Wabi-Sabi

sidingI’ve been enjoying the simple treats of life lately and this has sent me back to the Taoist/Zen concept of wabi-sabi. It is a hard to define term, yet one that permeates Taoist philosophy and art. It is perhaps best described as a celebration of the simple, the transient, the humble, the asymmetric, and the imperfect. In Taoist thought these qualities are seen as the essence of the Tao, which moves in natural, flowing, and ever-changing patterns throughout the Cosmos.

We have inherited from Greek culture a different philosophic perspective and aesthetic, one in which the permanent, the grand, the symmetric, and the perfect are the ideals. Frightened of the seemingly chaotic and transience of nature, western culture has, to a degree, sought to impose order and permanence in its economic, philosophic, and artistic endeavors. We look for perfection and control in our lives, and in doing so, create an inevitable undercurrent of unhappiness.

I notice the old wood siding on the little cabin and wonder if it should be replaced with stovemodern materials. As I pay closer attention I see the beauty inherent in the weather-beaten character of it all. It is still solid, though not at all pretty in the modern sense of things. It blends with its surroundings and suggests that it may have grown here rather than being built. The ancient cast-iron fireplace sitting in the corner was not installed by experts and the pipe slants as it makes its way to the ceiling, but it has been in place for decades and draws easily. Our morning fires are all the more pleasant because of its presence.

Wabi-sabi in design can not be easily defined but you can learn to appreciate it when you see it. It tends to be earthy in its color tones. There is a degree of aging that is evident in the object or setting. A functional simplicity of purpose and sense of spaciousness is present. Wabi-sabi is not wabi-sloppy. Age and weathering is present, but not dirt and clutter. The natural qualities of a garden, room, object, or person are allowed to be seen without extraneous modifications and decoration.

I feel wabi-sabi myself, asymmetric and imperfect. My life has not been the Greek ideal of grand symmetry and perfection. It twisted and turned as it grew and the weather-beaten nature of my being is evident. Healed wounds create knots and hollows on the surface and also within the psyche. The wonder is this: I find myself to be beautiful! I find it all to be beautiful.

How much more joy we might find in life is we let go of the need for the “ideal.” Perfection is a given in the very nature of being and we do not need to “achieve” it. Let’s celebrate the earthy, the weathered, the so-called imperfect, and the beauty that time brings to all beings, a natural loveliness more wonderful than any gleaming soulless machine or model-perfect face.

Just My Hands…

People Hands Together Partnership Teamwork“Back in the day,” I earned coffee and beer money playing in a bluegrass/folk group, singing occasionally at coffee houses in Berkeley. Nancy and I were talking this evening when an old tune from those times popped into my mind from where it has been hiding for decades.  Pete Seeger wrote it and his voice is associated with it in my mind. Odetta did a wonderful version of it as well. You may remember it: One man’s hands… 

On one of the albums Pete recorded with friends he changed the words to a more inclusive version.

Just my hands can’t tear a prison down
Just your hands can’t tear a prison down
But if two and two and fifty make a million
We’ll see that day come round
We’ll see that day come round.

Just my eyes can’t see the future clear…

Just my voice can’t shout to make them hear…

Just my strength can’t ban the atom bomb…

(make up your own lyrics – endless possibilities)

I am convinced that the power of one person’s choices is the fundamental energy of transformation. Nothing can happen without that individual choice – to step away from complicity in injustice, cruelty, mindlessness, avoidance, and biocide in ever deeper ways. Individual choices come together of course. Sharing, witnessing, writing, and acting together naturally arise. First, however, comes a choice, a simple, in-the-moment choice that forever changes the direction of a life.

What are these moments of choice? I won’t define them but we all know the things we’d rather not see and examine – Where what we eat comes from. Where what we buy originates. Whether or not a particular purchase, trip, or other action is in line with our deepest ethics. What, indeed, are those deepest ethics in the first place? What would we rather not have interfere with our conditioned habits and comforts? We examine ourselves as deeply as possible and make a choice. Another choice follows, building upon the first. Then another, and another, and another…  Another person begins the same process, then another person, then another, and another,…

“We’ll see that day come round. We’ll see that day come round”

Simple lyrics. Simple tune. Powerful energy, especially when sung by someone like Odetta