Wabi-Sabi, or The Art of Imperfection

May 4, 2016 | Living a little differently | 1 comment

The Japanese language has some really good words:

Komorebi, sunlight filtering through trees.

Irusu, pretending to be out when someone knocks at your door.

Tsundoku, buying a book and leaving it unread.

Shinrin-Yoku, visiting a forest for relaxation and to improve your health (it translates literally as forest-bathing)

But by far my favourite is wabi-sabi, or the art of imperfection.

Aside from it being a uniquely pleasing word to say out loud, I love what wabi-sabi signifies. It describes the beauty found in imperfect, humble and slightly broken things. It reveres authenticity over perfection, and the natural and organic over the clinical and symmetrical. It is for things that are fragile and incomplete; for things that might not adhere to our ideal of beauty but have a raw elegance to them nonetheless: a cloudy grey day, a crumbling abandoned church, a slightly wonky hand-thrown pot.

It says a great deal about the ancient Japanese I think that they gave this idea the honour of a word to itself, and perhaps even more so about Western society given that there isn’t a corresponding word in English (or any other European language that I’m aware of).

It is a word that we could all use more of in our lives, along with the understanding that there is beauty in things being imperfect, most importantly ourselves.

Because while wabi-sabi is often used to describe something intrinsic to the Japanese aesthetic, especially with regards to interiors and home design, wabi by itself can be used to describe a certain type of person. It is frequently used in conjunction with the phrase, “the joy of the little monk in his wind-torn robe” and it refers to someone who is perfectly themselves, and doesn’t crave to be or to have anything else.

Sabi, meanwhile means something like “the bloom of time”, and talks to things that carry their years with grace, and of the marks of age and use that can amplify the beauty of an object such as green patina on a bronze statue. There is another Japanese word linked to this, kintsugi, which refers to the art of repairing broken ceramics with lacquer mixed with gold powder, and the accompanying philosophy that cracks should not be hidden or disguised, but rather accentuated and recognised as contributing to the object’s charm. Kintsugi makes ceramics more beautiful, not less.

I think it’s safe to say that Western society (and to be fair modern Japanese society) as a whole isn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of wabi-sabi, especially the media. Photoshopped thighs, wrinkles and waist-lines, and faces stiff with botox are not in keeping with the concept, nor are “self-help” articles telling us how to fix our flaws in ten easy steps. It can’t be found in our desire to always have the latest gadgets, in throwaway fashion, or in sleek stainless steel shopping malls. It also doesn’t sit comfortably alongside social media – from the highlight reel of Facebook through to highly curated Instagram feeds – nor the habitual response to the question “How are you?”  of “fine, thank you” regardless of how you actually are, or what you might be struggling with. And while this last one might seem superficial, it is after all just a turn of phrase, I think it represents a mindset of papering over your fissures and flaws, and showing a smooth, blemish-free facade to the world, something I, along with many others, was definitely brought up to do.

To my mind all of this makes it so much harder to embrace wabi-sabi within yourself, which is perhaps where it is most necessary. We might be very well acquainted with our flaws, but it is hard to admit to them, and therefore embrace them, when you feel like a rough, hand-made, slightly askew bowl surrounded by what look like identical, made-in-China designer pots.

I’ve spent a great deal of the last thirty years or so feeling embarrassed of myself, and what I’ve come to realise is that the very root of this is the belief that I am somehow flawed in a way, or to a greater degree, than everyone else. It is only by writing that line that I can see just how egotistical that idea is, it implies that I am somehow unique, when we are all in fact wabi-sabi. Perfectly imperfect.

For the longest time I was desperate to fix myself, to find a way of correcting my faults, and patching up my cracks, and lapped up anything that I thought might help me to do. All of it just served to make me feel even worse about myself. Now, I read about the wabi man, and just want to be that: comfortable and content with myself; flaws, sharp edges, crevices, cracks and all.

And I know I’m not alone in this. There seems to be a growing movement of people wanting to embrace their imperfections and display their vulnerabilities led by, in my opinion, Brene Brown and her amazing work on the subject (if you haven’t read any of her work The Gifts of Imperfections is a great place to start).

One of Brene’s ideas is that you should only pay attention to what those in the ring think, those who are also creating and putting themselves out there. A big part of why I wanted to start writing far more personal pieces is the desire to get in that very ring; to be someone who puts herself and what she is creating out there, however imperfect both are, and however vulnerable doing so might make me feel. And I want to do so in the spirit of wabi-sabi, no longer apologising for flaws and imperfections, but realising that they are the very thing that makes doing so worthwhile.

(I also want to mention that this website is currently very wabi-sabi – it’s early days, and it will grown organically so please bear with me.)

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