The dents and cracks will never be pretty according to today’s beauty standards, but they will always hold a charm, one that flawlessness cannot compete with.
Perfectionism is a moral value widely attributed to the Western side of the Earth. It is a complex philosophy rooting from the idea that to be a virtuous person, one must understand the essence of achieving the “best good” in terms of the general behavioral traits shared by every human being. In simple words, perfectionism was born out of humankind’s intent desire to present oneself in the best way possible.
Now, let’s take a half turn and look at what the Eastern side has to say. In the 5th century BCE, Shakyamuni Buddha discovered that proper forms of meditation can lead to enlightenment. This was passed from generation after generation of masters to disciples. By the end of the century, this spiritual wisdom was brought to China by an Indian monk Bodhidharma where it was called Zen Buddhism. Further on, it came to Japan during the medieval period of between 12th to 15th century through arts and literature, and out of which Wabi-Sabi was born.
What is Wabi-Sabi?
Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese philosophy with no direct English translation but in a simple statement based on my understanding of it, this means:
Everything is part of nature and if they are, then changes and imperfections too are just natural and should not be viewed negatively; changes reveal history and imperfections tell a story — both of which provide individuality, both of which revere the simplicity and complexity of life.
In Zen philosophy, there are seven guiding principles to achieve Wabi-Sabi.
Kanso (簡素) in its practical sense is a Japanese interior design concept which eliminates clutter in favor of simplicity. Today it aligns with minimalism and minimalist lifestyle. Empty spaces are prioritized in Kanso aesthetic because the ruling idea is for the energy to flow freely. In its deeper sense, Kanso pertains to a life of clarity by removing the non-essentials.
Fukinsei (不均整) is achieving balance through asymmetry and irregularity. In its aesthetic sense, Fukinsei is not disproportional but attaining harmony in the overall impression without parallelism and uniformity. This idea is a clear representation of life’s imperfections and the frailty of humankind. It also draws in the core design existing in nature in which absolute regularity is absent.
Shibui/Shibumi (渋味) is presenting what is without embellishments. It is being honest and portraying only the substance, free of details that distract the mind and body. The difference with Kanso is that Shibui portrays the essence in a high level of refinement while Kanso rids of the excess that tends to disrupt the flow of energy.
Shizen (自然) by definition means natural, but its deeper interpretation is not restricted to the wilderness alone. Shizen allows human intervention, meaning gardens built by humans, hot springs developed into commercial use, and such other places in which nature’s pureness and human creativity are intertwined are all considered within the concept of Shizen. The core of this idea is not to separate humans from nature instead it is to merge the two and create something in which the spontaneity of nature is guided to be purposeful.
Yugen (幽玄) is a concept that came from traditional Japanese aesthetics. It has no exact English translation but the nearest word it can be referred as is subtle profundity. It is grappling what is between this and that, something that feels beyond reach but is not. It is a clear understanding of things as they are which grants a person deep appreciation and emotional response.
Datsuzoku (脱俗) signifies the breaking from a habit, routine, or formula. It is surpassing the common, the normal, the conventional ways in which things are done. Datsuzoku embodies freedom from what is regular. It expresses the amazement one may gain when stepping away from the norm as this pushes out admirable creativity and resourcefulness.
Seijaku (静寂) describes the concept of the active calm. It is finding stillness amid an activity. It is building an impenetrable core, one that can withstand the hustles of everyday life. It is not sitting down to have a quiet moment, rather it is going out and about with tranquil mind and spirit. It is living and grinding with the heart at peace of its purpose.
3 Practical Ways How to Reset Your Life with Wabi-Sabi
“There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.” -Edgar Allan Poe
On Skincare: Prioritize the Basics, Remove the Excess
Stick with the basics, a cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen because Wabi-Sabi is not hiding the perceived flaw, it is not pouring a ton of products in our face to push through perfection. It is embracing self-care as it is and limits the aggressive self-improvement and self-alteration.
Let the freckles be. Let the age lines be. We are part of nature and so do our tiny imperfections. A blemish on a petal does not diminish the beauty of the flower.
In a deeper sense, wabi-sabi on skincare is embracing the truth, that people age and so does our skin and our appearance. It is accepting the scars that a life challenge gave us. It is looking at the marks not in disgust, but in awe of our strengths, of how far we’ve come in life.
On Clothing and Home Furniture: Treasure What You Wear, Let Go of What You Don’t
For wabi-sabi, there is un-explainable beauty in the stories held within the loose fibers, the holes, even in the discoloration. The lesson is not to throw them away, yet. Mend what needs to be mended, patch what needs to be patched. Wabi-sabi is not throwing away useful things simply because they are already worn out. It appreciates the durability in these items and opting to still use them, despite their somehow unpleasant appearance.
No, you don’t have to keep the stubborn stains on. You can give them a makeover by dyeing the whole piece or by patching a fancy fabric over the unsightly stain. There are many ways how to re-use old clothing that has come of age, buying a new one is not always the answer.
As for the items that have been worn only a few times, maybe because the design no longer trending, sell, donate, give away, whichever way those pieces need to go. They no longer serve their purpose for you so hand them to others. Somebody out there may need those.
When it comes to home furniture, apply the same principles. Mend what needs to be mended. These household items hold your stories, in their cracks are your frustrations, in their colorful smudges are your happy times. Repair what needs to be repaired and keep them. Don’t buy a new one, just yet.
On Daily Routine:
Again, stick with the basics. Structure of a daily system from the core. Start with what should be prioritized.
This is my routine which because I mindfully do so have become rituals for me: Morning exercise + eat breakfast + household chores + shower + work + prepare and eat lunch + work + prepare and eat dinner + work + sleep.
The core of my routine is having time for household chores, eat, shower, and work before I go to sleep. The key to applying wabi-sabi in your daily routine lies in the details. When eating, disassociate the color of the food to their satisfactory grade. A slightly blemished tomato tastes the same as the plump red ones. A slightly burnt side of the meat does not mean unpleasant cooking, sure it may taste a bit different but the proteins are still there. Such little imperfections are not to be scorned but are to be accepted.
For household chores, maintain a basic cleaning habit. Dust off what needs to be dusted, wipe what needs to be wiped, and scrub what needs to be scrubbed. A perfectly sterile environment is not wabi-sabi. Bleaching the floor three times a day is not wabi-sabi and, letting your home stay in a state of mess, too is not wabi-sabi. Instead, it is finding the balance between an overly-cleaned home and a messy one. It is organizing and cleaning but not excessive nor lacking.
My Final Thoughts
Wabi-sabi accepts the imperfect but does not favor it entirely. A badly made project you were too lazy to edit cannot use the principles of wabi-sabi as an excuse. A rarely cleaned house is not wabi-sabi. Those jeans with mud stains, unwashed since two months ago is not wabi-sabi. Your messy hair uncombed since last week is not wabi-sabi.
Yes, this aesthetic embrace every flaw because what is seen as a defect is viewed as something that provides individuality, something that tells a story and thus is appreciated, but this philosophy cannot be used as a defense to negligence, to idleness, and to such behaviors that relinquish the acceptance of responsibility.
Wabi-sabi is engaging with duties and responsibilities guided by good intentions but with a margin for the appreciation of the imperfect things. It is showcasing the honest beauty in every aspect of our lives.
What are your thoughts on Wabi-Sabi? Are you familiar with this concept?
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