Wabi-Sabi: Beyond Minimalism, and into a Unique Mode of Mindful Simplicity
On the Perfection of Imperfection, Graceful Humility, and the Understated Benefits of Acceptance
When I was growing up, I would regularly go to my friend Paul’s house. His bedroom was down in the basement, but in order to get there, you had to walk through a little hallway with an old trunk sitting there — which doubled as a bench where you could take your shoes off. As I took this trip more and more times, I came to look forward to seeing that trunk.
It was old canvas trunk with a wood frame. It had discolorations, scuff marks, and areas where the canvas was a bit tattered and the wood chipped. Not long ago, I happened upon what looked like a brand new version of that same trunk — with fresh, bright canvas and new, polished and unblemished wood frame. The brass was bright yellow and shiny, each rivet plainly visible. It was striking. But it couldn’t hold a candle to that old trunk in Paul’s house.There was something about that old trunk, something that made it exponentially more pleasing to behold than a shiny new trunk.
This isn’t an anomaly. The “worn-in” aesthetic has been finding its way into various arenas over the past few decades. In the late 90s/early 2000s it was the “distressed” clothing movement. As the 2010s came around, antiques and repurposed building materials became the go-to in many interior designers’ repertoires. Things that are old and look it give us a different kind of feeling — one that shiny new things just can’t replicate.
But what’s behind this? Well, it’s not just marketing, and though it seems trendy, the concept itself is not going away. In fact, the concept has less to do with clothing and design, and more to do with a different approach to living — one that focuses on simplicity, imperfection, and relaxation. This approach is called wabi-sabi.
And the thing about Wabi-Sabi is that it isn’t just an aesthetic. In fact, the aesthetic part of it is just a superficial representation of something deeper and more meaningful — something that, when embraced, can guide us toward a simpler and more fulfilling way of living.
What is Wabi-Sabi?
The term Wabi-Sabi consists of two concepts combined into one. Each word has its own rich meaning, but they come together to form a unique concept that explains the warmth that radiates from certain things (or people) that embody it.
Wabi is a term that means something like “peace or quiet fulfillment with intentional simplicity”. At one time, it was used to describe the monks of Japan in the 14th century. They had simple robes, often worn and a bit tattered. They lived in simple housing, did their rituals with little adornment and pageantry, and thus exemplified a mode of existence that was respected for its simplicity and tranquility.
Wabi has come to be associated with a kind of minimalism and humility. People are often described as wabi when they exemplify a deep understanding of and comfort with who they are, and don’t crave or long to be anything else.
Sabi (which conveniently rhymes with its partner word) connotes the graceful and quiet dignity of something (or someone) persisting through time. It mostly applies to objects, but it can easily be extended to a person as well. It’s the green oxidation on the Statue of Liberty, the whiskering on a pair of old jeans, the dark seasoning on a cast-iron skillet.
Sabi has as its root an embrace of the buddhist teachings about impermanence, and an acceptance of the decoration of time and existence. And that’s the thing about sabi: it can’t be built-in to something or fabricated; it must be earned over time.
Bringing the terms together, wabi-sabi is about a simple, humble, and gracious existence — fully understanding and embracing both yourself and the undeniable truth of impermanence. It finds representation in anything that accepts the fortunes or misfortunes of time, and bears them all with unfaltering dignity and grace.
In objects, you can see it in the presence of imperfections and evidence of use and wear. The objects have clearly been used, cared for, and kept. They could never be mistaken for new, but that’s precisely the point. They have gone through unique use cases, and are thus now unique — and distinguishable from others like them, produced long ago.
In people, you can see it in simple jeans and an old t-shirt, scuffed old shoes, salt-and-pepper hair groomed neatly, but not obsessively, and an understated, but undeniably genuine smile. There is an understated grace and wealth of experience, a comfort, and lack of aggressive desire and ambition (not a total lack of ambition, just that aggressive kind of ambition — the one that usually manifests in a bone-crunching handshake).
Reading all this, you might be confused and think that wabi-sabi would be permissive of neglect, and a wistful lack of care. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, wabi-sabi is all about care and appreciation. Things that show the patina of time are not the same as things that show a lack of care and upkeep. Neglect of things — whether material or otherwise — shows itself in particular ways. Those ways are different than how the simple wear from time shows itself. Appreciation also shows itself in important ways, and appreciation is a big part of what wabi-sabi is all about.
How Can Wabi-Sabi Change Your Life for the Better?
We each want to be the best version of ourself that we can be. That’s the point of reading anything like this piece of writing. But there seem to be infinite different routes promising to get there.
To me, wabi-sabi is a way of getting back to basics. Consider it like minimalism for those who are tired of hearing about minimalism. It’s not an obsession with getting rid of things, taking pictures of your daily carry or tiny house. It’s not an ostentatious series of Instagram posts showing your nearly empty desk. It’s the antithesis of all that.
Embracing wabi-sabi is as easy (or as difficult) as understanding and accepting yourself — imperfections and all. It’s about being compassionate with yourself as you are, and building on whatever that is — not feverishly trying to rebuild yourself in order to pose as something else entirely.
If this sounds a bit vague, it’s because it is. Perhaps a quote from a fantastic piece at the Utne Reader can say it better than my own words:
Bringing wabi-sabi into your life doesn’t require money, training, or special skills. It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate muted beauty, courage not to fear bareness, willingness to accept things as they are — without ornamentation. It depends on the ability to slow down, to shift the balance from doing to being, to appreciating rather than perfecting.
And there it is. Quiet your mind, understand, accept, and appreciate. That is as simple as it gets. Unfortunately, it can (and often does) take a lifetime to cultivate.
Appreciation is a lost art. It’s like gratitude, but much richer and more powerful. It requires a deeper understanding — the kind that comes through experience, work, and use. The more we can become appreciative of the things, people, and experiences that weave the tapestry of our lives, the better those lives will be, and the better we will be.
So go forth and be both wabi and sabi.