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Updated on October 7, 2008

The Beauty of Being Perfectly Imperfect

Wabi-sabi is is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete."

It is a concept derived from the Buddhist, specifically impermanence. The characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and suggest a natural process.

It is said 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. Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Like Feng Shui, wabi sabi is an Eastern idea gaining popularity in the West. Unlike Feng Shui, wabi sabi is not a technique for increasing wealth, or tapping into some unseen mystical power. It is quite the opposite. It is an intuitive way of living that involves noticing the moments that make life rich and paying attention to the simple pleasures that can be over-shadowed by the bustle and excess of our consumer society.

Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It's simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

Examples of Wabi-Sabi

A Kind of Beauty. A stream tumbles a stone and its edges and points collide with other stones. Over time this smoothes and polishes the stone, making visible its patterns and colors. Stones in streams are worn into wabi sabi beauty. Wabi sabi beauty is also found in weathered fences, desert dunes, and aged wine. It is everywhere in nature but especially those areas which experience the ongoing action of waves, wind, water and sand. These are the obvious places, but it reveals itself in areas with different kinds of flow. The flow of years, or work, or wisdom. Once you notice it in your daily life it becomes clear that you are surrounded by it. This is being, still in the stream.

A Way of Life. Wabi sabi is also a way of life for those who appreciate old stones, bones, and barns. Those of us who take it to heart look past the sadness of wear and decay and see character and a subtle kind of value. A hammer at rest on a work bench reveals something of its history, its accumulation of useful moments, in scratches and worn away steel. You may not recognize the importance of a wabi sabi tool until you see the effect it has on your subconscious mind. Wabi sabi can often be discovered in your areas of reluctance, in those moments of hesitation over replacing an old tool, or cutting down an old tree, or trading in an old car.

Sometimes your mind comes to rest on a beauty so common it exists unnoticed in plain view. The wear pattern of a broom, the way a leather chair has been molded by the human body resting on it, the multi-hued stains of lichen on a Terra Cotta pot. Those who see these things, who find their eyes open to the beauty in simple familiar old things, also find that it is a rewarding way to live. Rather than fueling contempt for old outdated objects that you want to replace, wabi sabi produces a kind of thankfulness for the things you already have, a mindfulness of each purchase in the context of your already full life.

Fall In. Try this, if only in your imagination: Take the rope in your hands, step back a few paces, jump out over the river, hang on for dear life. As the pendulum action carries you down towards the surface, look at the flowing water and feel your stomach tingle. When you swing up the far arch feel the sweet spot; that momentary weightless sensations as your pendulum trajectory is balanced by the pull of gravity. Let go and fall into the torrent below. There is a lot of noise when you first hit the water, the bubbles and splash of your contact with the moving liquid and the strange raspy noise inside your ears as water enters them.

Bob to the surface and find yourself being carried downstream. Feel the current push gently at your back and legs and arms. You can relax now, tread water a little to keep your head out, and feel the lovely sensation of traveling in water while the shore slips by on either side.

Natural Asymmetry
Natural Asymmetry

Wabi-Sabi Wisdom Famous Quotations

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity. ~ Charles Mingus

Our life is frittered away by detail... Simplify, simplify, simplify! ~ Henry David Thoreau

In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they're still beautiful. ~ Alice Walker

Learn to let go. That is the key to happiness. ~ Buddha

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius-and a lot of courage-to move in the opposite direction. ~ E. F. Schumacker

It's not the tragedies that kill us, it's the messes. ~ Dorothy Parker

Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me. ~ Walt Whitman

Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it. ~ Simone Weil

He who knows he has enough is rich. ~ Lao-Tzu

The voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. ~ Marcel Proust

Polution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. ~ Buckminster Fuller

O Great Spirit, help me always... to remember the peace that may be found in silence. ~ Cherokee prayer

In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter ... to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird's nest or a wildflower in spring-these are some of the rewards of the simple life. ~ John Burroughs

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. ~ Hans Hofmann

It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation, which give happiness. ~ Thomas Jefferson

The great depend on their heart, not on their purse. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content. ~ Helen Keller

Wabi Sabi Flower
Wabi Sabi Flower

Wabi-Sabi Moments


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    Vanderleelie 5 years ago

    Very good explanation of the concept of wabi-sabi. Appreciating the beauty of decay also means accepting your own gradual aging as part of a natural cycle. Nothing lasts! Voted up, useful and interesting.

  • JSParker profile image

    JSParker 6 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

    This is just beautifully written! Outstanding work! I voted Up! and Beautiful!