Loneliness does not come from being alone, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important. – Carl Jung
Discovering a concept that describes an emotion your culture has no word for can help you make better sense of yourself and more able to cope with life’s stresses.
This happened to me several years ago when I learned about wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi (wobby-sobby) expresses things I’ve long felt but had no words for.
Wabi-sabi (not to be confused with wasabi – the green condiment with the strong pungency eaten with sushi) is a concept deeply ingrained in Japanese society and notoriously hard to explain.
I read somewhere if a culture has no word for something then it’s not considered important or significant. It’s not surprising there’s no direct translation of wabi-sabi into English. That’s because a wabi-sabi way of seeing the world is quite different from the way we typically see things in the West, especially when it comes to expressions of beauty.
It’s easy to forget ideas of beauty aren’t universal. In the West we lean toward Greek ideas about beauty, which focus on perfection – symmetry and proportion, glossiness, newness and freshness. Wabi-sabi shifts the balance away from perfection in favour of authenticity.
Wabi-sabi is a mind set, a way of seeing things but it’s also expressed in certain physical characteristics. Things earthy, modest, organic, rustic, simple, and things that bear the mark of time because they have been so well cared for are all beautiful and all very wabi-sabi.
It helps to know wabi-sabi started out as separate terms.
In the 8th century sabi appeared in Japanese poetry and meant the beauty of things withered. Sabi celebrates the toll living takes on everything, and is expressed in the graceful aging of objects in nature as well as things made by hand from materials like wood, wool, clay and cotton. Autumn leaves, a fading flower, aged utensils and weathered wood are considered beautiful because they are authentic. At its core, sabi is about flux and the limited mortality of all things.
Wabi emerged in the 15th century as a reaction to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which was lavish, expensive and a means to show off wealth. The ceremonies mostly involved the ruling class and were extravagant affairs. Tea houses were gaudy and expensive imported goods were used. The wabi way of tea is the opposite; humble, quiet, and simple. Beauty exists in the modest and imperfect. Tea is served in locally fired bowls. Decor consists of bamboo and fresh flowers in weathered baskets. Hospitality, not pretension, is what counts.
Now wabi and sabi are combined, interchangeable and shorthand for finding beauty in the imperfections of life and peacefully accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay. Wabi-sabi is often summed up in three truths:
nothing is finished,
nothing is perfect.
Maybe you find wabi-sabi too gloomy and grim a concept to adopt. Or maybe you’re like me and find it unshakable.
I see value in viewing life through a wabi-sabi lens. It’s a way of engaging with life that, although bittersweet, puts me at ease. Accepting life as imperfect, unfinished and transient actually feels quite freeing.