Wabi-Sabi and Being with Sadness

Wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a Japanese aesthetic mindset focused on the beauty of impermanence and imperfection.  It is inspired by the teachings of Buddhism, particularly the tenant associated with the fleeting nature of our world (mujo 無常).  In Japan, it is visible in the architecture of tea houses, rock gardens, flower arrangement, cuisine, and thousands of other art forms originating before the Meiji Restoration.  It is closely associated with the philosophies of mono no aware もののあはれ (an empathy towards things outside of oneself) and mushin 無心 (an acceptance of the shifting nature of all things).

The general idea is that the more fleeting something is, the more beautiful it becomes.  Cherry blossoms are commonly regarded as the archetypal example of wabi-sabi.  For the most part, the trees look like an assortment of twisted, gnarled, black branches, but once each year they bloom with vibrant pink flowers.  The Japanese believe that if the flowers bloomed all year round, and if they remained on the trees for months instead of falling to the ground within a few weeks, their beauty would not be as apparent.

The Japanese tradition of pottery is also rife with wabi-sabi.  A teacup that is cracked or asymmetrical is often thought to be more beautiful than one that is flawless.  The cracked teacup shows that it may have been used many times by someone who loves tea, making it not just a cup, but a symbol of human passion and dedication to an art form.  An asymmetrical teacup is obviously made the hands of an artisan, which are also full of imperfections.  Because it is made by an artisan, it is unique, and its uniqueness is part of what makes it beautiful.  Starting the 15th century, some imperial potters even went so far as to use a technique called kintsugi (金継ぎ), which involved repairing broken or chipped pieces of pottery using liquid gold.  The result was an end-product that drew attention to its history of the item’s use (and consequent damage), more than the original design.

kintsugi

Put simply, wabi-sabi is the assumption that there is beauty to be had in circumstance that many in the West associate with sadness.  The fact that beautiful things in this world have a tendency to be broken, destroyed, lost, or die doesn’t detract from their beauty, but instead adds to it.  It encourages us as humans to value what we see as beautiful fully and passionately in that moment, because it may not be there in the next.  It engenders a sense of value in small aspects of life that often go unnoticed, such as the changing of seasons, the peculiarities of animals and plants, and temperamentality of weather.

In the western world, particularly in regards to children, we tend to emphasize the importance of being happy.  Songs like “If You’re Happy and You Know It” assume that children are always happy, and if they aren’t, they should be.  Even children’s songs written to commemorate decidedly dark and tragic moments in European history, such as “Ring Around the Rosie,” “London Bridge Has Falling Down,” and “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” are composed in a decidedly upbeat fashion.  Happiness is sometimes assumed to be the default emotion, which is to say that all other emotions are temporary deviations from a homeostatic sense of joy.

While such a mindset does encourage children to be more upbeat about their daily lives, joke more, play more, and generally value being silly from time to time, this constant push towards happiness makes some children feel that to be sad, angry, frustrated, or even indifferent is to be wrong.  Negative emotions stop being a part of life and start being viewed as obstacles to be overcome, that require intentional and immediate action in order to be resolved.  Some children learn to repress or deny sadness by feigning happiness or neutrality, or by simply refusing to talk about the emotions they feel.  Other children who find themselves more prone to sadness learn to remove themselves from social contexts in order to avoid being noticed or judged.  This can lead to anti-social tendencies and even depression.

There is an element of darkness to wabi-sabi that isn’t appropriate for young children.  I personally do not believe the Buddhist pillar that states “all life is suffering,” and I think messages of hope and inspiration are much more appropriate for young minds to hear. However,  the merits of wabi-sabi are not exclusive to art or aesthetics.  In principle, it is important for children to understand because it encourages them to revel in and be understanding of the constant dynamic nature of our world.

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Each and every human is both incomplete and imperfect.  From moment to moment, children are physically, mentally, and emotionally in flux.  As caregivers and educators, we are in flux alongside them in an effort to better understand and provide for their academic and social needs.  Family units, friendships, learning environments, and interests are often subjects to sudden and drastic change, and without an understanding of these changes, children can become scared, apprehensive, and disassociated.

Wabi-sabi encourages them to celebrate their victories in the moment, and to enjoy moments of happiness as they feel them.  But it also shows them that darker moments of sadness, anger, and frustration pass just as quickly as those of happiness.  Instead of dwelling on them, or viewing them as aberrations or moments of weak character, they can learn to view them as just another way in which their minds, bodies, and hearts are shifting.  Wabi-sabi can teach an appreciation for incomplete things, including themselves.  It can teach an understanding that unfortunate, uncomfortable, or unpleasant moments will pass.  It shows children that time can balance and equalize all things, including the human body and mind.

It is important for us, as parents and teachers, to balance moments of happiness and sadness.  Just like rain and sunshine, both are fleeting.  Without one, the other has less meaning.  While it seems counter-intuitive, a lifestyle that is focused on being happy and comfortable all the time is a lifestyle in which happiness means the least.  Adversity, particularly sadness, is one of the primary functions by which children grow into responsible adults.  By experiencing sadness, recognizing it as a component of what it means to be human, and moving past it, children can deepen their character and learn to value moments of happiness more profoundly and completely.

Truthfully, life is just as full of darkness and disappointment is it is contentment and comfort.  Encouraging children to be with their sadness just like they are with their happiness is the key to helping them feel comfortable with it, and ultimately move past it.

As the haiku poet Kobayashi Issa once wrote:

“This world of mists / is just a world of mists /  and yet…”

2 thoughts on “Wabi-Sabi and Being with Sadness

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  1. Well, another gem. i agree entirely with your statement about allowing children to have the right to be sad. i am a great admirer of Janet Lansbury’s writing about small people, and she would agree entirely. One of my own turning moments as a very mature adult was once when i was kneeling in the garden,and the phrase ‘sadness is part of it’ came into my head…and i felt it in my cells,,, a sort of freeing and flowing in my arms… and it was like suddenly being part of the world, instead of straining away from what was elso very much part of who i am/was. Pema Chodron is also a great role model of humour and wisdom and acceptance of sadness. Right now, i am super blue about the planet.. and i need to find ways to be at peace with some self evident ‘horrible’ truths. Your article reminds me and inspires me to spend more time just being with what is…. my sadness and sense of imminent loss. thank you. i started to write because i wondered how you actually put such concepts into practice with children…. i am a storyteller and of course that is a wonderful vehicle for conveying the fact that sadness is indeed part of it…

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    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. With my children, particularly some of my young boys, I love to tell them biographical stories of specific samurai. Because they are all warriors, most of the stories end the untimely end of the main character, but we make sure to discuss the deeper significance (such as sacrifice, honor, justice, and pride). I’ve had a few boys get so attached to the characters that they cry in the end, but insist that I tell another.

      I once apologized to one of my students for the telling a story that made him cry, and while choking back his tears he replied, “Yeah, that was a sad story. But it was also a great one. Can you tell another?”

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