Wabi sabi and kintsugi have their historical origins in the aesthetics of the Japanese tea ceremony that upholds the Zen Buddhist values of purity, harmony, and tranquility.
Both wabi sabi and kintsugi value the acceptance of imperfection.
This article introduces the Japanese concepts of wabi sabi and kintsugi and explains how to apply them in counseling and psychotherapy.
A series of helpful exercises are recommended to help clients develop the self-acceptance that results from embracing their flaws rather than trying to disguise them.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Gratitude Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients connect to more positive emotions and enjoy the benefits of gratitude.
This Article Contains:
- What Are Wabi Sabi & Kintsugi?
- The Japanese Philosophy Explored
- 6 Examples of a Wabi Sabi Lifestyle
- Kintsugi in Psychology: 3 Applications in Therapy
- Fostering a Wabi Sabi Mindset: 6 Wellness Tips
- 3 Compelling Books on the Concept
- Relevant Resources From PositivePsychology.com
- A Take-Home Message
What Are Wabi Sabi & Kintsugi?
Wabi sabi is a Japanese term referring to the appreciation of the beauty of imperfection, impermanence, and simplicity as the natural state of things in the world.
Japanologist Beth Kempton (2018) describes wabi sabi as notoriously difficult to define because it is a heart-centered experience that evades the confines of language.
Meanwhile, kintsugi refers to the Japanese art of mending broken ceramics with lacquer and powdered gold, enhancing their appearance by displaying their repairs rather than hiding them. Kintsugi has been used as a metaphor for the beauty of our healed woundedness as human beings.
Brief history of wabi sabi & kintsugi
Wabi sabi and kintsugi both have roots in the history of tea in Japan. Wabi sabi originates from the aesthetic of the Japanese tea ceremony that emphasizes simplicity and naturalness as qualities of the ceremonial implements and tea house surroundings (Kempton, 2018).
The tea ceremony was originally devised to help Zen monks remain alert and mindful during long periods of meditation. However, by the 15th century, the Japanese shoguns had transformed the ceremony into an elaborate display of wealth using imported ceramics from China in showy surroundings.
In 1488, tea master Murata Shukō wrote a letter to his student Furuichi Chōin that urged a return to the elegant simplicity of Zen values using rustic tea bowls that embraced imperfection. This emphasized the aesthetic that became known as wabi sabi. You can discover more on the history of wabi sabi in the School of Life video below.
Kintsugi also has roots in the Japanese history of tea. During the 14th century Muromachi period, the third shogun of Japan, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, broke his favorite tea bowl and sent it to be repaired in China.
After the bowl returned, Yoshimitsu was horrified by the ugliness of the metal staples used to hold the broken pieces together. He summoned his artisans to devise a more pleasing solution. They developed a method using lacquer and gold powder that did not disguise the cracks but displayed them as an inherent quality of the tea bowl’s beauty.
This method became known as kintsugi, from kin, meaning “golden,” and tsugi, meaning “joinery.” Kintsugi embodies the Zen value of impermanence by emphasizing the wear and tear caused by the passage of time (Navarro, 2021). You can discover more on the history of kintsugi in the School of Life video below.
The Japanese Philosophy Explored
Both wabi sabi and kintsugi have their origins in the Buddha’s teachings on the three characteristics of existence (Lion’s Roar, 2018):
- Impermanence (anicca)
- Suffering (dukkha)
- The absence of self (anatta)
These are celebrated in Japanese Zen as the three qualities of all beings in their natural state.
This philosophy stands in marked contrast to Western values that prize symmetry and perfection as expressions of the eternal and the loftiest aspirations of the human spirit.
The Japanese philosophy underpinning wabi sabi and kintsugi celebrates qualities that evoke a sense of wistful melancholy in us as witnesses of the passage of time. Zen values the reality of transience and celebrates the wisdom of imperfection expressed by aging and incompleteness.
According to Zen philosophy (Lomas, Etcoff, Van Gordon, & Shonin, 2017), wabi sabi rests on seven aesthetic principles:
- Kanso — simplicity
- Fukinsei — asymmetry or irregularity
- Shibumi — the beauty of the understated
- Shizen — naturalness without pretension
- Yugen — subtle grace
- Datsuzoku — freeness
- Seijaku — tranquility
Key to all seven of these aesthetic pillars is authenticity. Unadorned naturalness is prized for its integrity, free of synthetic artifice. Beauty is expressed through the open display of flaws rather than their eradication. Compassion for ourselves and others, and acceptance of our vulnerability are also elements of the wabi sabi mindset.
6 Examples of a Wabi Sabi Lifestyle
A wabi sabi lifestyle upholds values that contrast sharply with the Western culture of materialistic consumption that prizes ambition, busyness, and eternal youth (Kempton, 2018).
You can cultivate a wabi sabi lifestyle by trying the following.
- Declutter your living space and keep the things you need stored away when you’re not using them. This will help convey a sense of tranquility in your surroundings, which will support a serene state of mind.
- Choose used items made from natural materials over newly manufactured synthetic products when possible. This will foster a sense of connection to nature and the earth.
- Learn to appreciate the elegant simplicity of a “less is more” lifestyle, such as a single branch and stem in a worn ceramic pot rather than a large bouquet of flowers in a perfectly symmetrical vase.
- Slow down the pace of your life when possible and leave plenty of time for rest between tasks. Prevent overwhelm by refusing to glorify the busyness that can lead to chronic stress and poor mental health.
- Practice mindful savoring when eating and drinking. The mindful movements of the Japanese tea ceremony should nourish the spirit as well as the body. Take time to contemplate the web of interconnectedness that has furnished your plate, from the interdependence of the natural elements required to grow food, to the relationships between the farmers and retailers who have provided the ingredients for your meal.
- Learn to appreciate the signs of the passage of time and the beauty of aging in yourself and others. A wabi sabi lifestyle prizes maturity, depth, and wisdom over the vitality of youth.
Kintsugi in Psychology: 3 Applications in Therapy
Applying kintsugi in therapy
1. Celine Santini
Celine Santini (2019) uses the kintsugi repair process as a metaphor for healing following an experience of trauma, sudden loss, shock, and the resulting sense of brokenness.
Often, trauma leaves a client feeling that they will never be the same again. However, Santini reminds us how healing enhances resilience and deepens wisdom. In therapy, personal growth is gained by putting the pieces back together and appreciating the process.
2. Tomás Navarro
Psychologist Tomás Navarro (2021) recommends applying kintsugi wisdom to living life intensely rather than merely surviving.
Living life fully entails both pleasure and pain because suffering is an inevitable part of the human experience. Just as the artisan repairs the broken pot with gold, thus enhancing its beauty, accepting our fragility and imperfection is key to healing in therapy. The therapeutic process is like the gold that joins the broken pieces together.
Applying the wisdom of kintsugi in therapy inspires a client’s confidence in their ability to overcome life challenges. Once a client understands that their heart and mind are equipped to heal from losses and setbacks, they can begin to take the risks entailed in living more fully.
3. Present moment
Kintsugi wisdom entails appreciating things as they are here and now rather than striving for an ideal of perfection. Appreciation results from a mindful connection to the present moment and releases us from regrets about the past as well as anxieties about the future.
The kintsugi ceramic is a visual and tactile reminder that our emotional scars also have their own beauty as indicators of resilience over the passage of time.
Applying wabi sabi in therapy
Applying wabi sabi wisdom in therapy can support a client’s psychological healing. You can apply wabi sabi wisdom during the therapeutic process using the following metaphors and techniques.
3 Helpful metaphors & techniques
Wabi sabi wisdom prizes reminders of impermanence. This can be applied in therapy by reminding clients that no matter how painful things are right now, this too shall pass.
Apply short mindfulness meditation practices or watch the Leaves on a Stream video below to guide clients in accepting impermanence.
Wabi sabi wisdom prizes naturalness over artifice. This can be applied in therapy by reminding a client that showing up in life as you are conveys authenticity and builds trust.
In contrast, hiding your flaws behind a carefully curated mask is not only stressful but also undermines the honesty required to foster positive relationships that stand the test of time.
3. Asymmetry and imperfection
Wabi sabi appreciates the beauty of asymmetry and imperfection. This may be especially useful for clients struggling with body dysmorphia, eating disorders, or the loss of physical function associated with aging.
In today’s body-conscious youth-obsessed culture, wabi sabi wisdom can be applied in therapy to remind clients that there is beauty in our unique imperfections and the marks of time.
Make use of our self-acceptance meditation, mentioned below, to help clients overcome unrealistic social comparisons.
Fostering a Wabi Sabi Mindset: 6 Wellness Tips
- Practice acceptance of your imperfections and those of others, whether physical or psychological.
This compassion for your own and others’ vulnerability and flaws will help you develop greater flexibility in your relationships, helping them to deepen and stand the test of time.
- Spend time in nature. In Japan, shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, developed in the 1980s as a form of ecotherapy.
Scientific research has revealed the physiological benefits of taking time to enjoy the forest atmosphere, including lowered blood pressure, improved autonomic and immune function, and improved mental health (Furuyashiki, Tabuchi, Norikoshi, Kobayashi, & Oriyama, 2019).
- Reflect on your true needs rather than wanting more by recognizing your essential needs are few. Simple living with fewer material possessions reduces stress (Poplin, n.d.) and leaves more time for creativity.
Cluttered environments stimulate a constant low-grade fight-or-flight response that has negative effects on your physical and mental health (Sander, 2019).
- Cultivate work–life balance. Our modern societies tend to glorify busyness, ambition, and getting ahead career-wise. This prizing of work over leisure risks sending life out of balance with more hours spent working than enjoying life and relationships with loved ones.
Slowing down and making time for adequate rest and leisure with the people you care about is essential for good mental health.
- Practice gratitude for the simple pleasures in life, such as the company of friends and loved ones, a beautiful sunrise or sunset, a wholesome meal, or a good cup of tea.
Experiencing gratitude has many health benefits, including reducing stress (Cheng, Tsui, & Lam, 2015) and enhancing optimism (Amin, 2014).
- Appreciate the vulnerability that makes you human and the brokenness arising from processes of loss and change that deepen wisdom and compassion over time.
While you may see your own vulnerability as an inadequacy, research shows that others’ expression of their vulnerability is usually seen as courageous rather than a weakness (Brown, 2015).
Vulnerability enhances empathy and emotional intelligence. Feeling vulnerable and even broken is part of what it means to be an authentic human being. Embracing our own and others’ vulnerability within healthy boundaries helps to build trust in our relationships.
3 Compelling Books on the Concept
1. Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life – Beth Kempton
Beth Kempton’s book Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life takes a holistic view of the benefits of a wabi sabi lifestyle, including in our homes, at work, and in our relationships.
Kempton is a Japanologist and coach with many years’ experience of living in Japan. She describes how she applies wabi sabi wisdom in her own life and explains the benefits.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Kintsugi: Embrace Your Imperfections and Find Happiness – The Japanese Way – Tomás Navarro
Tomás Navarro’s book Kintsugi: Embrace Your Imperfections and Find Happiness describes how kintsugi can be applied in psychology to help people live a more meaningful life.
Kintsugi teaches you to accept your vulnerability to suffering and enhances your confidence in the healing process, enabling you to take the risks entailed in living intensely rather than just surviving.
You can hear an interview with Dr. Navarro about his book on this podcast.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Kintsugi: Finding Strength in Imperfection – Celine Santini
She shares her experience of divorce and how she applied kintsugi wisdom to heal from previous relationships. The book won the prestigious Golden Nautilus Book Award in 2019 for her pioneering approach to self-help using Japanese kintsugi wisdom.
You can listen to her TED talk here in French, with English subtitles.
Find the book on Amazon.
Relevant Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have a number of resources that can be very helpful in applying the fundamentals of wabi sabi and kintsugi. A few mentioned below have been selected from our Positive Psychology Toolkit©, an online resource of over 400 exercises, tools, and assessments created for health professionals.
The kintsugi repair process can be useful for clients dealing with trauma. Our worksheet Growing Stronger From Trauma helps clients identify their strengths following such an experience.
Our worksheet My Positive Qualities enhances a client’s self-acceptance by identifying the strengths that they can draw on during the healing process.
When dealing with emotional scars, our Benefit Finding Exercise can help clients identify how trauma builds resilience.
Our appreciation of impermanence can be deepened with mindfulness meditation, such as this brief body scan as part of the Five Senses worksheet. Practice watching thoughts come and go using the Leaves on a Stream exercise.
Clients struggling with poor body-image may benefit from applying wabi sabi wisdom. Consider asking your clients to try our Self-Acceptance Meditation to enhance their sense of wholeness.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others harness the benefits of gratitude, check out this collection of 17 validated gratitude tools for practitioners. Use them to help others shift to a more positive mindset and experience the joys of life more deeply.
A Take-Home Message
A wabi sabi mindset could be a useful antidote to those haunted by the specter of perfectionism.
Western ideals of youthful symmetrical beauty, fast-paced ambition, and material success lead many to judge themselves harshly, which has a negative impact on mental health.
Wabi sabi reminds us of the beauty of asymmetry found in rugged lines drawn by nature, such as a wild rocky coastline or the knots and bends that form a mature tree.
Additionally, wabi sabi values a ‘less is more’ mindset that embraces living simply with less clutter, less rushing, and more time, because once the reality of impermanence is understood, putting in extra hours at work to invest in material accumulation makes little sense.
Kintsugi wisdom can be understood as the prizing of imperfection that reminds us of impermanence. As we mature and age, we acquire many wounds due to the winds of loss and change.
Yet the fault lines created by our psychological scars deepen our wisdom and compassion when we can accept them for what they are: evidence of our strength, vulnerability, and the dynamics of healing.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Gratitude Exercises for free.
- Amin, A. (2014). The 31 benefits of gratitude you didn’t know about: How gratitude can change your life. Happier Human. Retrieved from http://happierhuman.com/benefits-of-gratitude/
- Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin Books.
- Cheng, S., Tsui, P. K., & Lam, J. M. (2015). Improving mental health in health care practitioners: Randomized controlled trial of a gratitude intervention. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83, 177-186.
- Furuyashiki, A., Tabuchi, K., Norikoshi, K., Kobayashi, T., & Oriyama, S. (2019). A comparative study of the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku) on working age people with and without depressive tendencies. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 24(1), 46.
- Kempton, B. (2018). Wabi sabi: Japanese wisdom for a perfectly imperfect life. Piatkus.
- Lion’s Roar. (2018, November 30). What are the three marks of existence? Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.lionsroar.com/what-are-the-three-marks-of-existence/
- Lomas, T., Etcoff, N., Van Gordon, W., & Shonin, E. (2017). Zen and the art of living mindfully: The health-enhancing potential of Zen aesthetics. Journal of Religion and Health, 56, 1720–1739.
- Navarro, T. (2021). Kintsugi: Embrace your imperfections and find happiness – the Japanese way. Yellow Kite.
- Poplin, J. (n.d.). The many benefits of choosing to live simply. The Simplicity Habit. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.thesimplicityhabit.com/benefits-simple-living/
- Sander, E. (2019, January 21). Time for a Kondo clean-out? Here’s what clutter does to your brain and body. The Conversation. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/time-for-a-kondo-clean-out-heres-what-clutter-does-to-your-brain-and-body-109947
- Santini, C. (2019). Kintsugi: Finding strength in imperfection. Andrews McMeel.