Aging has been on my mind lately. This dreaded topic was brought on by a lot of big changes in my life: another year has just past, a new job, a new title, plans to settle down somewhere else, palpable changes in my health and body, new commitments to regular exercise and the resulting total body soreness. Aging has also been a hot topic all over the internets lately, with the progressive changes to the way we talk about aging, and the move away from the term “anti-aging” when we talk about skincare for example. Some of the bloggers I follow have written honestly about their struggles with aging too– All this has brought the topic of aging to the forefront of my mind lately.
Simultaneously I’m thinking about how I want to lay the foundation for the rest of my life. I’ve never before been in a position where I felt like I was laying down roots in a place and life situation. With so many years of school and training, I’ve always lived somewhere with a finite expiration date. So naturally I want to learn how to approach my next life phase in a way that brings contentment and in a way that is in line with my true self.
So as I said before I had been looking to secular Buddhist teachings to ease some of the anxiety I felt over the aging process, and that led me to dig deeper into the concepts behind wabi sabi. The philosophy behind wabi sabi is expressed pervasively in all aspects of life: spiritually through a heightened sense of interconnectedness, impermanence; through our state of mind, how we relate with others, in the way we look at ourselves in the mirror; it’s expressed physically in our environment, in the materials found in our homes, and in the clothes that we wear. I’ve read a ton about minimalism; and I do believe it has it’s virtues, but especially lately, it seems inadequate, sterile, and kind of soul less on it’s own, especially taken from a female point of view. Wabi sabi carries within it, tenets of minimalism but it has so much more.
“Wabi sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.”
— Andrew Juniper
Today in one sitting I read the entire book Wabi Sabi: the Japanese Art of Impermanence by Andrew Juniper. It’s a very good read. I learned so much from this book. It’s changed the way I perceive aging, in objects and people. It’s key to accept aging and change as inevitable, so the only option we really have is to change the way we perceive it. Easier said than done for sure. And also, what the hell do I know? I’m only 32 for God’s sake.
There are two parts to wabi sabi. Wabi is about simplicity and minimalism and we all know about that already. Sabi is the part that I found more interesting. There’s no exact definition to it but sabi connotes the quiet beauty that comes with age, when the life of an object or person persisting through time and its impermanence is evidenced by natural wear and tear. It’s the patina on an old leather bag, the rust on a cast iron skillet, the wrinkles around her eyes. Sabi is the acceptance of the “decorations” that come with age. Furthermore, sabi are the changes that can only come through aging. It cannot be manufactured, unlike shabby chic, where new furniture is carved, manufactured, painted, and then sanded away at the edges to give the false appearance of age.
The concept of sabi reminds me of photos I took in Vietnam of my grandmother’s sister and her two elderly daughters that you see here. I never really had grandparents of my own so the experience of meeting someone in my family two generations back was extra special. When we arrived at a remote village in the countryside of Vietnam to meet my grandmother’s sister, there was something magical about her. I felt a subtle sense of longing for something I couldn’t really define. Her calm demeanor, gentle smile, foggy eyes, missing teeth and those ears!– it made my heart melt. I half jokingly said to my mom “She’s so cute. Can we adopt her and bring her back to the United States?”. My mom replied in Cantonese, with full seriousness “We can’t. She’s old and too accustomed to life here.” We don’t speak the same language. She didn’t say a single word, yet I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her. It’s hard to describe that feeling she gave me. No words needed.
She lives in a small village with maybe a hundred people from the same family, so the entire village was all distantly related to me. When it’s time to find a partner they have to venture out to far away villages. Her children served us food on two foldable tables pushed together in a medium sized room that also contained a bed, TV, and a few chairs.
The food was made from fresh ingredients harvested from their farm. The rice was milled that morning in preparation for our visit. The chicken was slaughtered just hours before our arrival. It’s a completely different world.
We met her two daughters who were both probably in their sixties. They both worked on the farm and had probably seen a lot of sun in their life time.
When I look at them, the concept of ‘ugliness’ and ‘beauty’ loses all meaning. And yet at the same time, I know I’m witnessing something beautiful.
“If one had to suggest one common thread that is able to link all wabi sabi expressions, then it might be said that those sensitive to its mood should, when coming into contact with wabi sabi expressions, find themselves touched in an indefinable yet profound way. They have a sensation of yearning for something that defies articulation and a sense of peace brought by the reaffirmation of our impermanence.”
— Andrew Juniper
I think the unspoken message in wabi sabi, very simply, is that we can’t just tell ourselves we should see beauty in aging. It’s not enough. We must intentionally put it into practice, in our daily lives, through our behaviors, and by surrounding ourselves with organic materials, that on their own are beautifully imperfect and show signs of age with the passage of time, so that these objects can evoke a positive feeling in our minds and bodies as we bare witness to their natural decay, so we can more readily accept and appreciate the same inevitable aging process occurring within ourselves.
“The physical decay or natural wear and tear of the materials used does not in the least detract from the visual appeal, rather it adds to it. It is the changes of texture and color that provide the space for the imagination to enter and become more involved.”
— Andrew Juniper
6 thoughts on “sabi”
This was really interesting, and the photos you shared are beautiful. I’m going to check out this book.
Thanks Kellie. I’m glad you’ll be checking it out. I have a couple other books on the topic coming in the mail too. Lmk what you think of the book. I skimmed thru the chapters on the history of Japan and jumped fwd to the meat in the second half.
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Thank you for the book recommendation. It’s something that I wouldn’t think to check out on my own, so the recommendation is very helpful. This post is lovely, it makes me want to check out the ideas more.
Yay, I’m happy to hear you’ll be checking it out. LMK what you think!
This reminds me of how I used to hate it when black clothing faded. I thought it looked “worn out” and “tired”. Only a few years ago did I start wondering why I love it when jeans fade, but not everything else. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate how things change and age. And I’ve come to appreciate that if clothes only look good box-fresh, then it’s questionable how well-made it was in the first place.
I love your story and photos from Vietnam, thanks for sharing.
Thank you Lin. very good point.. I’m appreciating the idea of selecting things that you can imagine aging well, like jeans do.