I’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 modern 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.