Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. – Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac
I said on the “Why is Sabi Important” page that there are secondary benefits to embracing sabi and moving into a way of looking at the world through a sabi lens. Here I will, in the coming months, unpack this in more detail.
Accepting All That Is?
Well, maybe not all that is, but I have found that much if not most of our suffering comes from wishing things were different than they are.
There have been NO MUSHROOMS in Nanaimo so far this fall. With failing hope on my walk today I wandered from time to time off the trail, poking mournfully at the ground with my walking stick. Eventually I gave up and decided to just enjoy the walk. As I came around one curve in the path I stopped and looked at this scene:
Something in the way the branches filled up the space with horizontal lines, the autumn light, late in the day, and the deep reassuring stillness caused a sort of mental pop in my head. I felt it like a knot un-knotting. Pop, un-knot.
I was suddenly full of a warm shy contentment angling up towards joy at the edges. I smiled. It has been a very long time since such a feeling has come to me. I carried on down the trail, swinging my stick and breathing in the green smelling air, lungs not big enough to take in as much as I would like, shoulders not broad enough to throw back on my spine like a devil may care mendicant; but certainly I had knees enough to saunter and lips to whistle a gentle tune into the silent tree space, where pips of little brown creepers came back to me as a kind of distant echo.
Haecceity (from the Latin haecceitas) is usually translated as “thisness.” Duns Scotus is believed to be the first person to use the word to denote the wholly unique components that make a person or object unlike any other person or object. In a certain sense it is the emergent quality of a thing that we recognize as being one of a kind and therefore worth great value.
A sensitivity to “thisness” is one of the central muscles of a poetic mind. With it we move out of categorizing all stones as “stones,” which is a time saving device, into contemplation of this particular stone, which is a time occupying device. We pick up the stone, we turn it over, we appreciate it for it’s thisness. This of course is not a muscle exclusive to the poetic mind. The scientific mind also requires this working, this using of effort. In thisness the scientist and the poet stand together — in curiosity, in wonder sometimes, at the profoundness of this one unique thing, this anomalous data-point varying from all other data-points, yet clustering into that cloud of similarity that evokes the classification.
We make sense of the world by placing each thing into these clouds, these clouds of similar qualities, or similar appearances, or rigorous distinctions. Species, elements, personalities, types, kinds — the categories at least less numerous than the objects inside them.
The scientist must contemplate an objects thisness to determine which clouds the object belongs in, creating complicated Ven diagrams to nudge the object into understanding. Understanding arising out of the process of classification.
Thisness for the poet, however, is more about gratefulness, appreciation, and delight in somethings particular charm. While all rainbow trout are beautiful, this one is a little deeper in the belly, has a little larger tail, and those combinations make THIS trout more beautiful or significant or trouty than the others.
Finding the unique in all things is not possible for us, but perhaps is the pleasant task of God.
Sadness, loneliness, depression — feelings most of us don’t welcome.
Speakers like Tony Robbins and Sharon Pope as well as a growing number of Psychologists say that suppressing or avoiding feelings is not good for us. This includes suppression of negative emotions. Experiments show that suppression of emotions leads to increased sympathetic activation of the cardiovascular system and worse memory for social information such as names or facts about individuals seen on slides 1.
There are also authoritative references that link cancer to a “type C personality.” Type C personalities are known for their tendency to “suppress wants, needs and desires.” 2. The implication being, I suppose, that suppressing these things somehow increases the risk of cancer.
The logic goes that feelings that are not acknowledged continue to arise until we pay attention to them.
“If you ignore an emotion, it will get stronger.”
All feelings carry information for us and therefore none are really negative, according to Karla McLaren. Sadness tells us we experienced a loss. Jealousy that we need better alignment with a source of love. Anger that we need to restate our voice or set a boundary. And so on. When we push them away, we reinforce a belief that ignorance is bliss, a truism that only applies to subjects we don’t need to know about.
I have discovered from my own tendency to ignore unpleasant emotions, that ignorance is the mildest form on a spectrum of illusions about “what is.” At the extreme end are delusions I only wish were true. I like them better than what is actually going on. Denying what is and clinging to a fantasy, however, is dangerous to my mental health. But so is stark realism. Some optimism and a positive outlook can motivate me to change situations in my life that initially seem insurmountable, but never the less are not; and a dream that is “not yet” true can inspire me to improve the world, not just for myself, but for others.
But I always found it difficult to figure out when to follow a dream, and when to face reality. Two years ago I discovered the Welcoming Prayer.
I began using this prayer daily to start my meditation time. I found it difficult at first, especially when trying to welcome things into my life that I perceived as truly awful. I was welcoming loneliness, sadness, fear, and anxiety. I was welcoming sickness, pain, loss, and hardship. It seemed outrageous to welcome nasty people, unfair circumstances, and painful conditions when what I really wanted was them all to go away. I wanted freedom from them all. So then I let go of the desire for freedom!
It felt crazy to let go of my desire for survival too. What if that meant I didn’t survive? “What if” indeed.
I discovered that the key is to focus on those desires that are causing me suffering. Worried about loosing my job? Welcome anxiety, let go of the desire for self sufficiency. Sad about a relationship that didn’t work out? Welcome loneliness, let go of the desire for affection and love.
The crazy thing is, it works!
This prayer sends a strong message to the subconscious that I will not be driven by desire. It is a mindful transfer of motivation from biology and fear, to what practitioners call the “true self.”
The True Self
The true self is understood by different people to be different things. But whatever the true self is, they all agree that surrendering the things you desire most — puts you in contact with it.
The true self is your authentic self, your imago dei, that part of you that is connected to God [or higher wiser part of yourself if you don’t believe in God]. Once you’re in right alignment with that, you can decide what you are going to do in the outer world from a place of calm acceptance. Sometimes you might choose to fight, achieve, compete, or strive for something important. Other times you might choose to acquiesce.
The important effect is that now the choice is not made from desperation or grasping. It is made from a sense of thoughtfulness and reflection.
And I find this state very similar to that dearest interest of mine, sabi. When desire has been disengaged the poetic vision can unfold. This kind of poetic vision is it’s own reward, but it also opens the mind to the layers in any experience. Paradox, irony, pathos, all become richer and more interesting. This is a mellow and tempered state, full of richness and value.
So, it seems, the Welcoming Prayer is a practice that can foster connection to the True Self; and being so connected allows most of us to more easily enter the state of being that is, or is very similar to, sabi.
Could it be that the poetic drive, specifically the poetic drive behind haiku and other forms of nature aesthetics, is a way to connect to the True Self? I am beginning to think so…
- Richards, J. M. , & Gross , J. J.(2000). Emotion regulation and memory : The cognitive costs of keeping one’ s cool. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 410-424. see also Gross, J. J., & Levenson , R. W. (1997) . Hiding feelings: The acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106, 95 – 103.
When I was at David Thompson University Centre I took my first course in Linguistics. I discovered that the study of a word’s history, it’s parts and evolution, was strangely pleasurable and enlightening. More than any other course I took that year, it inspired me to explore the meaning wrapped up in words and language. Here are a few Japanese words that I have found helpful in uncovering this way of life I seem destined to live.
Way of Elegance –
Two root Japanese words michi (way or path) and
fuga (the elegance of poetry) make up the phrase.
Fuga, refers to the elegance of poetry. The word is made up of two root words: ‘Fu’ which means the habits and manners of the common folk and ‘Ga’ which refers to the grace or gracefulness of ceremonies at court.
Ga is achieved by a poet who is experienced, recognized, and advanced in artistic studies.
English words that convey a similar quality are ‘cultured’ or ‘civilized’.
The renowned Japanese court poets tried to express ga with idealized and romanticized images. Thus ga is sometimes thought of as artistic and spiritual purity. With this in mind we might translate fuga as ‘common ways with grace’, or ‘blue-jean eloquence’ or even ‘spiritual art grounded in reality.’
In the classic literature of Japan a writer who wished to create literature that was fuga would practice furyu by retiring to nature for solitary contemplation.
Furyu literally means ‘wind and stream’ or ‘in the way of the wind and stream.’ It is a practice that gradually expands your sense of beauty, taste, and aesthetic appreciation. The poet Yosa Buson re-introduced Basho’s concept of furyu after it had fallen out of use. A master of both poetry and painting, and a leader of the haiku revival that occurred between 1765 and 1785, Buson refocused Basho’s concept in what he called ‘the principle of rizoku,’ which meant ‘transcending the ordinary.’ To achieve transcendence Buson said a poet should study classical verse, distance herself from the realms of commerce and competition, and contemplate the simple beauties of nature.
The Way of Elegance is a phrase that combines elements of Fuga and Furyu. Two root Japanese words michi (way or path) and fuga (the elegance of poetry) make up the phrase. Think of a well educated farmer or an artist who supports herself washing floors. The Way of Elegance involves following furyu, and practicing artistic expression as a form of spiritual discipline.
Still in the stream refers to this journey on the way of elegance. “In the stream” is being immersed in flow — being Furyu. “Still” suggest unmoving persistence or patience. Patiently being in the stream doing creative things. Being in the creative “zone” to such a degree that time stops. Most people has some idea of this feeling I think.
Shortly after the publication of my first book on wabi sabi in 2004 I created a website called stillinthesteam.com. I maintained a full site with contests, articles, and news, for 10 years, then transferred my domain name here in July of 2015. I want to shift my focus from the wider wabi sabi ideal, to the application of sabi in everyday life. I still believe that the the phrase “still in the stream” captures the paradox and joy I’m following, and also searching for. When I started my 100 lakes project it was a way to more deeply explore sabi through a practice known as Kanjaku. The 100 lakes blog has largely been a series of travelogs with the occasional post of my philosophical musings.
Over the years I launched new blogs to try and chronicle some of the inner journey I have been on, but as is often the case for me, and those with similar personalities to mine, I don’t seem to make much progress after the initial inspiration. But this is what it means, in part, to be still in the stream. Still, in this sense, equates to “continuing to exist, or persist” in the stream. Mid stream really. “Nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, nothing is finished.” And the nothing being finished part, like the rest, is not a bad thing. We want perfect lasting completion. We want to be able to relax out of striving, seeking, and working into accomplishment, answers, and rest. For me, those qualities are not bad, but the exploration of wabi sabi had confirmed for me that goals promise satisfaction and contentment one day, and as attractive as this sounds, it is an illusion. Because satisfaction and contentment are as transitory as all other feelings in life.
So, being still in the stream is being ankle or knee or even waist deep in the flow — in the process. But there is another kind of stillness that is not persisiting-in-the-moment-ness but more along the line of persisting-in-the-momentlessness. This is the stillness which we think of as being without movement. The stillness of a meditator, of a person in reverie, and of objects that reside in one place for a long time. It is the air that seems not to move in a forest glade, the water that seems not to move on a calm pond. We love the look and feel and experience of this kind of stillness. And most of us know it is a relative thing. Even when the mist is rising off a glassy lake, and the reeds and rushes stand like sentinels, we know that the mist is swirling is very small movements of air, and rings appear on the water from fish moving below the surface. Stillness of this kind is really a reduction of motion, a quieting of frenetic activity which seems somehow to hush our mind, to create a mindful state in which we can let go some of the burden we seem to be carrying. I’m realizing now that letting go, is perhaps as important to sabi as being still. And also, there is the stream. Always the stream. More on this as I go along…
Wabi Sabi For Writers
Find Inspiration. Respect Imperfection. Create Peerless Beauty.
by Richard R. Powell,
published by Adams Media
What if deep poetry flowed through your day-to-day life? What if writing that poetry was a path to enlightenment? Basho, the grandfather of haiku poetry, named this path, “the Way of Elegance” because it connects you to grace and fills your life with subtle beauty.
I began writing Wabi Sabi for Writers, to communicate the significance of this path for writers, but I ended up with a book for anyone who wants the poetic light inside them to penetrate the darkness that surrounds them.
Basho knew the central defining quality of his culture was: “a sensitivity to things,” and he deliberately and thoughtfully crafted practices to support and deepen that sensitivity. These practices allowed the quality to expand his life.
Unfortunately he found that while “a sensitivity to things” expanded his awareness of beauty it also expanded his awareness of suffering. This heightened awareness of both beauty and suffering leads some people to despair. This is because our capacity to tolerate suffering in those around us seems to decrease as our awareness increases. When faced with an increase in awareness of suffering, many people instinctively turn away from sensitivity and become hardened, detached or distracted.
The Buddhist culture around Basho taught non-attachment as the correct approach to suffering. Non-attachment was not a turning away from suffering, but a calming of the emotional reactions to suffering through practice of the eightfold path. All other solutions were seen as delusions or deceptions.
Contrary to this prevailing belief, Basho demonstrated that we can avoid developing hard hearts without practicing non-attachment if, instead, we experience our attachments in a deeper way. Basho’s interpretation of wabi sabi made this possible.
One way to understand Sabi is to see it as a step beyond sensitivity to things, to see it as a deep awareness of the poetry at the heart of all things. The curious magic of this literary awareness is that while you are focused on the poetry in each object of attachment, your ego is quieted. To have a sabi mind you allow ego to rest in this un-voiced poetry. This new understanding of Sabi as an antidote to despair was Basho’s most important discovery. Sabi, he realized, was central to the Way of Elegance.
The Way of Elegance encourages a creative response to challenge and difficulty and produces eccentricity, pluckiness, fortitude, and resourcefulness. Yet sabi by itself can be overdone. The depth and character that comes from this clear-minded approach to life can make you feel mature, seasoned, and even superior. This is where wabi comes in. Wabi is the humbling factor, the stabilizing reality of the vastness and complexity of nature and our own place in it. When the two are balanced, they produce a lightness in a writers work which Basho called “karumi.”
Wabi Sabi for Writers, presents wabi sabi as a balanced set of principles that help a person face into the winds of change, look on the imperfect world with acceptance, and find, mixed within the dark elements of existence, bright strands of joy. Through examples and stories the book illustrates how to expand your sense of beauty until each moment brims with light.
One of the key concepts on the way of elegance is “furyu.” Basho discovered in his life of reading and thinking and wandering and teaching and writing that all of these things contributed to Furyu which literally means “in the way of the wind and stream”. It is putting yourself in the traffic, launching yourself into the action, not necessarily as a player, but deliberately, as the eyes and ears and taste buds and sense of smell. Furyu is a powerful tool that shows you what you like, and also what you love.
Basho adopted Furyu as his central attitude and orientation and found that it generated inspiration, poetry, and enlightenment. An ancient Japanese word with roots in the Chinese language, Furyu describes a stance or approach that puts a person on the path of elegance. If you would like to learn more about how to develop Furyu in your life, about how to naturalize your creative activities and find transcendence through harmony with nature, then Wabi Sabi for Writers if for you.
Wabi Sabi for Writers is divided into 9 chapters. Chapters 2 through 5 discuss ways of being that are mirrored in chapters 6 through 9 which discuss acts of doing:
1 – Wabi Sabi for Writers: an introduction
2 – Inspiration: to make an impression, write with your feet
3 – Education: find your voice by moonlight
4 – Wabi Sabi Beauty: let poetry flow from your attachments
5 – Enlightenment: lose yourself in writing with a language older than words
6 – Motivation: imitate a yak and share something wild
7 – Community: in a group of friends you can write from the heart
8 – Wabi Sabi Elements: flowing words reveal constant content
9 – Craft: guidelines for developing a saving style
Amazon Reviews: http://amzn.com/1593375964
The word Sabi has changes over the years. Originally is was a slightly longer word in Japanese, the word sabishi. In the simplest terms, that old word meant solitary or lonely. In Wabi Sabi for Writers I traced the development of the word over time and it’s enduring association with wabi. In particular I focused on Basho who I believe coined the shortened word sabi to identify more than just an aesthetic quality. I thought then and still think that Basho used sabi to describe a way to appreciate the pathos of life without descending into despair.
Writers and other creative people who are “sensitive to things” seem particularly vulnerable to despair and much of literature, especially in the19th, 20th, and early 21st century, seems to be about the loss of faith and the descent into nihilism. Sabi may be useful for those of us struggling to make sense of our life in this post-modern world.
Like the history of the word itself, I hope that I can develop a “sabi paradigm” that can entice a person to move from loneliness to a oneliness. Or to use more conventional language from a dualistic materialistic mind set to a non-dual anatheistic mind set.
In Wabi Sabi for Writers I said that sabi “was refined over the years to emphasize a state of receptivity, fostered in remote natural settings.” The legendary Japanese poet Basho was among the first to use the word and he did so to distinguish his style of poetry from others. There existed a different but similar word, aware, which described the state of being open or sensitive to things. Aware is pronounced ‘ah wah ray’ but coincidentally has a similar meaning to the English word aware, as in awareness. The English word aware, comes from the German root, which is more about wariness, than artistic sensitivity, so we can’t quite equate the two.
Both sabi and aware have to do with an openness to poetic qualities in an object or place, especially when we are unhurried or alone. The emphasis is on sensitivity and emotional receptivity. Aware was part of a popular phrase, “Mono no aware” which is translated as “an awareness of the poignancy of things.” The poignancy comes, usually, from a things impermanence or transience. Howard Rheingold in his book, They Have a Word for It, writes of aware: “Would cherry blossoms be as poignantly beautiful if they bloomed all year round, or if they were as tough as walnuts?” Seeing the cherry blossom with the awareness that they are only here for a few days each year, makes them more valuable.
Basho taught his students that sabi was the color of a poem and gave examples of people who showed pluck or stamina. What makes sabi different from aware is that it includes a deliberate acceptance of things as they are. This deliberate acceptance makes sabi more than awareness, more than sensitivity. For sensitive souls, poets, song writers, artists, etc. sabi is more “spiritual” for lack of a better word. A person might experience aware when she sits in misery contemplating a fallen soldier, too young to have savored the freedom for which he gave his life. She is wracked with the pathos of the scene. Her sister, adopting a sabi mind, sees the same scene and feels the same pathos but moves it towards an aha moment.
Aware is the “ah” or “oh” of sorrow, and sabi is the ‘ah” or “oh” of insight.
For an excellent discussion of sabi in the work of Basho, see: Sabi, Nature, and the Relationship by Riley B. Irwin