Wabi Sabi (2018) sets out the different ways that the Japanese concept of wabi sabi can shape our lives for the better. Based on simplicity, impermanence and imperfection, wabi sabi acts as an antidote to the consumerism and fast pace of modern living.
Motivation, Inspiration, Mindfulness, Alternative Medicine, Meditation, Happiness Self-Help, Personal Transformation, Philosophy, Cultural, Japan, Spirituality, Personal Development, Asian Literature, Japanese Literature, Art, Psychology
Introduction: Learn to live the good life through Japanese wisdom.
So, you’re in a job you don’t really like, which sucks up all of your energy. You frequently worry that you’re underachieving. You don’t see your friends and family nearly enough. You’re living in a busy district of a city you’re not suited to at all. You own lots of things you’re not sure you even need. Somehow, life just happened, and you found yourself here.
The Japanese concept of wabi sabi contains wisdom for when life feels like this. Through simplicity, and the acceptance of our imperfections and impermanence, it allows us to see things afresh. Wabi sabi teaches us how to simplify and prioritize the right things, while not being too hard on ourselves while we make the necessary changes. Often, it shows us that what we have already is enough, and that we’re surrounded by everyday magic. All we need to do is learn how to access it.
In these summaries, you’ll learn
- why the Japanese tea ceremony encourages simplicity;
- what the seasons can teach us about our emotional state; and
- how a long-distance swimmer can help us rethink failure.
The concept of wabi sabi is best understood by considering the two words separately.
You could live in Japan your whole life and never hear the words wabi sabi spoken aloud. The most authoritative Japanese dictionary, Kōjien, doesn’t have an entry for it. It includes the individual words, wabi and sabi, but not the combined term.
Instead, wabi sabi is something that exists as an underlying philosophy, running like an invisible thread through Japanese life and culture. But what does it mean?
The key message here is: The concept of wabi sabi is best understood by considering the two words separately.
Let’s start with wabi. In modern Japanese, it means something like “subdued taste.” However, the word was originally associated with poverty, insufficiency, and despair, coming from the verb wabiru, meaning “to worry.”
To get at the full meaning, though, we need to go back to the ancient tea ceremonies that have played a significant part in shaping Japanese culture and life. During the mid-sixteenth century, although Japan had an emperor in place, the country was really ruled by feudal lords known as daimyo. The samurai warriors who protected the daimyo’s castles and estates had begun drinking tea to keep themselves awake on their night watches. The ceremony that came with tea drinking was also a chance to enjoy a moment of tranquility in their violent lives.
Soon, though, drinking tea became part of the lavish courtly life of the ruling classes, with ornate tearooms and utensils. Rather than a tranquil ceremony reflecting its Zen origins, it became another luxury pastime.
Then, a tea master for the famous daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi named Sen no Rikyū decided to revolutionize the tea ceremony. He rejected the opulence of the courtly tea ceremonies, favoring a more austere version, with simple utensils and smaller tearooms. Rather than signify wealth, it should celebrate simplicity and natural beauty. Rikyū’s style of tea ceremony became known as wabi tea, or “wabi-cha.” Wabi, then, implies a mindset that appreciates simplicity, humility and frugality.
Now, let’s turn to sabi. Translated into English it would be something like “patina, antique look,” or “elegant simplicity.” Over time, the word has come to communicate a beauty that comes with the passage of time – an appreciation of weathering, tarnishing and the marks of antiquity. In his classic work, In Praise of Shadows, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki explains it best when he says of the Japanese people: “We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance…”
Taken together, the combined term wabi sabi implies a worldview that appreciates simple beauty, imperfection and the transience of all things. It is most accentuated when it is compared to certain tendencies in the West – materialism, perfectionism and the fear of confronting the passage of time. In our fast-paced consumer culture, there is much wisdom we can take from the way of wabi sabi.
A wabi sabi home is soulful and simple.
You’re trying to relax in your living room. But something about this room, this house, doesn’t feel quite right. You’ve got neat furniture, an expensive wide-screen TV and a great speaker setup, but it all feels a bit impersonal. There are a few objects and decorations you keep even though you don’t really like them. And there is a lot of unsorted clutter in the drawers and cupboards that really annoys you.
If this sounds familiar, then the wisdom of wabi sabi can help you feel more at home.
The key message here is: A wabi sabi home is soulful and simple.
Firstly, in the wabi sabi home, imperfection is to be celebrated. We can’t all live in rooms that look like something in Architect’s Digest or the most carefully curated Instagram feeds. More than anything, homes are to be lived in. Home is the place where we should feel most at ease. That means accepting the sometimes uneven, messy contours that human beings bring into the places where they live.
One way to keep that in mind is to make use of natural materials, like wood and stone. These materials contain naturally beautiful irregularities – like the knots in wood, or the grooves in stone – that remind us that the world, just like us, is perfectly imperfect.
To bring more of yourself into your home, you should pay close to attention to your emotions when you decorate. For instance, a simple alcove can be transformed by a few objects that evoke feelings or memories close to you. That might be a few stones or pieces of bark from a favorite beach or woodland walk.
Though these special fragments of the world can transform an impersonal space, a wabi sabi home is also one which values decluttering. Rather than soulless minimalism, the right kind of decluttering can help you focus on what’s truly important in your home. Those special objects that evoke deep happiness or reflection will shine more in a room that gives them space.
This is where the lesson of Sen no Rikyū’s simple teahouse comes into its own. In less cluttered spaces, we can focus on what really matters, like our relationships with others, our memories and the moments of beauty in our lives. The wabi sabi home, then, allows for all of our imperfections, but encourages us to simplify our lives so that we’re closest to what we cherish most.
Wabi sabi means tuning into nature.
When you begin to learn Japanese, you soon learn how deeply the natural world is embedded in the language. The very sounds of nature have shaped the way the Japanese speak. Many words are onomatopoeic. For instance, the word kopokopo describes the gentle bubbling of water, while hyuhyu is the sound of the whooshing wind.
Like the Japanese language, the philosophy of wabi sabi encourages a close connection to the natural world.
The key message here is: Wabi sabi means tuning into nature.
When we pay attention to nature, we begin to notice a whole world of quiet and simple magic. We also become more present. We notice this in haiku poetry written by old masters like Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa. Typically, a haiku poem will distill a simple image from nature. Take the most famous of Bashō’s haiku. Translated, it reads:
The old pond
a frog jumps in
sound of water.
Here, we focus only on this natural miracle, nothing else.
We also see this heightened attention in the way the Japanese seasons are measured. Rather than having four seasons, the Japanese classical calendar includes 24 smaller seasons known as sekki, and 72 micro-seasons, known as kō. These micro-seasons pay special attention to minute changes in the world’s atmosphere and appearance. They have names like Awakening of hibernated insects and Mist starts to hover.
Today, we often forget to notice small changes in the outside world. Unfortunately, this applies to our internal lives, too. Modern life numbs us to signals from our minds and bodies, as we flit between work and the glare of our screens. But if we can learn to read slight changes in the natural world, we can become more sensitive to our own rhythms. We can learn when we need rest or exercise, light or dark, travel or home.
As we pay closer attention to nature, another aspect of wabi sabi becomes apparent as well: the transient nature of everything. The beautiful cherry blossom wilts, the mayfly dies, and the snow melts away from the mountaintop. This reminds us of our own impermanence, and tells us that we must focus on what really matters now, before it’s too late.
Wabi sabi encourages us to embrace acceptance.
Let’s admit it: life can be really challenging sometimes. But without acceptance of this basic fact, we can make things even harder for ourselves. When we’re unable to be flexible, let things go, and move forward, life can be an impossible terrain. When life does throw us a challenge, the best thing we can do is learn the power of acceptance.
The key message here is: Wabi sabi encourages us to embrace acceptance.
Firstly, we must be ready to accept change. As everything is impermanent, even stability, we must always be ready to adapt.
As is often the case, we can learn from nature. Consider the climate in which bamboo grows. There are often powerful monsoons and hurricanes that arise from nowhere. Like a forest of bamboo in a storm we must learn to bend rather than break, and continue to grow, even when circumstances change.
Or consider the buildings in many Japanese cities. They are designed to withstand earthquakes. When a seismic tremor shakes the earth, the only buildings left standing are those that bend with the shock. The brittle ones crumble to dust.
The same thing is true in life. Sometimes dramatic change disrupts the course of our lives. Our relationships, careers, and health can all change in life-altering ways, and whether or not we like that change is immaterial. The sooner we accept that it is happening the better, as we can modify our behavior to the new reality, whether it’s the loss of a job or having an unfaithful partner. We’re much more likely to withstand the storm when we can see it coming.
As well as change, we must also learn to accept who we are, and not strive for impossible perfection. This perfection, which we are encouraged to pursue, is an illusion – it exists only in commercials or on perfectly-curated social media profiles.
Rather than beat ourselves up for not having it all, we need to accept that life is messy, flawed and always incomplete. Even if we did find ourselves living the kind of life that looks like a beachwear commercial, it wouldn’t be as we imagined it: life is fundamentally imperfect. And after we’ve accepted that basic truth, we should realize that much of what we have already is – in its own way – perfectly imperfect.
Wabi sabi teaches us how to approach learning and failure in a healthier way.
A bad exam result. A rejection letter from a publisher. A failed driving test. We’ve all been there. Learning and failing can hurt. However, it doesn’t have to be like this, if we learn to approach both from the perspective of wabi sabi.
The key message here is: Wabi sabi teaches us how to approach learning and failure in a healthier way.
Learning is never finished – there is no complete or perfect learning.
Take the author’s story, as she struggled to learn Japanese at Durham University in the UK. Through the different stages of her journey she felt alternately confident or bruised by her experience. From falling so far behind in her studies that she was nearly barred from the year abroad, to then working as a successful interpreter in Japan, there were many moments in her education when she felt either inadequate or on top of things.
The truth is that learning is never complete, and we should approach it with that in mind. When we start to learn something – whether it’s a new language, a musical instrument or accounting – we should embark on our journey with the understanding that there isn’t a final destination. Learning will have setbacks and sudden advances, but it won’t end.
And with this in mind, there’ll always be others further along the path of learning, as well as those way behind. It doesn’t help to compare yourself to them – you should focus only on your individual journey.
As learning is an endless process, failure is a necessary part of that. And rather than being a disaster, failure can be an opportunity for expansion. Take the story of long-distance swimmer, Ken Igarashi. A keen swimmer since junior high school, he then fell into work and family life, before returning to swimming in his mid-thirties. One day, he attempted to swim the English Channel in 15 hours. Starting his crossing in the early hours and suffering from the effects of the sleeping pills and whiskey he’d taken as a jet lag cure, he began to fall behind. Sadly, he missed his goal, but reached his destination over 16 hours later.
However, rather than feeling dispirited, he was glad to have made it to the French shore – as it was his first international crossing and an astonishing achievement nonetheless. He reframed his “failure,” and drew some powerful lessons about his own endurance levels. Not long after this, he became the first Japanese person to swim from Japan to Korea, and the first to make it across Lake Baikal in Russia.
We should learn to reframe our failures like Ken Igarashi. Failure doesn’t mark an end, just a useful lesson. After any failure, we have the opportunity to discover things about ourselves we might never have found out otherwise.
The implicit wabi sabi of the tea ceremony can help with our personal relationships.
In Japan, the tea ceremony is a moment to be mindful and accommodating of one another. It’s an occasion where people offer care and consideration.
It’s based on four principles: wa kei sei jaku, which translate roughly to “harmony,” “respect,” “purity,” and “tranquility.” But these don’t have to begin and end with the tea ceremony: we can take them into our own lives.
The key message here is: The implicit wabi sabi of the tea ceremony can help with our personal relationships.
Let’s consider what these principles mean individually, in terms of our relationships.
Firstly, wa, meaning harmony. What could you do more of in your relationships to encourage harmony? Let’s say that the other person has a particular kind of energy – perhaps he’s an anxious person. To make your relationship with him more harmonious, you could try and put his mind at ease when you meet or deliver news to him. That might be through a simple gesture, or a calmer tone of voice.
Secondly, let’s look at kei, which means respect. What individual things do you respect about a person that you could tell them about? It could be something that goes unnoticed or uncelebrated. Perhaps you have a friend who, no matter what, will always tell you the honest truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. It won’t hurt to tell her that.
Thirdly, let’s move on to sei, purity. In the context of the tea ceremony, sei refers to the way that guests entering the tearoom would wash their hands to show respect and care to the other tea-drinkers. But it also refers to purity of heart, as a reminder to seek out the best in each other.
When you look for the best in people, what do you see? If you had a conflict with them, but still managed to see the best in them, what might be different now? Consider this example from the author. She’d noticed that her husband always left a wet drying-towel on the kitchen top. It really frustrated her, until she realized that he’d left it there after he’d made dinner, done all the washing up, put their children to bed, given her a hug and asked her about her day!
Lastly, we get to jaku, tranquility. For you to really connect with others, you need space and calm. There need to be times when it’s just you and the other person – perhaps it’s a long walk together, or a quiet coffee in a cafe corner. Whatever you prefer, how can you build more space and peace in your time together?
Wabi sabi-inspired wisdom can help you in your career.
You’ve just overheard some office gossip: your nemesis is getting promoted. The news hits you like a punch in the guts. It’s not so much that you dislike them – it’s just that you deserve a promotion too. You begin to ask yourself some searching questions. What do they have that I don’t? Why aren’t I as successful as other people?
We’ve all been there. In the end, though, this kind of career pressure is ultimately of no use to you or anyone.
The key message here is: Wabi sabi-inspired wisdom can help you in your career.
As we’ve seen, wabi sabi warns against the idea of perfection. And our careers are no exception. This means that we should stop comparing our position in life to that of others – all careers are highly individual, and all have their ups and downs. Your colleague who just received an enviable promotion has probably endured tough times in the past. The novelist who has just won a big literary prize will almost certainly have received rejection letters before.
And there is no such thing as a perfectly-executed career path. Many of us take winding paths to reach where we want to be – and, perhaps, it’s only through such a meandering route that we’re able to reach the job or goal that we desire most.
In fact, wabi sabi, which values the passage of time, teaches us the path is more important than the destination. In the Japanese language, there is a character that reads dō, which means “the way” when it is combined with other characters. You’ll find the term in words like judō, which means “the way of gentleness”, sadō, which means “the way of tea”, and karatedō – also known as “karate” – which means “the way of the empty hand.” What we learn from all these different practices is that the path towards something – which contains the most vital lessons – is more important than the end goal.
The same is true of our careers. Oftentimes, in the West, we demand perfection and completion quickly. We push ourselves to reach the “destination” – whether that’s an elusive promotion or book deal. But this means that we sometimes suffer dreadful disappointment when things don’t work out on our own timescales.
Instead, we must approach the long path of our careers with the patience of the judoka, the jūdō master, who understands that there is no final destination, and that the lessons on the way are what counts most.
Wabi sabi can help us come to terms with aging and cherish our time on Earth.
A row of graves in a nearby cemetery. A list of memorial services in the local newspaper. A beloved celebrity’s death in the news. We’re surrounded by reminders of our own mortality.
The truth is we fear aging – we try and ward it off at all costs. It’s rare that you can watch TV without seeing a commercial for an antiaging cream or treatment.
But as we seek elixirs for immortality, we neglect the positives that come with growing old, like the wisdom and discernment that are the fruit of experience. A life led according to the wabi sabi philosophy appreciates these things, just as it appreciates the faded beauty of antique objects.
The key message here is: Wabi sabi can help us come to terms with aging and cherish our time on Earth.
Wabi sabi teaches us to embrace aging and to relax as we enter the autumn of our lives. And as we relax into aging, we should recognize another vital part of wabi sabi: that nothing is permanent. But that’s OK, too. When we understand that our time on Earth is limited, it helps us find value and meaning in it. We’re also better able to treasure moments with our loved ones, or doing the things we enjoy most of all.
And even if you’re not old, it can help focus your mind when you really acknowledge this impermanence. For instance, what would you do differently if you knew that you had only ten years left to live? What about a year? Seeing things like this can help you get your priorities in order.
However, rather than pressurizing yourself to seek the “perfect” life, you’ll be more content when you accept that the only real perfection is to be found in the magic of the everyday. The sincere hug from a friend. The blackbird watching you work from the garden. The aroma of freshly-brewed coffee.
Sometimes, it can even help to write these things down, so you remember to appreciate them. The eleventh-century poetess Sei Shōnagon noted her favorite things, in lists like “Things to Quicken the Heart” or “Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past,” as a reminder of what she loved.
Just like Sei Shōnagon, we should learn to find the simple, profound beauty in the world around us, while we still have time.
The key message in these summaries:
Wabi sabi is a concept that exists implicitly in Japan without being frequently articulated. It values simplicity and imperfection, while recognizing the impermanence of all things. There is much that we can learn from its philosophy, in regard to our relationships with others, our career paths, our approach to failure, and the way we decorate our homes. Rather than piling unnecessary pressure on ourselves in the quest for perfection, wabi sabi encourages us to value the perfectly imperfect.
Learn to notice the birds.
The next time you go for a stroll outside, see if you can see or hear any birds. What do they look like? What do they sound like? What are your favorite kinds of birds? Then, when you return home, using a guidebook or the internet, see if you can identify all of the birds you saw on your walk and make a note of them in a diary.
About the author
Beth Kempton has a Masters Degree in Japanese and has spent many years living and working in Japan. Over the years she has studied papermaking, flower arranging, pottery, calligraphy, the tea ceremony and weaving in Japan. Collectively these experiences have led to a deep love the country and a rare understanding of cultural and linguistic nuances. As founder and CEO of Do What You Love, Beth has produced and delivered online course and workshops that have helped thousands of people all over the world. Her blog was recently named Best Happiness Blogs on the Planet.