Wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a Japanese philosophy on the acceptance of imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness. This philosophy applies to our world view, which is our perception of the world, and aesthetic, which our appreciation of beauty.
Wikipedia explains the meaning of the two words that make up wabi-sabi:
Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.
Through such acceptance of transience and impermanence, we acknowledge that beauty will inevitably deteriorate over time, and we learn to appreciate the beauty in the imperfect. This detachment from the material world brings about inner peace. A sense of zen.
Wabi-sabi emphasises the reverence of authenticity above all. Rather than masking blemishes and hiding signs of ageing, we should embrace them and celebrate the marks left behind by the passage of time.
Wabi-sabi in life
Experiencing life with a strong sense of wabi-sabi makes life more meaningful. We are more attuned to the beauty of the imperfect. Rather than having negative thoughts about the bad things that happen, we are able to look on the bright side and focus on the positives instead.
Wabi-sabi also helps us see past the things that does not matter, such as wealth and luxury, and shows us that there is more to life than material gain. We only live once so make the most out of this lifetime. Use our time for things that are more meaningful. Rather than sell our time and lives in exchange for money that we spend trying to be happy, we can escape the rat race more easily by not being pressured to bring in enough income to sustain a lavish lifestyle.
“In other words, wabi-sabi tells us to stop our preoccupation with success—wealth, status, power, and luxury—and enjoy the unencumbered life.”—Leonard Koren
Some things in life are free and yet bring happiness that money cannot buy. It is these priceless things that truly matter.
Appreciate impermanence and you will learn to place more value in what you have. I have written about impermanence, so I will not delve too much into it. When you realise how change is the constant and how things do not last, you will truly cherish the moments you have and the people around you.
A common misconception is attributing messiness and untidiness to wabi-sabi. Some use it as an excuse to be sloppy. Something that has gone through wear and tear can still be neat and tidy. Despite its outward appearance, it does not lose its elegance. So leaving your desk or room in a mess is not an example of wabi-sabi. Embracing the natural ageing and decay of items on your desk or in your room is.
Material attachment is abundant in the modern world. You just need to take a look at what a person carries on them. For most people, taking a look at their phone or tablet shows you how they are bound by their possessions. Most people wrap their phones with cases that bulk up the device, and plaster on screen protectors that degrade the image quality of the display.
They hinder the whole experience of using the device that it was designed for to protect the perfection of their phone. No scratches. No dents. They make painstaking effort to satisfy the inner lust for the perfect beauty and retain as much resale value as possible. And what drives them to chase after the latest versions of the device? The belief that their current device is less perfect that the newly released one. The best device becomes the second best overnight.
“Wabi-sabi is exactly about the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom of things.”—Leonard Koren
Wabi-sabi teaches us to appreciate the true beauty of our possessions. For example, we buy a bag for its functionality, style and durability. If it is well-designed and well-made, it will stay in use. Buy a good bag and use it for a decade. The same goes for cars, furniture and such. Advertising and marketing have us chasing the newest products and convinced us that we have to upgrade to the latest releases.
Wabi-sabi in photography
Being an avid photographer, it is inevitable for me to consider how philosophies can be applied in the field of photography. Wabi-sabi can be applied to how we appreciate a photo, and how we choose and handle our gear.
Wabi-sabi extends to photography by teaching us to embrace the beauty of a photo instead of harping on the details. Some photographers dream of the perfect image that has perfect focus and superb image quality. They pixel peep to check if the lens is sharp enough. They discard photos that are blurred by motion or are slightly off focus, preferring tack sharp images.
These are factors that do not take much away from the whole image. By being so hung up on the small technical details, you miss the forest for the tree. In fact, imperfections might even add to the overall mood and emotion of the photo and accentuate the image. By focussing excessively on the science of photography, you forget that it is also an art.
The philosophy can be applied to photography gear as well. Some photographers chase after the latest camera models and gobble up the marketing pitch for new features readily. Rather than insist on buying the equipment brand new, go for used ones. Appreciate the beauty of pre-owned gear. Look past cosmetic blemishes and understand that they are still worthy of you as long as they are functioning fine.
The best camera is the one that is with you that you are constantly using. There is no point in buying a camera and pampering it, keeping it in storage to avoid damaging it. A well-used camera is a well-loved camera. To me, nothing makes your camera more valuable than the weathering that makes it unique and its history of taking photos that are meaningful to you.
Wabi-sabi in you
It is hard to express fully the concept of wabi-sabi, because it is such an abstract and complex philosophy. It is through exploring the ideologies that you slowly discover and grasp what it means. And when you do, you will find an immense sense of zen within yourself.
Here are some steps you can take to get started:
- De-clutter. Keep only what you need. Discard the rest.
- Buy selectively. Avoid buying what you want. Buy only what you need.
- Re-purpose. Reuse what you have to serve another purpose.
- Embrace imperfection. Don’t get upset when you damage your belongings.
- Show appreciation. Recognise what is fleeting in life and cherish it.
I hope these can help you get started in the right direction and help you find your way to wabi-sabi. Let me know if you have any suggestions to add to the list.
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