Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Philosophy Of Embracing Imperfectionism

Or How To Learn To Appreciate And Enjoy What We Have

By Lucy Dayman
April 10, 2018
Japanese Culture, Lifestyle

How this age-old philosophy can help you navigate the modern day struggles of striving for perfection.

In a time of perfectly curated social media feeds, endless barrages of new products, services, and people who can help you become the better you, it’s hard to take a step back and appreciate what we have. How can we be satisfied with what we’ve got if we’re always wanting what’s unattainable? Well, maybe the traditional Japanese ideologies of wabi-sabi can help.

The concept of wabi-sabi, despite being wide and almost impossible to distill, can easily be applied simply to moments of everyday life. Wabi-sabi stretches to everything from the aesthetic, to temples, to classic gardens, and to ceramics — but we’re going to leave that for another time. For now, let’s look at wabi-sabi as lens with which we can use to focus on our everyday life.

What is Wabi-Sabi?

If you’ve come across the term wabi-sabi, chances are it was in relation to Japanese aesthetics, that old teacup worn rugged from years of tea ceremonies. A great example of wabi-sabi is the art of kintsugi, where cracked pottery is filled with gold dusted lacquer as a way to showcase the beauty of its age and damage rather than hiding it.

Originally wabi and sabi were two separate concepts. Evolving from a way to describe the loneliness of a reclusive life living out in nature, the term ‘wabi’ (侘) became a way to express appreciation for the beauty in the elegance of humble, rustic simplicity. ‘Sabi’ (寂) was once a term to describe the way time affects deterioration. It could be the passing of seasons or aging pages of an antique book. It’s the beauty of the impermanence of aging. Together these concepts harmonize to create a more overarching concept of appreciating the simple, yet impermanent states of life.

Famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando described wabi-sabi in the book The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty as:

“The Japanese view of life embraced a simple aesthetic that grew stronger as inessentials were eliminated and trimmed away.”

After failing to come to a precise definition of the ideology, writer Leonard Koen in his book Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, created his own overarching explanation:

“Wabi-sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental.”

Wabi-sabi and Buddhism

Although there’s plenty of information on wabi-sabi interpretations, an official record of the philosophy has never been written down. In the name of transience, the teachings of wabi-sabi have been passed down from teacher to student indirectly. This way individual interpretations, understandings and influence have shaped what the philosophy means as it passes through each person.

Wabi-sabi is a state of mindfulness, living in the now and finding satisfaction in our lives even when it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking the opposite.

If you were to trace it all the way back to its roots, you’d find that the history of wabi-sabi lies within the realm of Buddhism, more specifically the Buddhist teachings of the “Three Marks of Existence,” or in Japanese sanboin. These teachings are:

* Embracing impermanence: The acceptance that as life moves forward so does everything within it, and with that comes its own beauty. Think of the local festivities around the cherry blossom season hanami in spring and the autumn koyo here in Japan. We celebrate the beauty of the fleetingness of the pink cherry blossoms and fiery red leaves that greet us for just a few weeks per year before a simple gust of wind blows them into the dirt, leaving them to slowly be trampled deep into the earth.

* Suffering: And the acknowledgment that it’s part of this ever-evolving life we live. Although not pleasant, this suffering can ultimately lead to growth and deeper understanding of how multifaceted life can be.  

* Absence of self: This one we can link back into impermanence, but in a more self-aware way. Like everything around us, we are always in a state of flux.

Implementing wabi-sabi into everyday thinking

Like with the resurgence of ikigai in more contemporary mainstream society, elements of wabi-sabi can be directly transferable to everyday life. Many of us live in a state of constant longing, unsatisfied with what we have, striving to achieve an unattainable level of perfectionism.

Media, social influence, constant comparisons to others who we perceive are doing better, there’s always something just on the horizon that draws our attention away from the positivity in our lives. Although there’s no harm in wanting to be better, there’s a lot to be said for taking the time to appreciate what we have.

Many of us live in a state of constant longing, unsatisfied with what we have, striving to achieve an unattainable level of perfectionism.

In the house: In recent years wabi-sabi has become a major source of inspiration for professional interior designers. The idea balances between the peripheries of minimalism, but isn’t about cold sterility. It’s about making use of what you have and not purchasing what you don’t need. A house is a place to be lived in, so why not show signs of life?  

Rather than falling into the cycle of quickly accessible, cheaply made, quickly thrown away items, consider investing in household goods that will last, and grow with you over time. Think a rustic table that’s been passed down through generations, each scratch adding to the narrative of the object’s history. Another great way to add wabi-sabi into your home is to consider buying second-hand and appreciating the life the object lived prior to you. It’s also an excellent way to save money and reduce your consumption.

In the kitchen: Spending time preparing food can be a stressful experience, one that’s clouded by a fear of failure. In reality though, if you take the time it can be a meditative experience, creating something from scratch, enjoying the smells, flavors and taking time to create something for the ones you love. Wabi-sabi says a dish doesn’t have to be plated perfectly. Think about it, you don’t love homestyle cooking for its beauty, you love for the story and care behind the creation.

It’s not just about cooking. When it comes to selecting what to eat, whether it’s a meal at home or something to go, sometimes simple is better. Enjoying the crisp freshness of juicy apple, the soft sweetness of yaki imo (Japanese sweet potato) straight from the vendor’s grill. This appreciation will hopefully reignite a mindfulness around eating, something that’s key to maintaining a more well-balanced diet.

At work: No matter whether you’re part of a major company or you work for yourself, the workplace is a constant battle between deadlines, exterior pressures, and the attainment of perfection. It’s been shown that trying to multitask actually inhibits productivity. Although you may feel like you’re getting more done, in reality, you’re distracting yourself until time has run away on you.

If you have a project that needs to be done, don’t be afraid to embrace the wabi idea of isolation to dedicate your undivided attention until it’s achieved. Close that Facebook tab, turn off your email notifications and get in the zone. You’ll be surprised how quickly that to-do list will shrink. Also during regular intervals, be sure to take a moment to refresh, breathe, grab a coffee, go outside, appreciate the moment and recharge.  

In the beauty world: The beauty of eternal youth, a concept programmed into all of us (men and women) since the beginning of our lives is the antithesis of wabi-sabi. Although it’s important to take care of our bodies, we also have to take care of our mental health by embracing the fact that there are just so many parts of us we cannot change. Rather than stressing about those wrinkles, appreciate the laughter that caused them. Instead of hiding that scar, think of it as a permanent reminder of the adventures you once had.

A balance between appreciating what you have, how you got it and taking time to understand the fleetingness of it all, wabi-sabi is a way to take a step outside the constant influx of messages telling us we should want more. Wabi-sabi is a state of mindfulness, living in the now and finding satisfaction in our lives even when it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking the opposite.

What is your interpretation of wabi-sabi and how do you incorporate it into your daily life? Share your thoughts with us! 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.