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A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space…experiencing self, thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest…a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. 

Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

—Albert Einstein

Sometimes it’s challenging to see what’s beautiful on a daily basis. So often, we are caught up in the rush of our lives, under pressure at work or at home, and we don’t take the opportunity to acknowledge beauty. We might even think of beauty as something superficial and relatively unimportant—we’re told that “beauty is only skin deep”—though it can truly be a source for inspiration in our daily lives.

True beauty is profound and offers a deep connection to what is important to us. Taking the time to find and appreciate such beauty is an essential practice of cultivating a more human, sustainable culture and a vital step in building community. Beauty can be found in the most unlikely places if we are looking for it. Amidst the bustle and noise of downtown San Francisco—which could itself be seen as quite beautiful—I used to find solace and expansiveness in simply gazing up at the sky when I worked in an office there and was feeling closed in.

With each person we meet—whether a co-worker, family member or stranger on the street—there is something beautiful that we might be able to acknowledge. In any work that we do, no matter how mundane, we can strive for beauty. One of my mentors, David Orr, has often remarked that in any work (particularly in designing new buildings) we should strive to create beauty and minimize ugliness—human or environmental—anywhere in the process.

With beauty as a baseline for what we do, imagine how our interactions and organizations might change, how our communities and our country might shift in a more positive direction. While such a vision might be idealistic, there are so many heeding this call in developing new buildings and technologies that minimize pollution and “ugly” impacts, who are restoring degraded landscapes and who are exploring how we can find the beauty in ourselves and in others as a foundation from which we can accelerate a broader transition in our culture.

While seeing beauty through all of the ugliness—small and large—that we encounter in the world can often be difficult, it is the gateway to inspiration. I like to think of the words of Anne Frank, who witnessed ugliness firsthand deeper than many of us ever will in our lives and was still able to write: “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

August 2006