On Wabi-Sabi Wednesdays, I feature excerpts from my book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, which was released in May.
“Beauty should be quiet enough so you can take it or leave it.”—Elizabeth Gordon
Honing our sense of subtle beauty has nothing to do with our household budget and everything to do with learning to appreciate. In the early 1960s, House Beautiful editor Elizabeth Gordon wrote, “If you can’t find beauty—for free—when you are poor, you won’t be likely to have it when you are rich … even though you may have bought and paid for it.” Gordon urged her readers to look at everything with a “pure eye,” letting go of all associations about its price, its age, its social context and its prestige value. “You have to wipe away all judgments made by others, and merely respond to the object as you do to those things in nature that are moving: trees, sunsets, clouds, mountains,” she stated.
Most of us don’t equate the sight of waving grasses in a field or the sun landing on the horizon with money (which brings up work, stress and all sorts of other distractions). Natural beauty is priceless. We can take in and appreciate a great view because we don’t have any hope of owning it, and we can’t manipulate it (positively or negatively) to match our will. We don’t think we can improve on nature, so we witness it with the innocence of someone who’s powerless. With our egos out of the way, we can simply observe. Nature is wabi-sabi’s mistress.
Take a walk. Walk slowly, and fully take it all in. Look at the broad horizons, then narrow your gaze to a pebble. Run your hand over a maple tree’s rough bark and compare that to the smooth, paper-thin birch skin. Check out the irregularities in a piece of limestone. Feel the light change as a cloud moves over the sun. Notice how weather and age create irregularity and distortion. The sun burns deep striations; the wind mottles; the rain rusts. Note the color combinations, how they graduate into one another, the ratio of strong color to paler, more washed hues.
Walk in every season. Try to find contentment in winter’s dim afternoons as deep as you find in June’s exuberance. You have to try a little harder to find the beauty in November’s pale, low light and barren fields, but consider how garish a blooming rosebush would be against autumnal muddy browns. Feel the earth signaling it’s time to go within. After summertime’s manic energy, appreciate the relief. (Rolling with the seasons should mean we get long winter naps like the oaks and the maples—even the bees. They’re delicious.)
How to See
In 1940, Soetsu Yanagi, who founded the Folk Craft Museum in Tokyo, laid out guidelines to help people change their way of seeing and understanding beauty—largely by trusting their own intuition.
- Put aside the desire to judge immediately; acquire the habit of just looking.
- Do not treat the object as an object for the intellect.
- Just be ready to receive, passively, without interposing yourself. If you can void your mind of all intellectualization, like a clear mirror that simply reflects, all the better. This nonconceptualization—the Zen state of mushin (“no mind”)—may seem to represent a negative attitude, but from it springs the true ability to contact things directly and positively.