September 28, 2012

My Wabi-sabi Life

My wood coffee table is old, and it shows. It is very basic, and wears the chips, splinters, and stains of use and time. But rather than becoming something in my life that needs to be replaced with a newer and 'better' version, I feel it has gained in beauty as the years have passed. It is totally Wabi-sabi.

The Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi is based on Buddhist principles, including the acceptance of impermanence and imperfection. Wabi means "rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness", and can be applied to natural and human-made objects. Sabi means "beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs".

Other characteristics of Wabi-sabi include irregularity, modesty, and economy. It emphasizes the unique quirks of natural and human made objects over mass-production and conformity. It acknowledges the "wisdom in natural simplicity".

"Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau," D.T. Suzuki wrote, "and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall."

There is little room for Wabi-sabi in the West. You can not have "flawed beauty" if you are promptly replacing things before they begin to show their life experience.

Aging possessions are replaced before they can gain any experience or develop any character. Cars are regularly upgraded, and kitchens and bathrooms go through cycles of renovations in order to keep up with the latest styles.

Heritage buildings are torn down in the name of progress, and replaced with glass buildings that aren't nearly as interesting as the things reflected in them. And our elders, that literally have stories written in lines on their beautiful faces, are isolated out of sight.

There is no Wabi-sabi, only a ceaseless upgrading on our way to a sterile modernity cloaked in perpetual newness.

But think about what sweater is your favourite. Probably not the newest one you own. No, chances are you will choose your old, worn and dependable sweater.

You know the one - it has a tear where you got snagged on the barbed wire fence while hiking, and a burn on the sleeve from sitting by the campfire in the summer of 2005. Yes, it is your Wabi-sabi sweater. It fits you perfectly, and has a lived in feel.

It also reminds you of your own advancing age as well as your beautiful, hard-earned scars and blemishes that make you unique. This may elicit a sense of melancholy, but it is a sweet melancholy that brings you into the moment, and puts things in perspective.

We could use more Wabi-sabi in consumer-oriented countries. In embracing a youth oriented, perpetual newness and obsession with perfection, we hide the very beauty found in 'battle scars' earned over time. We are lulled into thinking that if only we have the right house, the right granite and stainless, and the right accessories, we will live in perfection forever.

My Wabi-sabi coffee table is rustically simple and fresh, just like my Wabi-sabi life. Embracing the beauty found in aging, imperfect objects has liberated me from the endless (and expensive) pursuit of 'new and improved'.

It has helped me make the transition to a simpler life, and removed the weight of material concerns.

autumn twilight
the wreath on the door
lifts in the wind

- Nick Virgilio


  1. namakemono9/28/2012

    There isn`t much room for wabi-sabi in modern day Japan either!

    1. I am sad that this is so.

      I have heard that city people there can "rent" grandparents and stay with them in their countryside villages to get a bit of wabi-sabi in their lives.

      I am all for more wabi-sabi, and less consumer chaos.

  2. Anonymous9/29/2012

    Prefer to surround myself with people and things with history and character.

    1. I bought my bread pans in an interesting second hand shop packed to the rafters with wabi-sabi.

      The previous owner's enjoyment of the pans was evident in the dark patina that transformed the metal into something more like sculpture. Now I add my own dough and experience to this ongoing functional art project.

  3. Suddenly feeling much better about my dining table. It is VERY wabi-sabi. I look at all the little dents and dings and even TEETH MARKS and they remind me of all the meals I've been lucky enough to share with my sweet family.

    1. Reading this makes me feel good. There, it did it again!

      Precious moments, friends, precious moments.

      Thanks for sharing.


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