Origins, characteristics and relevance of wabi sabi today
We are living in a time of brain-hacking algorithms, pop-up propaganda and information everywhere. From the moment we wake up, to the time we stumble into bed, we are fed messages about what we should look like, wear, eat and buy, how much we should be earning, who we should love and how we should parent. Many of us probably spend more time thinking about other people’s lives than investing in our own. Add to this the pace at which we are encouraged to function, and it’s no wonder so many of us are feeling overwhelmed, insecure, untethered and worn out.
What we need right now is a new way of seeing the world, and our place within it.
We need new approaches to life’s challenges. We need tools for intentional and conscious living and a framework for deciding what really matters to us, so we can move on from the constant desire for more, better, best. We need to find ways to slow down, so life does not rush right past us. We need to start noticing more beauty to lift our spirits, and keep us inspired. We need to give ourselves permission to let go of judgement and the endless pursuit of perfection. And we need to start seeing each other – and ourselves – for the perfectly imperfect treasures that we are.
All this, that we so desperately need, can be found in the philosophy of wabi sabi . Not because it solves the surface problems, but because it can fundamentally shift the way we see life itself. Wabi sabi teaches us to be content with less, in a way that feels like more:
Less stuff, more soul. Less hustle, more ease. Less chaos, more calm.
Less mass consumption, more unique creation.
Less complexity, more clarity. Less judgement, more forgiveness. Less bravado, more truth.
Less resistance, more resilience. Less control, more surrender.
Less head, more heart.
Wabi sabi represents a precious cache of wisdom that values tranquillity, harmony, beauty and imperfection, and can strengthen our resilience in the face of modern ills.
Simplifying and beautifying
A wabi sabi lens can inspire us to embrace soulful simplicity and treasure what we already have.
The spaces in which we live influence the way in which we live, and how we feel as we go about our daily lives. If we want to live differently, changing our environment, and the details of our living spaces, can play a major role in making a shift. Our homes can be sanctuaries, gathering places, repositories of love and laughter, solitude and rest. They can be grounding, comforting, inspiring and relaxing. Our homes are where our stories are written, and they have the potential to enhance our experience of the every day
It’s perfectly fine for your home to be a work in progress. Real life is not like design magazines. A home is to be lived in, so there’s no need to wait until everything is finished before you invite your friends round to enjoy time together.
- Make the most of your entranceway, which is called a genkan in Japan. Tidy out-of-season coats away. Put out some flowers. Invite visitors to leave their shoes at the door, Japan-style (and try to encourage anyone who lives with you to make it a habit). Stack shoes on shelves or in a shoebox, or perhaps under the stairs. You might want to offer guests house slippers if the floor is cold. This keeps everywhere cleaner, and gives an immediate sense of comfort and familiarity.
- Decluttering saves you time and money, and makes space to appreciate the things you really love. However, stark minimalism is another kind of perfection. Go for soulful simplicity instead. Think clean, uncluttered and welcoming.
- Experiment with natural matte materials like wood, clay and stone in your home, and natural fabrics for bedlinen, clothing and kitchenware. See how these bring a sense of character and calm. The eye and the imagination love imperfection, asymmetry and non-uniform surfaces.
- Consider how you can bring actual nature into your space, with flowers, branches, seed pods, feathers, leaves, shells, pebbles, handmade wreaths, woven baskets and so on. Discover the joy of finding and styling these yourself, creating visual poetry with the gifts of the land and sea.
- Keep both light and shadow in mind, noting how the contrast changes your space at different times of day. Embrace low light and darkness when it suits the season and your mood.
- Consider all the five senses in your space. This depends on where you live and the kind of space you have, but it can include anything from opening a window for the breeze to using textured fabrics on your furniture, from diffusing essential oils to playing calming music. You can even consider the sense of taste, such as using fruit and vegetables within your simple displays, or adding details to make your breakfast table feel extra special.
- Curate things you really treasure to decorate your space and nurture it with story and memory. Think about contrasts: past and present, grounding and inspiring, ordinary and special. Where possible, be creative with what you have, or repurpose items that have had a previous life.
- Think about the importance of relationship and visual harmony. How do things look and feel in relation to other things in the room and the space itself. What is framed by your windows and internal doorways? What is on full view and what is partly hidden, hinting at something else beyond? What different textures are bringing character and warmth to the space?
- Create tiny corners of beauty in unexpected places. A small vase on a windowsill. A handwritten note in the bathroom. A framed photograph under the stairs.
- Notice how you need to use the space differently depending on the season of the year, and the season of your life.
Living with nature
A wabi sabi world view is one predicated on the fundamental truths of nature and the cycle of life. Wabi sabi is borne of a people whose traditional view of nature is that they are part of, not separate from it. And yet because wabi sabi and nature are so closely related, we get this blurred view when trying to put words to that connection. To see it more clearly, we have to pull away a little, refocus our microscope and adjust our eyes.
At its essence, the experience of wabi sabi is an intuitive response to beauty which reflects the true nature of things as they are. That is, a beauty which reminds us that everything is impermanent, imperfect and incomplete. This experience of wabi sabi is often felt in the presence of natural materials, which is why spending time in nature can be such a powerful experience. It reminds us that we are part of something miraculous. By momentarily lifting us out of the fog of to-do lists, chores and admin overwhelm, wabi sabi holds up a mirror to life’s magnificence – and in that mirror, we get a glimpse of ourselves.
The forest invites us to open our hearts and listen.
The medicine of the forest is far more than a contemporary wellness trend. People have lived in forests since ancient times. Nature is in our blood. It’s in our bones. It’s in our very human spirit. It is the haunting call of the mountains and the swirling pull of the sea; the whispering of the wind and the secrets in the trees.
Here are some tips for forest bathing among trees near you. Why not take a copy of this list with you next time you go for a woodland adventure:
- Walk slowly. Now slow your pace by half. And by half again.
- Be present. Keep your phone in your pocket.
- Use all your senses to explore your environment. Notice the feel of the ground under your feet, the taste of the air, the wind in the trees, the light and the shadows. Look up, down and all around.
- Cup your hands behind your ears to capture more sounds of the forest. What can you hear? Where is the sound coming from? Is it low down or high up? Is it near or far?
- Touch things. Notice how different bark, branches and leaves feel.
- Notice where things are in their life cycle. What is emerging? What is growing? What is fading?
- Breathe deeply. What can you smell?
- Watch the sky. Look for movement. Count colours. How many shades of one colour can you see? Stay watching long enough to notice changes.
- If you can identify what is safe to eat, taste a berry or a leaf slowly, and with gratitude.
- Pick up a fallen gift of the forest and look at it closely. What can you see?
- Spend some time in silence, even if you are in a group. In fact, especially if you are in a group. Try meditating, stretching or just sitting with your back against a tree.
- Lie in a hammock between two trees. Ask the trees’ permission before you set up camp.
- Take off your shoes and feel the earth beneath your feet or dip your toes in a stream.
- Notice how you feel when you are held by the forest. Don’t rush. Linger as long as you can.
- Find a particular spot you are drawn to and spend time there. Name it. Make up a story about it. Come back on another day, in another season, and see what has changed.
Acceptance and letting go
Everything is impermanent, imperfect and incomplete.
It is so easy to spend time caught up in the past, lost in nostalgia, heavy with regret, chastising yourself for not having made different choices or blaming someone else. Back then, you didn’t know all you know now. You didn’t have the same resources, environment or responsibilities. Perhaps you didn’t have the same outlook, self-awareness, courage or support. Or maybe you look back on the past as the golden years, when things were easier, you were more this or more that. But here’s the thing: the past is no longer here. Whatever happened, the good and the bad, it is gone.
Whatever it is that keeps pulling you back, take a moment to make peace with it, then let it go. This sounds hard, but it can be as simple as deciding to do it. Write it out. Speak to a professional if you need to, or talk to a friend. Then pick a day – like your birthday, or the turn of a season, or new year, or next Tuesday – and make it the day you leave that particular thing in the past. It is only you that keeps paying it attention.
Wabi sabi teaches us to accept that the past was then, and it was what it was. This is now, and it is what it is. Your life is happening right here, and every day is the beginning of the rest of it
It is our imperfections that make us unique, and our uniqueness that makes each of us beautiful.
What if we were to agree that our ideal state is actually perfect imperfection, and that we are already there? There would be no more struggle or exhausting hustle. Rather, a relaxing into the knowledge that we are just fine, just as we are.
Going one step further, we might see that those imperfections could actually be the doorways to new learning opportunities, experiences, conversations and connections. Suddenly, perfect would not seem so desirable, after all, and we would realise we are capable of more than we have ever imagined.
There is no ‘done’, ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’ with learning. There is just learning.
How is this connected to wabi sabi ? It is the relief that comes from knowing that nothing is ever permanent, perfect or complete. When I mess up, it’s a blip, not a life sentence. When I make a mistake, I can correct it, or do things better next time. Wherever I am on my journey of learning, I am still travelling, not at the end of the line, which allows me to relax in the knowledge that I’m not supposed to know everything, and makes me curious about what else there is to learn.
There is always the potential for a dip in the graph, for a plateau or for a rise. It simply depends on you, your attitude, energy and attention. This doesn’t just go for learning a skill. It’s true with learning about finances, or love or parenting. Even about ourselves. There is no done, complete or perfect. There is just learning.
Use the six steps below to process any particular event or situation that you are hanging on to as a ‘failure’:
1.Truth State the facts about what happened.
2.Humility Get clear on who you have been blaming, and what role you played.
3.Simplicity Excavate your single greatest learning from the situation.
4.Impermanence Identify what was lost, what was gained and what has changed inside you.
5.Imperfection Acknowledge what imperfection – in yourself or in someone else – you must forgive or embrace to move on, and remind yourself that imperfection makes you human.
6.Incompleteness Recognise that this is not the end of the story. Decide what you will do next.
Cherishing the moments
Wabi sabi is a gentle gauge of exquisite moments.
It is the anticipation of a loved one’s return, just before the airport’s arrivals doors open. A campfire story sent into the smoky air. The memory of a kiss, while you are still kissing.
When we look back on our lives, these are the kinds of moments that we remember. When we rush too fast, eyes locked somewhere on the future, or staring at our smartphones or distracted by someone else’s path, we miss the opportunity to stop and collect our own moments of beauty, and to sense wabi sabi .
We know how delightful life can be when we are present to it, and yet we still spend our days rushing, distracted, stressed out, boxed in, on track for a life that doesn’t quite feel like ours. When we truly open our eyes and hearts, beauty calls to us, through the chaos and the noise. It shows us a fleeting glimpse of the version of our lives where our soul is singing because we harnessed our talents, gave attention to our ideas, nurtured our love and really showed up for life.
Sometimes we feel this, but turn away from it because it doesn’t look how we expected it to look. It’s not the shiny, polished life we have been taught to desire: the perfect house, job, car, partner, family or whatever. But when we are present and really listen for the call of beauty, we discover the life that was meant for us. Our perfectly imperfect life.
Beauty calls quietly. We have to be perceptive to its signal, and then play our part. The creative urge, the pull to a rural life, the yearning for friendships that go deeper – whatever it is that is calling you to a particular kind of beauty, heed that call, for it is the beauty of life itself.
A well-lived life is a constant dance between dreaming and doing. The important thing here is not to obsess about perfect planning. You cannot know what is around the corner, so overplanning can lead to unnecessary stress when things change. It’s about making a few key decisions so you don’t lose your days to the whims of others.