Wabi-Sabi: How To Embrace The Japanese Philosophy Of Beauty In Imperfection

Modern society places a ridiculous amount of emphasis on perfection.

Everywhere you turn, there are adverts and articles promoting everything from perfect skin to perfect homes and perfect relationships.

It’s no wonder that people are wracked with anxiety and depression when there’s so much pressure for everything to be so freaking perfect all the time.

Yet, every person has their own idea of what perfection is.

As such, we have to ask ourselves whose ideals are we striving for?

Who has determined what denotes a perfect anything, and why on earth would their opinion matter?

This article explores a beautiful Japanese philosophy that discards the concept of perfection, and instead celebrates that which is gloriously imperfect.

What Is Wabi-Sabi?

Rooted in Zen Buddhism, Wabi-Sabi is the sincere appreciation of things that are impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete.

It celebrates the beauty in that which is natural: not despite flaws, but because of them.

Consider an indescribably gorgeous, hand-thrown piece of Japanese pottery…

Even pieces created by masters will have slight irregularities in their shapes. Glaze will dry however it wishes to, even when expertly applied.

Each finished item is a masterpiece and will be treasured by its owner.

They will appreciate every glaze drip, every slightly wonky rim or uneven base, simply because they love it exactly as it is.

Better still, they appreciate the piece because they know it’s impermanent. That cup will eventually break, so they enjoy it all the more in the present moment.

When tea is served in a formal Buddhist ceremony, it’s poured into bowls or cups that are all beautifully flawed.

Instead of being despised for their imperfections, those cups are appreciated and respected for their flaws.

They remind those taking part in the ceremony that all things are imperfect, and everything is impermanent, and will eventually be gone.

Each chip and crack tells a story. Every uneven rim sings songs about the loving hands that shaped the clay.

As such, they need to be treasured exactly as they are, in this moment, this breath.

Take a moment and think about how lovely it would be to extend that philosophy into all aspects of everyday life…

…from the work we do to how we view our relationships, our homes, and even our own bodies.

Embrace Our Bodies’ Impermanence

One area in which many people berate themselves for imperfection is in their personal appearance.

How many anti-aging or hair dye adverts do you see on a daily basis? What about anti-cellulite creams? Waxing kits for unwanted back hair?

All of those products target people’s insecurities about their physical appearance, especially as far as our natural aging process is concerned.

Wabi-Sabi encourages people to embrace impermanence and appreciate things as they are in the present moment, and this is especially relevant when it comes to our bodies.

These bodies, like favorite ceramic cups, are just temporary vessels.

In the same way that beautiful teacups hold fragrant, delicious tea, the bodies we currently inhabit are vessels for our spiritual selves.

Like those teacups, which will chip and fade and eventually break, our bodies will deteriorate and change until they finally break as well.

That’s just part of this temporary human existence.

Whenever you find that you’re being critical about some aspect of your body, take a moment and think about how you can be appreciative instead.

Are you lamenting the crow’s feet or bags around your eyes?

…think of all the beauty your eyes allow you to celebrate on a daily basis, and remember that each line was formed by thousands of sincere smiles and belly laughs.

Bellies that are marked and creased after pregnancies have helped to bring beautiful new life into the world.

Bodies that are differently abled, and might not work the same way that others do, are still miraculous vessels that allow people to hear music, or experience light rainfall on their skin, or taste the most exquisite foods.

When we embrace impermanence and cultivate gratitude in the present moment, it’s amazing to see how anger, self-loathing, shame, and other ineffective emotions fall away.

Instead, they’re replaced by appreciation, and the softness from being aware that all of this is temporary.

As such, it’s important to appreciate and celebrate what we have, when we have it.

If you have a journal, writing something every day about the gratitude you feel about your body is an excellent way to celebrate Wabi-Sabi in your own life.

Every night, before you go to bed, think of a few things that your magnificent body has enabled you to experience or enjoy today, and make note of it.

Did you take a wonderful walk outside in the sunshine? Did your toes curl when you savored a delicious meal?

Write that down, all of it. Over time, you’ll discover that your appreciation will outweigh your negative self-talk.

It will take time, especially if you’re used to criticizing yourself, but it’ll happen.

Acceptance In All Things Is Key

As mentioned earlier, many people suffer a great deal of anxiety and/or depression because aspects of their lives aren’t as perfect as they think they should be.

This is where another lesson of Buddhist philosophy comes in:

“Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”

Suffering happens when we want something to be other than as it is.

When we accept things as they are, and try to appreciate all we can about them, that suffering pretty much disappears.

A person can spend their entire lives lamenting the fact that they’re not tall enough (or too tall), or they don’t have the hair texture they always wanted, or they didn’t inherit the eye color they dreamed of.

Similarly, they might spend all of their precious (and limited) free time fussing over the state of their homes…

For them, their house might never be clean enough, tidy enough, or fashionable enough.

They might be living in a small apartment instead of a large house.

Or, if they’re living in a large house, they might lament the fact that their decor doesn’t contain the right colors, their curtains are out of date, and their dishware is chipped.

All of these insecurities may prevent them from inviting friends over to share meals with them.

So many people are so ashamed of their home’s imperfection that they’d rather sit at home, alone and sad, than risk feeling inadequate by having company over.

Here’s the thing: we never know how our lives will unfold from one day to the next.

Circumstances might change exponentially: we might have to move at a moment’s notice, or a storm might damage part of the house, changing it forever.

That mess your kids created that you’re so desperate to tidy up before company comes?

Yeah, that: do you really need to hide evidence that children are experiencing joy and creativity in their own home?

Is it more important to try to impress other people with the state of a spotless home than to accept and appreciate a happy clutter created in a place of solace and light?

Here are some spectacularly wonderful things to accept:

  • Your house will never be perfectly clean, because you live in it, and life is messy.
  • Things flow in and out of style all the time, so if you have things in your home that make you happy, rather than being en vogue, enjoy them!
  • You have the body you were given, for life. You might be able to change parts of it now and then, but it’s so important to appreciate it as it is, right now.
  • Life circumstances are as they are. Everything changes, everything is in a constant state of flux, and you’ll undoubtedly face different circumstances again in the near future.
  • There’s really no point in getting upset or angry if objects are damaged or broken. It was their time to break, and damage just comes with use.
  • Your companionship is what matters to people: not the color of your sofa.

Remember that journaling exercise we touched upon earlier, in which you were encouraged to write down a few things you really appreciate about your body?

Consider mentioning some things you love about your home as well.

It’s okay to mention insecurities or perceived shortcomings, as long as you place emphasis on what is beautiful and special there. For example:

“My garden is a bit small, but it allows me to grow beautiful flowers and delicious vegetables.”

Or perhaps:

“My kitchen is a mess, but I baked cinnamon rolls with my children this afternoon and I’ll always remember their smiles when we tasted them”.

^ Like that.

Try to take a moment to see the beauty in every bit of clutter, every wall scribble, every dust rhino.

It’s there, if we but allow ourselves to see it instead of instantly criticizing and condemning it.

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Appreciate Uniqueness

If you’ve ever bitten into an organic, heirloom tomato that’s been warming in the sun all day, you know that it’s one of the most exquisite flavor experiences you’ll ever come across.

Seriously, it’s like taking a bite of sweet summer sunshine, with the most tomato-y taste you’ll ever come across.

It’s also more than likely that the heirloom tomato you plucked had a seriously irregular shape, quite unlike the uniform, GMO, greenhouse-grown ones found at the grocery store.

Yet, what was the flavor like compared to those that were plucked early and forced to ripen in transport trucks? The latter are mealy, and basically taste like vaguely tomato-shaped cardboard.

Your home might never make its way into a Vogue magazine style shoot, but it’s filled with life, and love, and music, and joy.

Are you embarrassed because you have mismatched furniture? Why is it important that it matches?

Is it comfortable? Does your space offer you the opportunity to spend time with your loved ones?

Do you have a cherished animal companion whose favorite spot in the world is on that so-called “ugly” couch, curled up at your side?

Extend that appreciation to your job, your wardrobe, even your own body.

Your wardrobe might not be up to date as far as the latest fashion trends, but chances are that you wear clothes that suit your own unique personality, and that’s really important.

As far as appearance goes, think of all the famous people who have (or had) something unique or unusual about how they looked, and how it made them stand out in a crowd.

Some might criticize their appearance, but those traits make them who they are…

…just like everything gloriously different and unique about you makes you who you are.

Try to embrace every bit of it as being exactly as it was meant to be.

Imperfection And Impermanence In Relationships

Every aspect of our life is impermanent. This fact reinforces the need for all of us to truly cherish things as they are, in the moment.

No relationship will ever be “perfect.”

Not between parents and children, nor between romantic partners or close friends.

This is because we are all constantly changing, and have countless things going on in our lives that affect every aspect of our existence.

Relating to another person who’s also going through changes means that there will always be tumultuous times in amongst the good, happy experiences.

It’s important to not reproach yourself if there’s a bit of tension in a personal relationship, or if it doesn’t resemble what someone else is experiencing.

Each of your relationships is utterly unique in the universe, and it’s so, SO important not to compare your life with someone else’s.

Remember that you only ever witness what other people choose to share with you: there’s far more going on beneath the surface that you’re not privy to.

If you can, take breaks from social media whenever possible. People tend to only share the best and brightest aspects of their lives on their social feeds, which gives a false impression of what their lives are really like.

Being exposed to this constant onslaught of pseudo perfection from all sides, all the time, has contributed a great deal to other people’s insecurities and desires to strive for perfection of their own.

Instead, turn within.

Be present, be mindful, and be indescribably appreciative of everything and everyone in your life.

Especially the “flawed” bits, as those tend to be the most precious, in retrospect.

Perfection Is A Matter Of Individual Preference

Huffington Post ran a couple of interesting articles a while ago about what people around the world consider to be the ideal, as far as women’s and men’s bodies are concerned.

The results were fascinating, if a bit disconcerting.

People from 18 different countries photoshopped these photos to better depict what they considered to be the perfect male and female bodies, respectively.

Guess what? All of their ideas about perfection were different.

Some preferred the man to be lean, with a hairless chest and defined abs, while others preferred him stockier, with abundant chest hair.

Similarly, some photoshopped the woman to have an ample bosom and curvy hips, with others made her thin and juvenile looking.

This reiterates the fact that perfection really is in the eye of the beholder.

Even our own ideas of perfection need to be re-examined: are they really our ideas? Or have they been influenced by other people?

If it’s the latter, what does that mean for our opinions of ourselves? Of our homes, our belongings, and our relationships?

Think about all the different people you know, and then think about their homes, their wardrobes, their jobs, their relationships.

Do you know any two people whose relationships are identical?

Some couples have children, some don’t. Some are monogamous, some are polyamorous.

There are those who enjoy fighting with their spouses, and those who prefer peace and calm.

If a relationship is fulfilling to everyone involved, then that’s what matters.

The beauty, the love… those are the little bits of imperfect perfection to be celebrated, not whether the couple looks good to a passerby, or if they suit society’s ideal of what a family “should” look like.

Wabi-Sabi is the joy and fulfillment one finds when curled up with a loved one in a mess of mismatched, rumpled blankets, sunshine spilling over clasped hands.

Those hands may have chipped nail polish, calluses, scars, even missing fingers…

…and they are perfect in their flawed, unique beauty.

Abandoning The Idea Of Perfection Is Immensely Freeing

Who would you be if you weren’t constantly striving to live up to someone else’s ideals?

What level of happiness could you attain if you spent every waking moment appreciating all the wonderful things in your world, instead of obsessing over little messes that “should” be picked up, or thighs that “should” be firmer?

Author Richard Powell – whose book Wabi Sabi Simple is a must-read – has this quote to share:

“Accepting the world as imperfect, unfinished, and transient, and then going deeper and celebrating that reality, is something not unlike freedom.”

Many years ago, I had a dream in which I was given a blade of grass in a wooden box. I was a bit confused when I saw it, and asked the giver what was so important about it?

Her answer surprised me, but was quite beautiful. She said:

“People rarely give grass more than a passing thought. They walk over it, cut it without pausing, use it to feed animals, get irritated when it grows too long. Why would they take time to think about it? It’s just grass, right?

If they did but take a moment, they would realize that every blade is a small miracle unto itself: each one is sacred, and absolutely perfect, and never to be taken for granted.”

Imagine how much more special and sacred our lives could be if we appreciated and celebrated everything as being perfect exactly as it is.

Without insecurity.

Without condemnation.

Without feeling inadequate.

Sounds immensely special and freeing, doesn’t it?

Let’s all try to incorporate a bit more Wabi-Sabi into our lives, and encourage it in others as well.

Everything around us is imperfectly perfect, in a constant state of change.

Let’s think kindly of every aspect, treat it all (and one another) with utter acceptance and gentleness, and appreciate all that we have, while we have it.

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About Author

Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.