avocado peels, anything that would remain after you cleaned and ate some raw fruit and vegetables. And she would put them in water in a transparent vase. Something that we usually would throw away because it’s trash, because it’s ugly, but it is not. And what happened was that all those colors and all the shapes of these red and yellow and green and white peels and shells would become like a work of art.
Leonardo da Vinci used to go around in the country and look at old walls, just old crumbling walls, and he would see all kinds of battles and scenes and parties and faces and he would get inspiration for his paintings and drawings. Georgia O’Keefe would look at a coyote skeleton. Is that beautiful or ugly? We wouldn’t think of that as beautiful until we see her paintings of coyote skeletons in the desert.
So the idea is to extend our conception of beauty, and our sensitivity to beauty.