by Cara Gardner

Americans have an endearing but na & iuml;ve quality: We're always trying to make life perfect. It's nice that we like to work at self-improvement, but in doing so, many of us tend to believe that trendy design philosophies, whether shabby chic or feng shui, are essential to instilling both depth and order in our hectic lives. It's true that in this consumer-rich society we often get sold on the idea that true spiritual expressiveness is just a throw pillow, some candles and a year's subscription away. Why, there are even magazines encouraging you to buy things in order to "simplify" your life. And why not? Our homes are our habitats, our external expressions of internal conditions -- right?

During the feng shui frenzy, Americans rushed to the malls to figure out, through newly published books and bullet-point "to do" lists from Home and Garden, how they could capture the ancient Chinese philosophy of energy movement and balance. Now that feng shui is pass & eacute; -- it's become too popular to be fashionable -- brace yourself for the next form of mindfulness from the Far East to hit the shelves: wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi, a cultural thread woven into much of Japanese art, philosophy, Haiku and tea ceremonies, is a concept based on appreciating the imperfect and incomplete. The true irony of wabi-sabi's growing popularity in the West, beyond transforming a studied grace into the latest design neurosis, lies in the fact that, as Robyn Griggs Lawrence wrote in Natural Home magazine, "wabi-sabi is everything that today's sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn't. It's a flea market instead of a shopping mall; aged wood, not swank floor coverings; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses."

Wabi-sabi can be a difficult concept for the Japanese to define, particularly to Western minds and especially to Americans. That's because for us, beauty is commonly equated with physical perfection and associated with comfortable, pleasing things -- not necessarily the muted, transient and often unsettling things wabi-sabi recognizes.

Humility is a crucial element in wabi-sabi; so are certain kinds of imbalance. Part of understanding wabi-sabi is realizing that beauty lies in unusual places and reveals itself at unusual times. In other words, it involves discovering that true beauty isn't always, well, beautiful. Lawrence explains that "wabi-sabi understands the tender, raw beauty of a gray December landscape and the aching elegance of an abandoned building or shed. It celebrates cracks and crevices and rot and all the other marks that time and weather and use leave behind."

And, of course, wabi-sabi is about appreciating the kinks and cracks in one's environment as it exists, which makes it rather hard to market; there just aren't many products that don't change or affect an environment. Yet wabi-sabization is already happening at a bookstore near you. At, you can buy a variety of wabi-sabi books, including Wabi-sabi Your Home, a guide that will surely give you a long list of things to make and change without necessarily doing justice to the fundamentals of wabi-sabi.

Despite the bastardization of many honored practices, having access to traditions and philosophies from other parts of the world means that some people will make insightful and interesting translations from them. Western artists, landscapers, architects and outdoor enthusiasts have embraced the concept of wabi-sabi in personal, genuine ways, and a sincere curiosity about the wisdom of wabi-sabi is transforming many Western paradigms. To put it plainly, the chief bullet point in any book (or magazine) on wabi-sabi should say, "put this book (or magazine) down and go for a walk."

You'll learn more about wabi-sabi by focusing on the beauty in an unkempt garden or on a child's hopscotch court than you would if you bought a wabi-sabi candle at Pier One. True wabi-sabi wisdom tells us to go on with our perfectly imperfect lives, and, as Lawrence writes, "embrace both the glory and the melancholy found in these marks of passing time."

Publication date: 05/06/04

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