Cracked Ego

Wabi-sabi and the Dance of Life

By Quinn McDonald | Posted 8/3/06 | Updated 6/3/23

Those who danced
were thought to be quite insane
by those who could not hear the music.
—Angela Monet

The tree had been invisible all winter. Now, with the sun up earlier, it popped into view as soon as I rounded the uphill corner of my early-morning walk. The sun just tipped into bright green the first fragile leaf tips unfurling on the swaying branches of the willow. The tree has been there for decades but it looked fragile and new, as if it might not withstand the next hard storm.

Noticing the subtle

It stood on the same spot, witnessing my passing in the dark, every morning of my walk. I puffed and struggled past, but today was the first time the dark was not thick enough to hide it. I stopped, barely able to take in the amazing gift of first-green spring. An overwhelming mix of happiness, longing and recognition that this moment was one of a kind flooded my senses. Nothing was important except the leaf, the sun, the dew and understanding. Then the moment was gone. I walked on, changed.

The experience and the shift

The next morning, my niece walked with me. The walk was different — she is an athlete, strong and young, full of possibilities and laughter. She gave up her more demanding run to walk with me, encouraging me to try a longer walk. As we passed the tree, yesterday's moment was gone. I pointed to it, and she smiled, "Spring is really here," she said, enjoying the fact that in her New Hampshire driveway, snow slush still lingers, refreezing each night, while here we are walking in T-shirts.

Yesterday's experience cannot be captured or repeated today. I was filled with gratitude that I had stopped yesterday, but I did not try to change what I had today — a loving, enthusiastic companion who was easing the uncomfortable exercise.

Wabi-sabi, easier to recognize than to define. That fragile moment of recognition is part of Wabi-sabi, a Japanese word. Wabi-sabi is the beauty of things impermanent and incomplete. It contains a poignant ache and a profound appreciation for things modest and humble.

'Sabi' was first used to describe a feeling of muted, subtle beauty in the Japanese haiku of the 12th and 13th century. 'Wabi' was originally the resolved acceptance needed to face hardship and fear. By the 15th and 16th centuries it changed to emphasize the gentle pleasures of simplicity, a recognition of beauty in simple things, achieved without wealth, connections, and power. As an esthetic, it honors things imperfect and unconventional. Wabi-sabi is a term hard to define and beautiful to live.

The inside and outside of Wabi-sabi

There is an inside and outside to Wabi-sabi. The outside is the beauty we see, feel, hear, touch and taste in things fleeting, seasonal, natural and imperfect. A piece of silvery barnwood, a river rock that time and running water has smoothed, a simple meal with a good friend.

The inside of wabi-sabi is the release of control and the relentless beating up of our psyches for not achieving and creating perfection. It is the letting go of the excesses of competition, achievement, and a willingness to let life find its own pace and place, to allow the world to unfurl without having to control it and everyone around us. It is a life stripped down to what is valuable, rather than randomly acquired. It is not living without, but rather within.

Recognizing the gifts of Wabi-sabi

Some years ago, I was convinced that if I took a vacation, others would be forced to do my work. No one could cover for me. But I'd promised to go on vacation, and I went. We chose a spot with no phones, TV, radio, faxes, text messaging, or newspapers.

For the first three days I was gripped with anxiety. But then I let go. I couldn't control what was happening at work, in the Middle East, or the White House. I admitted to myself that what I feared was that I could go away and not be missed. What I wanted was confirmation of my own importance.

Over time, I have come to accept that my life is not about me; it is about others. I am not in control, I never was. A wabi-sabi life doesn't dehydrate the inner life by filling every second with activities and stimulation. Instead, it conforms to natural talents and abilities. I plan and organize, but if something crushes the plans, I will not be crushed. I am flexible enough to make choices that create new plans with what turns up.

In a wabi-sabi life, you live within the recognition that all things are impermanent, all things are imperfect, all things are incomplete, and because of that, great beauty, peace and understanding pour into your life.

Copyright ©2006 Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved.