But wabi-sabi runs so much deeper than just style and architecture. It is a mindset. The appreciation of imperfection…
What is it with the Western world and having everything flashy and symmetrical? Whether referring to material or people, it’s always about the new, up and coming. Let’s think young, fresh, out with the old and in with the new. We are surrounded by quick fixes and flashy advertisements about becoming the best you that you can be; and this is only possible with the perfect products or the perfect place. If something no longer seems new and pristine then fix it or drop it.
When your car gets a little old, it’s time for something shinier. Perfect yards with the perfect landscape. If a side table gets a scratch on it or if a drink ring pops up because some idiot forgot to use a coaster, then it’s time to buy a new one. As soon as a new phone model is released, that phone you’ve had for 27 weeks might as well be in a museum. Once a fresh, young mind comes along the old geezers are weeded out as if they hadn’t just spent more years successfully contributing to society than this young chap has even seen in total.
The good (very good) news is that the West doesn’t totally dominate the world, yet. There are places that hold to a different perspective that can de described in one word: Wabi-Sabi.
Made popular in Japan but with roots in China as well, Wabi-Sabi is an incredible word and the more I read about it the fonder I become. On the surface, it describes the aesthetics and art of Japanese culture that appreciates imperfection, rawness and authenticity. It is a way of creating and designing, but also preserving, without covering up what makes objects unique and, at times, scarred. Robyn Griggs has a great article on wabi-sabi, writing, “Broadly, wabi-sabi is everything that today’s sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn’t. It’s flea markets, not shopping malls; aged wood, not swank floor coverings; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses.”
But wabi-sabi runs so much deeper than just style and architecture. It is a mindset. The appreciation of imperfection is rooted in a world view that embraces the natural decay of everything and everyone on this planet; and, instead of trying to hide it or replace it, wabi-sabi embraces this reality and learns to see the beauty in it.
There is a very fascinating history to this that you can learn in a cool video that covers the History of Wabi-Sabi, but I just want to speak about why this world view has taken such hold of me.
I believe one of the secret threads that holds Amelia and I together, other than our faith, is wabi-sabi—not some weird, universe energy power that guided us to find each other, but our love and appreciation for all things simple and authentic. We respect what is passing and aged and are fascinated with that which is rustic and modest in nature. We cannot stand the flashiness of the Westernized world and the fakeness portrayed by not just celebrities, but corporations and businesses out to exploit people for money. It is ironically difficulty to fully explain wabi-sabi. There is no direct translation for the phrase in Western languages (go figure). But so many aspects in our marriage manifests this perspective. This isn’t some hippie lifestyle where you just love and smoke and enjoy nature and not really take anything seriously, avoiding organization and living in your filth because wabi-sabi and all. This concept has been taught and developed by many influential philosophical and religious leaders in Japan for centuries.
I began to see wabi-sabi in our life before I ever knew the term. Our wedding itself embodied this idea in a simple yet profound way. The location was outside (Amelia wanted it to be in nature) in a field with a rustic, unpreserved barn accompanied by all the welcomed cracks and imperfections. The bridal party had minimal guidelines on dress but it was pretty much wear what you have or get something you’d wear again. The time of year was Autumn so the leaves had fallen where they may with no order or fashion, which is another main teaching in this philosophy: nature shows the transience and impermanence of wabi-sabi better than anything else. A famous story in Japanese tradition involves creating an example of wabi-wabi using Autumn’s leaves (Find the story here). Murata Shuko, a huge influencer in wabi-sabi tradition, would teach not to admire the full moon on a clear night, but a partial, half-moon on perhaps a cloudy night. Find the beauty in the shadows and the incomplete.
In a way, our wedding was also “incomplete”. My uncle, with whom I am very close with, officiated the ceremony and we were literally whispering to one another after me and my guys had already lined up, and while the girls were walking down, about the order of the ceremony. We didn’t really put a lot of order to it to begin with, which is why we didn’t have a rehearsal or anything like that.
We didn’t register. With all due respect, we turned down fancy china (also an interesting parallel with the history of wabi-sabi) or elaborate gifts. It’s not about being hyper moral or on a high horse, we still accepted money (which went towards our honeymoon to Japan which you can read about here). It’s just a different way of seeing the world, one that I am still trying to grasp. It’s about accepting not just things but people for who they are—all the scars and age and character that comes with it; not a refusal to take care of yourself because “appearances don’t matter.” That is a misunderstanding of the idea.
I believe that many people are already capturing this perspective and living it out every day whether wabi-sabi is in their vocabulary or not. I encourage you to research it more. Think of some ways that wabi-sabi has found its way in your life. Once you start looking, you’ll find it. And it’ll spread.
It’s the cob webs around the old windows in our apartment, the browning of our Christmas tree that we still haven’t taken down, a pair of shoes that have worn out to the point where it hurt the bottoms of my feet to walk in them so I bought some inserts and kept on wearing them, it’s the fire pit in the yard built from brick and rock found laying around that’s surrounded by mismatching, slightly worn chairs, it’s decorating with candles that have tasted fire rather than ones that are perfect, symmetrical and have never been lit; it’s the balance between clutter-free and cleanliness with a raw, unfinished, rustic home. It’s why Amelia shops almost exclusively at goodwill. It’s why many of the things we own are from Craig’s List or eBay. And it’s why we love to travel.
We don’t see people and culture to be only as attractive as their state of perfection. No person is complete. No person is perfect. But at its core, that is what gives people beauty. Once you begin to see that, your world view will radically change.
Here are some other beautiful examples written by other authors on their take on wabi-sabi
Wabi-sabi understands the tender, raw beauty of a gray December landscape and the aching elegance of an abandoned building or shed. It celebrates cracks and crevices and rot and all the other marks that time and weather and use leave behind. To discover wabi-sabi is to see the singular beauty in something that may first look decrepit and ugly.
In home decor, wabi-sabi inspires a minimalism that celebrates the human rather than the machine. Possessions are pared down, and pared down again, until only those that are necessary for their utility or beauty (and ideally both) are left. What makes the cut? Items that you both admire and love to use, like those hand-crank eggbeaters that still work just fine. Things that resonate with the spirit of their makers’ hands and hearts: the chair your grandfather made, your six-year-old’s lumpy pottery, an afghan you knitted yourself (out of handspun sheep’s wool, perhaps). Pieces of your own history: sepia-toned ancestral photos, baby shoes, the Nancy Drew mysteries you read over and over again as a kid (source).