Japan is said to have an unusual way of viewing the world, encapsulated by Japanese aesthetics – an art form or altered state of consciousness. ‘Wabi-sabi’ is the culture and philosophy behind one of the country’s most influential concepts, becoming an every day way of life for many in Japan and overseas. Zahra is the founder of Wabi Sabi Wellbeing, she shared some information with me about what the concept means to her, and how this impacts her work.
Wabi-sabi is a lens for viewing the world that finds beauty in imperfection. You can aim to improve, without aiming for perfection. We all have a unique blue print, one that is different – not necessarily better or worse. In nature and in existence, things are “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete”. While we are limited by language, this philosophy or experience is communicated throughout many aspects of Japanese culture including art, architecture, design, tea ceremonies, literature, poetry, horticulture and health.
Imperfection, Impermanence and Incompletion
Wabi-sabi symbolises rustic beauty and quietness. It also denotes simplicity and stillness and can apply to both man-made and natural objects. It can also refer to the quirks and anomalies in things: the body-mind-soul. It’s a unique one-of-a-kind flaw, for example: old withered branches, stretch marks, tainted glass, a rough painted console.
Wabi-Sabi refers to things whose beauty can come only with age, indicative of natural processes that result in objects that are irregular, unpretentious, and ambiguous. It refers to the patina, such as a very old bronze statue, old Italian villa with pillars or copper roof turned green. It also incorporates an appreciation of the natural rhythm and cycles of life.
”A certain love of roughness is involved, behind which lurks a hidden beauty, to which we refer in our peculiar adjectives shibui, Wabi, and Sabi. It is this beauty with inner implications that is referred to as shibui. It is not a beauty displayed perfectly. This concept requires the art of “slowness”, a willingness to concentrate on the things that are often overlooked, the imperfections and the marks recording the passing of time. For me, this is the perfect antidote to the invasive, slick, saccharine, corporate style of beauty. Andrew Juniper suggests, “If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.”
Science And Art
Wabi-sabi refers to the tone or mood of a work of art. Sabi refers to the influence of time upon objects. Objects are ‘sabi’ if they have on them the imprint of the natural forces of heat and cold, rain, or sun, over a prolonged period of time. They are flawed, irregular, asymmetrical, rough, unrefined, and variegated. Rusted, warped, tarnished, or cracked objects reveal that they are in a state of flux. Wabi is more about lifestyle – the simple, solitary way of living of the Zen monks. Objects are said to have wabi if they are simple, ordinary, and of natural materials and designs.
In this thatched hut there ought not to be a speck of dust of any kind; both master and visitors are expected to be on terms of absolute sincerity; no ordinary measures of proportion or etiquette or conventionalism are to be followed. - Sen no Rikyu
Tea ceremonies encapsulate the art of taking things slow. When was the last time you truly sat down and enjoyed a cup of tea – and by that I mean noticed every texture, flavour and scent, as opposed to wolfing it down in front of the laptop or TV? Tea ceremonies are a seemingly simple and timeless tradition. In fact, it takes many hours of training to become a disciplined and masterful tea host.
Tea ceremonies remind you that there is a lot of beauty and flavour to be found in the small, every day things. They force you to be present, as you sit on a padded cushion in silence and appreciate the act, sounds and sensations of tea being poured, the first rush of steam against the nose and the taste of the initial tentative sips.
The tea-ware itself often doesn’t boast bright, fanciful colours. Instead they are often beautifully basic, with neutral and pastel shades such as the browns, greens and greys found in nature. It is often rugged, rough to touch, and sometimes chipped or repaired in gold leaf – this is an art-form known as Kintsugi where the focus is to highlight the perfection found in imperfection.
Tea ceremonies are a deeply zen and spiritual experience. However, drinking tea eventually slipped away from its sacred roots and was adopted by the ruling class for other means. Nobles and war-lords hosted tea-tasting parties in order to show off their expensive vessels and utensils imported from China.
In 1488 in Kyoto, a monk called Murata Jukō decided to once again redefine tea drinking. He created a document known as Kokoro No Fumi (the letter of the heart), in which he described a tea ceremony based on the principles of wabi-sabi. Along with the ‘no fuss’ meditative ceremony style, he encouraged the use of worn, weathered and unglazed stoneware made by Japanese artisans.
Today, many great schools of tea follow the traditions of Sen no Rikyū as he came to be known, meaning ‘the great master of tea’. Of note was the shift towards appreciating simpler, minimalistic surroundings. One of the vessels he used was a humble tea bowl made from old roof tiles known as Raku.
This continues to influence modern potters all over the world and is traditionally made by hand rather than using a wheel. Firing at low temperatures and removing from the kiln while still hot results in fairly porous pieces that are often left unglazed. When they are glazed, traditional techniques include waxes, copper, crackle effects and matte black.
Zahra runs a holistic lifestyle brand that promotes a modern, creative way of living a conscious lifestyle. This involves enhancing your health through traditional practices such as yoga, energy healing, wellbeing mentoring, emotional intelligence and holistic nutrition.
She explains that when we begin to view our mind and body as one, we can begin to truly understand the interconnection between our emotions, thoughts, feelings and physical health. This holistic approach allows us to fully honour our individual needs and support our wellbeing in a much more encompassing way by integrating mind, body, soul and spirit.
Our bodies are a work of art – nature is an artist and so are you. Wabi-Sabi reminds us that we are all transient beings on this planet and that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to dust. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, rust, liver spots. Through Wabi-Sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the melancholy found in these marks of passing time.
Bringing Wabi-Sabi into your life doesn’t require money, training, or special skills. It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate muted beauty, courage not to fear bareness, and a willingness to accept things as they are – without ornamentation. It depends on the ability to slow down, to shift the balance from doing to being, to appreciating rather than perfecting. A more boho simple ikebana arrangement.
Wabi-sabi as an art form can seem particularly difficult in today’s fast paced world of constant engagement, distraction and consumption. As many of us know all too well, this can be incredibly draining. ‘When we live to enhance our life force, we live in a state of beauty’. A strange and unique beauty that’s unfamiliar, unconventional or curious.
The spirit of nature is naturally unpredictable yet cyclical, organic and wild, and full of primal power and wonder. It’s also raw, fragmented and disrupted. We have become so obsessed with ordering, controlling, growing and perfecting our lives in order to ‘get somewhere’, that we stifle some of this innately erratic and yet graceful presence. Wabi-sabi brings us back in to every small but sacred moment in a quietly confident, and gently disciplined way.