Active Mind: Wabi Sabi

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Sep 13, 2013 | By Matthew Ankeny

Our forth post exploring the intricacies of the mind and body. Active mind. Active body.

The saucer my espresso sits on is not uniformly round—there’s an inconspicuous dip along one side of the rim, making the ceramic saucer, a handmade piece from HEATH’s Sausalito factory, not nearly perfect. Maybe it was craftsman error. Or maybe it was uneven heat in the kiln. But either way, that saucer—that rather expensive saucer—is definitively not perfect.

HEATH, the saucer’s maker, is likely more than happy to know the saucer is flawed. For those who work with clay, there’s an acceptance of imperfection, and in that imperfection there’s an appreciation for process and the natural, gritty quality of the material. It’s a departure from the clean, over-manufactured modern world, but it’s a welcome entrance into the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi.

 

Pinning down what, exactly, is wabi-sabi is surprisingly difficult (doing so is kind of antithetical to its vibe). Its origins come from Zen buddhism, and its ardent followers adhere to the idea of Those who know don’t say; those who say don’t know. You can see the hang-up of finding a book of rules. 

But lucky for us westerners, one of our own, Leonard Koren, set about to define some “guideposts” in his book Wabi-Sabi. I recently re-read the narrow volume (it’s an hour read, tops), and was re-illuminated to concepts that feel—as our world becomes increasingly more digitized, slick, and uniform—exceptionally applicable.

I’m narrowing down Koren’s layout to a set of four guidelines that I find essential to the wabi-sabi aesthetic. They are:

  • Nothingness and Simplicity

  • See the Overlooked in Nature

  • Acceptance of the Inevitable

  • A Focus on the Intrinsic

1. Nothingness and Simplicity

Wabi-sabi is built on the acceptance that things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness. While that sounds a little bleak, it’s only because our definition of nothingness is typically associated with a void. In wabi-sabi, it’s more like our understanding of potential energy. The ball at the top of the hill isn't rolling, but that doesn't mean it's nothing. 

Nothingness also centers on simplicity. If everything is in constant motion, there’s less need for control, and more of an acceptance of process. Wabi-sabi centers on the tea ceremony, and simplicity is key: gather water, gather firewood, boil the water, prepare the tea, and serve to others. Simple. In an effort to achieve simplicity, a paring down to essentials is necessary, but without sterilization. You must minimize, but don’t diminish.

2. See the Overlooked in Nature

Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, which requires you to slow down, be patient, and look closely. It also requires an appreciation for things we may initially respond to as ugly. 

The most famous tea master, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), modeled his tea room after a farmer’s hut. He valued the crude, indigenous Japanese folk art and a humble way of life. Eventually, Rikyu was ordered to perform a ritual suicide for this “subversive” tea room (foreign delicacies were valued over local products), but his legacy lived on in the wabi-sabi aesthetic—don’t overlook the farmer’s hut; the homely can be unconventionally beautiful.

3. Acceptance of the Inevitable

Key tenets of wabi-sabi include the suggestion of natural process (seeing the hand of the craftsman), appreciating irregularity (as nature comes to us), and finding beauty in the earthy and imperfect (accepting the cosmic order).

The idea that things are “finished” or “complete” is replaced by accepting that aging does not diminish, but rather accentuates the creation process. So the nicks, cracks, and wear become character-adding features, not deformities lowering the value of the object. This is seen best, perhaps, in kintsukuroi, the art of repairing  pottery with gold.

4. A Focus on the Intrinsic

Unpretentiousness is key in wabi-sabi practice. In the tea house, there is no concept of value, there is no “this is higher/better, that is lower/worse.”

Wabi-sabi holds no hierarchy, since valuable would also connote its opposite, not valuable. Value is not defined by worth, but instead by the use and appreciation of the object, in the temporal moment, and for its particular purpose.

As Japan continues to become more and more westernized, it’s running the risk of losing the culture of wabi-sabi. It’s quickly going the way of religion in the west—becoming less of a practice and more of a historical novelty.

But those like Koren—the strand of artists, designers, poets and philosophers who find wabi-sabi vital—are doing what they can to keep the values of wabi-sabi relevant.

Wabi-sabi, at its best, is a rich way of life. Or, at the minimum, it’s to be respected as a type of beauty. To sum it up, it’s a departure from perfection, and instead a finding peace of peace in our relationship with our environment. It’s a rustic approach to discovering the artful, finding the beauty in things imperfect, impermanent, incomplete. It seeks the modest and humble—the unconventional.

Wabi-sabi’s lead metaphor is the bowl—a free-formed shape with an open top. The bowl’s simple in its dailiness and humble in its use. And, as a convenient reminder, the bowl is shaped auspiciously similar to the espresso cup, which, as I sip the final remains of my morning shot, is a convenient reminder of the wabi-sabi way of life.

 

If you enjoyed this article, check out our other Active Mind posts: Likeness in the Age of the Selfie, Like a Fighter Pilot, and Thinking Without Words.

Photo credits: 1. Haus Maarmit by Kasbah; 2, 3. Janaki Larsen.