Carrie saw the news as she was walking in to our appointment: a colleague hung himself. She’s an actress, as was he, so it was all over the internet. They were friends but not close; still it was near her orbit enough that the shock of grief washed through her, like when you see there’s a fire in the hills and you get a chill as you realize you have a friend who lives up there.
She was shaken, and I asked her if she was ok to get acupuncture, knowing the news would consume her and make relaxing impossible. She said she would. When she came out after her session, her eyes were beet red. The Kleenex I wrap the eye pillow in was wet; the eye pillow itself was soaked straight through.
But some transformation had happened. She looked peaceful; through the red, her eyes were clear. Her gaze had softened, in a way I had never seen before, having treated her for years. She looked loose, and I could tell her mind was slower but steady.
It was as though she had been washed up onto a merciful beach: all restlessness, aggression, indifference suddenly dropped, like a surf that has for a moment lost its capacity to crash.
This is the gift that loss can offer: it plucks us from the thrashing of our self pre-occupation and plants us into the light of creation. Loss opens us to beauty.
Beautiful things are always in relation to loss, or teetering on the edge of it: youth, flowers, puppies, snowfall, a song you know will end. Beauty is always correlative to death–and death, to beauty.
Where death contracts into pain that is personal and immediate, beauty is searching and invites in a scale of creation that is larger than itself. Death diminishes where beauty begets growth and replication (which is why babies are uniformly regarded as beautiful, and having them is still trending.) The pain of loss is to death, what beauty is to life.
Carrie thanked me for the session, and as she left, she turned to me at the door, paused, and said, almost surprising herself, "I love you." I received it with the weight and warmth with which it was given. This is grief transforming to beauty. When something we love burns away, beauty is the ash.
To witness this interdependent dynamic–the transformation from what is mean and individual about death into the egoless, gentle vastness of beauty– is the goal of the Metal element. Metal asks that we widen from the narrowness and stridence of loss, to the expansiveness and resonance of beauty.
This turning from loss to beauty precipitates what philosopher Simone Weil called a “radical decentering;” a state of opiated adjacency, the bliss of unselfing. It relieves us of self-preoccupation, brooding and vanity–and shifts us back to a state of awe and gratitude. It reminds us why we are alive, and calls for more creation. Beauty resurrects hope. This is what I saw in Carrie’s face as she paused at the door.
The point of beauty is that we know we can’t keep it, and regard it with that preciousness. It’s why you don’t clasp your hands around beauty like popcorn you’re trying to baby-claw into your mouth in a dark movie theater, shoveling in as much as you can: you hold it like it’s sunlight; like it’s honey.
What death grips tightly, beauty lets go.
I told this to a patient of mine recently who was going through her own Autumn of loss, and really doing the work to move through it. She is a well-known beauty influencer, which means I don’t understand anything she does. As we talked about it, in a moment of true humility and openness, she surprised herself by asking, “What even is beauty?”
Beauty is the clarity and the fragility of the life impulse, announcing itself to the senses.