Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Wabi Sabi and the Paradox of Possession

We are regularly made conscious of the negative impacts of consumption and our attachment to the things we own. From a Buddhist perspective, there may be further assertion against consumption given associations some make between Buddhism, minimalism and detachment from the material world. Wabisabi, however, is quite willing to encouraging a well-considered intimacy between a person and the things that one - purposefully - takes possession of.

It may seem to be a puzzling contradiction that might not merely distinguish but so much as separate wabisabi from its Buddhist roots.

In illustrations of the fondness for an object that embodies the poignancy of wabisabi, there are evocations of time's polish on a carpenter's hammer and the history of connection and, yes, attachment between the hand, the tool and the work they have done together. In my case, the grip of my digital camera has spots where the gripping and handling since 2006 has worn off the factory finish. The manufacturer's matte surface has relented to my grip and revealed a shiny black plastic. The mention of a digital camera in this context is probably antithetical, but the reality is that from a wabisabi perspective a discussion of a possession will come around to not only the aesthetics of the object, but more importantly the connection between a person and that possession.

There remains unease about the word 'possession' in this context. My digital camera, especially as an object to look at, lacks the essential elements of wabisabi, but it has aged with the passage of time, not merely with the flight of technology or as a consequence of the planned obsolescence that was built into it and the millions of mass-produced units that were churned out. At the same time, it has served as a vehicle for appreciating the transient moments that a camera can capture and elevate the objects which catch my eye. It, like a carpenter's hammer, is a tool of creation and the hammer, like the digital camera, is not without the baggage of paradox.

Apart from the intimate connection between object and the person using it; the tangible aging that has occurred; and its value as a medium of expression, there may be little to assert that this particular camera has qualities that embody wabi sabi. The wabi sabi qualities that it does possess may only have been imparted to it with the passage of time.  My relationship with this camera is not, however, premised entirely on possession.

A less troublesome case of a possession, one not burdened with the modern technology that the digital camera raises, is the agenda that I have toted around since last November. Conscious of my irresolute agenda-keeping over the years, I have jotted in the dates for each month as it approaches and note my appointments, goals and key events on a spread of two pages and add details and notes from each day in freeform rather than trying to squeeze them into the boxes of a traditional agenda. The to-do lists compiled and the jottings that have occurred throughout each day and month have turned those blank pages into a vital reference that I have kept at hand for nearly a year.  While the pages have transformed into something I value and handle everyday, the bindings have succumbed, the ribbon bookmark has given up the ghost and I should be able to eke another 6 weeks out of the bindings thanks to the tape jobs I have done with whatever I happened to be at hand when urgency struck. The intimacy has not worn on it as gently as time has worn on the camera grip, but the cracks reflect well on the relationship.

In both cases the ideals of wabi sabi are in that intimacy and, despite the paradox, the attachment that
is formed because of the value that the object gains over time. If there is further attachment that forms because of the wear rather than despite it then there is a relationship that occurs between the person and the object. A mindlessly gathered collection of goods -- one that is the result of quick consumption or immediate gratification to fill an unplumbed or ill-perceived void and consequently never exposed to the utility that regularly-used objects gain -- would never be used as thoroughly or competently as that carpenter's well-worn hammer. Beyond that image of the polished grip, however, is a clear connection between person and passion. The wholeness of that relationship and its purpose has an authenticity and depth that makes possession and material an afterthought.