Wabi Sabi

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.

Down the street from my own home is a much older house on a generous corner lot. I would guess it was completed in the 20s and seems to have been carefully cared for. That is, until recently. For over twenty years I’ve walked past here and admired the perfectly kept lawn, the flowers and landscaping arranged just so. The elderly woman who stayed inside hired a service to do all of this long ago and got her place painted several times as well. If the yard reflected the interior it must have been immaculate and tastefully decorated.

About three months ago the owner moved out and a young family moved in. I noticed that the lawn and flowers were the first things to reveal this change. The grass was no longer trimmed neatly and when it was finally cut the clippings were left on the sidewalk. In this neighborhood, that’s just not done. I imagine the members of the local garden club were not amused. Then I started to see the odd toy left out over night and the gaudy Cleveland Indians “Chief Wahoo” lawn ornament sprouting from the dying pachysandra. I crossed to the other side of the street with my dog.

In my reading recently I came across something called “Wabi Sabi” in “The Utne Reader.” This magazine is essentially a Reader’s Digest for people with strange ideas. Wabi Sabi is a little difficult to translate fully from the ancient Japanese but it refers to a mood, a way of being or a quality of something that emphasizes an appreciation for imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness. Wabi Sabi finds the beauty in things modest, humble and perhaps unconventional. The word Sabi literally “transformed by age and use.” I found myself immediately drawn to this kind of thinking when I read that it grew out of a reaction to the ornamentation, careful symmetry and near worship of enduring perfection displayed by the higher classes of Japanese culture. I couldn’t help but think of our own culture’s worship of a youthful, strong and symmetrical body. In our ideal body the very things that Wabi Sabi appreciates are seen as flaws that need to be eradicated, covered or feared. Yet, my own work strives to enhance our acceptance of such things. I’ve long had the impression that the supposed flaw in the body was the best entryway toward improved function and less pain. I don’t try to get people to look better, I want them to be more themselves, lumps and unique angulations included. Pain relief follows, usually. I think. I’m almost sure.

Having read all I could find, thought about it and related it to my practice I walked by that house in my neighborhood again. I noticed that the guy always waves and smiles, the kids love my dog, and the chaotic movement of the paraphernalia in the yard and driveway always catches my eye. Each day something out there reveals a little more about the people inside the house. There’s life here now, and that’s always a little messy and unpredictable. I think of Wabi Sabi and the grass clippings and changing plant life don’t concern me. It’s likely that my patients would benefit if I brought more of this attitude into my office.

I know it would make my practice easier on me.

Part II


Yesterday my eyes wandered across the titles on my shelf and landed on a book sent me by a former student; Shibumi, written by Trevanian in ’79. I turned to the page where this strange word was defined. This happens during a conversation between a young boy and his mentor. 

Shibumi, sir?”  Nicholai knew the word, but only as it applied to gardens or architecture, where it connoted an understated beauty.  “How are you using the term, sir?” 

“Oh, vaguely.  And incorrectly, I suspect.  A blundering attempt to describe an ineffable quality.  As you know, shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances.  It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real.  Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge.  Eloquent silence.  In demeanor, it is modesty without pudency.  In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity.  In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming.  And in the personality of a man, it is ... how does one say it?  Authority without domination?  Something like that.” 

Nicholai’s imagination was galvanized by the concept of shibumi.  No other ideal had ever touched him so.  “How does one achieve this shibumi, sir?” 

“One does not achieve it, one ... discovers it.” 

When I read this for the first time years ago I hadn’t noticed the words Wabi and Sabi in the midst of all the rest. But I remember being struck by the description of shibumi and wondering if it was a way of being clinically effective that I hadn’t thought of before. I especially liked the words “commonplace appearance” and “eloquent silence.” It sounded like something I should try. But now I  see in the last line of the conversation that “trying” wouldn’t have worked anyway. 

Just every once in a while I think I may be closing in on a sense of shibumi in my work, but it’s elusive. When I nearly reach it I often say more than is necessary or coerce the body a bit too much. I see this in retrospect of course. Similarly, I will often late in the day reflect upon what proved to be an especially satisfying session with a patient. Only then do I realize that shibumi would adequately describe what happened. 

Like my wandering through the books on my shelf it was effortless, devoid of specific expectation and led by my unconscious. Making all of this therapeutic seems to be what my career is about, and it’s nice to know I’m not the first to think of it.