I recently picked up a copy of Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life by Beth Kempton. It’s concise, not overly prescriptive, and unafraid to approach lessons with a modern lens. Here are some of my takeaways.
Intertwine Yourself with Nature
Wabi sabi, as evident in the eponymous book, is an elusive term. For those borne from an environment that looks for definitive lines and clear labels, wabi sabi’s definition, or lack thereof, can be frustrating. What is it, exactly? Give it to me straight, please. An analogy. A metaphor. Anything.
Right away, the book dismisses that lens entirely. A comforting disclaimer for the uninitiated was provided: the concepts mentioned are abstract in the truest sense. By design, they are elusive. It makes sense. Concepts such as love, time, nature have manifestations that can be easy to pinpoint and define but the core concept itself is much harder to paint a definitive image.
Kempton describes wabi sabi as “an intuitive response to beauty which reflects the true nature of things as they are.” Things as they are. In a sanitized world that demands perfection or the incessant striving for perfection, the concept that everything is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete is a welcome reminder.
Sounds great. A bit difficult to accept today, with the constant meddling of the mechanisms in place to view imperfection, incompleteness, and impermanence as problems to fix at once.
Kempton proposes a solution: intertwining yourself with nature. Nature is the ultimate reminder of wabi sabi. The forest does not care what your appearance is, the mountains don’t mind what your job title is, and the rivers flow regardless of your supposed popularity in the real or virtual worlds. “Nature just is, and welcomes you, just as you are.” Mother Nature, indeed.
Wabi sabi holds time and the passing of time in high regard. Seasons are not meant to exist as an unassuming part of the calendar, but as nature’s metronome in reminding us to be in tune with our natural rhythms.
Sure, it’s one of the truisms that can be seen as overly used. Be in the present. The proposal mentioned in the book was far more helpful. It’s permissible to feel pain, fear, anxiety. There’s no prescriptive mantra to sweep memories under the rug or force emotions down or towards a certain path. The only suggestion was to simply be aware that this moment will pass. Pleasant or painful, this moment is short-lived. Recognize that, indulge in this ephemeral period of time, absorb its miseries or joys, but just be aware that it will pass.
With that in mind, the concept of accepting transcience and simply being aware that this moment will not return is a gentle reminder. It’s not dismissive of the realities of the past, present, and future. It’s simply asserting a fact: you’re not going to get this moment back. As a consequence of internalizing this idea, a messenger of time can provide assurance during times of trouble and a sense of grounding when things are phenomenal. By viewing your situation not as an all-consuming emotionally-charged event, your environment transforms to serve as what it truly is: a frame of time. Accepting transcience provides a refreshing way to contextualize any situation and subdues the ego.
Remove Self-Imposed Worry
A striking aspect of wabi sabi is the freeing emphasis on serendipity. Kempton makes it clear: a life well-lived is one in which the barriers of society and of our own creation are acknowledged and eased to rest, allowing for serendipity.
A part of this is suppressing our habit of overemphasizing our own importance. One of the reasons for intertwining with the natural world was to remind us that we are a small part of a magnificent whole, adding perspective to our worries, to our pride. When we are truly self-aware and stop viewing ourselves as the centerpiece of existence, and see ourselves as brief visitors to a massive web, our problems evaporate—or at least, are contextualized. During a stroll in a park, there are dozens of trees and leaves and flowers strewn about. They weren’t planted or placed there for us. A massive set design crew didn’t show up thirty minutes before you arrived to orchestrate your environment. None of it was created for just us in mind. Then, why do we view our problems as artifacts made just for us? As worries that are hyper-targeted just for us. As statements of how the universe is out to “get us”. We’re all temporary visitors to this shared experience. Don’t take things too personally.