We live in a culture that views perfection as the norm and youthfulness as beauty. We feel our best when life is going our way, and we don’t want this to change. We don’t want to experience conflict or suffering, or grow old–much less look like we are old. We want the whitest teeth, shiniest floors, and perfect family and relationships. We say we want to live in the moment, yet our heads are cluttered with a continual dialogue of stories related to the past and of longings for the future.
Living the wabi-sabi way offers an entirely different perspective, not a light-hearted, frivolous approach as the term may suggest. Rather it’s a way of living that is richer, simpler, and more authentic than most of us experience. It’s a way to find beauty and pleasure in everything, including imperfection! Would you like to learn more?
What is wabi-sabi?
The Japanese words, wabi-sabi, hold many rich nuances of a philosophy or mindset for how to live with, appreciate and accept the cycles of nature.
The wabi-sabi perspective, in the simplest of terms, is that nothing is perfect, nothing is finished, and nothing lasts. Yet, in this imperfect, incomplete, impermanent world, there is deep beauty. The wabi-sabi view worships all that is authentic and true. The truth of impermanence in the material world integrated in the authenticity of natural beauty is a human value found in many cultures. This view can also spill over into how we live our lives. It challenges us to question what is important and consider how we can live with less stress and more joy in a world consumed with consuming.
The root wa means harmony, peace, tranquility, and balance. Wabi connotes simplicity, freshness, understated elegance, and being in synch with nature. It also conveys an imperfect quality that finds delight in things that are quirky, unique, or asymmetrical. For example, these qualities may be found in Scandinavian- and Japanese-style furnishings and oriental gardens and landscapes.
Sabi derives from the Japanese character meaning “rust.” It conveys acceptance of change and impermanence. It reveals the beauty that comes with age; visible signs of wear and repair; the rusted, worn, or burnished surfaces of objects. Cracks, crevices, and marks of time are celebrated rather than covered up or discarded as flawed objects. Sabi reveres making do with less. It encourages retaining only objects that are meaningful or useful or bring simple joy.
As an essence, sabi might direct your eyes towards the site of an abandoned barn collapsing into nature. Sabi longs for the curious and melancholy mystique of an old covered bridge captured in a treasured photograph or painting. It honors an old, weathered, heavily-wrinkled face reflecting the story of a life time.
I recently heard a Vedanta philosophy teacher describe an intriguing way of how consciousness is expressed in our world. He said that rocks are sleeping, plants are awakening, animals feel, and humans think. So much of our waking life is spent in our thoughts that we miss the essence of our own aliveness. As we open our senses, the body becomes a doorway into a deeper sense of aliveness in which our thoughts and emotions play a smaller role.
Wabi-sabi thrives in uncluttered environments and mindsets. It asks us to open our senses and fully engage in the present moment using thought only when necessary. When we begin to live life through our senses, we more fully engage in life as it happens. This enables us to find beauty and pleasure in all things: the old, the flawed, even the dying. Multitasking our way to success is the antithesis of this mindful way of being.
Take a moment right now to close your eyes and feel into your body. Let thoughts, emotion, and memories take a back seat while you become fully present to sensations–or the breath. Feel into the space, freedom, and richness of this momentary awareness–an awareness that is timeless and perfect, whole and complete. Remain here as long as you choose.
Taking moments like this, whether engaging in a mindfulness technique, being in nature, or enjoying some other activity that carries you into a timeless zone, can strengthen your wabi-sabi mindset. Coming back you may feel refreshed and more present to enjoy the simple beauty that surrounds you.
I was introduced to the concept of wabi-sabi in the book, “Wabi-Sabi Love: The Ancient Art of Finding Love in Imperfect Relationships, “ by Arielle Ford. The author adapted this ancient Japanese aesthetic to contemporary life. She offers ways for creating more loving relationships by turning conflict into compassion. (You can learn more about the author and her book at www.wabisabilove.com.)
The mind-set of wabi-sabi is generally developed incorporating inanimate objects into our indoor and outdoor environments, as well as in observing those around us. Yet this mindset can also be brought into our relationships with people whose minds, like ours, are filled with stories, emotions, and feelings bubbling below the surface. The more intimate our relationships, the easier it is to discover another’s faults and imperfections.
According to Arielle Ford, the wabi-sabi approach to relationships encourages us to “learn to accept, embrace and even find the gift of your partner’s imperfections…finding the perfection in all that is imperfect within them.”
Arielle notes that research has revealed that “the happiest couples focus on what’s right and not what’s wrong.” The greater the expectation placed upon them, the better people are likely to perform. I remember once reading that every audience wants a speaker to succeed. This helped me to develop a more compassionate listening style, overlooking a speaker’s imperfections, while also overcoming my earlier fears of public speaking.
Connecting on a heartfelt level with your partner enlivens love and compassion for one another. One way to do this is with regular, long, heart-to-heart embraces. Instead of those short hugs we generally give to family and friends, consider connecting more deeply with long hugs.
One of the things I love about dancing Argentine tango is the heart-to-heart connection in dancing closely with my partners. While each may have their personal quirks and imperfections (as I know I do), I strive to respond perfectly, with compassion, to their lead.
Finding beauty in imperfect endings
I found a very moving blog on Arielle Ford’s website. She shared how she coped with the dying of her beloved sister, Debbie, who suffered from an incurable form of cancer. Debbie Ford was a gifted coach, teacher, and writer who overcame adversities of darkness to help liberate others. Arielle questioned how she could find pleasure and beauty even in Debbie’s departure. Yet she knew she had to embrace the approach to life she herself was putting out into the world.
Arielle wrote, “While there were many moments of soul-wrenching grief, sadness, and tears, there were equal moments of lightness and laughter…[A] part of me rejoiced in being able to spend this precious time with her – to love her, and hold her, and be there during this extraordinary moment in her life.”
Honoring the ancient aesthetic of wabi-sabi, a Japanese museum might display a beautiful vase with a light shining on its cracked side of a vase – or the crack might be painted with gold leaf. This is know as the art of Kintsugi. As singer-song writer Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” affirms, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Living the wabi-sabi way invites us to change our perceptions about how we participate in life. It gives us the choice of carrying our own burdens of years with dignity and grace. It summons us to live more deeply and compassionately in the moment–with our senses. When we can truly value and beauty of imperfection and live deeply, we create a world filled with beauty and joy. Are you ready to live the wabi-sabi way?