Wabi Sabi: what it means and how it can improve your life.

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Understanding Wabi Sabi and ways to practice in your own life.

Wabi Sabi is a Japanese philosophy about embracing imperfection and impermanence.  “Wabi” is defined as imperfection or simplicity and “Sabi” means rustic beauty or humble elegance.

This way of living embraces nature in its rawest form with an awareness that everything changes and nothing lasts forever - including ourselves. It also reflects an attitude of gratitude, contentment, and appreciation for each moment as it passes by us - no matter how ugly or messy things may seem at times.

In this blog post, you will learn about what the Wabi Sabi way of life means, how to grasp the concepts of Wabi Sabi, and how you can use it to make your life a little bit better.

Wabi Sabi Kintsugi mended tea cup

Understanding Wabi Sabi.

The concept of Wabi Sabi is not easy to understand.  Even the Japanese find it challenging to define and describe what it is, despite the fact that they know it intuitively.  One easy way to understand the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi is to compare it to modernism, which you may already be familiar with.

Modernism is public, rational, absolute, progress, future-oriented, controlling nature, romanticize technology, adapts to machines, geometric, seamless, polished, and smooth.

Wabi Sabi, on the other hand, is private, intuitive, relative, unique, focused on the present moment, appreciates nature, romanticizes nature, adapts to nature, organic, earthy, imperfect, and variegated.

Wabi Sabi is an integrative approach to the nature of existence, emotional wellbeing, behavior, and aesthetics.  We'll take a look at 6 basic principles of Wabi Sabi as defined in Leonard Koren's 1994 book, "Wabi Sabi for artists, designers, poets, & philosophers."  But first, let's take a quick look at the history of Wabi Sabi.

A brief look at the history of Wabi Sabi.

Wabi Sabi is rooted in Buddhism from India and Taoism from China.  The word "Wabi" originally meant the melancholy of being lonely in nature and separated from society.  The word "Sabi" originally meant chill, lean, or withered.

The meaning of the terms took a positive spin over time and are now representative of things that are rustic, simple, wise, and ever-changing.

The philosophy of Wabi Sabi.

Wabi Sabi is a difficult expression to translate.  Defining it precisely is not possible and would in any case show a lack of respect for my language. - Nobuo Suzuki

At its root, Wabi Sabi is about recognizing the beauty in imperfection and transcience in everyday life.  It is a way of being that acknowledges the uniqueness of everyone and everything around us as well as their ability to grow, change, and evolve.

This approach brings to light the resources available within ourselves to grow in power, knowledge, and transcendence as we embark on this journey of life with all of its hiccups and bumps.

To understand Wabi Sabi, let's explore the philosophy behind the concept, step-by-step.

Everything is devolving toward or evolving from nothingness.

  1.  Nature constructs and deconstructs continuously in a never-ending loop.  You can think of a baby being born into the world and then becoming old and finally transitioning into the afterlife.
  2. All things are impermanent.  Things are changing all the time.  Just look at the seasons, the weather, or the way plants and animals grow and mature.
  3. Nature can't be controlled.  If we go against our nature or try to control nature around us, it is quite difficult.  Think about a time you tried to fit in and felt out of place.  Or how certain microorganisms seem to mutate despite our attempt to control them.
  4. All things are incomplete.  Everything is always in a state of flux, even when you don't notice it.   You, and the world around you, are evolving all the time.

Beauty can come out of ugliness.

Beauty is relative and is in the eyes of the beholder.

What I find beautiful may be hideous to someone else and vice versa, which is in essence the beauty of Wabi Sabi.  Beauty can come from anywhere and even happens spontaneously in any given situation.

Wabi Sabi state of mind.

You must accept the inevitable and appreciate the cosmic order of things.

Wabi Sabi is an ancient Japanese spiritual state of mind that is centered around accepting the things that you have in life and the fact that they are all going to be fleeting. You have to accept that falling in love, having a child, buying a house, or being successful is all part of life and is also impermanent.

In Wabi Sabi you don't think about what's important anymore but rather appreciate everything around you because it's all going to be empty once you're gone.

Wabi Sabi moral precepts.

We must practice minimalism and get rid of all unnecessary things like wealth, status, power, and luxury so we can focus on the things that are most important to us.

We focus is on the intrinsic, or inner self, and ignore material hierarchy.  This means there is no such person or thing that can be labeled valuable or invaluable; or acceptable and unacceptable.

A good example is the Wabi Sabi style of certain Japanese tea rooms, which is fashioned low, small, and simple so that reflection is upon your inner light rather than distracting design or decor.

Material qualities.

Wabi Sabi honors the natural process of things, like aging and irregularity.

Although things break down over time, like fading, chipping, or wearing away, they still maintain their original wisdom and strength of character.

Irregular things, like the odd, misshapen, or awkward, are indifferent to what is considered in good taste.

Intimate.

Wabi Sabi is unpretentious, unassuming, humble, understated, and can easily coexist with the rest of its environment.

Wabi Sabi is expressed within the architecture of Japanese tea rooms because they are made intentionally small, compact, quiet, and inward to feel intimate and womb-like.

Here are some terms that describe Wabi Sabi intimacy that will help illustrate this concept:

Earthy:  coarse, unrefined, minimally process, rough texture.

Murky:  not defined, not discernible, soft edges.

Simplicity:  warm, not excessive, and interesting to look at; not cold, sterile, or boring.

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others. - Kakuzo Okakura

Why is Wabi Sabi important?

Wabi Sabi is important because we live in a world that places emphasis on the pursuit of happiness.  This can often lead to constant striving and achieving, which can ultimately lead to stress and burnout.

The philosophy of Wabi Sabi offers an antidote to the lifestyle that much of the world has become accustomed to, which is a round-the-clock drive for progress and perfection.  Wabi Sabi liberates and allows us to become aware, appreciate, grow, and transform in the way we were meant to.

Simply put, Wabi Sabi gives you permission to be yourself. - Beth Kempton

Examples of Wabi Sabi.

Examples of Wabi Sabi can be seen throughout Japan.

Japanese Art

One great example of Japanese art is Kintsugi, which is taking broken pottery and mending it with lacquer and metals.  The result is unexpected lines and patterns that highlights not just the imperfection of the object, but also its history.

Like Wabi Sabi, kintsugi embraces the imperfection and incompleteness of things rather than disguise or discard it.

Tea Ceremony.

Japanese tea rooms were highly influenced by Wabi Sabi philosophy and were made intentionally small, simple, quiet, and womb-like.

In "The Book of Tea", Kakuzo Okakura stated that "teaism", which was a euphemism for Wabi Sabi, has permeated all aspects of Japanese life and way of being.

It recognizes the "mundane as of equal importance with the spiritual; It held that in the great relation of things there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe.  The seeker for perfection must discover in his own life the reflection of the inner light."

Poetry.

Sen no Rikyu, a famous 16th-century tea master, used poetry as a way to express himself, which was influeced by Wabi Sabi.  Here are examples of his poetry.

I look beyond;
Flowers are not,
Nor tinted leaves.
On the sea beach
A solitary cottage stands
In the waning light
Of an autumn eve.

 

To those who long only for flowers,
Fain would I show the full-blown spring
Which abides in the toiling buds
Of snow-covered hills.

Flower arranging.

Flower arranging, or Ikebana, is very popular in Japan and dates back to the Heian period.

In the tradition of Wabi Sabi, the flowers are non-repetitive, representing life eternal.  They are also imperfect, much like the flowers that are present in nature.

Wabi Sabi, to me, is being inside when it's raining outside; the laughter lines on a face; or being pleasantly sated after a simple lunch. - Erin Niimi Longhurst

How to practice Wabi Sabi.

Beauty and Aging.

We live in a world where aging is a faux pas.  We are bombarded with images of injections that prevent wrinkles, creams that promise smoother skin, and makeup that hides imperfections.

The Wabi Sabi aesthetic and approach to beauty means accepting the natural aging process – wrinkles will come, creases will appear – and being able to recognize, remember, and find happiness in the moments that have passed.

Home.

The Wabi-Sabi way of life is finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence in all things, including your home.

It is the way imperfections add character to a piece of furniture; or how the crackle of paint on an old window can complement the view outside; or the patina that came about because of the hundreds of times you walked across your wooden floor.

It is having a deep appreciation for what you have and suggests living in a way that is intentional and at the same time unattached.

Food.

To experience Wabi Sabi, you have to slow way down, be very patient, and look very closely. - Leonard Koren

Like the practices of mindfulness, Wabi Sabi involves slowing down so you can become aware of and enjoy what is in front of you.  You can practice Wabi Sabi through mindful eating of your food.

A simple way to do this is through the raisin meditation.  You give yourself just 5 minutes to observe your raisin keenly before placing it your mouth.

Before you chew and swallow it, notice the texture, taste, and how the raisin feels as you roll it around inside your mouth.  It doesn't have to be a raisin if that's not your thing.  You can practice with your favorite food or beverage.

Way of life - Mono No Aware.

In his book, "Wabi Sabi, the Wisdom of Imperfection" Nobuo Suzuki wrote:

"Mono no aware is the Japanese term for an awareness of the transience of things.  It is a sense of poignancy, but also of gratitude and joy at having experienced the many moments of fleeting beauty that make up the best part of our lives."

We're often taught to aspire to one specific career path or outcome that we ultimately attach our identity to.  Wabi Sabi challenges this linear view of life by asking what if... you could love yourself or the people in your life unconditionally?  How would that change your perspective on everything?

It means rejecting some values and goals you've been taught since childhood, like ambition, talent, success, comfort; and being who you really are without trying to be someone you're not.

Wabi Sabi means accepting what we are and and what we have right now, no more nor less, loving ourselves just as we are.  Wabi Sabi encourages us to create empty space in our life instead of adding more and more.

In that way, instead of pursuing objectives created artificially by the consumer society, this new empty space will gradually fill up only with what is beautiful and essential, instead of with noise and pressures that cause us stress.

Wabi Sabi is about living life fully with one's qualities and potential rather than pursuing an outcome or goal.  Living in this way is liberating and it gives you more freedom to be creative, independent, passionate, funny, loving, and spiritual.

Final thoughts.

Wabi Sabi is a holistic approach to living a life that is focused on what is important.  It is more than just simplifying your schedule, organizing your stuff, or cleaning out your closet.

Wabi Sabi embraces imperfection as part of beauty; in other words, celebrating your flaws.  It is about appreciating and having gratitude for what has happened in your life and what you have right now.  It also emphasizes acceptance and awareness of impermanence- both for yourself and those around you - because life goes by so quickly.

You can practice this way of thinking on your own through art, poetry, walking through a garden, while eating your food slowly, or simply observing the changes in the seasons of your life and the world around you.

I hope this helped you grasp the concepts of Wabi Sabi and understand it a little bit better.  Let me know how you practice Wabi Sabi in your own life.

Christine Songco is the creator of Third Bliss and is passionate about helping others thrive holistically by finding passion, meaning, and purpose in life. Christine has been featured in WebMD, Authority Magazine, Philips Lifeline, Owl Guru, and The Lifestyle Blogger UK.

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