I have a theory that informs my life. I believe that what is most interesting and valuable in life has layers. While I enjoy seeing what is beautiful on the surface, looking through the obvious to what lies beyond is a core value.
This first occurred to me in my therapists office, though it had nothing to do with our session. Her office was in a solid Edwardian building near the Castro, right on the wide boulevard of Market Street. Looking out her back bay windows, I saw a pristine white Victorian house. How did that lovely little house end up in the back yard of this much larger building? Was it built at the back of the lot and someone later built the bigger building in front of it? Or was it originally on Market Street, then picked up and moved it back when the new project came along? Who knows. But in that moment I had an epiphany. I realized I value the layers of San Francisco. I love a city that constantly unfolds its secrets, a city that has little treasures hidden behind the bold fronts, endless secret beauties that are never fully knowable.
Contrast that with most of America. From a world perspective most American cities are absolutely impressive. Our suburbs, in particular, represent a wealth, spaciousness, and aesthetic harmony that few of the world’s impoverished have ever seen. And yet our beautiful cities feel empty, bland, soulless. How is it we create such beauty, with so little meaning behind it?
South Florida represents the contrast to mysterious San Francisco. There communities sprawl to the horizon all landscaped perfection and tasteful domesticity, without a single surprise to be found. Everything is orchestrated and scrubbed and codified to the point until all the juice is squeezed out of it and what you see on the surface is all that you will ever get. I fear sounding jaded, as I know that to someone in a Brazilian favela or an Indonesian slum, life in the quiet and order of South Florida would be a heaven beyond price. Yet I lament that so much of my country feels uni-dimensional, obvious, and predictable.
As with cities, so with people. It is the people I like from the start, but sense there is more, that intrigue me. Too many of us have never explore the depths of our interior worlds, or simply aren’t that deep. I can love those people, but they hold little interest. What a contrast to my friends with layers, who endlessly delight and surprise.
This is an aesthetic observation, but also more. Minds like Kant, Burke, Schopenhauer, and Hegel debated the difference between the Beautiful and the Sublime. In my simple summary, the beautiful is what you like with your eyes, while the sublime is more exalted, something that inspires awe in the perceiver.
Awe is an interesting concept. Awe is when you move out in front of your egoic self and into the experience itself, when you move beyond your own superficial layer, and into the greater world beyond. Adyashanti, my favorite Buddhist teacher, says this is the essence of the Buddhist “no self.” It isn’t some mystical Asian thing, it is simply the experience we see when we get lost viewing a beautiful sunset. The sense of the “I” drops away, as in “I am viewing the sunset,” and for a moment we are pure experience. To step through our seeing the beauty of the sunset, into the savoring the experience itself, is the essence of a transcendent life. We are, for a moment, sublime.
The layers theory also explains my conception of God. Any religion that gives simple answers about who or what God is must be false, God is clearly more than our mind can perceive. Thinking people can use the term God to indicate the seemingly infinite layers of reality seen from our perception’s finite limitations. God can be our name for the bigger, the more, the deeper, without having to understand it all.
People from older cultures, with roots in ancient stories, living where their ancestors have lived for millennia, have an obvious advantage in understanding layers. I remember staying with my buddy Romero in a tasteful hotel in Split, Croatia (it’s pronounced “spleet.”) Our hotel room’s walls were a jumble of modern, renaissance, medieval, and Roman. The city is layer upon layer of accretion, all contained within the original walls of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace (he ruled AD 284 to 305). You can even go under the streets and see the entire city held up out of the sea by the Roman arches of Diocletian’s original palace. That’s a place of layers, 1,700 years of accretions still standing on the original foundations. (And if you go, there’s a cafe on the waterfront with a long menu consisting only of hot chocolate. Page after page of differing chocolates and preparation methods. Now THAT is civilization.)
It is hard for Americans to understand what we are missing in our young and perpetually renewing society. We must consciously pursue a culture of depth, lest our pursuit of the shiny and superficial renders us shallow. Let us always seek the surprising truths that lie hidden behind the obvious.
(images are of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sao Luis do Maranhao, Brazil, photos by Preston)