I ran across the term wabi-sabi somewhere sometime ago. The article I was reading offered a brief definition—something like, a Japanese aesthetic or world-view emphasizing transience and imperfection—and I was intrigued.
I thought about my own and other people’s tireless labor to master the things around them, to organize, perfect, and shield from the workings of time, and of my own, and their permanent frustration at the impossibility of it.
Fighting time is the most unwinnable of all battles, and those who devote themselves to this combat—that is, all of us—must endure a life of stress. Again, except for a swami or two, all of us.
I remember looking up from the article and seeing the messy corner just beyond my feet. Wires and cables sprouted from a hole in the floor and went on their erratic way. A spider had found the confusion cozy and the filaments of her web with exoskeletal remnants of her meals shimmered in the morning sun. The paint job on the molding could not be called high-quality, and a wad of dust seemed inevitably lodged there. In an epiphany I saw that this was the natural way things developed, and the scene had a beauty and perfection of its own that we are trained not to see as such, but to fight. I also thought that if you did fight it, and came up with something spiderless and antiseptic and well-painted, disguising all reminders of entropy, you would have replaced interesting with dull, and spent too much of your vital life energy on a fruitless task.
Now don’t get me wrong. The aesthetic of wabi-sabi does not embrace clutter and filth—in fact, the opposite. It kind of depends on how you define them. Personally I’m easy on clutter, but I don’t like filth, even if I have resigned myself to co-existing with it. I’m not saying that my interest in wabi-sabi led to a wholesale adoption of its tenets; in fact, my interest in nothing has led to a wholesale adoption of its tenets; and I’m not saying I would leave the dust wad there forever. I’m only saying the dust wad had a certain artistry, and that wabi-sabi inspired me, and forced me to confront a hard truth I’ve known for a long time: some things bring no satisfaction when they’re done, only dissatisfaction when they’re not. I wondered if that could be reversed.
In other words, another intimation that habits of thought may be, no doubt are, only—habits of thought. And maybe can be identified and replaced. I say “maybe” because every spiritual teacher and self-help guru since the beginning of time has urged us to do that, but going hand to hand with a lifetime of conditioning and habit and rutted thought patterns, and winning, is, as we all know, nigh impossible. But there’s something to be said for at least being aware of it.
Because—what is “perfect” anyway? It’s an abstraction based on nothing we’ve ever seen or experienced. Maybe we should divert our energy from the abstraction to the world actually before us. We try to hold things static in our culture. Look at our obsession with youth, canons, halls of fame—but maybe we should concentrate on the whole film rather than the publicity stills.
And recognize the desirable, the beautiful, the perfect in the entirety of things—that grow, age, rust, and fade.
A change of perspective from the one forced by bureaucratic thinking to one virile and more original.
And maybe find ourselves free of material obsession.
And forget the pre-worn jeans. You can’t fake it.
March 26, 2019