Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, an old saying proclaims. Imagine an object with a visible crack on it; a bowl, a vase, a box. Would you ever buy this as a present to a beloved one? Now, think of a large unrefined, raw textured brick wall. Would you ever choose it for the living room of your home? What about an unkempt garden full of autumn leaves? Would you call it ‘pretty’? If the answer is yes to any of these, then, you are already familiar with the ‘wabi-sabi’ notion. It’s just that you didn’t know it carries a weird name. By weird meaning, that, no, it has nothing to do with the green n’ spicy wasabi, since you cannot taste it. You can instead see it, feel it and appreciate it.
That is because, wabi-sabi is an entire aesthetic universe, it is a holistic but utterly simple view of the world, a world where the beauty of things is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.
The notion of wabi–sabi is deeply rooted in Japanese culture since ancient times. The first term, ‘wabi’, is very closely linked with the almost sacred Japanese tea ceremony. Given its direct relevance with the objects of this ritual, by ‘wabi’ we can refer to the form of things. Hence, wabi-sabi has been primarily exhibited in practice throughout architecture and design. The second term, ‘sabi’ alludes to the spirit of things, meaning ‘taking pleasure in that which is old, faded and lonely.’ Despite starting as 2 similar but differing terms, wabi & sabi etymologically united throughout the centuries, and evolved into a joint force offering people an interesting spectrum of recognising, understanding and appreciating beauty. Beauty within us and around us, beauty that might be hidden or overlooked, ephemeral, subtle and silent.
Wabi-sabi is indeed a magical concept. A concept of spiritual depth and mystical simplicity. Its uniqueness lies on the fact that it narrates a million things that can hardly be defined in daily life, a million of details that contain pure, untamed, genuine beauty, that sadly, goes unnoticed, as we go on with our hectic lifestyles. In other words, it is a lens that captivates our attention and canalises it to the simplicities of the world around us, those things that might look ‘too ugly’, ‘too shabby’ or ‘too old-fashioned’ to deserve our attention otherwise. Or simply seek beauty and meaning in ‘The bare necessities of life’ as The Jungle Book heroes were singing in our childhood memories.
Although powerful as a concept, one could wonder how does wabi-sabi retain its diachronic value throughout the centuries. Why a Japanese idea, firstly traced in the 8th century, is still alive nowadays? And most importantly, how can it influence everyday people. Or even more accurately how can we use it to improve ourselves, sooth our psyches and sharpen our spirits?
It is clear that wabi-sabi carries an undeniable metaphysical message. First, stating loudly that beauty occurs in things that evolve out or devolve into nothingness. Therefore, wabi-sabi could be another compelling explanation to the individual’s existential worries. Possibly providing an alternative to the complete absurdity of life as seen by existentialism and nihilism. Additionally, it teaches us that there is a marvellous honesty in the natural process of ‘ageing’ and ‘deterioration’, a moral message that can help us cope with ‘getting older’, coping with loss, and ultimately accepting death. Death is a word for beauty not in use could be the shaking realisation that wabi-sabi urges us to see with eyes, spirit and soul wide open.
However, it is mostly in our everyday lives, where wabi-sabi can acquire a powerful importance. Could ‘seeing things in a wabi-sabi way’ help individuals overcome their perfectionism? Could it help artists or even daily people emerge out of their creativity block? I fervently think that wabi-sabi can be the answer to many of the individual’s daily worries, due to its simple but all-powerful message that beauty exists or can be created anywhere, even in things, which are not perfect, complete or permanent. In that way, it breaks our often irrational attachment to the ‘ideal’. In fact, it provides a shaking alternative to Western culture, within which we are repeatedly used in identifying beauty with perfection, in glorifying symmetry and size, in praising homogeneity, proportions and slickness.
Hence, wabi-sabi can urge us to draw even if we have no particular talent in drawing, to sing even if we are not endowed with a melodic voice, to write even if we leave our text unfinished.
Somehow it felt alright leaving this text unfinished. It’s been almost a year and I never forgot about its existence, hiding somewhere in my files, unfinished, unpublished, unrefined but still present. I embrace this is a step closer to the wabi-sabi philosophy. This whisper that kept reminding me that things around us are as ‘perfect’ as the impact they have on our soul. An impact that asymptotically tends to perfection but never reaches it, since embracing a new way of seeing the cosmos around us will never cease impacting and changing us in the course of our lives. Wabi-sabi is omnipresent in every shade of life, just as learning is infinitely embedded in every experience. Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect. The wabi-sabi notion, opens our eyes up to a whole new universe, where nothingness matters simply because it’s beautiful. All we have to do is embrace it; in our own uniquely imperfect but beautiful way.
There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)