Wabi Sabi: The beauty in brokenness

Try letting go of the idea that life should be perfect


As I get older, I’m learning more and more the lesson of wabi sabi, a Japanese term that’s almost impossible to translate. Wabi sabi captures the essence of Zen living, so naturally I find the struggle with its essence to be delightful.

Wabi means humble and simple, a life lived in nature and solitude. Sabi refers to the ‘normal-ness’ of the imperfect: things oddly shaped, lines on faces, rust on metal, moss on paths. Wabi sabi reminds us of the transient nature of living—and that the nature of—well, nature—is imperfection.

Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, wrote: “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.”

Picture a Zen monk, with full attention, raking a lovely garden, and leaving a leaf behind

The leaf left behind is a mark of wabi sabi, and something Nature is going to do anyway, as Nature marks everything with a touch of imperfection. It is only the mad chatter of our minds that tells us that the garden, that our children, that our career or life path, should be perfect. Nothing is perfect.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t try to make things better. The issue is that what is better for me is not necessarily what is better for you. Wabi sabi reminds us to start from acceptance of ‘what is’.

The nature of our universe is a movement toward entropy; things are—and are also winding down at the same time.

Our minds are slowing, our bodies are rusting and wrinkling, and our world groans under the weight of all of us.

One thing I enjoy is photography, and I mostly take photos of people. I notice I am drawn to younger people, yet, once in a while, I’ll photograph people my age. As I begin the cropping and editing, I see the life of the older person in the set of their eyes and in the lines and creases. There is something imperfectly perfect there. What about face lifts, pumped up lips, botoxed foreheads. There’s something artificial about trying to smoothen away the years. But it fits with the urban ideal of youth equalling beauty, where women past a certain age are cast as mothers and grandmothers, not as sex objects. So out come the scalpels, and no one is fooled.

We get caught up in this game because it’s being played all around us.

And that’s not likely to change. It’s why most religions have a ‘monk’ tradition. One description of wabi is that of the reclusive monk, living in a cave, one threadbare outfit to his name. Running from the game seems sensible.

But sabi is there to remind us that really, there is nothing to fear from ageing, from imperfection. And it is as the two terms come together, we see an inclusive path.

In Zen, the chief recognition is that life, with its impermanence and imperfection, is real, [or as it is] and that our misery [suffering, the sense of ‘unsatisfactoriness’, dukkha] comes not from the world itself, but from our minds. We cling to the notion that life should be perfect, and then spend most of our lives in our heads, doing comparisons.

We make our lists [good /bad] and compare ‘what is’ with what we think ought to be. Yet, the ‘way it is’ never really changes, and the more we fight this, the more we disappoint ourselves, anger ourselves, depress ourselves.

The lesson of Zen is that, in the instant when we stop trying for perfection, we free ourselves from the dictates of our mind. Right then, right there, we find the space to stop thinking and actually do something. The monk rakes the garden. Without ‘perfection’ as her goal, she can show reality’s imperfect perfection in miniature.

The Zen life is a moment-by-moment dance between the creative soul and reality of what is.

Back when I was counselling, one of the biggest lessons I conveyed is that the actual situation my client faced was what he or she needed to work on. Not their fantasies about how things ought to be, but the reality in front of them.

Again and again we would look at reality versus faculty assumptions. The assumption that the world should bend to my will because I’m making myself sad is a big problem. My goal was not to get my clients to give in and accept the unacceptable. It was to get them out of their heads and into dealing with the actual situation.

Playing with imperfection

One of my best friends was a vice-president of a Canadian corporation. His boss was a not-so-nice guy. My buddy would go in and ask for something he needed for his department. The boss would yell, swear, scream, and order him out of the office.

He came to me to talk about how unfair it was. People shouldn’t act like that. So on and so forth.

I said two things: you can always quit, and how many times will he say “no?”

Nothing is perfect. His boss was ‘as he was’, so rather than complaining, my friend could walk away, or work with the boss he had, warts and all.

We devised a plan.

My friend went in with a list. He asked for item one. Got yelled at. Instead of leaving, he asked for item two. More and louder yelling. He asked for item three. Silence. Then, “Okay. I guess you’re going to keep asking… go ahead with that.”

He reported back to me. I said, “There! Now you know his number is three! Ask for two things you don’t want, and the thing you do want, ask third.”

This worked for his entire time with the company.

Now, some may think this was manipulative. I disagree. My friend got nothing from his boss by playing the “It isn’t fair!” card. As soon as he accepted the situation in front of him—the simple truth of the inherent imperfection of the situation—another way of acting appeared.

One that benefitted the company, my friend, and his boss.

Wabi sabi is dancing gently with reality, all the time, escaping your head as you have a gentle interaction with ‘what is.’ Imperfection, with wrinkles, age spots, and a slower gait, is quite lovely—just have a look, smile, and act.

Wabi sabi is not a prescription for sloppy, lazy living

“After all, if imperfection is the way it is, living in a hovel must really be wabi sabi.” Well, no.
Just as meditation follows certain patterns designed to benefit the practitioner, the base for wabi sabi is unpretentious order and a clean aesthetic. One of my sideline activities is painting, and I tend to paint pretty freely and boldly. I slop a fair amount of paint onto my canvases.
On the other hand, my work area is tidy. I put the tubes of paint back in their drawers, so I can find them easily. I wash my brushes after each session, so I don’t end up with no brushes. I do this to contribute to my ‘comfort and ease.’ Then, I can paint, and not be focussed on missing brushes.

This article first appeared in the December 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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