When you first hear the Japanese term wabi sabi, it's hard not to immediately wonder if it's a western bastardization of wasabi. Nay, it is more than just paste that ignites the inside your nostrils in a delightful way that complements sushi and sashimi. It is a concept, a philosophy, a way of looking at the world that can ignite your soul's connection to the universe when embraced.
Defining Wabi Sabi
Like many of the most beautiful words and concepts to come out of Japan, wabi sabi is difficult to describe succinctly. In [Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence](Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence), Andrew Juniper defines wabi-sabi as "an intuitive appreciation of ephemeral beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world.”
Anne Walther's article on wabi sabi JapanObjects.com, she breaks down each term for their associated Kanji. She explains that "wabi" is connected to "loneliness or melancholy, to the appreciation of a serene life, far from the urban hustle and bustle." On the other hand "sabi" refers to the "delightful contemplation of what is old and worn." Put together, she explains how wabi-sabi is difficult to translate, that it is "a feeling, more than a concept, that can be found in classical Japanese aesthetics: flower arrangement, literature, philosophy, poetry, tea ceremony, Zen gardens, etc. Wabi sabi goes against contemporary over-consumption, but also encourages simplicity and authenticity in everything."
If you're on social media, particularly Instagram, you may have seen images of cracked Japanese pottery that has been repaired using gold powder. Kintsugi is probably one of the clearest demonstrations of wabi sabi put into practice through art. It imparts that feeling of sadness at the impermanence of all things, while still appreciating that these old objects have their own inherent value with their imperfections, adding to their beauty. On top of that, the practice focuses on the concept of mottainai ("the avoidance of waste"), something that is more important now than ever if we are to give the physical world of our environment the respect it deserves.
Hanami: My Favourite Experience of Wabi Sabi During My Time in Japan
Having lived in Japan for three years, I got to see and experience wabi sabi in so much of its traditional culture, but my favourite happens in the spring. When the cherry blossoms start to bloom all over, the whole country slows down to appreciate their ephemeral beauty as they bloom south to north in cadence with the emerging season. They report their emergence on the news, celebrate it in festivals, and share the experience of hanami ("flower viewing") with friends and loved ones. As the cherry blossoms mature, they eventually start to fall, showering the surroundings in their petals, a beautiful physical manifestation of the fragility and temporary nature of life. It never fails to make me smile when I see the blossoms come out around Vancouver, one of the only areas in Canada where those types of trees thrive thanks to the milder weather.
Embracing Wabi Sabi in Daily Life
Embracing the feeling of wabi sabi need not be limited to appreciating cherry blossoms, pottery repair techniques, or other Japanese artistic expressions. I feel it in many other ways, helping me to connect to the world around me, practice acceptance, and make life more meaningful, and ultimately happier and more peaceful.
The focus on not only accepting, but appreciating the impermanence of all things, allows me to transition through life's stages with grace. It allows me to see the opportunities for growth by recognizing the strengths of each stage of my life, rather than pointlessly clinging to past glories. It also helps me to accept and appreciate the imperfections that come with aging, rather than seeing them as a liability. It also encourages me to be patient with myself, to enjoy finding new ways to be a beginner, laughing and appreciating each stumble as I improve at whatever it is I choose to learn.
As Beth Kempton wrote in her book, Wabi Sabi, a Japanese Wisdom for a Perfect Imperfect Life:
“Put simply, wabi sabi gives you permission to be yourself. It encourages you to do your best but not make yourself ill in pursuit of an unattainable goal of perfection. It gently motions you to relax, slow down and enjoy your life. And it shows you that beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places, making every day a doorway to delight.”
Wabi Sabi for Healing the Planet
If seen as a philosophy, one could see wabi sabi as an invitation to see the beauty of humble simplicity, to accept what is, to stay in the present moment and to embrace spiritual richness instead. It is a far cry from the consumptive way of life that modern capitalism embraces. If we are to survive as a species, we need to get off the hedonic treadmills we were raised to run on in western society, and lose the "more is better" way of life that is damaging our planet, which is ultimately making us less happy and healthy as a species. The earth is breaking, but maybe it's not too late for humanity to apply our own gold powder to it, to fix it and use it as it was intended, despite the damage we've caused.
Wabi sabi gently nudges us to reconnect with our inner natures, our wilder selves that are more connected to the world around us. Ultimately, that connection helps us to see and revere our greater connection to all of life and the universe. My feeling is that this is what we need to do to be able to make the changes needed to heal our planet. It's not enough for people to be told what they need to do, they need to see the value in it.
Now over to you. How do you see and feel wabi sabi in your life? Please share your thoughts in the comments so we can all benefit from your own unique perspective.