Most of the world's successful models are pencil thin and for ads in magazines and posters, their faces and bodies are touched up so that they look perfect. Sadly, millions of girls and women measure themselves against these impossible standards and come up short. We saw this recently in America the Beautiful, a documentary by Darryl Roberts. He notes that in 2004 alone, Americans spent 12.4 billion dollars on cosmetic surgery. Mothers are now putting children as young as five on diets or paying for breast implants for their 15-year-old daughters. In Korea, facelifts and other surgeries have reached epidemic numbers. These are but a few of the indicators of a worldwide obsession with physical perfection fueled by the fashion and entertainment industries.
During the Olympic Games in Beijing, we realized that the sports world is also fixated on perfection. Most of the stories focused on a few stars who managed to win Gold Medals with nearly flawless performances. We felt sorry for the other competitors who had worked hard and deserved their time in the spotlight just for showing up.
Is there another way of looking at all this? The Western ideal of beauty usually salutes things that are perfect, pretty, lasting, or spectacular. But in Japan, there is an emphasis on wabi-sabi, an aesthetic stemming from Taoism and Zen Buddhism that honors the simple and the unpretentious (wabi) and the beauty that comes with age or much use (sabi). In this view, simplicity, naturalness, and fragility are valued. Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, defines it as "a beauty of all things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is the beauty of things modest and humble. It is the beauty of things unconventional."
We all have objects in our home that are imperfect and beautiful: an old chair that has been with us for years, a faded tablecloth brought out for special occasions, a piece of jewelry that has been repaired. They all have wabi-sabi. In Dwellings, Linda Hogan recognizes the beauty of imperfection in an old rake:
"My own fragile hand touches the wood, a hand full of my own life, including that which rose each morning early to watch the sun return from the other side of the planet. Over time, these hands will smooth the rake's wooden handle down to a sheen."
What an incredible image of beauty: a rake handle worn down through use over the years. We think of other images that make the same point: cancer patients with bald heads, elders with plenty of wrinkles, a dog hobbling valiantly on three legs. We also salute groups of nonprofessionals who are far from perfect but whose spirit is carried in their performance: church choirs, amateur theater troupes, school bands, and local crafts groups. They are living examples of what poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen says in Stranger Music:
Ring the bells that can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.
In many spiritual traditions, artists deliberately leave a mistake in a handmade object to signify that they know that they cannot make perfection; only God is perfect. We've heard this about Navajo rings and Persian rugs. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh reverences the beauty in garbage. Following his lead, Barbara Ann Kipfer offers this gatha:
"In the garbage, I see beauty. In beautiful things, I see the garbage. One cannot exist without the other."
The wabi-sabi things of our lives are spiritual teachers opening our eyes to our own impermanence and mortality. You probably have a teapot, a treasured ornament, or some other family heirloom that has been passed down through the generations. It has, as the saying goes, "seen better days," but it still has the ability to touch your heart.
As a spiritual practice, take one of those items and reflect upon it. What makes it beautiful? Is it a shape, a color, a texture? Do you admire it because it is worn smooth with age? Or is it beautiful because it evokes certain feelings in you? Perhaps it reminds you of the person who gave it to you or shared it with you?
"Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else," writes Koren. "Beauty can spontaneously occur at any given moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace."
An experience of beauty can also usher us into an amplified appreciation of the divine presence, that "something more" in our existence. Yes, God's handiwork is evident in the glorious vistas of nature and the beautiful people and things that literally take our breath away. But God is also evident in and through the imperfect, the humble, the modest, and the unconventional. Indeed, these things may be the most accessible samples of divine grace.