I've been reading about wabi sabi (侘寂) recently, and I can't get enough. Funny name, incredible concept. I can't recall where I first heard about this, it was some time last year. Shortly after that, I was wandering aimlessly around Powell's books in Portland and came across a book called Wabi Sabi Simple. I was intrigued by the little I already knew, so I figured it was worth a read. This particular book isn't really anything spectacular, but it's a good introduction to the concept..
Most simply, wabi sabi is an ancient Japanese view (aesthetically as well as conceptually) that is based on three main understandings: that nothing is perfect, nothing is finished, and nothing is permanent. I gravitated toward these concepts because they acknowledge realities I so often wrestle with.
I've read different descriptions of the origin of the words, but according to this book, wabi was originally used to mean poverty, and was created in the 15/16th century to "tone down aristocratic tea parties." It was designed to simplify the ever-increasing grandiosity of these affairs in order to emphasize the true pleasure- human connection. "Wabi is a detachment from wealth, the recognition that money can't buy everything..."and in this way has a more positive connotation than more modern associations with poverty. According to the almighty wikipedia (my quick and dirty second opinion on the matter) wabi has now come to represent "rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness... or understated elegance," and in the process of creating man-made objects, can refer to "quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction."
I don't know exactly why I latched on so immediately and so tightly to this word and it's many implications, but I suspect one reason is that I've forever felt that many of my imperfections are not simply quirks or anomalies, but that they are errors, shortcomings, unfortunate less-than-beautifuls. And although my beliefs and ideals suggest I should feel otherwise, 99.999% of the time, I just don't. But what I love about the wabi sabi way of perceiving and responding to life is that it is not limited to people of one faith, social class, race, or intellect. This is a perspective that underlies the essential and universal experience of being alive, and can be adopted by truly anyone. Sometimes, opening ourselves to new concepts from cultures other than our own (although this one happens to be from my own) can serve to support and illuminate the beliefs we already subscribe to. In this case, I already know and agree that authentic beauty mustn't be limited to perfection, that simplicity trumps excess, and that worth lies much deeper than what we see. But reading about wabi sabi has helped reinforce all this in a new light. Anyway, enough of that tangent..
Sabi was first used to describe 12/13th century Japanese literature by its "muted and subtle beauty." It may be a beauty that comes as a result of use or age, shown through its wear and imperfection. The book describes sabi as having a "melancholic ache," which of course, resonated with and intrigued me most of all.
The two terms were brought together to describe a sort of humble grace. What I think is so lovely and fascinating is that these words were derived from different domains- one to describe literature, one to describe a concept meant to influence people and their decisions about what to prioritize (togetherness and connection over wealth). I love that they were brought together to represent a concept that is now applicable to not only aesthetic properties in art and literature, but also to our everyday lives, and how we view the people and world around us. The author continues to explain that wabi sabi is meant to describe simplicity, not one marked by a lack of imagination, but rather by the recognition that mass volume and immediacy do not create authenticity. It knows that modesty is rich, and that not everything can be grasped by the intellect, but sometimes can only be felt and understood silently. It is "a lack of clutter and an abundance of meaning," and the ability to "allow the world to unfold as it does without having to control it." It is meant to help you discern what you need from what you want, and the random desires in between, in order to escape excess...
Yikes, food for thought much?
I could go on to essentially summarize the whole book, because I think every angle and application of wabi sabi is intriguing, relevant, and meaningful. But instead, I'll just leave this introduction as broad as this, and as I continue to learn about the wabi sabi way of living, I'll continue to write about it :)
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
I’ve focused a lot of my studies this past year on the connection between the mind and body, the relation between our perceptions and our physical as well as non-physical experiences. There is so much to be said for unifying these two components of ourselves, but I also see benefit in viewing them as somewhat separate. The interaction between these two distinct domains of existence is so delicate, but all the more worthy of our attention..
In light of this, I’ve been trying out a new manner of conceptualizing myself. I’ve begun to think of the mental, emotional, and spiritual parts of me as being in complex relationship with my physical body, rather than being one fused self. While unity is great, I think a perspective of oneness can inhibit us from viewing our bodies as something distinct, something to engage with, listen to and learn from. Regarding our bodies as “other” doesn’t necessarily imply separation, but rather can afford our mind the opportunity to approach our bodies with otherly respect.
I think many of us are hard-pressed to treat ourselves with nearly as much respect as we would other people. Respect and care are perhaps more easily understood in the context of others, but when it comes to our own selves it can often be more complex. We frequently tell ourselves things that we’d never dare tell a friend, but if we viewed our existence as a variety of relationships (external- with others and our environment, and internal- with ourselves), we might then be able to approach the task of caring for ourselves with more respect, discipline, patience, acceptance, and courage.
I’m not advocating a disconnected understanding of the self, but I do think there is much to be gained from allowing our different facets to interact with one another as civilized and compassionate counterparts rather than as a single unsettled unit. When we feel inner tension, it can feel wrong, like we’re messed up with issues that need resolution. But if we were able to understand that tension instead as a very natural relationship by-product, might we respond with a little more grace?
I think the body (as I’ve briefly written about before) is such a raw and sophisticated creature. I think it has a lot to say, with the rare ability to speak without pretense or forethought. But if we lump ourselves all together as just some mass of humanity, we run the risk of overlooking the important differences between our bodies, minds, and hearts, and in so doing, perhaps missing the signs that teach us how to best care for and express ourselves. I believe it is in the dialogue between the various parts of ourselves that we find out what we’re really made of, what we are capable of becoming, and how we might begin to get there.