Thoughts On Aging: Wabi Sabi


I always take a few minutes on my birthday to check my reflection — how I reflect the world, how I feel about it. There’s always a notation about my weight (I’ve managed to hold it within ten pounds of “X” for the past decade) and where I stand vis-a-vis work, health, and outlook.

This year, looking at the world and how it teeters careening along the precipice in so many ways, I am continuing my path of Spiritual Awakening by embracing the idea of wabi-sabi: the Japanese worldview that appreciates the value of the imperfect, the unfinished, and the faulty. Roger Housten wrote a brilliant article about it for SHAMBALA SUN, in which he explains it deftly:

Wabi Sabi is the aesthetic view that underlies Japanese art forms like tea ceremony and ceramics. It’s an aesthetic that sees beauty in the modest and humble, the irregular and earthy. It holds that beauty lies in the patina of age and the changes that come with use. It’s in the cracks, the worn spot — the green corrosion of bronze, the pattern of moss on a stone. The Japanese take pleasure in mistakes and imperfections.

It’s that last bit that really grabbed me today: mistakes and imperfections. Looking back over a decade or more of birthday notes and thoughts on aging, there was always the “gotta do this better, disappointed this wasn’t as good as it should have been” notations. And some of the themes were the same, repeated over and over. Perhaps to accept that these things remain with me — weight, age, falling short of eternal goals — means that they are complete in and of themselves.

A dear friend, whose wisdom and joy I respect deeply, gently remonstrated with me recently about putting things on my Facebook page that occasionally showed me as vulnerable, sad, upset, or confused. She felt that, since it is clients as well as friends that see such things, I should remain relentlessly positive, the idea being that positive begets positive. I understand where she is coming from, and honor her choosing that Way for herself. But sometimes, at least for me, that isn’t honest.

I’m no guru. I have my bad days, my mornings when all I want to do is wear my Grumpy Cat t-shirt and tell the world to go to blazes. There are days my thoughts on aging cause me to doubt myself. Days when the world weighs heavily on my soul, and I am too damn tired to be chirpy.   It is my humanity — I strive for bliss, and sometimes whack my shins on the ladder climbing to the stars.

Because the humanity in those people *I* admire and want to emulate makes them real to me, and tells me that the wisdom and joy they have managed to find just might be there for me, too, I choose to show both sides of my nature — the perfectly glazed vase and the pitted pot. Both hold my humanity. Both deserve compassion and acceptance.

I was surprised and touched to find that so many of my clients see my sharing my difficulties with them via the occasional Facebook post or blog as actually empowering for them. In fact, one note from my client put it all together:

Thank you for telling me I could be mad at my husband for dying.   Everyone said that he suffered so much and I was always healthy and I didn’t have a right to complain, that I should think myself lucky, and why wasn’t I happy he was done with all the pain? And why wasn’t I holding it together for our kids, why wasn’t I reminding them of all the wonderful things their father did for them? Of course I’m glad he doesn’t hurt any more, but I keep thinking “if you didn’t drink and smoke for years you would still be here.” And I’m still alone, and I will still have to raise the children and deal with everything myself. And that wasn’t what was promised when we got married.

So many of us believe that everyone else has it all together, that we should be better than we are and live our lives like  We are inundated with better-than-us people through the 24/7 news cycle, the reality shows, and the TV specials that say “this person has done amazing stuff and had a horrible life to deal with and they are still smiling and cheerful so we’re going to give them a trip and a car and a lot of money.” We think to ourselves “how much do I have to suffer before I have a right to say I hurt, let alone get presents for all my suffering?”

This is a point where turning off the media is so very important. The media attempts to tell us HOW to feel, WHEN to feel it and WHY we should (or shouldn’t). It constantly puts extremes in front of us – to the point where feelings are a commodity to be dealt with, not just There. Is it any wonder why simple recognition of humanity has gone so very awry?

I want to offer a completely different view, and post a different question to those asked by the Media Screed. Have you ever taken the time to see what has gone on in your life as a canvas that doesn’t need correcting.  If you’re having thoughts on aging, it’s time to think about the good things too.

Let’s try that now. I’m going to ask you to set aside as much time as you can – at least a half an hour. (Really, you can find that. Make a cup of coffee or tea, and settle in.)

Go get a pen and paper. Or a fresh sheet of blank computer screen.

Start writing down things that have happened in your life. They can be your successful lemonade stand at age six. They can be the fact that you were blackballed from the National Honor Society your senior year in high school.   They can be getting the job of your dreams. They can be disappointments in love. They can be large or small, personal or public, self-generated or in reaction to (or with) other people. They can be be good OR bad; try not to think of only one side of the ledger.

Now – stop comparing with other people, other events. Instead, take each one of them and find something good, useful, something that make you more of who you are today

Lemonade stand? Maybe you learned you could sell ice to Eskimos.

Honor Society?   What if you found that it didn’t hold you back from going for what you wanted – and you stopped looking for others to reward you for following your path?

Job? You got the chance to show how good you were at what you loved.

Romantic disappointment? What if that one debacle gave you the understanding and compassion to make the next one absolutely right, and long term?

The point here is that every single thing that has happened to you has made you what you are. And when you realize that what you are is valuable, both to you and to the world, you drop the comparisons of people that have had different lives, different karmic paths.

I have had financial ups and downs. I have had a rocky romantic road. I have dealt with cancer three times, which shattered my self image and has given me physical challenges I would never have dreamed would clutter my life so thoroughly.   I have had a fistful of different jobs – what I call a “checkered career.”

People who only look at the surface of what happened – and compare it to what they think is a properly successful life — say my life has been painful, rough, unfulfilled, and that I am a failure. And oh, are they missing the point.

The financial ups and downs have allowed me to embrace the idea of “things” and others’ opinions not marking one’s true worth. The difficulties in my relationships have given me depth, compassion and the understanding of compromise, which is why my current marriage is so strong and full of love, acceptance and mutual respect.   The cancer has taken my focus off what I look like on the outside as being my only value, asking me to plumb my own depths for resilience and self-love. And the checkered career has enabled me to counsel just about anyone who comes to my reading table, because I understand so many different employment arenas, and I have been on both sides of the employer-employee teeter totter.

Every single thing I have gone through means I am stronger, wiser, deeper, more compassionate, and more of what I want to be at core.

No regrets. None.

Thus, I have learned to embrace the concept of thoughts on aging as wabi-sabi. I am imperfect. I am extremely human. My years on this earthly roller-coaster have decorated me with scars and patina and dings that show I have lived and striven for better than I was the day before. You will see me blissful and despairing, wise and witless, compassionate and self-absorbed. They are all part of the human condition and oh, I am so very human.

I will more than likely never get all the way to where I want to go.

But then, the philosophers say that the journey is more important than the destination. And I rather think that’s the way to travel.