The Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi has a lot to teach us about accepting life as it is
If you’re prone to perfectionism, you’re very on trend – and probably stressed out of your mind! Wellness wise, perfectionism is that elephant in your ‘head’ room. A goal, but at what expense to your wellbeing? It’s been shown that perfectionist tendencies can exacerbate depression, anxiety and stress – even when researchers controlled for traits like neuroticism.
One of the most robust protections against anxiety and depression is self-compassion – the quality that perfectionists lack. And this is where the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi offers an antidote to the pursuit of perfect. It’s a practical way to live with your bad hair and headspace days, and celebrity fans of the theory include Jack Dorsey (founder of Twitter and Square), Jessica Alba and Will-I-am. Beth Kempton, author of Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life (£9.35, Piatkus) says: “It fundamentally shifts the way we see life itself. Wabi sabi teaches us to be content with less, in a way that feels like more.” Beth, who is a life coach and a keen Japanologist, explains that wabi sabi has made her “feel more calm, appreciative and tuned in to the marvel that is life.”
She lives in Devon with her husband and two young daughters and says her wabi sabi to-do list for life is: “Less stuff, more soul, less hustle, more ease… less chaos, more calm… less head, more heart.”
Rather like love, wabi sabi is hard to define – but you know it when you feel it. “The Japanese don’t tend to analyse it or discuss it – it’s more of a sense that’s unspoken,” says Beth. “By recognising that wabi sabi is actually both a feeling and a way of seeing the world, we go beyond the surface level beauty to a more profound response – which is where the life lessons begin.
“Accepting imperfection doesn’t mean having to lower standards or – drop out of life. It means not judging yourself for being who you are – perfectly imperfect; uniquely you and yet just like the rest of us.
“The more I got clarity on what it truly meant, the more I recognised it in my life and noticed a parallel with that and when I felt good, inspired or delighted,” she adds. “It felt like a giant permission slip to take things a bit more easily, let some things go and spend more time on things that really matter to me (not just those working towards a particular goal).”
“Wabi sabi gives you permission to be yourself. It encourages you to do your best but not make yourself ill in pursuit of an unattainable goal of perfection. It gently motions you to relax, slow down and enjoy your life. And it shows you that beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places, making every day a doorway to delight.”
“Not at all! The zen principles beneath wabi sabi (namely that everything in life is impermanent, imperfect and incomplete) teach us that everything is always changing, which includes ourselves and the state of our lives. At any time we can play an active role in that evolution. However, when we see life through a wabi sabi-inspired lens, we begin from a place of no judgement about where we should be, what we should have and what we should know. Instead, we accept that we are where we are.
“This allows us to approach our own development in a gentle and loving way, being realistic about what is possible in our lives right now,” says Beth. “Japanese people are masters of learning, and at striving to do their best, but that is very different to having to be the best.”
Read Beth’s wabi sabi gems for a perfectly imperfect new lifestyle. Her tools range from simplifying schedules to forest bathing.
Channel the spirit of the tea ceremony
“I often consider the wa kei sei jaku principles of tea (harmony, respect, purity, tranquillity) in my dealings with my team and other people in the work arena, whether that is in dealing with a challenging situation, having a difficult conversation or negotiating a deal.” Beth also offers an exercise in the exact how-to – essentially, deepening your personal connections over a tea break instead of discussing the latest Netflix addiction.
To divert a meltdown, go forest bathing
“I take time out in nature, even if just in my local park but ideally in a wood or forest, to soak up the healing power of the trees, get some headspace and perspective, and get away from my computer screen,” she says. If you can’t get to your nearest cluster of trees, put cyprus or cedar oil in your diffuser.
When you feel anxious and overwhelmed, try the ‘brain dump’. “I drink hojicha tea, poured slowly from my Japanese teapot. I also sit down and re-prioritise, using the ‘brain dump’ – reminding myself that I can only do what I can do,” says Beth. “And then I let myself off the hook regarding the things that don’t really matter, and that makes a world of difference.”
WAbi Sabi your meal times
Hold on to your chopsticks when you’re 80 percent full! “If you slow down your eating speed and notice what you’re consuming, you can tune into your body and notice that you are 80 percent full (hara hachi bu). This stops you overeating – so it’s not about the pressure of a diet, but simply about stopping when your body has had enough.”
A new attitude to the F-word
We don’t have to like failure to learn from it. “Failure builds our resilience and helps us grow in other ways. And when we stop trying to be perfect we might not even see the failure as a failure any more,” says Beth. “Wabi sabi tells us that imperfection is the natural state of all things, including us, so it is not a flaw but rather simply life, and it’s to be celebrated and embraced. Wabi sabi also reminds us that there is beauty in the ageing process, and that nothing is wasted in the experiences we gather along the way.”
Weave Wabi Sabi into everyday family time
It’s not so much about applying wabi sabi as it is about giving yourself the space to allow you to feel wabi sabi. From a self-care point of view, this is huge – are you building in time to really notice the world around you, seek out beauty and connect deeply with those in your life? “In my family, we try to construct our lives in a way that allows us to experience wabi sabi regularly, by slowing down, paying attention to each other and noticing moments of beauty in our time together,” says Beth. “We have just sold our house and moved to Devon for this exact reason – to live in closer rhythm with the seasons, to give ourselves more time in nature, to encourage us to cook from scratch with food from the local farms, and to get away from shopping centres!
At home, less clutter is more
“The soulful simplification of my house is an ongoing process, which has brought a whole new level of calm to a home that buzzes with the energy of two small girls,” says Beth. “I no longer have an interest in accumulating stuff (except for books and stationery, of course) and this has saved me a fortune.”
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