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There is so much beauty in this picture.
Banksy on Twitter

This photo popped up on Twitter recently and Banksy captioned it with the above words.

What followed was even more wonderful. People commenting that this scene was common and played out regularly – in the NY subway, on the tube in London and so on.

There is a Japanese philosophy called wabi-sabi – that is rooted in Zen Buddhism, which reveres nature and beauty in the ordinariness of life. Very loosely translated, wabi means simplicity in the sense of elegance or rustic, and sabi means beauty in sense of age or well worn.

There is no precise definition of the term but probably the best one I’ve come across is by Leonard Koren who tried unsuccessfully to discover a definition while researching his book only to eventually coin his own which has become somewhat of a standard definition for authors in the West.

Wabi sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental.

Wabi-sabi is a state of consciousness. Subtle understated beauty in the aesthetic or feeling experienced between you and something in the world.

It is the irregular and imperfect shapes of organic fruit and vegetables, the uneven glaze, and even cracks, evident in handmade pottery, laughter lines around the eyes, the worn in feel of your favourite cardi, the golden patina of an aged watch or leather, the first draft of anything creative.

You won’t find wabi-sabi in Botox, the symmetrical lines of skyscrapers, the slickness of smart phones or our relentless drive for perfection. It’s beauty that is right in front of us but yet is often missed or seems hidden, because it isn’t loud or brash or bold. It is subtle and simple, and reveals itself through our daily work of living.

To be clear it isn’t about seeing life through rosy coloured glasses or that accepting that close enough is good enough. It is about appreciating and sustaining the beauty of what’s natural. Nothing in nature is perfect, linear or symmetrical nor impervious to decay and yet we are completely captivated by nature – think of the last sunrise or sunset you witnessed. It is seeing the beauty in the ordinary, in the tiny details, in the things that make up our days, and our lives.

In recent times, simplicity and subtlety have been co-opted by the minimalist movement, and become code for a life that’s meticulously organised or clean, spare, perfect spaces. True simplicity is about becoming aware of the beauty in your everyday life. We are surrounded by beauty all of the time – if you don’t believe me, go for a walk with a child and see how many things they find along the way, things that we stopped noticing long ago – from discarded feathers to shiny stones and sweet smelling flowers. We just don’t always allow ourselves the time to notice it.

Which reminds me of a poem by William Henry Davies titled Leisure:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

We get caught up in the hectic pace of life. We are so busy wishing for this or that, or yearning for something adventurous or glamorous, we forget just how blessed we already are.

Do you remember your first thought this morning when you woke up? Did you notice the beauty of a new day? Of the sunlight streaming through the window? Of birds chirping from nearby trees? Or did you struggle out of bed, thinking how tired you are, barely noticing anything before your first coffee?

We’re taught to strive for the best, to be the brightest, and most extraordinary. So, it may seem counter intuitive to embrace the concept of wabi-sabi but “accepting the world as imperfect, unfinished, and transient, and then going deeper and celebrating that reality, is something not unlike freedom” to quote Richard Powell.

And this would surely incline us to a more graceful way of living when we can view ourselves and life through this more generous lens and open us to the beauty in the ordinary, which brings me back to the picture above.

An otherwise unremarkable photo taken on public transport on a nondescript day, with no filters, edits or posing. It would have been all too easy for things like age, race, culture and language to define and separate the individuals, but instead we see people united, for a brief and yet infinite moment, in a tender display of love and joy, radiating pure and simple happiness. There is beauty all around us and the light finds us when we realise, we are all part of that beauty.

x K

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