Wabi-sabi and the Art of Not Creating by Michelle Regan
Recently, a friend taught me the Japanese word wabi-sabi. He described it as the appreciation of imperfection through understanding that every moment is fleeting. This moment will come and pass and never happen again.
I started researching and found that wabi-sabi often refers to art or design, but has expanded over time to be an apt descriptor of the Japanese approach of life. Zen Universe defines wabi-sabi as “the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered, and, above all, it reveres authenticity.”
I instantly loved this idea, possibly because I’m not terribly adept at navigating uncertain waters. People think that as a yoga and mindfulness teacher I’m impervious to sadness and uncertainty, but I’m just another human. I have occasional victories, but I often fail. I know all the things I’m meant to do — find my breath, focus on the present moment, and keep creating — I just can’t always find my way to them.
In Comfortable with Uncertainty, renowned Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chӧdrӧn writes “The opposite of samsara [a cycle or habit] is when all the walls fall down, when the cocoon completely disappears and we are totally open into ourselves. That is what we aspire to, the warrior’s journey. That is what stirs us: leaping, being thrown out of the nest, going through the initiation rites, growing up, stepping into something that’s uncertain and unknown.”
The same is true of our creative work. We’ll have successes and failures. Both are fleeting. Most of the work is growing and changing and not knowing what comes next. So, how do we continue to create in the throws of uncertainty? Sometimes the answer is...we don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve found creative work to be healing in times of crisis. But sometimes the answer is to accept the moment you’re in.
This exercise is the simplest one I’ve shared. Next time you feel adrift in your creative work, don’t force it. Just walk away. Not permanently and not immediately. But if you’ve given it an honest try and you can’t find your way and the work doesn’t feel healing, do something else. Pauses and endings are part of the natural cycle of creation. Return when you can open your mind and your heart. Listen, observe, and see what’s shifted.
You’ll see a lot of advice out there telling you to push through and create when you don’t feel like it, even from me. Sometimes that’s the answer. Sometimes it’s not. Hard work is certainly a virtue, but it’s equally important to practice self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance. Sometimes we need to heal before we can create and that’s OK.
What matters is the practice we get along the way. We practice sitting in discomfort. We practice finding contentment in silence, audibly and in our thoughts. And we practice coming back to the things that matter. This is how we build resilience and expand our hearts. It’s how we learn to create with greater humility and authenticity.
Don’t fake it till you make it. Instead, embrace where you are right now, even if that means not creating. Wabi-sabi reminds us that even the most completely heartbreaking, unmooring experiences are natural, fleeting, and contain some kind of beauty. They won’t be easy, but they’ll be. And then they won’t anymore.
Michelle Regan is a writer and yoga teacher who's passionate about sharing all the ways in which yoga and creativity can be transformative forces in our lives. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, and petting all the dogs.