On Wabi-Sabi

Art alters perspective, allowing us to see things anew. It also opens our eyes to people and ideas that were missing from our field of vision. These shifts might be sparked by an encounter with a song, play, sculpture, poem, performance, or in this case, a brief, 96-page book.

“Have you read the wabi-sabi book?” is a question I’ve been asked a surprising number of times.

The book by Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, explores the age-old Japanese aesthetic commonly associated with tea ceremonies. Wabi-sabi embraces, and finds beauty in, the “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”

Reading Koren’s book is a wonderful experience; the brevity and directness provide space for reflection and meditation.

Wabi-sabi is interpreted and expressed in innumerable ways, and my grasp is limited. Nevertheless, I understand why people have recommended it, and why studying and embracing wabi-sabi would mean something altogether different for online community. What follows are short reflections on wabi-sabi themes accompanied by passages from the book.

Embracing subtlety

“Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes.
Consequently to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow way down, be patient, and look very closely.

Slow, patient, subtle, and inconspicuous are not typically associated with our time on the web. Why not provide space for whispers instead of shouts? Expending more effort to listen and see makes our encounters that much more meaningful.

Embracing equality

Focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy. Once inside [the tea room], the atmosphere is egalitarian. Hierarchical thinking-“this is higher/better, that is lower/worse”-is not acceptable.

In the age of social networks, our online presence and contributions are scored, compared, and magnified if it pleases the algorithm. Instead, each person should be treated the same and every voice should be heard. Front porches, online and down the street, are for community and conversation, not competition.

Embracing modesty

Things wabi-sabi are unstudied and inevitable looking. They do not blare out “I am important” or demand to be the center of attention. They are understated and unassuming, yet not without presence or quiet authority. Things wabi-sabi easily coexist with the rest of their environment.

In a sea of things competing for our attention, each asking for more time, clicks, views, and taps, what if we did the opposite? Imagine if we designed experiences that enrich our life precisely by not demanding more and more of it.

I love what a member once said: “Uncommon is my most easy-going relationship! What a treat, as it gives me so much and asks so little.”

Embracing beauty

Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.

The dream is to provide context for those extraordinary moments to occur.

Embracing perspective

Things wabi-sabi are usually small and compact, quiet and inward-oriented. They beckon: get close, touch, relate. They inspire a reduction of the psychic distance between one thing and another thing; between people and things.
Wabi-sabi is exactly about the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom from things.

Uncommon is a place to share and celebrate our favorite things. This is a reminder to seek ways to draw us together through these stories. It's the connections and conversations that form around our favorite things that matter most.

Embracing incompleteness

All things are impermanent. All things are imperfect. All things are incomplete.
Often we arbitrarily designate moments, points along the way, as “finished” or “complete.” But when does something’s destiny finally come to fruition? Is the plant complete when it flowers? When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout? When everything turns into compost? The notion of completion has no basis in wabi-sabi.

This was the most profound passage of the book for me, one I’ve returned to again and again.

As I chase achievement, milestones, and the pleasure of checking things off of lists, the finish line is always just beyond the horizon. It’s an unsatisfying pursuit. Unfinished isn’t failure or weakness, but the essence of life.

Embracing balance

The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean an unencumbered, but don’t sterilize. (Things wabi-sabi are emotionally warm, never cold.) Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn’t mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn’t mean in any way diminishing something’s “interestingness,” the quality that compels us to look at the something over, and over, and over again.

Achieving the balance Koren describes is a daunting task. We've all encountered minimalism that was cold and lacked poetry or soul. And sometimes a limited palette leads to an unsatisfying result.

But now and then, we encounter things in perfect balance and experience firsthand the meaningful whole. Those are often quiet, serene, and treasured moments.

We'll continue to cultivate these ideas as we try to strengthen the invisible connective tissue that binds us together.