What is The Japanese Wisdom of Wabi Sabi?
As a recovering perfectionist, learning about the Japanese wisdom Wabi Sabi has felt like taking a lovely, long sigh of relief. Like curling up on the sofa with a cup of tea, knowing that in that moment there is nothing more to do than cradle it in my hands, drink and just be. It's a removing of pressure and expectation, and a surrendering to the knowledge that everything is ok – and more than that, beautiful – exactly as it is.
Having read this introduction you might not be surprised to hear that Wabi Sabi has its roots in Zen Buddhism. At its core are values like simplicity, imperfection, impermanence and acceptance. But it's hard to capture its full meaning in words – not only is there no direct translation, but it is something that is felt in the heart. It cannot be intellectualised. Language falls short.
When we embrace Wabi Sabi, we see, feel and deeply appreciate the beauty in simplicity. So, for example, we cherish the pleasure we get from a simple, hearty soup at our kitchen table at the end of a long day, rather than seeking out an expensive experimental taster menu at a fancy restaurant.
But it is more than that too. It also means valuing imperfections rather than attempting to fix what might be perceived as flaws, and letting go of the idea that shiny and new is better than old. There’s a sense of valuing the passage of time and of openly accepting the deterioration and transience of all things.
So while we eat that soup at our kitchen table, we might marvel at how the recipe has been passed down from a grandmother and doesn’t contain lots of special new ingredients but is oh-so comforting, nourishing and delicious, and we might smile as we notice the pen marks on the table made by a beloved child, or the bite marks on a slightly chewed table leg from when the dog was a cheeky puppy. All signs of a perfectly imperfect life lived.
"Wabi Sabi is really an intuitive, visceral response to 'authentic beauty'," says life coach and specialist in the study of Japan Beth Kempton, who is also the author of Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life. "Something all the more beautiful for its transient, unrefined nature: a falling cherry blossom, a haunting melody, a kiss. It varies from person to person because we are all moved by different things."
A manifestation of Wabi Sabi is 'kintsugi', the ancient Japanese art of fixing broken pottery. Rather than rejoin pieces with a camouflaged glue, the kintsugi technique uses a special tree sap lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Once completed, beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks. The idea is that each artefact's unique history is celebrated by emphasising its ‘scars’ instead of hiding them. As a philosophy it treats ‘damage’ as a part of an object or person’s history, rather than something faulty or shameful to be disguised.
So how can we apply this to our lives, and how does this help us?
There are many ways that we can apply the wisdom of Wabi Sabi to the way we live our lives – all of which can offer a welcome sense of ease.
It could be remembering to practice mindfulness: training our minds to be in the here and now so that we notice the moments of beauty that are always all around us. Listening attentively and appreciatively to birdsong in the morning, the crash of the ocean on a seaside walk or a dear friend’s belly laugh over coffee. Noticing the particular shades of copper and crimson in autumn leaves – fleetingly vivid before they curl and fall. Tracing the creases in the palm of a loved one’s hand and pausing internally to acknowledge the fullness of their humanity: their strengths, weaknesses, joy and pain.
On a personal level it could also be cultivating love for our own wrinkles that surely are nothing more than signs that we are living, evolving and have the privilege of reaching later life; and appreciating items of clothing or kitchenware that might not be on trend right now, but continue to offer warmth, practicality or happy memories.
It might also be uploading photos to social media that capture us laughing at something hilarious even though shock horror we are without make up; or the generous act of allowing friends to see our homes untidy: laundry draped over the radiator, dishes dripping dry on the draining board, cushions not floofed but squished. Signs of real life that can be higgledy-piggledy because of its brilliant fullness. And here’s the magic bit: we work to let go of feelings of shame or judgement for these things, knowing that this is life – raw, unfiltered, imperfect. And golden, just as it is.