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Wabi Sabi: The Beauty of Imperfection

Robin Rice

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That's how the light gets in.

—Leonard Cohen

Tucked away in the deepest heart of Japan, somewhere beyond city life, probably beyond country life, resting in a humble shack on a simple shelf in a nearly bare room, you can find a really powerful idea about beauty. This idea, this way of life, this way of being, goes against everything the contemporary American culture sells. It is so radical, it goes toe–to–toe with any notion that the way things are—even when they are falling apart—are not the way things ought to be.

The idea is scoffed at by those who offer something more beautiful, and bigger and better. Yet if we can find our way past the standard–issue scoffing, hunt down this old idea, and recognize it as the pearl of great price, we can heal these painful beauty obsessions of ours. Really, we can.

What is this simple idea that has the power to take on an entire capitalistic culture, or at least the capitalistic culture within us? Wabi Sabi, the art and practice of honoring the imperfect.

Yes, there actually is a whole field of study and devotion to this very topic we women are starving for. Wabi Sabi celebrates the cracked pot, the aged desk, the beaten up fishing rod, and the rusting bed frame that has become an outdoor border for a flower “bed” in the yard. It is Wabi, the “humble,” alongside Sabi, “the beauty of the natural progression of time.” (It is also much more and far deeper than that, but this definition is a start.) It leaves behind the pursuit of perfection while bringing appreciation to the simple, unaffected beauty of things as they are.

Which includes us. You and me, Wabi Sabi. The real us, below all our crazy attempts at being how we are supposed to be and all of our insecurities because we still have not pulled it off. Weathered by time, all our cockiness worn off, like the shine of brass on buckles and bangles, when we are Wabi Sabi we are simply beautiful because we exist. Nothing flashy. No need for a six–figure contract with options. Just us, with our weathered faces that have seen every expression known to humanity, our often sagging or misshapen breasts, and the hips and thighs that have carried us through our history, the good times and the bad.

When we live Wabi Sabi, we are often placed on the remainders isle of society, tucked away on sale rack, knowingly cracked and useful only for what we were created for (but not the looking oh-so-fab while doing it). And sometimes, not even good for that any more.

Maybe that doesn't sound so good to you. But most of us have said, over and over again, that what we are really looking for is peace. And the truth is, none of us have found it on the front cover of the glamour magazines. So even if you're not ready to go fully into it, a little Wabi Sabi goes a long way to tempering what we are not and will never be.

To Cure A World Of Ills

So... Getting older? Wabi Sabi's got no problem with that. Wabi Sabi says that older things reveal their true nature in time. In many native cultures, a woman is not allowed to speak on topics requiring wisdom until she is at least fifty years old. These cultures get that the Wabi Sabi women have something special, maybe even sacred, to say. Yes, getting older is a good thing.

Looking weathered? Wonderful, you beautiful piece of Wabi Sabi driftwood, you. Gone from your original intended form to a new form through the slow tumbling of the ocean of life. How natural. How normal. How stunning. How Wabi Sabi.

Disheartened because you can't have and do all “they” say you have to? How fabulous. Do a Wabi Sabi job of it. Then sleep the good sleep that comes after a simple, honest days work that you have let go of. Oh, heck, why wait? Why not take a Wabi Sabi nap right now?

Tired and near penniless from continually “manifesting” bright and shiny new playthings? Perfect time to say enough really is enough. The sun still shines, a free–for–all that is free for all. (By the way, one thing I've noticed about Wabi Sabi people. They actually see sunrises and sunsets on a regular basis.)

I know, I know. You hear what I'm saying. But you are still worried about what will happen if you get off the treadmill. But think on this...

There Are Six Billion People In The World

I often say this to my clients when they express great certainty that their particular life problems are evidence that there is something wrong with them. Six billion people and counting, and you think you are going to beat the game of life ahead of them all? You're going to master money, love, education, self–esteem, sexuality, health, parents, children, and career, by the time you are—what—29? And once you get there, not only will you be enlightened enough to be fully past any silly fears of losing what you've gained, your life will stay in this perfect state of balance?

Yea, that kind of thinking is going to bring happiness in buckets.

It seems ridiculous to have to remind ourselves that life itself is birth and death, up and down, movement from newborn to middle age to older to ancient, and that this is not a design flaw. That we all have a lot to learn, and sometimes we will learn our lessons the hard way. That it is sheer insanity to wait to be happy until we have mastered the ability to balanced all of life on the head of a pin while standing on one hand. Yet we do, indeed, seem to need to remind ourselves. Often.

So Let Me Remind You

There is nothing wrong with you. Even if you have problems. Problems are a fact of the human condition. It will always be so, for the rest of your life, and maybe after that. How you co–exist with your problems is all that you can change. And since Wabi Sabi acknowledges that even how you are co–existing with your problems will inevitably be imperfect, you're there. You've already arrived at the ideal Wabi Sabi state. Now, you can live. Just live.

Easier said than done, I know. Especially when every memory synapse in our brain seems to be wired to take us in a different direction. When you live in a culture that has celebrated only perfect achievement your entire life, you can't simply say, “Oh, I see, I'll just live Wabi Sabi from here on out and all will be well.” It takes some shapeshifting of ideas, rewiring of thought patterns, and a bit of practice.

The Cost Of Perfection

Whenever I really want to examine an idea, I find it is most helpful to look at it's opposite. Or, as I often say, look at it “upside down.” If every yin has it's yang, then there is bound to be some interesting perspectives when we really look at both sides of a story.

So when I began getting serious about Wabi Sabi, I asked myself, "What is it's opposite?" The answer came quickly: Perfection. Not only the pursuit of it—that squeezing ourselves to fit the square peg into the round hole, not to mention our body into the ever one size-smaller dress in our closet—but the actual reaching of that coveted state. So, since I wanted to live Wabi Sabi, I decided it would be beneficial to truly consider what it meant to not be living it.

In order to get a look at life through the eyes of true perfection, I asked myself what reaching the pinnacle would look like in a real life experience for me. Given my personality and style, it would start off big, and get bigger...almost, but not quite, over the top. It would have that “can't get any better that this” feeling of success. Since I have a love of theatre, there would have to be people watching. Not millions, but a good crowd. And the press would be there, for sure. My family would be watching, of course, and beaming their astonished looks of love and approval. Oh yes, and to put a double layer of icing on the cake, it would be easy—just land in my lap—and it would happen while I was still young (well, at 45, reasonably young).

I scanned my memory of history, and then current day Hollywood, trying to think of anyone who had experienced such a pinnacle. It only took me a few moments to realize I had just such an example in my own family.

My little brother, Ricky, won the Indiana State Fair Grand Championship for showing Red Poll cattle on his first try. He was all of twelve, and not even a farm kid. Just an out–of–towner visiting his grandfather for the summer. Our family had been in the Red Poll business for many years, and while “we” were strong contenders at the fair most years, the Grand Championship was a much sought after and largely illusive accomplishment. Other people won this thing, you didn't.

So we all stood and cheered and whooped and hollered the day that Ricky had his completely unexpected great win. We all looked astonished, but it was the look on my grandfather's face that said it all.

My grandfather was a good man, of course, but his praise was hard to come by. Watching Ricky accept his trophy, the beams from my grandfather's lit face seemed to go on and on, as if extending into infinity. The whole family reveled in the delight of watching “Grandpa” get so excited.

Yes, perfection had been achieved. The spoils were all there, in the enormous trophy, the regal purple ribbon, even a newspaper photographer was there to capture my grandfather's expression. But then, life moved on. The moment faded, just like the purple ribbon was sure to.

A new day dawned and another summer arrived. Yet the chances of that kind of thing ever happening for Ricky again seemed a hundred–thousand–to–one. It was hard for him to get excited about inevitably losing Grand Champion ground. Not only that, but every local farm kid who spent year after year working towards the hope of a mere blue ribbon couldn't stand to even look at “Lucky Sh—Rick.”

With all that, I understood why Ricky hung up his cattle prod after only one season. Even so, it made me sad for him. Because even though he'd had the greatest day we could have imagined for a twelve–year–old in our family, it seemed his great win left him as low as it had lifted him high. There seemed to be a feeling of nowhere to go, no more games to play, and no one to play with.

Ricky's experience that summer has often come to mind when I consider the costs of winning, and it gave great insight when considering how I feel about living for, or leaving behind, the idea of perfection.

When actually experienced, it seems to me Ricky learned that the cost of achieving perfection can be as great as the cost of utter failure. In fact, I have a feeling there is some kind of reflection of the one in the other. It made me wonder why I would want to give everything I've got to “win” something that might end up feeling pretty much the same as losing everything I've got?

I'm not saying this to dash anyone's motivation toward reaching the summit of their true ideals. I'm simply pointing out that there is a little Wabi Sabi in everything, even the pinnacle moments of our lives. And I have experienced that only when I truly get that, can I begin to shapeshift (and relax) into a Wabi Sabi way of life more of the time. Even better, with a Wabi Sabi shapeshift, we all can realize that we are not an utter failure even when we are on a losing streak, and we can remember to play for the sake of the playing when we are winning.

If Ricky had been exposed to the concept of Wabi Sabi, or had he been mentored in that ideal, he might have said to himself, “Well, I won't likely win, but I like the feel of being in the ring, I like the cattle when they've just been washed, I like hanging out in the barn with my grandpa, and I like the corn dogs they sell at the concession stand, so I'll just have another season for the fun of it.” In other words, he might have been able to enjoy the Wabi Sabi experience, even if there was no hope for perfection.

Going Wabi Sabi

In my own life, I had no choice but to go Wabi Sabi when my beloved Brian moved in. Before Brian (BB), I lived in a lovely, brand new, water view home with lots of white walls and windows, open space and neutral colors. I was an anti–clutter queen, and loved to take anything I could get rid of to good will. My children lived with me every other week. On the “kid's week,” things got messy, and we lived with that reasonably well. I was a bit of a hound, but if something really bugged me, I'd just take care of it myself. Then, the day they left for the week, I cleaned high and low. The house was already clutter free, and perfectly designed to look simple and elegant when clean. I even had a policy that if there was anything on a top shelf, there was too much “stuff” and it was time to weed indoors.

I know this was a dream for many women—peace and quiet in a clean and sacred space—because so many of my friends envied it. And, honestly, I liked living this way. There was a lovely breeze that moved through the house, and I felt very free and light within it. But it had it's drawbacks, the greatest of which was being alone.

After Brian, (AB), all heaven broke loose. My two kids returned to me full time, along with a dog, and Brian's college–age kids were home, with friends, frequently. Not only that, but Brian had lived a good bit of his life in the back woods of West Virginia, heating his house with a wood stove and driving three miles to the nearest paved road. The furniture he brought was wonderfully Wabi Sabi—including a huge old dinner table from his parents house (it replaced my glass and metal–weave dining room set), a coffee table that had been with him since his young life living in Bogata, Columbia, and pictures that were outfitted in plain wooden frames. They didn't match my things, but they had character and history and life in them. You couldn't have Brian without what was important to him. So, while we still maintain a clutter–free environment, the experience of living in our home was no longer that of a sparse, designer space.

After our Feng Shui designer came to help us create “our” space, and we ended up with several very bold accent walls—fire with gold specks in the living room, a wild wall of water in my office, a nice rich green for Brian's office, etc.... Even the garage went from a sparse one car, lawn mower, weed whacker and three bikes to a haven for two cars and everything else a professional forester, outdoor enthusiast and organic gardener could need.

Yet every time I looked at the two kayaks, compost bucket and turkey smoker, I smiled. I knew it was Wabi Sabi or war, and I made my choice. I could move from controlled, clean and clear to Wabi Sabi, if it meant true love. I did, and it did. What we have now is a family and a co–mingled Wabi Sabi house. I've never been happier.

The best thing about living Wabi Sabi is that it is a path with heart. On a daily basis it brings me back to my choices, my values, and, most important, my own Wabi Sabi beauty. Because if my environment can be full and imperfect and still be loveable, so can I. That is no small change, I assure you.

The Wabi Sabi Shapeshift

I am fond of telling my clients that they will only need healing until they realize they were fine all along. But until that point, healing is helpful. And of all the ideas I offer them, embracing Wabi Sabi offers the shortest path to that awakening.

“Only the idea of something is perfect,” Plato wrote. Even so, it seems a part of each and every woman's journey to try to disprove it, struggle up against it, even fight it with all that we have. We want perfection so much, we are willing to overlook reality to enjoy the illusion.

You can practice shapeshifting beauty by tempering the natural tendency to hope for perfection, and to give that pursuit too much of your valuable time, money and energy. Simply separate the idea of something from the actual experience. Become the witness to yourself, and then intentionally begin to think of whatever you are contemplating as having two sides to the same coin. The idea. And the experience. Remind yourself with each new idea, purchase, or choice that you consider, that the idea is not the thing, and that only the idea can be perfect. You are welcome to experience imagining the perfect idea in all it's perfection. But looking at the other side of the coin, you will also be aware that no matter what it is, or how ideal it first appears, or what the salesman assures you, there will be no actual experience of perfection. And that this is a perfectly natural truth of living that all of life bends to.

At first this may seem like a disappointment, and you may feel actual grief at the loss of the illusion. But in time, by knowing that nothing will be perfect in actuality, you will find yourself free to have an absolutely wonderful Wabi Sabi experience. Best of all, you will find this freedom translates to having the ability to enjoy an absolutely wonderful experience of the precious and imperfect you.