I’ve heard of Feng-shui and may even have tasted some somewhere along the line. I saw Wasabi running through the northern woods somewhere; so I have always considered myself borderline sophisticated, in a rudimentary sort of way. I have to confess that until a few days ago, I had never heard of Wu-wei and Wabi-sabi.
I had read a little bit of each, but these two cultural philosophies, originating in China and Japan, respectively, appear to offer interesting ways of looking at the world. I thought I would share my limited understanding of them.
I can’t remember how many times I have told myself just to relax, which of course just produces the opposite reaction and causes me to get all skittish and nervous. What I was somehow seeking to find was a state of Wu-wei, which translates from the Chinese as “effortless action.” A professor, at the University of British Columbia, Edward Slingerland, published a book about it, entitled “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity.”
The greatest western proponent of this philosophy may have been ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, who sang the vocal on the classic “Act Naturally.” In the song, Starr recounts his dilemma about being a movie star and that all he has to do is follow the advice in the title. Starr, the luckiest man in show businesses, seems to have followed his own advice.
How do you obtain this state of effortlessness? There are two schools of thought. The Confucian school holds that effortlessness requires, well, effort; that you have to employ willpower and learn rules; then apply the rules, rigorously, to your life, until it becomes seemingly second nature. On the other hand, the Taoist school holds that a less rigorous approach works; that one can liberate the natural virtue within, or to put it more crudely, ‘go with the flow.‘
Any child, made to get up at six in the morning, every day, to get an hour of piano practice under her belt before heading off for school, will, unless she now makes her living from it, tell you that the hard work comes up quite abruptly against a law of diminishing returns; that her inner feelings are quite clear. “I can’t stand this.” That, presumably, is her Taoist voice.
A friend of mine is fond of saying that an amateur musician plays a piece of music until he can play it well, whereas a more skilled musician that performs for pay, plays it until he can’t play it badly. My friend may have been in a Confucian state of mind when offering this observation.
Wabi-sabi is a philosophy coined, ironically, by a Westerner named Leonard Koren. He pulled together two names from strands in Japanese cultural history. Koren is the author of a book entitled “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers.’’
As articulated by Koren, Wabi-sabi is finding a beauty in poverty, imperfection, deterioration and transience. “[It] is the antithesis of the Classical Western idea of beauty as something perfect, enduring [or] monumental. In other words, wabi-sabi is the exact opposite of what slick, seamless, massively marketed objects, like the latest handheld wireless digital devices, aesthetically represent.” The adherent to the Wabi-sabi philosophy would see beauty in a well-worn everyday object, rather than just in the Mona Lisa.
It is also a state of mind. “In order to appreciate these qualities,” states Koren, “certain habits of mind are required: calmness, attentiveness and thoughtfulness. If these are not present, wabi-sabi is invisible.” The Japanese tea ceremony comes from this tradition.
This sounds like just what the doctor ordered for all of those people who line up long hours to purchase the latest version of their digital devices. Give them an old rotary dial telephone to contemplate in the lineup. Those who spot the wabi-sabi will see the pointlessness in a lining up for the new device and be the richer for it; especially with the prices that rotary phones command these days.
As a rather poor home handyman, I must say that I can see the application of this philosophy to my own repair and improvement endeavours. I can explain that I did not do a sloppy job: I was trying to achieve the Wabi-sabi look, which is obviously invisible to my critics, who need to be more calm, attentive and thoughtful.
There you have it. Wu-wei and Wabi-sabi, two terms that are new to me, but seem like helpful ways of looking at the world differently. I think I’ll go off to my den, plop some LPs on my turntable and listen to some Ringo Starr for a while, effortlessly.
Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.
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