Unlearn to learn

WABI SABI

Unlearn to learn

A personal change in attitude can impact the day-to-day life of teachers and their interactions with their students, finds out Sonali Bhatia.

“Let go! Let go!” This was the phrase heard most often at Sutradhar’s Wabi Sabi workshop for educators. So, along with letting go of physical objects like paper, participants let go of some preconceived notions, some old habits and a few self-doubts as well.

“It’s hard to define Wabi Sabi,” said Vishakha Chanchani, who conducted a workshop for Sutradhar on the concept. “It is a Japanese way of seeing beauty in what is simple and modest.”

As the workshop unfolded, educators found out just how deeply such a personal change in attitude can impact their day-to-day life and their interactions with their students.

Take, for example, the activity ‘let the lines flow’. Participants were asked to take a brush and some black ink, and simply use the ink on paper, without consciously trying to paint anything in particular. “Enjoy the wetness and dryness of the brush,” Vishakha encouraged them. “Hold the brush with each hand in turn and make single strokes.  Add a lot of water to the ink and see what happens. Let the materials you are using speak to you.”

Some participants had to resist the urge to start painting a particular object. “I’m finding it difficult to just let the ink flow!” exclaimed a teacher. “It’s not easy to do something so easy!”

The activity completed, participants were asked to let go of their papers, which were displayed around the room for a while and then stacked up — to possibly be used as background paper for another activity. “It’s art, but you have nothing to take home and show for it!” said Vishakha, elaborating, “You need to learn to enjoy the process without worrying about the finished product. We tend to worry too much about outcomes these days, and forget to simply have fun doing something!”

Everyone is comfortable

“I really loved this activity,” said a participant. “I consider myself artistically-challenged; I can’t draw or paint anything. But today, since we were just playing with the material, I got absorbed in my work. Let me confess something — usually when working on art, I peep into the sheets of those around me to see whether my work is as good as theirs, and to get a few ideas. Today, I didn’t look anywhere else but at my own paper. I was comfortable being me — the way I am.”

Another participant displayed his work with newspaper stuck behind it. “I was using the newspaper so that I didn’t mess up the floor,” he said. “Then, Vishakha asked us to add lots of water and see what happens. Well, the paper became transparent and the newsprint started showing through, making an interesting background for my black-and-white strokes. So I decided to keep it that way! This would not have happened if I had been painting something definite, like a portrait, or scenery ... I wouldn’t have even noticed that the newspaper in the background looks fascinating!”

Subtle messages

“Wabi Sabi implies an acceptance of change,” remarked Vishakha. “I’d like you to step outdoors and pick up anything you see in nature that portrays the theme of ‘getting older’. Remember, don’t pluck, just pick.”

At first, participants were a bit surprised — to them, nature was all about greenery and brightness. However, upon searching, they found leaves, flowers and bits of bark that were curling, shrinking and changing colour. “These things didn’t call out for attention,” remarked a primary teacher. I had to go seeking them. I would have just glanced past them if I hadn’t been asked to look carefully.”

Participants then displayed those objects from nature on the floor. “Give each item its space,” advised Vishakha. “Make a random arrangement, only ensure that nothing is overshadowed by anything else.” Making the display in this manner, participants caught themselves finding relationships between seemingly disparate objects — relationships based on colour, shape, size or pattern. Without attempting to create order, they came up with an aesthetically-pleasing arrangement on the floor.

A middle school teacher admitted to learning something from this activity. “I’m a neatness freak, and I always praise those students who are orderly,” she said. “Looking at these bits and pieces makes me think that the other children are creating order, too, but in a different way. I suddenly feel that by praising some children in my class, I was probably giving a subtle message to the others that they are untidy, or have somehow not lived up to my expectation.”

Old and new

The arrangement on the floor was then cleared up, to make way for a game of passing the parcel. However, there were some key differences between the game and the way Vishakha played it. Firstly, the ‘parcel’ wasn’t just a cushion — it was a sack containing an assortment of old clothes. Secondly, the participants created the music themselves, singing a song about the old and the new.

At the end of each verse of the song, whoever was holding the sack pulled out an item of clothing and donned it in any way they liked. Size, gender and style were forgotten and laughter filled the room as participants thought of creative ways to wear things that they would not normally choose. Seeing the results of this impromptu fancy dress made participants take another look at the conventional notion of ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ and how changing these definitions leads to greater acceptance and creativity.

All about acceptance

“Wabi Sabi is all about acceptance,” said Vishakha. “It is not so much about teaching as about protecting the child’s innate abilities — making sure that these abilities are not lost under pressures to conform.”

She then read out a true-life tale of a Japanese boy who had no friends because he was considered by his classmates to be too rustic. It took a caring teacher to recognise the boy’s natural ability to imitate various calls of crows — and get him to perform these for his awe-struck classmates. Once his innate ability, albeit an unconventional one, was realised and appreciated, he gained self-confidence, made friends, and was affectionately nicknamed ‘Crow Boy.’

In fact, as the day went on, Vishakha demonstrated the value of acceptance. Realising that participants were getting a bit tired, she conducted a spontaneous ‘yawn’ activity. As each participant yawned in his or her own unique style, all tiredness was forgotten!

Hidden talent

The simple act of acceptance did wonders throughout the workshop. When Vishakha gave printed poems to groups of participants, asking them to illustrate these on large sheets of paper to make scrolls, some groups did away with the handouts she gave — and illustrated poems they had written themselves! “I’ve never written a poem myself before,” a group member said, “but felt I had to illustrate an original poem. So I did!” The poem was a simple one about colours merging and changing, brought out by the interaction with nature earlier in the day. The illustration was simple, too, streaks of colour blending together, to create easy harmony between the written word and the picture.

“It’s wonderful to see someone being inspired to create an original work — in this day and age when marketing and advertising emphasise fitting in, and children are bombarded with messages that extol being imitators rather than being creators, I feel I’ve achieved something if I’ve made you write poetry for yourself!” Vishakha exclaimed.
It was similar for a teacher who had, somehow, never come into contact with clay before. When Vishakha did a clay-work activity, she proudly stated that she had made a ‘lump’. “Actually, I thought it’s a chimpanzee,” she chuckled. “But then someone said it looks like a statue, and others had different interpretations, so I’m going to call it a lump. I didn’t know how to work with this material, but when I saw that everyone else was comfortable with it, I decided to just go ahead and make whatever I could! Then people started trying to guess what it was, and I realised it’s not about perfection, but about perception!”

Everyday lives

The change in perception applies to everyday life, too.  A participant talked about her own compulsion to straighten the cushions and floor mats at home. “I always want symmetry on the sofa, so if my son puts a cushion on one side, I run and place a cushion on the other side! If someone wipes their feet and moves the floor mat a few feet away from its usual place, I promptly put it back again. My son refuses to let me into his room, because I arrange everything there according to my need for visual balance!

I guess now I’ll let go of some of those notions and maybe there will be less arguments at home!”

A teacher who wore vividly coloured clothes said, “We’ve been talking about the sober and the muted — but can we accept my obvious need for brightness, too?” Participants agreed that while Wabi Sabi is about seeking the muted and un-obvious, it doesn’t reject the obvious or the flashy, either. Nothing is ‘wrong’ — everything is right, everything is celebrated.

That’s what participants are going to take back — celebration of the obvious, the not-so-obvious, the changing, in the classroom, at home — and everywhere!

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