Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You’re listening to episode 17, titled That Wabi-Sabi Life. This week I am diving into a term I admittedly learned not long ago, but have started studying fervently. It’s one that makes me feel connected on a soul level to ancient wisdom – as if I’m about to discover a secret to longevity that only the quietest of sages can learn. I’m still new to the topic and would never call myself an expert, but the beauty of the concepts spoke so immediately to me and the way I work through loss, I couldn’t resist taking the time to unpack it with you.
Wabi-sabi is an elegant philosophy from Japanese culture. It is a concept that brings us into a more connected way of living, both to nature and through that, to ourselves in the truest sense. It’s kind of like intentional soul minimalism, and in the middle of loss, that is a concept that appeals so deeply to my overworked mind and spirit.
If you listened to last week’s episode on grief in the new year, you may remember I spoke about finding internal alignment – heart, mind, body, and spirit. One of the bravest ways I believe we can recover ourselves from misalignment is through engaging with nature. Whether that is barefoot in the grass, standing on the edge of the ocean on a blustery day, or simply sunbathing, nature contains the antidote to our high stress, ungodly expectations of production, and the total disconnection from ourselves when we are looking for a way through great loss.
The reason this beautiful concept resonated so deeply with me is it’s emphasis and embrace of impermanence. We’re not here for a long time, friends, but we can here for a good time, right? Impermanence is the opposite of perfection. Perfection pretends we can control the outcomes, fix the future in a set way, and never experience the lack we so fear.
Impermanence, then, and the philosophy of wabi-sabi invites us to embrace the beauty of imperfection all around us. To engage the simple progression of nature, as it ages, grows, and decays. To consider life made manifest all around us, and to dig beneath what we perceive as broken to uncover the beauty within.
Now, it would be really easy for me to go all “coach-language” on you and say something trite like, “See? You’re not really broken, you need to change your mindset and see that you’re amazing and wonderful!”
I’m not going to do that, for so many reasons. But mainly because I don’t believe you will benefit from being told to change your mindset. Wherever your mind is right now matters, because it’s informing your physical feelings, your emotions, and your body. It’s helping you gain awareness and moving into your next state. So no rushing forward.
Wabi-sabi invites us, instead, into the humble simplicity of our lives. We are noticing how nothing lasts forever. Nothing can be made permanent. We find that no matter what we attach ourselves to in this life, it changes and shifts with time.
So how do we move through our lives and our grief in a way that invites us to become more present, accepting, and appreciative of the stages of our lives – even as those stages feel heavy and confusing?
There are five basic principles of wabi-sabi. At it’s core, wabi-sabi reminds us that life is fragile, temporary, and ephemeral. You may have heard of kintsugi, the art of repairing a broken vessel with gold fillings, giving them golden scars. The concept was really popular in American culture (at least in my circle) a few years ago. I read a lot of blog posts about it, anyway!
In broken places, we can reveal the story of a thing, brought to the surface. Our lives contain scars, pain, and depths we cannot fathom – why would we hide that away? Wabi-sabi would invite us to call every last detail to the surface.
But kintsugi is only the first part of this philosophy. The second deals with our rush into production – chasing perfection (even if we deny it) and harming ourselves with mental violence when we cannot perform. The obsession with being right and getting it right every time destroys the tenderness we cultivate when we allow our imperfections to be seen and celebrated.
I remember once I wrote my husband a quick note when he was going through a particularly intense season at work. It’s an old quote, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” But that wasn’t good enough for me. I always added, “And let that be enough.”
Somewhere along the road, the picked up the false idea that we are not enough and that cognitive distortion is highlighted like wildfire in grief. We can’t meet our usual commitments so we beat ourselves up and spiral even further into a false identity of failure and disappointment.
In wabi-sabi, we strive for excellence over perfection. We simply do our best, and allow ourselves to be the best version of ourselves. We seek mastery in our craft and skills, but truly allow for the understanding that all will fade and we are simply a seashell in the ocean, working our way toward shore. The waves may undo our progress, but still, we remain in the world we were created for, surrounded by the beauty of the sea.
The third principle of wabi-sabi is going to create some tension in a few of you, so buckle up, buttercup. Uketamo means acceptance to the very core of you. This is not a fatalistic, “It is what it is” perspective, nor is this the fifth stage of grief – which, we already know is not actually applicable because there are no stages and I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole today.
Uketamo is the opportunity of our aligned selves to recognize that we can stop our forms of suffering and grow through what we encounter in our lives with grace and compassion for how long it takes us. Ooof. A simpler way to say that is uketamo is knowing we cannot control the outcomes, but we can become ourselves in spite of our circumstances.
We have character a mountain high and a mile deep. In grief, that inner strength learns to soften into a tenderhearted flexibility. We are no longer the rigid, unmovable brick walls. We are fluid, softening and surrendering to the resistance around us – even when that resistance is impermanent.
The fourth principle is probably the hardest one for me, and that is to move slowly. Slow and simple. Otherwise, what is the point? Did we enjoy the meal before us, or did we simply inhale without tasting it?
Grief makes everything feel so slow and fast at the same time. And so we try to rush our way through the bigness of the emotions and the practical things because we somehow believe things will be better or normal or right or less crazy on the other side.
Grief is the ultimate moment where we decide to do what we want and get rid of what we don’t want. When we have loss, we learn almost immediately what we can and cannot live without. If the loss is a death, we are thrust into a new shape of life. Would you rush through a brand new city, or would you take your time to get to the know the shops and storefronts of this new place?
Slowing down, simplifying and decluttering the noise from our lives makes things suddenly seem much clearer. It invites our grief to the table as a guest; as a familiar, with a chance to speak up about what hurt, and what needs attention first.
And finally, wabi-sabi pulls us away from hopelessness by teaching us to embrace what we already have. One of the most prevalent cognitive distortions I encounter with grievers is the “finish line” or arrival fallacy. The idea that if we can simply come to the perceived end of a thing, we will be happy again and, by implication, remain happy.
You guys. It is impossible to be happy all the time. And I think we know that, but sometimes we don’t realize we carry that cognitive distortion until we experience grief, and have to learn how to live with multiple big emotions at once.
You see, emotions and thoughts inform our body of how to feel. What to experience – should the body release endorphins, adrenaline, and the like. Those physical manifestations tell our body to behave a certain way – either to avoid those feelings or to chase more of them.
And when we behave a certain way, we reinforce those emotions and thoughts as valid, whatever they may be.
That cycle is fueled and interrupted in a helpful way by wabi-sabi. We cannot chase emotional highs just like we cannot chase the physical manifestations without expecting them to eventually fade. Wabi-sabi would have us recognize that happiness is not a destination, outcome, or state of being. It’s simply an emotion.
Instead of pursuing an emotional state, we can learn to see our emotions as information and transform them into an opportunity to embrace each one as enough. To become content with current state of our lives, regardless of what it evokes in our emotional selves.
We are always quick to push through grief. I see hundreds of coaches and internet advisors every day trying to give the quick path through the grief process, while still trying to say, “Take your time.”
We can’t have it both ways. Are there little tips and techniques to feel what we might call instant relief? Of course. Ibuprofen for the emotions, if you will.
But ibuprofen fades, and if you don’t deal with the source of the headaches, they return.
To only know contentment – to become settled in the present life without perpetrating judgment or violence against yourself – this is the core of wabi-sabi. Life is not going to be a Norman Rockwell painting – we cannot live like we have an Instagram filter for every difficult moment.
But we also cannot evade the reality that we will feel complex, confusing that state of both/and thinking with an inability to acheieve what we want and move forward.
Wabi-sabi means become content with where we stand, keeping our eyes ahead on where we want to go, and making loving, trusting, intentional steps toward our future selves with kindness. How do you think these big ideas could help you move through your grief story in a new way?
Thank you for listening to episode 17 of Restorative Grief. In her book titled, “Wabi Sabi, a Japanese Wisdom for a Perfect Imperfect Life,” author Beth Kempton writes:
“Put simply, wabi sabi gives you permission to be yourself. It encourages you to do your best but not make yourself ill in pursuit of an unattainable goal of perfection. It gently motions you to relax, slow down and enjoy your life. And it shows you that beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places, making every day a doorway to delight.”
There will always be a new principle or concept to explore and potentially, find movement within. If you’re like me, you’re stepping into each new circumstance with curiosity and hope for something worth learning. So as you reflect on this episode and potentially, start learning more about wabi-sabi, I hope you give yourself the encouragement to embrace a perfectly imperfect journey through grief as well.
One last thing – Remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. I’ll see you next week.
Links + Resources from this episode:
- Itsuo Tsuda, author and teacher: Find his works here
- Beth Kempton’s book, Wabi-Sabi, a Japanese Wisdom for a Perfect Imperfect Life.
- Join The Restorative Grief Project, a private online grief coaching community
- Listen to this episode of Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart on Spotify
- Snag a copy of my book, Restorative Grief
- Connect with me on Twitter or Instagram @MandyCapehart