By Pieter De Wit
A while ago, my girlfriend and I finally decided to buy a new dining table. When I noticed the first scratch on it, I got agitated. We invested in this quality furniture, but now I need to cover up an ugly mark for the next 10 years. Instead of being happy with our new furniture, I feel frustrated about the money spent, and I can’t enjoy our purchase as before.
The Japanese discovered that this approach of running the rat race to a perfect life is unrealistic, and their concept of wabi-sabi can help you to welcome imperfections and accept life as it is. The word “Wabi” means “rustic simplicity” or “understated elegance” and has a focus on a less-is-more mentality.
“Sabi” can be translated into “taking pleasure in the imperfect.” In its purest form, wabi-sabi teaches us the beauty of imperfection, but it’s a lot more than that. It will make your life lighter and can open the door to accepting yourself for who you really are.
Perfection Isn’t Real
In his book, Wabi-Sabi Simple, Richard Powell explains that the concept acknowledges three simple realities: “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” And when I think about this, it gives me an unexpected peace. Once we realise these truths, it makes no sense to hold on to something too tight or keep striving for unattainable perfection.
Because we get bombarded with the idea of perfect lives all the time, this is an especially welcome message. Influencers on social media show their perfect home interiors, bodies, holiday destinations and relationships, and we tend to think we need to be the same to find fulfilment. Unfortunately, the relentless pursuit of perfection often leads to stress, anxiety, and depression. Perfection is not only impossible, but the race towards it also leaves us empty-handed and unhappy.
The Beauty Of Imperfection
Think about an old object, such as your favourite pair of trousers that may be showing a lot of wear and tear, but you don’t want to get rid of them. Or the 100-year old wooden table with cracks that you inherited from your grandparents, or the crumbled Colosseum in Rome. All these objects are far from perfect and don’t match our classic concept of beauty, but they’re still beautiful. They show signs of usage, they changed through life and have a story to tell.
A great example of wabi-sabi is the art of kintsugi, where cracked pottery is often filled with gold-dusted lacquer. Instead of hiding cracks, the artist highlights them as a way to showcase the beauty of its age. Similarly, this Japanese philosophy encourages us to focus on the beautiful cracks in our daily lives and praise the challenges we overcame to become the person we are today.
Improvement Versus Perfection
The concept of wabi-sabi is not an excuse for poor craftsmanship. The Japanese take pride in their work ethic, and the philosophy of Kaizen focuses on deliberate and continuous improvement. The concept of taking “baby steps” and aiming for improvement each day seems in conflict with accepting imperfection. But as always, the truth lies in the middle.
I certainly believe we should find our purpose in life and try to improve accordingly. Oh, and if you wonder how to find your purpose, read the book Ikigai—apparently the Japanese have a solution for everything! Finding meaning, working hard and accomplishing life goals can be really rewarding, but the key lies in enjoying the path towards improvement, rather than waiting for perfection.
How To Practice Wabi-sabi?
According to the Japanese, bringing wabi-sabi into your life doesn’t require money, training, or special skills. What you need to appreciate all this beauty is a quiet mind, the ability to slow down, and to accept things as they are. We need a balance shift from doing to being, and from perfecting to appreciating.
The best way for me to get in such a state of mind is to express gratitude. This can be done throughout the day or during a ten-minute meditation practice. Simply sit down and define what you’re grateful for. I do this mostly in the evening, so I can express gratitude for the day that passed. I do it for everything, from the breakfast that I had and the clothes that I wear to the money I earned and the love I received from my family and friends.
I truly believe that there is a time and place for everything. On our path to a fulfilled life, we should first try to find our purpose or Ikigai. This way we know what part of our life we should improve the most with Kaizen. But most of all, we should be able to practise a wabi-sabi approach all the way and show our imperfect smile from beginning to end.