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Our culture thinks good things should be permanent or at least long-lasting. We have stone sculptures, paintings hung in museums, 1000-year Reichs, American centuries. In contrast, Eastern cultures often cherish the temporary. They think impermanence has its own value.
I believe them, because in truth nothing is permanent, and pretending it is destroys our sense of beauty and of what life is. Our lives are enriched when we learn to see the beauty in things that don’t last. Knowing we won’t have them forever helps us love them more dearly. This is true of our art, of our work, our loved ones and ourselves.
You have probably seen the sand mandalas made by Tibetan monks. They may labor constantly for days or weeks creating intricate images from multicolored sands, expressing a spiritual or aesthetic truth they feel while building the image.
When the mandala is done; they hold a ceremony and sweep it away. Sometimes they leave it up for a few days so people can come see it, but then the sand goes back to the Earth or is given away to bystanders. The destruction of the mandala may be accompanied by music and prayer. It’s a celebration of impermanence.
You don’t have to be a monk to appreciate impermanence. Kids make sand castles that get washed away by the waves. I’ve seen people on vacation making statues out of branches. At the Nevada art and pleasure festival called Burning Man, elaborate art installations made of wood are usually burned down on the last day, to say ‘This is over. Now go on with your life.’
Much Japanese culture is about impermanence. Buildings are made of wood, rarely of stone. Bugs are kept as pets, because they change forms and then they die. Haiku composed a thousand years ago may be recited as if written yesterday, but these poems always express a moment in time and place, one that could just as easily be happening now. They make you realize that eternity is going on in the moment you are in.
The Japanese have a whole esthetic of impermanence and imperfection called wabi-sabi, two words that have no equivalent in English. Wabi means something like simplicity and naturalness, being imperfect, having quirks or individual features. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when an object or person’s impermanence is evidenced by wear and tear, such as wrinkles, cracks and rusted spots.
Wabi-sabi art aims to create a feeling of “attentive melancholy.” We are drawn to it and love it because its flaws tell us it won’t last. It makes us sad but strengthens our appreciation and acceptance. I find this an extremely powerful metaphor for life. Everything is imperfect and transient, though our culture values perfection and denies death.
As I’ve written about here and here, Aisha and I have been helping take care of two neighborhood sisters, 9 year old Leona and 6 year old Lisa. They have come to love us, and we’re very fond of them. Unfortunately, we know we will be leaving them in the next four months or so, because the housing costs here are pushing us out. (Their unit is subsidized, but ours isn’t.)
I know our leaving will cause them pain. They already have been abandoned by their fathers and their mother, so losing us will be tough. I wondered if we should pull back from them now to protect them later. Distancing from them might also soothe the pain I feel when I think about our going away.
I asked a psychologist about pulling away, and she said an emphatic “No. You’ve got each other while you are here.” It’s not a permanent relationship, but no relationship is. The impermanence can motivate us to love and appreciate them more, to be more helpful in the time we have. Hopefully, we’ll keep in touch with them after we move.
I’m trying to take that view with everyone in my life. Everyone I know is imperfect and is going to die, so I can love them and appreciate them in a wabi-sabi way. I look at people’s annoying habits, weaknesses, or suffering, and try to regard them with “attentive melancholy.” I look at their inner and outer beauty with admiration and sympathy. They are whole as they are; they are manifestations of the Divine just as we all are. Looked at that way, almost anyone is lovable.
To be honest, though, you might not want to go full wabi-sabi 24 hours a day. Being aware of imperfection and transience can feel like being a wallflower at a party. A serene wallflower, but still, do we want to be melancholy all the time? Sometimes I want to get out and join the dance. Parties don’t last, though, and I consider wabi-sabi a good place to come back to afterward.
Wabi-sabi masters will tell you that practicing it can bring you “more joy than you can even imagine having when you start.” I am actually finding this to be true. The more I accept imperfection and impermanence, the happier I become.
Although it can bring happiness, wabi-sabi may not be emotionally cleansing enough to process all the grief and sadness and appreciate all the blessings that come with life on Earth. Joy and sorrow are natural and necessary too. I still find myself sobbing or laughing from time to time. They both make me feel better, but a wabi-sabi attitude seems a good baseline to work from.
At this very late moment in Earth’s history, when industrial humanity has already raced over the cliff but are just starting to notice, I hope people can strengthen their wabi-sabi sense. Embracing wabi-sabi, we might accept that the world won’t last forever, and begin taking better care of it and of each other.
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