Pare down the essence

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 by people in our community.

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 and compared. Instead, we believe that 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.” We don't know what the result will be, of course, but it's a worthy experiment.

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.

That’s the dream, isn’t it? To provide a 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 oddly intoxicating 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 very 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 don't yet know what part these ideals will play in our future, but they are seeds worth cultivating as we try each day to strengthen the invisible connective tissue that binds us together.

If you love Uncommon and want to support and shape the future of this community, please join us. Each membership includes a year to share with a friend. We can't wait to welcome you both to the front porch.


The last dispatch asked, What would you love the chance to learn?

Radhika wrote:

I'd love to learn how to fly. Broomstick, magic carpet, airplane - I don't mind which.

Paul wrote:

I'd love to learn to surf. I can bodyboard a bit, but I haven't for a bit. Surfing looks like more fun.

Jenny wrote:

I would love the chance to learn to do water sports - luckily 2 weeks ago I got to learn to surf for the very first time!
Surfing has opened the door to a new way of travelling and perhaps living. It's a lot more than just being able to jump on the surf board and balance. I expected myself to be pretty fearless but realised I was actually small and scared when there was a big wave coming towards me. Sometimes we had to do what felt counter-intuitive, such as taking off when the speed was at its highest and our physiological self had the "Ohh I'm going to fall" moment.
Perhaps it's my height, age or fitness, surfing didn't come easy for me as it did for the 15-year-old boy in my group! It's definitely something I'm keen to keep learning in the years to come though.

Paulo wrote:

I'd love a chance to learn how to be OK with not knowing things. Not knowing what's gonna happen, not knowing what I feel, not knowing what I want, not knowing the map to the both the treasure and the trap that will inevitably come, regardless of whether I have the map or not.

Mikael wrote:

The new students have taken over Groningen, Holland, which is very much a university town. So they’re everywhere, every street seems to have a little student pub, celebrations abound. I feel old, with my “work” and my “degree that I almost finished years ago except that my thesis supervisor retired & disappeared while I was procrastinating on the final front page layout tweaks.” Anyway, in my native Sweden university studies are entirely free, and in the back of my mind is a strong desire to get to a point in my “career” where I would feel satisfied with setting it aside for a while to go back to university. Sitting in a seminar with cafeteria coffee and a notebook is my picture of the Good Life. The university mileu has problems but in many ways it seems more sane than the competitive environment of businesses. I’d like to learn a bit more math and logic, but mostly I yearn to continue studying intellectual history.

Adam wrote:

Everything? ;-) I think it's important to have broad interests, and I tend to find something fascinating whenever I even casually encounter a field. I want to learn rock-climbing, how to play the piano, understand statistics better, chase storms, spend a decade studying philosophy, learn Chinese... Life is too short.
If I had to pick one thing to learn immediately I'd want to be a better gardener, because my record on keeping plants alive is atrocious.

Uncommon reads

The Beatles Awaken a New Sensation by Jeannette Catsoulis:

What I treasure most about those vivid, unmediated, sometimes scary days — aside from tickets that often cost no more than the price of a pint — is that they uniquely belong to those who were there. At a time when very little live pop music was televised, most of the really interesting stuff inevitably happened off camera. No Instagram or Tumblr posts memorialized your most idiotic behavior for prospective employers or partners to condemn, giving public events a liberating privacy that’s rapidly evaporating. Back then, almost every concert souvenir, from the posters you harvested to the tickets you shivered all night to buy, sparked memories that no outsider could electronically gate-crash.

The End of the Ambitious Summer Reading List by Lee Siegel:

And what did it matter if you never finished any of these books, if a lot of people picked up Tolstoy’s classic summer after summer and never got through the peace part to the war part? The idea of perfecting your inner life by reading the right books over the summer was as much a chimera as the idea of the perfect summer.

Your turn

What's your favorite morning routine?