Appreciating the Wabi-Sabi Way of Life
The term has a pleasing, rhyming lilt to it –wabi-sabi. It’s a fun word to say. But what does it mean?
The juiciness of wabi-sabi is squeezed out when we try to define it. That is because wabi-sabi is a feeling, a way of being, not a list of rules or even an idea.
At its core, wabi-sabi is an acceptance of death. No, more than just acceptance, the wabi-sabi way of life appreciates the cycle of growth, decay and death that is the natural order of all living things.
To develop your wabigokoro, or wabi mind and heart, is to be at peace with the transience of everything. When your mind is quiet and accepting, you take pleasure in objects and situations that display impermanence and imperfection. The crack in the outdoor planter and the wrinkles on your face are authentic symbols of the passage of time, and they are embraced. And when your heart accepts impermanence, you can live modestly, simply, so that your focus is on being rather than doing.
A Brief History
The word ‘wabi’ originally referred to impoverished hermits who would go out into remote areas to contemplate nature. ‘Sabi’ meant the feeling of solitude, of being mindful of simplicity and the ever changing natural world. Basho, the haiku poet, was the first to put the two words together.
In the 15th century, Chinese tea masters used rich materials and lavish settings. Japanese tea masters wanted to show the wabi-sabi way of life through their Way of Tea.
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.Leonard Cohen, Anthem
According to legend, a young man named Sen no Rikyu visited the Tea Master, Takeno Joo, wanting to learn the Way of Tea. As a test, Joo ordered him to tend the garden. Rikyu cleared debris and raked the ground until it was perfect. Then he shook a cherry tree so that a few flowers fell on the pristine ground. That was apparently the moment when Joo knew that Sen no Rikyu would be the ultimate example of the wabi-sabi way of life.
Despite my efforts to describe, there is no direct translation of the term ‘wabi-sabi’. As a result, we Westerners tend to focus on physical representations, a tendency that is criticized: “Trying to describe the philosophy in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and colour.” Nevertheless, examples (some of them physical) can help us understand the feeling of wabi-sabi.
- Homemade or artisan-purchased objects
- Weathered wood
- Clothing made of natural fabrics
- Your favourite faded sweater kept and worn, not discarded
- PowerPoint or Keynote presentation slides with just two or three carefully placed elements
- Lumpy, imperfect vegetables from your own garden or a farmer’s market
- Improvisation of a recipe when some of the required ingredients aren’t at hand
- A moss garden
- Noticing the raindrops on the green leaf
- A few seasonal flowers thrown into a vase, not arranged
- Accepting ourselves and each other as unfinished and imperfect
For more examples of wabi-sabi, see my Pinterest board.
What Wabi-Sabi is Not
Wabi-sabi has only been a part of the Western lexicon for about twenty years, but we’ve already done a great job of misunderstanding and bastardizing the term.
Wabi-sabi is NOT
- poor craftsmanship. If the glaze on the pottery bowl is crackled, it is wabi-sabi only if conditions conspired to make it so.
- the Japanese version of Feng shui. Feng shui involves arranging items for maximum benefit; wabi-sabi is about appreciating how things are.
- clutter, sloppiness, or lack of cleanliness. A lot of items crammed together makes it difficult to see beauty. An unmade bed is a lack of respect for the faded quilt that covers it.
- only things that are old. Old things with character, like the writing desk with the ink stains, are wabi-sabi. But so is the misshapen clay dish made by your six-year-old.
- the decorating style of minimalism where everything in the room is white and perfect, or even the minimalism of shabby chic. The minimalism of wabi-sabi is a focus on humility and modesty, on keeping only what is essential in a space.
Pare down to the essence but don’t remove the poetry.Leonard Koren
- bright, airy spaces. Wabi-sabi is moonlight, rather than sunlight. The colour palette is the muted earth tones of natural materials. Light is also subdued so that rooms tend to feel womb-like.
Four Ways to Cultivate the Wabi-Sabi Way of Life
1. Pare down your possessions. An item stays in your home if it is useful, beautiful, or it inspires nostalgia. If it meets all three criteria, that’s even better.
2. Look closely and enjoy. Choose a single object that is imperfect, maybe a faded piece of cloth or the antique cabinet with the crack running through the top. Explore it. Look for the details that give it character. Accept it just as it is.
3. Find and display pieces of your history. Put your favourite tattered Nancy Drew mystery on an open shelf. Haul the old wooden chair that your grandfather sat on in from the garage. Don’t use polish to cover up the wear marks on the arms.
4. Be mindful in your routines. When making tea or sweeping the floor, do so with respect and care.
It is fortunate, for me, that wabi-sabi is not a list of rules. While I find it easy to pare down possessions, I have trouble embracing imperfection. How about you? What aspects of wabi-sabi resonate for you?