wabi sabi and resilience

Anyone who has done one of my workshops has probably heard me talk about the concept of ‘wabi sabi’. It’s a Japanese term that I loosely translate as appreciation of imperfection: of honouring what is asymmetrical, weathered, spotted or speckled. I introduce it as part of my encouragement to myself and others to appreciate when we make mistakes, get it wrong, don’t quite make it.

The tea bowl in the tea ceremony is intentionally out of skew. Artists in many traditions acknowledge that perfection is the province of the divine and we humans need not aspire to it. So the weaver of a Persian rug introduces a mistake, the potter throws a pot that’s not quite round.

P2180143Yet we can spend so much time longing for perfectionism, judging our efforts as inadequate, procrastinating because we fear that what we do will not reach the heights of our imagination. We fail to appreciate the beauty of what we achieve and who we are, we stop ourselves from committing, we turn aside from challenge, we paint over the surfaces. This bench on the jetty at Port Germein in South Australia wouldn’t offer the same beauty if its flaking slats and rusting metal were slickly painted.

On this theme of wabi sabi and the role of creativity, I caught an edition of the TED radio hour on Radio National last week which featured making mistakes. It includes excerpts from TED talk favourite, researcher and social worker Brené Brown, speaking about vulnerability. It also offers wonderful examples of mistake-making from jazz musician, Stefon Brown. He demonstrates how jazz emerges from openness to accepting whatever comes, without constraining what we do by judging it as mistaken.

Then I stumbled upon a commencement speech by Neil Gaiman where he encourages mistakes. He describes pain and suffering as the birthplace for creativity, for art. Gaiman urges the young graduates to go out, make plenty of mistakes, and plenty of good art. He’s not the first to do this, we can follow in the steps of the youthful Goethe, who achieved early fame with ‘Young Werther’, an epistolary novel (a collection of fictional letters). The novel transformed his own pain at rejection in love by Charlotte Buff, into an elegy to suffering. The hero of the novel committed suicide while Goethe survived. (As a footnote, Wikipedia suggests that he even recovered sufficiently to buy wedding rings for Charlotte and her fiance, August Kestner.)

P9100488The theme of creativity as the capacity that allows us to embrace suffering and foster resilience emerged during my recent visit to Hiroshima. Here grief is acknowledged, honoured, celebrated. You can construct a tour of the city through its extraordinary sculptures and artworks. The disaster is remembered in so many different ways: with agonising detail in the artworks of the hibukasha (the A-bomb survivors), through lyrical, ceremonial and solemn sculptures and memorials (like the tribute to elementary school teachers and students in this photo) and in an extraordinary exhibition: Peace meets art currently on show at the Prefectural museum.

For me, the highlights of this exhibition were two installations. The first by Motoi Yamamoto Labyrinthportrays Hiroshima as a labyrinth of salt lines on a black surface beneath peaks of the same glittering salt. The whole room felt washed by the peace irradiating from this extraordinary work and I envied the museum guard who sat in her chair imbibing this serenity. While I stood in admiring silence, an elegant Japanese man, a friend of this artist, approached me and offered to guide me through the rest of the exhibition. He was eager to see my response to another work.

After viewing a range of paintings, sculptures and installations, we turned into a small enclosed room. Beneath a string of eighteen tiny lanterns, seventeen glass vessels, fused into extraordinary shapes by the force of the bomb, were dotted across a shelf inset into the wall. Beside each contorted glass form was a tiny carved wooden figure, just a couple of inches high, simply individualised through height, body shape or hair length. They were robed, calm, exquisite. ‘Spirits,’ my companion suggested quietly.

In the centre of the forms and figures, the eighteenth vessel was not contorted. It was a simple jam jar filled with water and holding a white carnation.

The delicacy and eloquence of Rei Naito’s work was stunning and I stood for a long time feeling as though my heart had sprung open to grief and beauty and delicacy. The mood lingered. On my last day I returned to the exhibition to experience those two works, and many of the others, again. It was on my second visit that I counted the lanterns and the figures in this artwork—the first time I was too overwhelmed by its power to quantify anything.

This very particular mood stayed with me long after I returned home and it’s a mood I want to cultivate. I felt open-hearted, reverent, sensitive; aware of grief and its potential. I was moved by the integrity and resilience of this city and the power of art to allow us both to mourn, and move towards change. I sensed the power of truly honouring even that huge disaster, that enormous mistake, and allowing creativity to guide us. Creative responses let us open up our soul space so that we are truly resilient, able to navigate new places in our hearts. We can seek our own kind of peace and find what it really means for us, and for the world. Peace is no easy thing, no platitude. I suspect it’s made from truth, authenticity and the willingness to face suffering with patience and honour. And maybe that’s where beauty lies.

PS I hope I haven’t edited this too scrupulously—there needs to be a mistake or two in here somehwere…

1 thought on “wabi sabi and resilience”

Comments are closed.