Wabi-Sabi: Finding the Beauty and Peace in Ordinary Things

Revering modest living and authentic, useful objects, the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi can help you discover the sacred in the everyday and the beauty in imperfection.

| February/March 2011

I arrived at Kate NaDeau’s sweet, rustic stone house on a hillside near Belfast, Maine, while scouting houses to feature in Natural Home magazine (a sister magazine of MOTHER EARTH NEWS), which I led for 11 years. That day I had gone to see Kate’s gardens, bountiful with vegetables, flowers and herbs that she sells at the farmers market, but found I couldn’t stop asking about her stone cottage.

Kate and her former husband, both disciples of back-to-the-landers Scott and Helen Nearing, had placed every stone with their own hands over the course of five years. The home was appointed with cozy, flea market furniture and dumpster finds. Kate’s 1930s stove had narrow rust rivulets in its chipped and yellowing enamel, but it worked well enough for regular meals as well as some heavy canning and preserving. The wooden dining chairs didn’t match, and an armchair near the woodstove had seen better days. Herbs and flowers hung drying from beams overhead. I wanted to sit down and spend the rest of the afternoon at the kitchen table, helping Kate snap beans. I loved her casual, frugal decorating style. Nothing was new, and everything had a story and a reason for being in her home. I asked about a rusty grate hanging on the wall.

“Oh,” she said, “that is so wabi-sabi.”

Wobby What?

Kate described wabi-sabi as the Japanese philosophy of appreciating things that are imperfect, primitive and incomplete. This ancient concept of revering gracefully weathered, rusty things exactly matched my own proclivities. Finally, I would have a word I could use when my mother asked whether I was going to paint those old wooden French doors or replace the 1940s enamel table I work on as a desk. I delved more deeply and found that décor was wabi-sabi’s surface — just one facet of a philosophy that promotes attention, generosity, respect and reverence.

Intimately tied to Zen Buddhism and the Japanese Way of Tea, wabi-sabi is a subtly spiritual philosophy that sees home as a sanctuary — a simple place devoid of clutter, disturbance and distraction. Through wabi-sabi’s lens, everything in a home — from the breakfast table to the attic windows — presents an opportunity to see beauty, because beauty is ordinary.

Honoring modest living and the ever-changing moment, wabi-sabi finds beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, accepting the cycle of growth, decay and death. It’s slow and uncluttered, and regards authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not laminate. Minimalist wabi-sabi respects age and celebrates humans over invulnerable machines. It finds beauty in cracks and crevices and all the marks that time, weather and use leave behind. It reminds us that we are transient beings — that our bodies and the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which they came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the impersonal sadness of liver spots, rust and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

3/22/2011 2:42:50 PM

You live your whole life thinking you do this just because it is who you are to find out it is something people have practiced for centuries. To those who have to "practice" this I feel sadness in my heart it is not something that comes easy or natural. To the rest of you I say hurray, one more thing we don't have to practice because it just IS.

Mary Saunders_3
3/14/2011 6:48:44 PM

A beautiful essay to read on this day when Japan is in such turmoil and when my thoughts turn to the gifts of Japan to the world. Masanobu Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution spoke to my soul as this essay does. I was a lifetime donor to Mother Earth News in the beginning. This essay reminds me of why.

t brandt
3/5/2011 9:42:29 AM

Thank you for simply & eloquently expressing the thoughts some of us have, but can't find the words to convey. I'm sending this to friends & family in hopes they too will see the light.

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