In 1960, my dad opened a retail shop on Highlands’ Main Street that was a complete reflection of his deep love of and respect for Asian culture, artifacts, and art. His shop, the Stone Lantern, is filled with treasures from overseas, and each item has a story that reveals when and where it was made, as well as how it represented an aspect of sacred beliefs.
I grew up working in the shop and came to love the porcelains, scrolls, carvings, prints, and screens as much as he. I’d catch Dad holding court with a group of customers as he’d explain why a certain teapot was crafted in the way it was, or how a porcelain’s markings revealed the dynasty during which it was made. Like his customers, I stood in complete reverence as he spoke in gentle, melodious tones about the items he was so clearly and magically drawn to (and how passionately he wanted to share that connection with others).
One summer day, I rounded the corner in one of the shop’s galleries and saw a small, brown bowl in a glass case. The bowl was rather nondescript, except for a meandering crack that ran from the rim to the base. Inside the crack was a thick ribbon of gold that took my breath away. I stood with my nose almost pressing on the glass of the case and was transported.
I ran down to my dad’s office and asked him about the piece. What was the story on that bowl in the glass case? Why had it been repaired in that way? I told him I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, even though it was “broken.”
I can still see the look on my dad’s face some 35 years later.
He smiled and looked up at me with a look of sheer joy and pride: I had intuited an understanding of and been deeply moved by the beauty of wabi-sabi.
Emerging in Japan in the 15th century, wabi-sabi is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profoundness in earthiness, of revering authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and is sometimes described as beauty that is incomplete. Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include simplicity, roughness, asymmetry, and appreciation of the innocent integrity of natural objects.
Rather than discarding the cracked bowl, an artisan chose to create new life for the object and immense beauty by repairing the crack with a special lacquer dusted with gold. What once was a flaw was immeasurably moving and beautiful (even more so that the bowl in its pristine state).
How often do we fret in frustration over our perceived flaws and imperfections? When we look in the mirror, do we view signs of our aging with the same quiet reverence as I when I looked in the glass case? When we review our work, do we stand back with pride and catch a glimmering phrase (albeit clunky and not refined) that takes our own breath away? When we think of how we might have coached someone on our team, or how we led the meeting, or how we worked with a client, do we see our own humanity shining through the moments where we fumbled a bit here and there?
Have we been kind to ourselves?
Interestingly, those who love us unconditionally, see our “flaws” as the very aspects of us that are captivating, unique, charming, and endearing. Like the ribbons of gold on the bowl, it is their attention infused with compassion and love that give our imperfect vessels of being such interest and magnetism.
Why do we find this so hard to do for ourselves?
A challenge for this week: search for the wabi-sabi in your work, in your relationships, in your thoughts, and in the mirror. Find ways to highlight and transmute any perceived imperfections into your most favored and unique facets.