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?

Describing Wabi-Sabi

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.

Eleven Examples

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.rain falling in concrete birdbath

  • 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.rusted lantern on rustic dark wood table

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? 

 

 

11 comments

  1. Karen, I found this to be a very thought-provoking piece. It really seems to center around the notion of accepting impermanence, even our own impermanence. I think I have come a long way toward accepting the cycle of change and my own impermanence — except that my natural response to this awareness is to try to get as much done as possible during this brief time that I am here on Earth!

    Similarly, the four ways that you describe to cultivate the wabi-sabi way of life are fundamentally in conflict for me. My internal ethnographer loves to find and display pieces of my history, and appreciates every imperfect object from my past — which is in conflict with the aim of paring down my possessions.

    However, yoga helps.

    Jude

    1. Hi Jude. I wonder how many Westerners are really capable of living wabi-sabi. I find it fascinating that entire groups of people think so differently from others based on culture and location.
      I sure hear you about trying to get as much done as possible. Every so often I wonder why, but most of the time I’m running too fast to think about it. Hmm, maybe that’s why I’m running?

  2. I loved this post. I find I am doing a lot of these things now that I am retired and living peacefully. I am prone to adapt recipes for myself, instead of worrying about having the exact item. It is fun to explore and adapt. I love the look of old formed woods or pottery.

  3. Hi, Karen – Thank you for sharing this very provocative post. I didn’t previously know anything about Wabi-Sabi. The Leonard Koren quote compliments this piece very well.
    BTW – I viewed your ‘subscriber only’ piece on Jeanne Robertson first. In contrast, living right next door to Nanaimo, I knew a far bit about the content that Jeanne was discussing. In fact, ‘Nanaimo’s Naked Bungy Jump’ takes place this weekend, so it’s not too late to participate! http://wildplay.com/nakedbungyjump/

    1. Hi Donna. I’m glad you enjoyed. Always nice to learn something new. And speaking of which, the naked bungy jump is fascinating. Now there’s a Wow Note worthy topic. What do you think, Donna? For the good of the blogosphere want to go try it out, get some pictures and report back? We could do a joint feature article!

  4. I really like this article, Karen, and the new category, Perspective. I knew nothing about wabi-sabi before reading this and I find it an interesting way of life. I think I am partially wabi-sabi; I don’t mind imperfect vegetables, I refuse to give up my old faded t-shirt and yes, I still wear it. I enjoy modifying a recipe when I don’t have the item on hand, sometimes what I try is better than the printed recipe! I love that photo up there on the right of the leaf with rain drops on it. I would have something like that blown up and framed on a wall. I find it very peaceful to look at.

    One of the things I would have difficulty with is paring down my possessions. I can “declutter” to a certain extent but to truly pare it down would mean getting rid of more than I am comfortable in letting go of, I am afraid. I seem to have no problem having imperfect things around me but when it comes to myself…that is another story. I still dye my hair and am trying to lose weight so obviously, I am not accepting myself as unfinished and imperfect.

    I knew about Jeanne Robertson before (in fact, I am a long time subscriber to her YouTube channel). She is hilarious! I can relate to much of what she speaks about and find myself nodding and laughing until the tears roll down my cheeks and my sides hurt. I am glad you found out about her and pointed others in her direction. 🙂

    1. Hi Susan,
      I love the photo of the leaf too. It ‘s so green and fresh, simple and peaceful feeling.
      I think you’ve delineated an essential truth of a Westerner’s approach to wabi-sabi in your description of ways you embrace the philosophy and the aspects you would struggle with. I don’t know that it is truly possible for us to ever understand wabi-sabi, never mind live it, since it is a tradition that has hundreds of years of Eastern thought and culture behind it. But it’s fun to think about what aspects work for you and which ones don’t. And to imagine how freeing it would feel to accept oneself as permanently unfinished and imperfect. We can dream!

  5. This is true, even though we struggle to understand or practice wabi-sabi here in the west I think it is something worth striving for. I would like to one day be able to accept myself as permanently unfinished and imperfect. You’re right, we can dream. 🙂

  6. Hi Karen, I, also, knew nothing about this topic before. However, I am going to go through your list of ways to cultivate wabi-sabi when I start looking at the things I have in my home in Canada and hopefully gain a new perspective on them. I do have a beautiful piece of antique pottery I got here in Tashkent that is an exquisite shade of turquoise and which has several places where the glaze has come off. I love the piece!
    BTW you quoted one of my very favourite Leonard Cohen truisms!

  7. Hi Fran, Given where you are living right now and your passion for pottery, you might be interested in an aspect of wabi-sabi that I didn’t mention in the post. It’s called Kintsugi (golden joinery) or Kintsukuroi (golden repair). It’s the idea of repairing broken pottery by filling the crack with lacquer mixed with gold, silver or platinum. I don’t think it’s very easy to find those pieces in North America, but you might find one during your travels.
    Your turquoise piece sounds stunning.

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