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May 9, 2023

What is wabi sabi? The beauty in imperfection and impermanence

The world often tells us to strive for perfection, but what if we find beauty in the imperfection? This is where the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi (侘寂) comes in. This way of life teaches us to embrace the beauty of the imperfect, and it can be used in all aspects of life — from decorating our homes to accepting our individual selves and our relationships.

Wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a world view or philosophy that comes from Japanese aesthetics and focuses on acceptance of transience and imperfection. It denotes a more connected way of living—a lifestyle, where we are deeply connected to nature, and thus, better connected to our truest inner-selves. 

In Japan, wabi sabi is a feeling, more than a concept, that can be found in classic Japanese aesthetics: flower arrangement (ikebana), literature, philosophy, poetry (especially haiku), tea ceremony, Zen gardens, etc. Wabi sabi goes against contemporary over-consumption, but also encourages simplicity and authenticity in everything. Andrew Juniper notes in his book Wabi sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, “If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.”

This notion of wabi sabi is a feeling that has always been part of Japanese culture. Its origin can be found in Buddhism. It stems from the three marks of existence in Mahayana Buddhism: impermanence (annicā), suffering (dukka), and non-self (anattā). Richard Powell, author of Wabi Sabi Simple, writes: “Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

Wabi sabi is an artistic sensitivity as much as an ephemeral feeling of beauty. It celebrates the passage of time and its sublime damages. In many art forms in Japan, this notion of prettiness through imperfection is present. 

Wabi-sabi is a concept that invites us to constantly search for the beauty in imperfection and accept the more natural cycle of life. It reminds us that all things including us and life itself, are impermanent, incomplete, and imperfect. Perfection is therefore impossible to achieve, but there is a beauty in the raw and unperfect .

Taken individually, wabi and sabi are two separate concepts: 

  • Wabi is about recognizing beauty in humble simplicity. It invites us to open our heart and detach from the vanity of materialism so we can experience spiritual richness instead. 
  • Sabi is concerned with the passage of time, the way all things grow, age, and decay, and how it manifests itself beautifully in objects. It suggests that beauty is hidden beneath the surface of what we actually see, even in what we initially perceive as broken. 

Together, these two concepts create an overarching philosophy for approaching life: Accept what is, stay in the present moment, and appreciate the simple, transient stages of life.

Kintsugi is an old Japanese technique for repairing objects, which consists of mending the areas of breakage with lacquer mixed, or dusted, with gold powder. Instead of throwing away broken or damaged ceramics, this art form gives a second chance to objects, which are given a new life through kintsugi. This focus on reuse and repair is related to the concept of mottainai, or the avoidance of waste.

Behind this practice, intricately linked to the notion of wabi sabi, lies a wish to celebrate the beauty of time passing. Kintsugi is also used as a metaphor of resilience by health professionals. One may experience trauma, be damaged and then be reborn, more beautiful, and stronger.

As a sensitivity that can therefore lead to happiness, or to an acceptance of the beauty of simple and natural things, wabi sabi philosophy is applicable to the every day. It is a daily way to experience little joys. When admiring a landscape, an object, or a painting, during a conversation with friends or when sharing a moment with good company, everyone can feel the concept of wabi sabi.

Elusive and ephemeral, wabi sabi is an integral part of Japanese culture and life. Omnipresent, it is the basis of the delicate Japanese sensitivity and appreciation of the natural world. Today, this notion deserves to be given more emphasis since it encourages a return to humble and unpretentious values.

Wabi sabi can be appreciated in all areas of life, including design. It celebrates natural materials such as wood, stone, and ceramics, placing emphasis on craftsmanship and surrounding oneself with items that bring joy and emotional connection. Instead of perfection, wabi sabi cherishes the unique and the rough-around-the-edges. This can be seen in the misshapen edges of a pottery piece or the quaint irregularity in a piece of furniture.

Moreover, wabi sabi can be adapted to personal growth too. Instead of being hard on yourself, or trying to be perfect, wabi sabi allows you to accept yourself for who you are, seeing the beauty in your flaws. This practice is important for mental health and well-being. It helps you to let go of perfectionism and realize that perfection is not necessary to be happy and content in life.

One of the fundamental ideals of wabi sabi is simplicity, which can be seen even in food. A simple soup with fresh vegetables and rice can be the epitome of this concept. The thought behind it is that the utmost pleasures in life can be found in simple things and experiences that help one grow. It also helps to eliminate distractions and clutter from life, which makes everything feel more peaceful and calm.

Finally, wabi sabi can also be applied in relationships. Relationships are complex and can be imperfect, but there is beauty in them too. Instead of the never-ending search for the “perfect” partner or friend, wabi sabi teaches us the art of accepting people as they are. Most importantly, the concept of wabi sabi recognizes that nothing stays the same forever, and that everything has an end. Thus, it puts an emphasis on cherishing the moments and appreciating them fully, rather than trying to hold onto them forever.

The wabi sabi philosophy teaches us to always look for the beauty in imperfection and embrace who and what we are. In a world that demands perfection, this approach to life is refreshing and inspiring. It demonstrates that true joy comes from the simple things, and the less we surround ourselves with clutter and distractions, the more we can appreciate the beauty that is already present. Wabi sabi shows us that everything in life is imperfect and that this is okay. So the next time you find yourself feeling imperfect, remember to embrace and cherish those imperfect parts of yourself and your life. It’s those very imperfections that make everything beautiful.