Kintsugi & Wabi Sabi–Japanese Arts of Sacred Scars
“The World breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Ernest Hemingway
When I was in Japan on my travels over 10 years ago, two practices stood out amongst the many beautiful Japanese ways of life.
The first is from the Zen ideals of wabi sabi, which cherishes simplicity, unpretentiousness and aged or weathered items. The second is Kintsugi or “golden joinery” (“kin” meaning gold, and “tsugi”repair), a master craft dating back to 15th-century Japan.
Legends have it that a Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the 8th Shogun of the Muromachi shogunate, ruling from 1443-1474, had sent one of his favourite cups of tea to China to be repaired. He received it in such an unsightly fashion (at the time items to be repaired were held together by metals) that he challenged his masters to repair it with beauty. Inspired by the Shogun’s steadfastness and resolve, they decided to turn the cup into a jewel, filling the cracks with a mixture of gold and lacquered resin.
Ashikaga loved beauty. After many wars and realising he would not be able to control the daimyos (provincial military governors) decided to give up politics and war choosing to devote himself to the quest for beauty.
Another story is that Sen no Rikyu (considered to have had the most profound influence on ‘the way of tea’ practiced in Japanese tea ceremonies) on his travels was invited for dinner. The host wished to impress him by displaying ostentatious and expensive tea jars. Rikyu instead was outside admiring a branch swaying with the breeze. The host smashed the expensive cup in anger, which was then re-assembled and joined by kintsugi masters. The next day Rikyu was said to be entranced by the new item exclaiming “now it is magnificient”.
Kintsugi Lessons for Every Day Life – How To Honour Our Life Cycles and Sacred Scars
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
What the above two stories and beautiful practices show is the immeasurable power of honouring ourselves for the beauty which only comes out through a lived life and not a protected life.
We can choose to let the breaks and imperfections, which we sustained in our life, whether physical or mental, and which we previously hid out of shame or guilt, shine like golden joinery, viewing our imperfections as a gift.
It is the very visibility of these repaired objects’ cracks and breaks, testifying to their history, passage of time, resilience and inevitability of change which made them so special and venerated. Neither damaged nor completely new, having embraced the past and made it fully present, these objects are venerated.
5 Ways of adding Kintsugi and Wabi-sabi in Modern Life
1.Slowing Down and Mindful Breathing
The actions of slowing down and breathing in and out mindfully, allows us to pay attention to moments, which we might otherwise judge as “imperfect”. Everything comes to pass and life is movement. One day we will look back at these moments as beautiful. There are so many precious and beautiful moments throughout the day: learn to make lists daily of those beautiful, even mundane moments of beauty.
2. Returning The Broken Pieces: Learning To Feel and Release
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Carl Jung
A key milestone in psychological recovery is feeling our feelings to release the stuck energy, memory or trauma, respecting each individual’s timing. Each of us has an unlived life, buried deep down as a survival mechanism. It is this unlived life (our unconscious) which directs the course of our life and not our wishes and desires. This is why we might repeat unhelpful patterns or get results we do not wish by self-sabotage.
A key practice in line with Kintsugi is therefore to return the broken pieces to their rightful places ( in our memory) without their emotional charge. We might also refer to this in psychology as “removing the triggers”. This is not about opening a “pandora box” of never ending indulgent pain but about returning the pieces to their rightful position – to the past and memory. Metaphorically, by repairing the broken piece of trust or care, we avoid being cut again. It is when we have learnt to do, to safely feel our unfelt feelings of pain, sadness, heartbreak and helplessness, that we transform ourselves from broken to beautiful. We are empowered no longer led by defensive stuck emotions from the past. This is usually done accompanied by a trained compassionate counsellor or facilitator. Some of this work can not be done alone.
3.Identify Our Gold (or medicine)
“The Privilege of a Lifetime is being who you are”. Joseph Campbell
The “gold” here can be our wishes and desires or what scholar and author of “A hero with a thousand faces” Joseph Cambell’s called the “hero medicine”. The hero, having gone through their treacherous journey, and having learnt valuable lessons, return to their communities to share what they’ve learnt and be of service. The key of this step is to not run before we can walk, assuming that we are healed before we actually are. This means taking our time before entering a new partnership or saying yes to new opportunities. We need to allow the gold glue to dry so to speak and not add on more emotional pieces onto existing ones before they have been integrated.
4.Choose to see Beauty Wherever You Are
“The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Albert Einstein
If we decide that the universe is a friendly, benevolent place that is what we will find. It is often difficult to stop a negative pattern of thoughts. When we are in pain we believe our negative thinking. We are one with it and do not realise that every second we have the power, the will, to change course. To stop. One way to bridge the gap from very low mood to benevolence is by consciously looking for things to appreciate.
Moeover, beauty and functionality need not be mutually exclusive as the Japanese have shown me. What struck me in those homes I stayed at – from the modern buildings, to the guest houses (Ryokan) to the private small fishermen homes I was privileged to visit was how beauty was overlapped with utility. From older objects used for new purposes to restored crafts and nature objects.
5. Celebrating All of Who You Are
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars”. Khalil Gibran
Wabi-sabi can also be about embracing who we are, imperfections and all, and seeing that there is beauty in humility, hardship, imperfect things and being satisfied with what we have. This need not mean not having desires and wishes but allowing ourselves to stop and recognising the beauty of life’s journey. Instead of hiding our past and scars, now they’re embellished (in our psyche) we wear them proudly honouring with much reverence who we’ve become.
“We shall not escape our dangers by recoiling from them.”
As a fellow journeyer through dark places, not a day goes by without me appreciating how my childhood experience has shaped me into the woman I am today, in invisible and visible, helpful and less helpful ways perhaps. We can all understand that we are all doing the best we know how. Through the beautiful practice of Kintsugi, seeing our scars, cracks and breaks as shining patterns of gold beauty and strength helps us move away from the past. We can decide to view who we have become today as unique and beautiful, transformed by life’s alchemy, becoming even more precious having been broken. We can reinvent ourselves and transform our past.
Resources & References
Ashikaga Yoshimasa and Ginkaku (Chuko Bunko) (2008) ISBN: 4122050693. Chuo Koron new company. Japan.
Patrick Healy, 2015, New York Times article