Streams are quintessential symbols of wabi sabi.
A stone is tumbled by a stream and its edges and points collide with other stones. Over time this smooths and polishes the stone, making visible its patterns and colors. Stones in streams are worn into wabi sabi beauty.
Wabi sabi beauty is also found in weathered fences, desert dunes, well oxidized tea (oolong and black), and aged cheese.
It is everywhere in nature but especially those areas which experience the ongoing action of waves, wind, water and sand. These are the obvious places, but it reveals itself in areas with different kinds of flow. The flow of years, or work, or wisdom. Once you notice it in your daily life it becomes clear that you are surrounded by it.
Being aware that we are surrounded by flow, is an important awareness. We see that nothing is ever permanent or eternal, everything comes and goes. Life creates complexity, entropy reduced complexity. The two work together and are part of the flow we find ourselves in. On an emotional or spiritual level the acceptance of constant change is hard. We want stability, predictability, and security, because these are the foundations of culture, the things that allow us to build, create, and thrive.
The Way of Elegance
The “way of elegance” is one path that many artists and contemplatives take. It seems to come naturally to many of this temperament. It involves studying the classics of art, literature, and philosophy, not getting caught up in making lots of money or achieving high status, but instead following a contemplative path that is nature based. We immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature, to re-orient our brains, calm our stress responses, and open to subtle and deep insights that arise within. This gives rise to the creative spark, which leads to creativity and innovation.
The ability to follow the way of elegance is rare. Most of us are distracted by the dominant culture of consumption and competition. But in a way, that culture we are in is the stream. It demands we stay on our feet, it is always pushing at us if we stop in it. We must, to survive, live according to the demands of that culture.
But in the midst of “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” as Wordsworth famously said. So we must remind ourselves what is important, and for those of us who are artists or writers or independent thinkers, the world of getting and spending is not it.
Two Balancing Values
The way of elegance is a path between two different values. On the one hand is the need to live and work in society with all it’s stress, drudgery, and busyness. On the other hand is the need to slow down, be calm, be present, and see and create beauty.
This is what it means to be still in the stream. Retaining our knowledge of what is important, while the world with it’s politics, market forces, and powerful media flow around us.
Wabi sabi is a counter-culture idea. It looks to old, worn, and broken things for beauty. If we own it as part of our value system, I believe it hones our sensitivity. Perhaps it works best on the already sensitive person, I’m not sure. In my own life I have become more and more sensitive to subtlety, and more able to savor things as I allow myself to experience a wider array of sensations and ideas.
This way of being, involves a balance of working within a culture and making time for aesthetical appreciation. The point of balance is often close to the places where age clearly improves things. Well aged wine and cheese, worn jeans, aged wood furniture.
You know you are one of the stream enterers if you wonder at the subtleness of organic patterns or feel joy noticing something or someone previously overlooked.
Despite its melancholy tones, there is a kind of light in wabi sabi beauty, a glow like a candle in a quiet room. Muted and earth toned, we sometimes apologize for wabi sabi, wonder at our fondness of it. It is an intuitive ache, an understanding of the time that has gone into and out of a thing. We recognize the value of things that exist and will pass away.
A person who has experienced wabi sabi, even if he or she has not named it, knows a sharp private perception wrapped around some place, person, or object. That perception is something like love when it hurts. But when it matures, the pain grows into an acceptance and peace. It helps us embrace all the things that are impermanent by reminding us we can not own them. When you see yourself as part of the stream of things that come into being and go out again, when you see yourself as part of the flow itself, you start to be still, in the stream.