Wabi-sabi: Perfectly imperfect

Wabi-sabi: Perfectly imperfect

Do you obsess over your faults? Are you constantly struggling to be perfect? Don’t, says Reethika Azariah Kuruvilla, as she sheds light on wabi-sabi, an ancient Japanese philosophy that celebrates imperfection

Traditional Japanese aesthetics offer a wabi-sabi view of not merely the acceptance of imperfection but the honour of impermanence.

There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

— Leonard Cohen


It’s that time of the year again when the weather seems to be dragging everyone down, what with the non-existent rains and gloomy days that never seem to end. Grocery lists tend to pile up and things that need to get fixed seem to increase, literally, by the hour. In spite of it all, there is a large part of our living room wall covered with dark smudges of a dirty tennis ball, courtesy the ongoing ICC World Cup and a rather energetic little boy with a need to master spin bowling, that has made the top of my to-do-list that seems to just get longer with each fascinating day. A little research into the Japanese tea ceremony, which, of course, is infinitely more important than cleaning walls, led to the interesting ‘wabi-sabi’ concept.

Nothing is permanent 

Origami and Marie Kondo notwithstanding, there’s a lot more than authentic sushi that remains undiscovered from the ‘land of the rising sun’. Traditional Japanese aesthetics offer a wabi-sabi view of not merely the acceptance of imperfection but the honour of impermanence. Looking at the beauty of things that are naturally flawed, each crack tells a story and those dark smudges on the wall tell of my growing boy who may possibly not be a ‘Warne’ in the making. A longer deep breath, and suddenly the need for a pristine home is not on top of my list anymore.

Originally two separate terms, wabi symbolised stillness, silence found in a reclusive life out in natural rustic simplicity, while sabi described the way time affects deterioration, from passing seasons to the pages of an old book. The 14th century saw a positive amalgamation of these two words that together represented the acceptance of simple, yet changing stages of life. Not too difficult to follow, one should imagine.

Tadao Ando, renowned Japanese architect, described wabi-sabi in The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty as, “The Japanese view of life embraced a simple aesthetic that grew stronger as inessentials were eliminated and trimmed away.” A simple notion that proves the beauty of cherry blossoms is because of its impermanence, not ‘in spite of it’.

Ultimately, Leonard Koren, in pursuit of the precise definition of wabi-sabi, in his book Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, created his own explanation, “Wabi-sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental.” Looking beyond skyscrapers and shopping malls, photo-shopped selfies and trumpet-blowing social media profiles, wabi-sabi is all about the rustic readiness to accept things as they are.

Apart from merely ‘accepting things as they are’, the aesthetic philosophy of kintsugi actually fills those cracks up with gold, giving broken pottery new life. These cracks, visible or invisible, often form an inherent part of our lives, shreds of evidence of storms we have withstood and not drowned in. These are scales that measure our strength and resilience, our ability to never give up; who we become as a result of what has happened through the years, not who we used to be.

Letting go

Prathiba R tells me of how there was a point in her life when “everything just had to be perfect, I judged everything and everyone around me, worst of all, I judged myself. I needed to have done so much in my career before 30, I needed to look like an image I had in my head, my family had to be a certain way, and my relationships had to be perfect, too. Somewhere along the way, I learned that even 75% perfection was okay and I just had to live with it. Letting go of the need to be perfect all the time actually gave me more breathing space. There were way too many other things to be grateful for instead of sweating the small stuff. I am, today, in a much happier space than I was before and that’s simply because I stopped looking for that perfect life and started being content with what I have.”

This charming zen way of life, particularly in the purity and sanctity of the simple tea ceremony, shows how prized handmade, irregular-shaped bowls with uneven glaze and cracks offer a distinct beauty in their deliberate imperfection. These antique bowls are prized because of those cracks and flows. What if we learned to prize our cracks and flaws instead of worrying about the baggage we carry along through our lives?

Perfect is just another word. Accepting that being ‘perfect’ is not necessary is easier said than done, especially in a community where we’ve been trained to be the best at everything we do. Right from our first day at school where we’re taught to have that perfectly neat handwriting book with perfect cursive writing to submitting perfect proposals that do not need editing at work, perfect homes and perfect meals, not to mention perfectly well-behaved children and perfectly coiffed hair.

Perfection is all well and good, but so is imperfection. “Appreciation for imperfections in others, and even in yourself, is the essential wabi-sabi frame of mind,” Koren says. “Deep down, you know perfection can be rather dull.”

Leave life to life itself and enjoy the ride. Take pride in those scars and wrinkles, having that perfect wrinkle-free botox-ed face also means you can’t really smile that much either. Look for the positives in everything — those cracked cups from your favourite set could get you started on your new hobby, ‘gold-joining’ them with kintsugi.

Nothing lasts forever

There’s joy in simplicity. The most memorable evenings are often outdoors and not found in front of the latest gadget or smartphone. Technology is a great thing, but so are the butterflies and the trees. Media and the social influences individuals have on each other tend to bring out unwanted comparisons of things we want to do or own that we don’t already. There’s happiness to be found in what we already have and constant judgment by our peers or ourselves is not going to get us any extra smiles. As elusive as happiness can sometimes seem, it is actually just around the corner from contentment.

Look beyond the clouds. Every storm that comes up will eventually pass and nothing truly ever lasts forever. Satisfaction with where we are in life and pleasure in the little things comes beyond those difficult times. Every moment is a memory, whether good or bad, and every brick of pain builds a part of the foundation of who we become tomorrow. Learn from the follies of the past and look ahead to brighter days where we would actually know what to do in situations that previously left us flustered. There’s much to be enjoyed in a constantly changing world, and every memory has a message for the time ahead.

The next time you find yourself in a rut, searching for something more fulfilling, take a moment to pause and measure what you have achieved instead. Besides, as Cohen so ‘perfectly’ put it in his song ‘Anthem’, “Ring the bells that can ring, forget your perfect offering.”