Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence

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Often in our world of mass-produced goods and machine-like cities, we strive for perfection, or in the case of modern process improvement techniques, near-perfection achieved by minimizing errors to within a prespecified amount. Coupled with this perfectionism is a tendency to toss away goods once they become marked on the surface or begin to show other signs of aging.

This quest for perfection and newness doesn’t stop with just our smartphones and sports cars. It creeps into every aspect of our lives, and eventually shuts us off from a natural world that resists being standardized. However, by ignoring perfection and embracing all that is worn or asymmetrical, you can begin to see the world differently. This, says Leonard Koren, will open you up to “the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom of things.”

This welcoming of imperfection into your life is at the heart of Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which means “impermanent, imperfect and incomplete.” The word comes from two separate words. “Wabi” describes the creation of perfect beauty through the inclusion of just the right kind of imperfection, such as an asymmetry in a handmade ceramic bowl (contrasted with the precision of a machine-made bowl). “Sabi” reflects the kind of beauty that develops with age, such as that which occurs with the oxidation of the surface of a bronze statue.

Often wabi-sabi is applied to design principles, such as creating living spaces that eschew the sterile formal living rooms of the 1940s or ‘50s, the cookie-cutter approach to houses, or the bland designs of corporate logos. This includes focusing on the types of asymmetry you would find in nature—handmade wooden chairs, the natural drooping of a flower head in a vase or a worn leather bag that is well-traveled.

But not all wabi-sabi is intentional. Nature is the best source of wabi-sabi aesthetics. And when you are attuned to the world, you begin to see wabi-sabi in the most unlikely places. The cracks in tree bark, a sign of healthy maturity; or the cracks in our own faces as we age, as we gain wisdom along the way. Krishnamurti goes deeper, saying that our souls are all made of the same paper; our uniqueness, though, comes from the creases in that paper from the folding and unfolding of our experiences.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

~ Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

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