Wabi-sabi is a Japanese philosophy often described as appreciating the beauty in imperfection. While distilling wabi-sabi into a single definition or translation doesn’t do justice to its nuances and fluidity, the broad concepts associated with it are impermanence and imperfection. For Richard Powell, author of Wabi Sabi Simple, “wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect”.
In Japanese, the meanings and connotations of wabi and sabi have evolved over time. Wabi was associated with a specific kind of loneliness and solitude, akin to what a hermit living in remote nature might feel. Sabi was associated with withering, rusting, tarnishing—the natural progression of things. But as Japanese society became more preoccupied with the ornate, an opposing school of thought emerged in the 14th century. Loneliness and solitude were seen as wise and freeing, and the imperfections resulting from the natural progression of life and things were embraced as the beauty of impermanence.
The lessons of wabi-sabi
Wabi-sabi is often associated with a sense of peace with the natural progression of life. Accepting that life and things are impermanent allows us to appreciate the beauty and melancholy of it. For example, a wooden table that has aged over the years may seem decrepit and ugly. Discovering wabi-sabi is to see the beauty of imperfection and change.
While wabi-sabi is often seen as an aesthetic philosophy, it teaches us much more:
- Instead of focusing on what could be, wabi-sabi focuses on appreciating what is—the ordinary, old and incomplete.
- Suffering or pain, the ugliness of life, are just like the imperfections of an old table. They are a natural part of life that requires acceptance and appreciation.
Wabi-sabi in everyday life
Wabi-sabi doesn’t require us to be an expert in design or philosophy. It’s a shift in perspective from one that chases perfection to one that appreciates what is. It’s up to you to decide how wabi-sabi fits into your life. It could mean practising gratitude, listening more or finding beauty in the ordinary. It could also be as simple as appreciating the autumn leaves or making peace with the stains on your carpet.