Wabi Sabi: what it means and ways to practice in your own life.

Wabi Sabi is a Japanese philosophy about embracing imperfection and impermanence.  “Wabi” is the Japanese word for imperfection or simplicity. “Sabi” is the Japanese word for rustic beauty or humble elegance.

This way of living embraces authenticity, the true nature of things, awareness, impermanence, and being perfectly imperfect.

It combines Japanese culture and Japanese aesthetics that allows one to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, contentment, and appreciation for each moment as it passes us by.

Thus, it enables you to accept yourself for who you are right now without judgment or criticism. Though it looks straightforward, it’s not exactly easy to understand.

This is why in this blog post, you will learn about what Wabi Sabi is, how to grasp the concepts of Wabi Sabi, why it’s important, and how you can use it every day.

Wabi Sabi Kintsugi mended tea cup
Wabi Sabi Kintsugi mended teacup

CONTENTS

What Wabi Sabi is.
A brief look at the history of Wabi Sabi.
The philosophy of Wabi Sabi.
Why is Wabi Sabi important?
Examples of Wabi Sabi.
How to practice Wabi Sabi.
Final thoughts.

What Wabi Sabi is.

“The term Wabi Sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in a Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection.” – Andrew Juniper, Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence

Wabi Sabi is a combination of Japanese wisdom and Japanese aesthetics that enables one to practice awareness and acceptance of the present moment without judgment or criticism.

The concept of Wabi Sabi is not easy to understand. Though it’s woven into Japanese culture and aesthetics, people still find it challenging to define and describe.

One way to grasp the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi is to understand its opposite, modernism.

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

This mindset is often associated with the west and developed nations.

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.

It is a gentle and holistic approach to the nature of existence, emotional wellbeing, behavior, and aesthetics.

Let’s take a quick look at where Wabi Sabi originated.

A brief look at the history of Wabi Sabi.

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

Their original meanings are worlds apart from the concept we know of today, which took a positive turn over time.

Fortunately for us, Wabi Sabi is now representative of things rustic, simple, wise, and ephemeral.

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 finding beauty in imperfection and transcience in everyday life.  It is a way of being that enables you to embrace the unique qualities of everyone and everything around you 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 through the 6 basic principles of Wabi Sabi as defined in Leonard Koren’s 1994 book, “Wabi Sabi for artists, designers, poets, & philosophers”.

1. 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.

2. Beauty can come out of ugliness.

Wabi Sabi enables one to find beauty in what most people would find ugly. These are often things that are imperfect, such as a chip on a porcelain cup or gray hairs that have seemingly popped up overnight.

This idea of finding beauty in things that are less than perfect is an integral part of the Wabi Sabi philosophy.

It fosters a mentality of acceptance and compassion.

3. 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 where you’re at right now and what you already have.

The things that you own, like status & wealth, are fleeting. Even falling in love, having a child, buying a house, and being successful are impermanent.

You need to accept that nothing lasts forever if you want to achieve enlightenment and happiness.

4. 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.

The Japanese wisdom of Wabi Sabi focuses on the intrinsic, or inner self, and ignores material hierarchy.  This means that there is no such person or thing that can be labeled as valuable or invaluable; or acceptable and unacceptable.

There is nothing more representative of this Japanese wisdom than the Japanese tea room. Certain Japanese tea rooms embody Wabi Sabi aesthetics due to their simple and small design.

This style is done intentionally to direct attention toward the internal rather than the extraneous.

5. 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.

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

6. 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 aesthetics, such as 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 to 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 money and material things.  This can often lead to constant striving and achieving, which can ultimately lead to stress and burnout.

Wabi Sabi philosophy offers an antidote to the lifestyle that much of the western world has become accustomed to, which is a round-the-clock drive for progress and perfection.

It allows us to pay more attention to things that give us meaning, which are often things that can’t be bought or measured, like quality time with loved ones or the pursuit of one’s passions.

Wabi Sabi also liberates us and makes us more aware of ourselves. It also allows us to live in authenticity, as we 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 the Wabi Sabi philosophy can be seen throughout Japan in its art and culture.

1. 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 highlight not just the imperfection of the object, but also its history.

Like Wabi Sabi, kintsugi allows you to embrace the imperfection and incompleteness of things rather than disguise or discard them.

2. Japanese Tea Ceremony.

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

As a result, the Japanese tea ceremony allows you to be fully present by giving your attention to what’s in front of you.

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.”

3. Poetry.

Sen no Rikyu, a famous 16th-century tea master, used poetry as a way to express himself.

His works are influenced by Wabi Sabi philosophy and the Japanese tea ceremony.  Here is an example 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.

4. Flower arrangement.

Flower arrangement, 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 and represent life eternal.  They are also imperfect, much like the flowers that grow 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.

1. Beauty and Aging.

We live in a world that puts too much focus on youth and perfection. Aging and imperfection are placed in a negative light. You see evidence of this everywhere you turn, such as ads that promote perfect figures, flawless faces, wrinkle creams, smoother skin, and hair color in a bottle.

The Wabi Sabi aesthetic and approach to beauty is the opposite of this. It embraces the perfectly imperfect.

It embraces the natural aging process so you can accept and find beauty in things that are old and weathered. It enables you to recognize, remember, and find happiness in things that are past their prime.

2. Home.

The Wabi-Sabi means finding beauty in imperfection and acceptance of impermanent in all things, including your home.

This philosophy allows you to see the character and charm that imperfections and age add to things like an old piece of furniture; or the crackle of paint on an old window; or the patina that develops on a wooden floor from years of wear.

It is having a deep appreciation for what you have and suggests living in a way that is intentional, simple, and unattached.

3. Food.

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

Like the practice 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 just about anything, even eating your food.

One way to practice mindful eating is through the raisin meditation.  You give yourself just 5 minutes to observe your raisin keenly before placing it in your mouth.

Before you chew and swallow it, notice the texture, taste, and feel of the raisin as you roll it around inside your mouth.  It doesn’t have to be a raisin if that’s not your thing.  You can substitute it with your favorite food or drink.

4. 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 way of thinking by allowing you to be aware of different perspectives if you only gave yourself permission to be perfectly imperfect.

It would mean rejecting some values and goals you’ve been taught since childhood, such as ambition, talent, success, and comfort; and adopting new values that align with your true self.

Adopting the Wabi Sabi philosophy would mean accepting what you have right now, no more no less, and encouraging empty space that would make room for things that are meaningful and fulfilling.

This way, instead of filling our cups with hedonistic superficiality, we can fill them instead with things that matter to us.

Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with hedonistic pleasure, in my experience, material pursuits only provide temporary satisfaction.

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 simple, meaningful, present, and accepting. It allows you to focus on what is most important to you and accept things that are imperfect and ephemeral.

The Wabi Sabi philosophy enables you to celebrate your flaws, appreciate what is in front of you, practice gratitude, accept yourself fully, accept others for who they are, and cherish your precious time.

You can practice the Wabi Sabi philosophy by increasing your awareness while engaged in everyday activities such as reading, appreciating a beautiful flower, walking through a garden, eating your food slowly, or simply observing the changes in the seasons of your life and the world around you.

I hope that you found this information helpful and useful. Please let me know what you think in the comments!

Christine Songco is the creator of Third Bliss and is passionate about helping others thrive holistically by finding their purpose and living life with more authenticity and joy. Christine has been featured in WebMD, Thrive Global, Authority Magazine, Philips Lifeline, Owl Guru, and The Lifestyle Blogger UK.

3 Comments

  1. Haruka Kato
    September 22, 2021

    Thank you for sharing this awesome content! I love your philosophy of “how to be happy” which always comes from appreciating what you already have. I’m from Japan and I knew I’ve heard of Wabi Sabi many times but I didn’t really know what it was actually was until I read your blog post. And you explained really easy to understand, thank you, Christine!

    I started to be conscious about what happiness means to me since the last time I read your other blog post about “9 ways to be content with what you have”.

    After I moved to Vancouver, I find myself comparing myself a lot with others, for example, “Why can’t my boyfriend earn more money like my friends?” or “Why don’t I have a car!”. I had the same issue in the past and I didn’t want to keep feeling this way, and I asked for help from my counselor.

    Then she said “It’s hard to guess what other people went through. Their age may be different from you and their environment might be different from yours. The person you are looking at may have struggled in the past and built up the wealth they currently have”. This was great advice and whenever I feel about myself, I’m reminding myself what my counselor told me and try to practice gratitude meditation.

    Hope your readers find what my counselor said useful on top of your awesome blog post!

    Reply
    1. Christine Songco
      September 23, 2021

      Hi Haruka, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, they really mean a lot. I’m truly touched that you found my tips helpful. Comparison is something that I struggle with as well, e.g. on social media, and I also get professional help with this. Thanks for sharing your experience. I am curious now about gratitude meditation, sounds awesome! I find that by simply sharing our stories that we help each other in this way. Take care a stay safe up there.

      Reply
  2. Haruka Kato
    September 27, 2021

    Thank you for replying to me, Christine!
    Yes, I started getting help from a therapist because I was struggling with my bipolar disorder in the past. But I kept talking to my therapist after I overcome it because I find talking to a therapist very helpful!
    My point is, everyone can benefit from counseling sessions even if they are not going through mental disorders. Life gets hard sometimes!
    And yes, my goal for this week is to focus on what I already have and appreciate them!

    Your blog is full of great advice, I will come back and read your blog soon!

    Reply

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