Sunday, November 22, 2015

Wabi Sabi and Resilience

Wabi sabi, with its recognition of imperfection and its acceptance - even embrace - of decay, may not be the first reference or aesthetic to turn to clarify the concepts of resilience. The whiff of mortality that is central to the principles of wabi sabi brings a rationality to the discussion of resilience that is missing in efforts to defeat mortality or create a material, structure or organization that is purported to be maintenance-free or at the very least, state of the art. Also, when pondering challenges that test one's resilience or confidence, it is reassuring to work from the premise that nothing is permanent - including failure and adversity.

The eternal assertion that the next technology to come down the pike will bring the answer to one particular problem or challenge withers with time and the recognition that technology has been more often used to give the hucksters something new to shill to those clamouring for eternal youth, cool or beauty rather than answers of any lasting form or substance.  The efforts to suggest the ineffable and fleeting can indeed be not only lasting but also available for purchase conjure false hope and discourage people from looking within or acknowledging the cycles of life.  The suggestion that solutions can be bought or invented undermine our willingness or ability to deal with the challenges that we will encounter.

The "solutions" that are so inviting actual invite us to favour independence over interdependence and surrounding ourselves with objects rather than people to address our needs.  Further to that, there is the chance that those technological solutions are for the most trivial of problems. These technological solutions for the less than the essential can leave us unprepared for the great challenges in life because they can encourage us to assume that there is a simplistic, perhaps binary, solution to each problem. It is not to say that consumerism leaves us grasping for the ideal purchase or latest technology for the most challenging problems we face, but it might leave us less certain of our own inner potential or with the means to deal with particular challenges or the solutions that we may need.

On a material level, there are far too many wonder substances that have been purported to have remarkable strength and resistance to the elements or the passing of time, only to prove that their decline is far less pleasant or even aesthetically pleasing a decay as the gradual erosion of paint off of a well-handled surface. Think of vinyl or aluminum siding that has outlived its lifetime guarantee and does not cohere to efforts to restore it or improve its appearance. Think of other materials that have come along and disappeared. Plastics, acrylics and other materials have all come and gone and if there is any nostalgia for the likes of Corelle dinnerware, it may be outweighed by a certain disdain for the dated and out of style.

More significant than simple materials that have been consigned to some form of disregard, there are just as damaging systems or solutions that people have bought into as a form of self-improvement. With many of those there is a degree of self-discipline required, which is not part of the sales pitch for those solutions.  In other instances, there is also a first-come, first-serve aspect that only benefits the first few to get in on the program (or pyramid scheme.) When we encounter people who have bought into those solutions or systems to improve their lives, we find that we regard them as well with a certain distaste that is not borne of sour grapes but rather than sense that their route is not one we would want to adopt, especially because of their hard sell that "it is the answer." It smacks too much proselytism, no matter how secular it may be.

Wabi sabi's tolerance for ambiguity and reflection imparts a calmer and more integrated approach to the problems that we may face and encourage the development of inner resources that do not come off the shelf.  There is no need to come up with a common or popular solution to our problems or, beyond that an assumption that a problem or challenge is off the shelf, either.  With reflection and contemplation of the ambiguities that we face - in one instance the assertion that with failure there has been progress and lessons to adapt into future efforts or iterations - there is the opportunity to recognize what can be done and proceed with the confidence and assurance that there is alternative approach that we can take.

Apart from that mindset, there is an emphasis on remaining in the moment and letting the passage time have the effects that we are always anticipating. With that in mind, failures are never an ending or a door closed on possibilities. Wabi sabi, and other Japanese aesthetics, strives for a minimalism that allows and virtually unlimited range of interpretations which invites people to explore possibilities more freely. Whether it is a haiku, a garden, a piece of ceramic or a swirl of ink dashed onto delicate paper, perceptions can expand with some contemplation of the setting.  Whether it is our perception of ourselves, our potential, our situation or the inner and external resources that we have available to us, there is an opportunity to get past the rational simplicity that a mass-produced solution or object offers.

When compared with those off-the-shelf formulas or objects that we may invest in to solve our problems, wabi sabi approaches to life and to the problems that we may encounter would assure us to step back from the problems or failures that we face and reflect on them in a manner that reconsiders our challenges, goals and possibilities.  Ideally, it would be an approach that encourages us to take a more handcrafted and unique an approach to leading our lives and remaining true to our potential and path, regardless of the adversity or temptations we might face.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Wicked Problems and Wabi Sabi

It goes without saying that the changes occurring in our increasingly complex world are requiring more thoughtful and comprehensive responses.  In most cases we would assume that these changes are introduced for the sake of generating innovation or disruption to create advantages for an organization.

However, creative, comprehensive thinking is not only required when seeking opportunities to seek new opportunities but those approaches need to be integrated into the responses to wicked problems. Wicked problems require patience, openness and a tolerance for the ambiguities and contradictions that the problem poses.  By their nature, wicked problems cannot be addressed with a one size fits all, off the shelf approach.  Attempts to resolve wicked problems with authoritative approaches are at best band-aids and or more likely to exacerbate the situation.

Wicked problems, whether they are social problems, environmental challenges or similar issues, need to be addressed in manner that responds to the extent of the problem and the stakeholders who are impacted rather than the looking leverage the infrastructure available or conform to established protocols and procedures.  An orientation toward established resources and a narrower black and white view of the challenge without investing the time to get a deeper understanding of the issue and the repercussions of their response.

Integrating the approaches central to wabi-sabi aesthetics into the response to wicked problems. Such an approach would not assert that there is a person involved in the discussion that holds all the keys for addressing or resolving the problem.  Instead, there would be a more egalitarian and integrated approach to accumulating information about the situation and crafting a consensus on a response to the problem.

Given the challenges of wicked problems, wabi-sabi's adaptation to nature and desire to harmonize with it fosters a mindfulness that increases the consciousness of all of the aspects of a response to the problem.  There is also a willingness to be responsive to and interactive with all of the stakeholders that are impacted by a wicked problem and open to the feedback that they have to offer without at any point assuming that the solution has been found until it has been developed and crafted together in a manner that reflects the patience, openness and tolerance for change, flaws and natural cycles that are at the heart of the wabi-sabi aesthetic.

Wabi-sabi's emphasis on perception, whether it is by determining what can be seen or by accumulating data that would guide decision-making, rather than taking a reasoned and rational and ultimately more abstract, less grounded approach to a problem is one of the many ways that this aesthetic could be applied to decision-making rather than merely art.  Beyond that, this level of perception or consciousness will allow a group to develop an enhanced grasp and appreciation of the big picture that the wicked problem is a part of.  Further to that, the presence and attentiveness to the problem is aimed at unearthing and integrating trace elements of the process or problem that would not be acknowledged in a more rushed and mechanical approach to addressing a wicked problem.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: Wabi Sabi Timeless Wisdom for a Stress-Free Life

There are relatively few books in English on wabi sabi.  One book which I recently came upon was Wabi Sabi Timeless Wisdom for a Stress-Free Life, a self-help book by a Swedish author named Agneta Nyholm Winqvist. Most of the other books that I have read on wabi sabi have more of an aesthetic or philosophical tone to them and I was quite interested in seeing how the principles of wabi sabi can be applied beyond the more aesthetic confines of previous writings on the topic.

However, the Winqvist book is a bit more diffuse in its discussion than one grounded entirely within wabi sabi.  The orientation is more obviously to the theme of self-help than it is to wabi sabi and there are digressions into meditation, yin and tang relationships, feminism, earth goddesses, biomimicry, twelve-step programs and other Asian concepts that erode the potential for the book to focus on wabi sabi and fails to offer coherent tools for reducing stress.

The other Asian concepts that are brought into the discussion are the concepts of naikan, a Japanese term for introspection and wu wei which is a Chinese language Taoist term which could roughly translate to "without control" and would suggest letting go as a step toward dealing with the personal problems that would turn one to self-help strategies.

The myriad approaches that Winqvist brings together within the book all contribute some insights into self-help strategies but few of them reveal much about wabi sabi itself and the approaches that are brought together within the book are not fused together into as coherent a strategy as needed for a self-help book to be effective.  There is talk about "resting in" or "resting through" the challenges that we may encounter but this is not expanded upon sufficiently enough to offer a unique strategy, let alone one that is explicitly grounded in the tenets and principles of the wabi sabi aesthetic.

When the book delves into the principles of wabi sabi in the last 30-40 pages there are hints at how wabi sabi principles can enhance the ways one handles the stresses and challenges they may be struggling with.  However, at this point of the book, it does not provide the depth of the discussion into the topic that it possible.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Wabi Sabi is Not Based on Nostalgia

If one scanned previous posts on this blog and my comments on vinyl records, lion claw bath tubs and other items there might be a presumption that wabi sabi has an orientation toward the good old days or suggests the ideals are found in the context of a nostalgic interpretation. Corelle dinnerware might remind us of our kitchen cupboards circa 1978 but whatever nostalgia it might, might evoke it is unlikely to provoke the attachments to an not representative of the qualities of wabi sabi.

A few weeks ago my wife asked aloud, "I don't know why I keep going there?", of a popular restaurant that she had visited once again only to be disappointed again.  From my perspective, the restaurant was rather ordinary and their food the product of a production line approach to churning out units rather than a more artisanal passion for food making.

For many people fond of this restaurant, there would be attachments to the rituals and comforts that are the result of routine or family tradition but after several generations of fast food, it is hard to say the product rises beyond the confines of its conformity and mass-production.  While the found might be familiar it lacks the originality to do anything other than depreciate with each visit.  That may be just as much part of the challenge for the fast food industry as the increased health-consciousness today. It is likely why the small bit of customization from the increasing number of restaurants that have a smidgen of customization are gaining popularity in that sector of the industry.

The mass produced food - whether from a restaurant or the freezer section of the supermarket - is just one artifact of technology and the times we live in or the eating habits that we have adopted to accommodate the current pace of life.  Given the rat race we strive to keep up with, we are becoming less conscious or less present during moments of our lives such as meals, conversations or walks through our day.  We have become less attached to or conscious of the world that we are moving through and despite the notions of nostalgia that might motivate us to eat certain things in part because of an emotional attachment to a childhood memory it is better to return to the present and attach ourselves to things that make us aware of what is happening at the moment.

On one level that commitment to the moment would be an occasion to put the cell phones and other distractors aside but on another level, it is even more affirming of the moment to be having a meal that has been handmade by someone who is attentive to the food that is being prepared and who it is being served to, whether you are cooking for yourself or enjoying a meal that is being prepared by a cook or chef for you.

One of the key elements of wabi sabi is the consciousness of the moment that you are in.  If we are surrounding by things that are enriched by an artisanal dedication that makes the experience of using them that much more enjoyable - whether it is a good meal, a good pen or a cup of tea in our favorite mug - there is a sense of connection.  The could be the immediate connection with the inanimate object that we are holding and further conscious of because of the way it feels in our hand or the deeper more intimate attachment with the (possibly unknown and distant) person who created or contributed to those objects that make us more conscious of that moment we are in.

That awareness of the moment is unlikely to occur when chewing on an assembly line hamburger that you have chosen to eat simply because it takes you back to your childhood.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


We all talk about being at the right place and the right time, but often we talk about those occasions being coincidences or occasions that stand out because they are so intermittent.  There is the suggestion in that phrase that synchronicity or serendipity are at play during those moments but why is it that it happens for some of us so rarely or happens for others more often or frequently?

There are a number of factors that play into this.  On one level there may be the ambition to achieve something that makes you structure routines in a certain way.  There may be that effort to create the opportunities for that right-place-right-time occasion to present itself more regularly or frequently.  There may also be a need for greater attentiveness to the opportunities that are presented and an intention to make the most of them.  As a photographer, those right place right time occasions are best identified as the results of present and attentive enough to fully recognize my surroundings and the opportunities there rather than being the beneficiary of a right time right place coincidence or pulling off a sophisticated technical achievement with the camera.  With the image above I was sitting in a car on a rainy day and the greatest effort was in convincing myself that the shot was worth taking.  The leaf landed on the windshield and it was entirely in my to determine if I wanted to preserve it or not.

That presence does not have to occur only when one has a camera slung around your neck.  I have experienced satisfying moments of transformation by being present in the workplace as well - most memorably as a teacher.  There are moments when you can tune yourself to your environment and situation quite well and impact a situation by being present enough to integrate the circumstances at a given moment into an impactful and often intuitive response.  There may be some occasions where timidity or lack of preparation, confidence or presence make it difficult for you to be fully attentive to your surroundings and contribute to improving circumstances there. With familiarity, self-trust and a willingness to take risks, you can have a more profound impact with relative ease.  The most impactful moment of presence I can recall is asking a class of students what they wanted me to teach them and open up a dialogue that had not taken place for either a year and a half or two or three generations depending on the view you wish to take of the passage of time.

For all of us - whether we have a camera or not - it is ideal to be equipped with the alertness, presence or sense of intention to create more of those right place right time moments rather than to leave them entirely to coincidence or synchronicity.  For a photographer, it is a matter of moving purposefully and intently enough to not only be perceptive but also to create images that best express our own unique view of the world rather than capturing what other people suggest are the icons of a purported collective perception that drives many of us to photograph the Eiffel Tower badly rather than our backyard well.  Compare the presence and awareness you have in your favorite perch in your backyard on an early Saturday morning with the bustle and jostle of trying to capture your own version of Paris landmarks while the tourbus door menaces you.

Even if you are in an occupation or avocation other than photography, there is still need and opportunity to make the most of the moments that are given to you by bringing your presence and awareness to bear on your work, your home and the relationships or opportunities that are most important to you.  The key things to bear in mind are similar to a photographer’s.  Presence, clear intention and willingness to make a calculated risk to get what you hope to achieve in a given moment.

There is a need to have a sense of your intention and the will to stick to that intention upon weighing the risk.  If there are occasions where you are not aware of your intention then it is quite easy to get overwhelmed by the environment and swayed by what you are being exposed to. Without that sense of intention, there is ultimately the risk of paralysis and the sense that an opportunity is lost or that there is no right place despite the efforts taken to create opportunity by virtue of the setting you are working in.

There will be a need at times to stray from the path that friends, family, peer pressure or your job description may expect you to adhere to but it is important to draw upon that self-trust to grant yourself the autonomy to make the most of the situations you find yourself in and contribute something that can be transformative.  Often, the biggest obstacle is your own timidity or reluctance.  
Ultimately, most of the energy goes into being aware enough and alert enough to be present and aligned with your intentions and aspirations.