Monday, December 14, 2009


Sometimes, when I write one of these postings, I am in a sort of trance state. I just sit still for a few moments with my hands poised lightly on the keyboard of my ancient laptop, and soon the words somehow pour out of my fingers. It is like magic. I proofread what comes out of me as best I can - I have a strong aversion to typos - and then I hesitantly click the button that says PUBLISH POST.

A few hours later, or maybe the next morning as I'm getting ready to write another one, I might re-read the previous entry, and nearly always I find a mistake. Often the gaffe is right up there in the first paragraph, shining like a beacon of ineptitude for all to see (when will I ever become ept?). I cringe that a misspelled word has slipped past my sensors (or should it be censors?), or I discover an awkward phrase caused by a hasty rewrite, or botched cut and paste job. Most insidious of all is when an incorrect word sneaks past the auto-correct software because it is spelled correctly, but it is not the write one to use in that context. Of course, I have also been known to either, a) not see, or, b) ignore the red underscore indicating that the word is just spelled wrong.

Ah, the imperfection of it all!

Which brings me (at last) to the subject of today's blog: a Japanese philosophy called "wabi-sabi." Basically, the concept of wabi-sabi is that all things are impermanent, imperfect, and unfinished. According to Andrew Juniper, in his book Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence:

It is an expression of the beauty that lies in the brief transition between the coming and going of life, both the joy and melancholy, that make up our lot as humans...If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.
When we include this concept of wabi-sabi in our daily life, we can accomplish three things. First, we can cut ourselves some slack for being human. Embracing wabi-sabi means acknowledging that we are a work-in-progress that will never be finished, will always be imperfect, and will not last forever. It gives us a little breathing room, and allows a little space between "what is" and "how I'd like it to be."

Second, it provides another way to open the tight, clinging fist that constricts us, keeps us trapped in old, outmoded habits of mind, and leads to more suffering. Wabi-sabi can be a reminder that, as my wife and dharma companion Kathy has said, "It's hard give or receive with a closed hand."

And third, it can help us get on with our lives when we feel stuck. A friend of mine could not seem to start the process of writing his master's thesis because he was terrified that he would fail and that what he wrote would not meet up to his expectations. I reminded him several times that, yes, his first draft probably would be awful, but as the inimitable Anne Lamott wrote in Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, we are all prone to producing "shitty first drafts." She then continues:

All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts...I know some very great writers, writers you love and who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.
A bonus dividend that wabi-sabi offers us is the ability to catch, perhaps for just a moment, how precious, rare, and miraculous being alive really is. Far from offering a depressing or negative view of things, this kind of world view can help us become more at ease with the natural ebb and flow of life, just as it is.

Now I will go and try to make this piece as perfect as I can, knowing that it is a thing that is essentially imperfect, unfinished, and impermanent. While I do this, enjoy a nice little Zen story as rendered by Andrew Juniper:

Long ago a man out walking encountered a hungry tiger, which proceded to chase and corner him at the edge of a small precipice. The man jumped to avoid the impending danger and in doing so managed to catch the limb of a tree growing from the small enscarpment. While he hung there he became aware of a second tiger, this one at the foot of the precipice, waiting for him to fall. As his strength began to wane the man noticed a wild strawberry that was growing within his reach. He gently brought it to his lips in the full knowledge that it would be the last thing that he ever ate -- how sweet it was.

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