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Wabi-Sabi: Understanding This Term Could Change Your Way of Relating to the World


Wabi-sabi, as a tool for contemplation and a philosophy of life, may have an unforeseen relevance as an antidote to many social problems of the West.

Wabi-sabi is a term that is so broad it is sometimes difficult to understand. But that semantic ambiguity is part of its meaning, and it has a lot to do with imperfection, with the impermanent and incomplete. With the aesthetic beauty of modest and humble things, and non-conventional beauty. To understand or appreciate the meaning of this Japanese term brings us, as a reward, an inestimable capacity: that of appreciating the other side of the world, that which by not being immediately apparent to us is excluded from our aesthetic perception. By taking into account wabi-sabi we can change our relationship with objects and even with the accidents that occur day after day.

The term is made up of two words. The first, wabi, signifies the kind of apparently paradoxical beauty caused by the imperfection of something, such as the wonderful example of kintsugi: the art of repairing cracks with gold resin to embellish the scars. The second word, sabi, refers to the kind of beauty that can only come with age, such as the rust in an ancient bronze statue. The two words combine to express a very specific aesthetic principle – and of course a metaphor. This text by Andrew Juniper sums it up well:

The term wabi-sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in the Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection.

Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.

Perhaps precisely because the term suggests the opposite of our idea of beauty, wabi-sabi is so important on this side of the world. We need to forgive accident and anomaly, because we ourselves are made of that. We are finite and full of asymmetries.

Of course, aesthetic principles remain abstract if we do not see them applied to art or life itself. At the beginning of the text we presented some pieces based on wabi-sabi, but the principles of simplicity, organic sources and harmony with nature have practical applications for a philosophy of life. As Juniper concludes:

Wabi-sabi, as a tool for contemplation and a philosophy of life, may now have an unforeseen relevance as an antidote to the rampant unraveling of the very social fabric which has held [us] together for so long. Its tenets of modesty and simplicity encourage a disciplined unity while discouraging overindulgence in the physical world. It gently promotes a life of quiet contemplation and a gentle aesthetic principle that underscores a meditative approach.

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