Wabi-Sabi | A Japanese Philosophy of Perfect Imperfection

The pursuit of perfection has become the norm in today’s world, where chronic dissatisfaction, burnout, depression, and anxiety reign supreme. We’ve subjected ourselves to unrealistic standards and rigorously chase an ideal that’s impossible to reach. Advertisements show us snapshots of handsome people enjoying their favorite drink dancing among a crowd of fashion models with ever-smiling faces. This uncompromising image of perfect happiness yells at us: “This is how your life should be.” And so, we try to mimic the sublimity of a lifestyle ideal.

We spend fortunes on tweaking ourselves, our lives, and our environment and then flood social media with pictures and videos to show the world the exquisiteness of our lives. Perfection is what we need to accomplish: a perfectly symmetrical face, a perfectly sculpted body, perfect hair, skin, jawline, house, friends, family, partner, children, vacations, or in short: an existence without fault. But this isn’t only impossible and exhausting to pursue; it’s also unnatural as far as the Japanese world view of wabi-sabi is concerned. Wabi-sabi rejects the pursuit of perfection and embraces the reality of imperfection. The philosophy behind wabi-sabi can help us escape the hamster wheel of chasing an ideal life and teaches us to appreciate existence as it is: perfectly imperfect.

A short history of Wabi-Sabi

The fifteenth-century Japanese ruling classes loved to display their wealth and consumed their tea from detailed Chinese cups, preferably at full moon. Zen monk Murata Shukō, however, sought to change the ceremony from a celebration of riches, into a more sober affair, by using simple Japanese-made goods. Shukō’s successors further transformed the tea ceremony by simplifying the rituals and materials used, adding natural elements, and embracing the transient nature of existence. For example, instead of costly decorated ceramic cups, they used simple, old-fashioned ones, and instead of drinking at full moon, it became customary to drink at a partial or clouded moon.

The tea ceremony became a tribute to simplicity, impermanence, and imperfection. And it’s considered a prominent historical example of wabi-sabi. We can also see the Buddhist elements at the core of wabi-sabi, namely the so-called three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, and emptiness. Many would agree that it’s impossible to achieve a clear definition of wabi-sabi. The meaning of the words “wabi” and “sabi” have changed over time. Nowadays, “wabi” refers to simple things, but more in a basic, rough, imperfect, asymmetrical manner, as we find in nature. “Sabi” refers to things touched by time; that show signs of decay or damage. Yes, there’s a philosophy behind it, but wabi-sabi isn’t the philosophy itself. Perhaps, we can best describe it as an experience: a lucid encounter with the transient, imperfect nature of existence.

The vanity of chasing perfection 

Pursuing perfection is like chasing an impossible dream. We’re after a fantasy of wholeness, of an ultimate state, which we ultimately cannot attain. Some see perfection as a subjective experience, as the bar of perfection is pretty low for some people. They’ll consider “perfect” what others would consider flawed. But here’s the problem: what others think of as flawed cannot be perfect; there wouldn’t be any flaws to detect if it was. Plato argued that perfection could not exist outside of the realm of thoughts. An ideal can only exist in our minds, and the rest is just a replica. Add to that the transient nature of the universe and the inevitable fate of a near-perfect imitation confronts us; it falls apart eventually. A near-perfect-looking spouse? She will soon fall prey to old age. A near-perfect body? It will quickly decay. The more we try to perfect something, the more rigid and fragile it becomes, like perfectly still water is ruined by a grain of sand falling into it. Or as Lao Tzu stated:

It is easier to carry an empty cup
than one that is filled to the brim.
The sharper the knife
the easier it is to dull.
The more wealth you possess
the harder it is to protect.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 9

If you keep your living room in a state of near-perfect tidiness, only a little dust is enough to ruin it. If you walk on your toes to live a near-perfect life, only a little push is enough to sweep you off your feet. And, thus, chasing perfection seems to be a fool’s errand. It’s an impossible goal, as we can only achieve second best, and it’s difficult and eventually impossible to maintain. Therefore, chasing perfection often exhausts us, makes us depressed, anxious, and self-loathing, as we burden ourselves with an ongoing sense of lack, of “never enough,” and the fear of losing what imitation of perfection we have accomplished. It’s like desperately trying to keep the water in a pond still and crystal clear, even though we cannot prevent the wind, rain, earthquakes, and other natural phenomena from shaking it up.

We, as humans, are not perfectly still, crystal clear ponds, and never will be. Most of us resemble ponds of cloudy water, subject to the whims of nature, the rains and winds of existence, and the fires of inevitable destruction. And with this fleeting, imperfect condition, we resonate with the rest of the world. Imperfection, not perfection, is the natural state. Now, is this a tragedy? From the viewpoint of wabi-sabi, it’s not. On the contrary: it’s the beauty of perfect imperfection.

The embrace of imperfection

Embracing imperfection doesn’t mean that we should not self-improve. Self-improvement is OK, as long as it’s within reason and without the goal of perfection. Nor does it mean that we make a mess of things. A drug addiction, for instance, isn’t perfectly imperfect. Instead, it’s a consequence of the inability to accept life’s imperfections and pain and a desperate method to banish all painful elements from one’s emotional state. We could say that addicts want to experience perfection: a mental state without pain. But it’s the resistance to the darker sides of life that withholds us from experiencing wabi-sabi. In Buddhist terms, this resistance leads to dissatisfaction, or dukkha, as we refuse to come to terms with reality, that life is inherently flawed, and that nothing we cling to remains the same. Therefore, the desire for perfection is a form of clinging: we cling to an idea or grand vision of how things ought to be—and clinging lies at the root of suffering. Only by letting these fantasies of perfection dissolve can we release ourselves from their torture.

Existence has no standards. No stone or tree, or mountain has to meet specific requirements. Nature simply brings these manifestations into the world before they wither and disappear. Wabi-sabi is the experience of how things are, not how they should be, in their imperfect, transient condition. “One must be deeply aware of the impermanence of the world,” said Dōgen, founder of the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism. Aging, asymmetry, crookedness, damage, decay, death: embrace them as an intrinsic part of nature, and you might begin to see the beauty in them, like the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius did. He described his wabi-sabi moment as follows:

We should remember that even Nature’s inadvertence has its own charm, its own attractiveness. The way loaves of bread split open on top in the oven; the ridges are just by- products of the baking, and yet pleasing, somehow: they rouse our appetite without our knowing why. Or how ripe figs begin to burst. And olives on the point of falling: the shadow of decay gives them a peculiar beauty.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3-2

Living creatures are supposed to age; everything created is supposed to break. These are the natural order of things. We could ask ourselves ironically: is there anything “more perfect” than the consistently imperfect unfolding of nature?

How to appreciate imperfection

In the book, Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life, author Beth Kempton explains the history and philosophy behind wabi-sabi and offers practical solutions to escape the collective pursuit of perfection and embrace imperfection. One of these solutions has to do with setting up our living environment in a perfectly imperfect way. Wabi-sabi embraces simplicity, for example, but differently from popular forms of minimalism, which generally strive for symmetry, tidiness, and expensive furniture.

The minimalism of wabi-sabi rather lies in asymmetry, not being overly tidy, and not replacing an old couch with a designer sofa, simply because it looks better. Instead, we make an inventory of the things we have, remove what we don’t need, cherish what’s left, and only buy something new when we truly need it. We’ll end up with a not-so-perfect interior, probably with damaged furniture, chairs that don’t match the couch, cracks in the walls, and tableware we’ve bought at a thrift shop: talk about beautiful imperfection. We can increase the wabi-sabi experience by taking nature into our homes. We can take pine cones and pieces of wood from the forest, and seashells from the beach as decorations, to create a more naturally imperfect feel.

Kempton also teaches us to see ourselves and each other in another light: not through the lens of ruthless perfectionism, but with an appreciation of flaws. We’re not perfect (we’re not supposed to be), nor should our goal be perfection. Instead, we’re much better off accepting who we are and enjoying how things are

Put simply, wabi-sabi gives you permission to be yourself. It encourages you to do your best but not make yourself ill in pursuit of an unattainable goal of perfection. It gently motions you to relax, slow down and enjoy your life. And it shows you that beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places, making every day a doorway to delight.

Beth Kempton, Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life

A way to practice “slowing down” is so-called forest-bathing, in which we walk through the forest very slowly. Instead of being goal-oriented, going from point A to point B, we focus on the beauty of nature and open ourselves up to its healing capabilities. Spending time in nature is proven to reduce stress, anxiety, and worry. It helps us detach from our industrialized society full of judgment and expectation and reconnect with the vastness of the universe, welcoming us just as we are. Nature is perfect imperfection and operates without judgments, without hurry, without trying to be more than it is. In nature, we find nothing but asymmetry, crookedness, and decay. Nature creates; nature destroys. Everything is in motion; nothing ever lasts. If we happen to see the beauty in all of this, we experience wabi-sabi.

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