Giving Yourself the Wabi-sabi Gift of Beauty
by Joy Campbell
I discovered the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi about three years ago. It was a revelation. The way I understand wabi-sabi is: Seeing and celebrating the beauty in imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness. Since that time I have found myself using wabi-sabi as a reminder to celebrate the beauty of this moment.
Have you ever enjoyed a stunning sunset as a result of a fire in another part of New Zealand? The bright and intense colours are magnificent, but created by a natural disaster. We could ignore the beauty, while grieving impact of the fire. Or we could savour the beauty while also standing in solidarity with those who are facing loss.
Practising wabi-sabi invites the celebration of any number of ordinary experiences and things, from comfy clothes, rainy days, wrinkles, dying leaves in autumn to tarnished silver. Wabi-sabi sees they are beautiful as they are.
It’s tempting and human to withhold approval from ourselves as a goal for self-improvement. E.g. “When I lose 5kg, I’ll like myself better.” “When I find a partner, I will be happy.” “When I have a holiday, then, I will allow myself to relax and enjoy the moment.” It's easy to put off the pleasure in the moment, in the hope that some future day is going to be better. If this pattern of thinking continues, we put off the enjoyment of what is. Then, when what we have longed for arrives perhaps the same pattern of thinking will mean we don’t fully enjoy what we have achieved or received.
You might ask “How does this apply to self-acceptance and personal growth?” Perhaps it seems like an ideal but out of reach concept. I like to think of the beauty of wabi-sabi in today. Self-acceptance and life acceptance can begin anytime; when we see our imperfection, the learning not yet completed, the skills which could be developed, and the relationships which have not happened. We can make a decision to see, accept and celebrate where we are today.
It might be simply saying to ourselves thanks for choosing to walk away from a situation where we could have acted badly. It might be accepting that some of our quirks in behaviour come from the family we grew up in and are part of what makes us unique. It might be choosing to be kind to ourselves when an imperfect response allows the celebration of the discovery of a trigger we did not know we had. It might look like wearing clothes we like, even if they don’t fit the current fashion trends, because we find them beautiful. Or, perhaps it looks like taking a moment to enjoy our environment: We might stand still outside and notice the light, enjoy the smells, sounds and sights of what surrounds us, even if these are ordinary and impermanent e.g. peeling paint on a garden wall, smoke from a neighbour’s chimney or the sounds of cars on a nearby road.
Living wabi-sabi – is about being present in this moment, accepting the beauty of who we are now, and the beauty of what and who surrounds us. It is loving ourselves, life and others as we are today.
Paradoxically acceptance of what is and who we are today creates the perfect environment for change to occur.
Disclaimer:I acknowledge I am not Japanese nor speak the language. I have been inspired by the Japanese word wabi-sabi, and acknowledge that my understanding of wabi-sabi is filtered through my culture and experiences.
*I memorised this poem as a child, which I received in a letter from a friend. I believe it to be from Helen Steiner Rice.
Further reading:Brene Brown. 2010. The gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden.
Mark Reibstein. 2008. Wabisabi. Little, Brown and Company.
For watching:Tracy McMillan. 2014. The person you really need to marry. TED Talk.
Article posted 17 May 2017