If you want serene and comfortable surroundings in your home, an ancient Japanese philosophy may hold the key.
Many of us long to have a home that is more streamlined and less cluttered, where you can cross the living room without stepping over the kid’s toys, and can prepare a meal without having to clean off a kitchen surface first. But we make the mistake of thinking that if we just lived somewhere bigger, or had more money, then we’d magically achieve that clutterless environment.
Since the 1950s, the average house has accumulated junk like a dog picks up fleas. Bikes, computers, Ipods, music systems, kitchen gadgets, toiletries, printers, fax machines, answerphones, clock radios – the list is endless. And yet despite all these artefacts, our levels of wellbeing have not improved. Meanwhile, as we have gained more stuff, our houses have actually gotten smaller – the English now build the smallest houses in Europe and not unless you own an older property is your house likely to be in any way spacious.
But the real problem is not that our houses are too small – it’s that we have too much stuff in them. Here’s where we can take a tip from the Japanese, who have less square footage to live in than just about any nation on earth, and yet who have very high levels of wellbeing.
One reason for that may be wabi-sabi.
Wabi-sabi is an ancient Japanese philosophy that arose out of Zen Buddhism and it subtly influences Japanese life at an almost atomic level. You don’t have to be Buddhist to follow it, though – in fact you don’t have to have any kind of belief system at all.
Wabi originally meant ‘poverty’, but over time began to pick up connotations of ‘willingly impoverished’ – ie: people who deliberately make do with less. Sabi orginally meant ‘solitude’ but began to pick connotations of ‘an impermanence that leads the viewer into a state of contemplation’.
However, these days the terms are used together in a primarily aesthetic sense. They imply an appreciation of the old, the used, the subtle, the natural and the slightly offbeat. When applied to your home, this means having a home with heart rather than a showcase, a home where there are fewer but better things, a home that is sparely furnished rather than sparsely furnished.
Space is the key
Remember that feeling when you first walked into your new, empty house, and that joy you felt at the space all around you? That space is the key to wabi-sabi. So often we feel our space with needless clutter because we live in a society that judges us by the things we accumulate. The more things we have, ipso facto, the more successful we must be. And so we collect.
Wall to wall photographs that show how many people love us, armies of china animals to display our artful taste, a dozen cushions on a sofa that was already comfortable to start with, a library full of books to show how intellectual we are. All things that need dusting and caring for and washing and cleaning. Things that, if we are not careful, become a burden to own.
Wabi-sabi means kicking back from all that, and only having what you need and actually use. It means treading the fine line between having things and being burdened by the things you have. It means allowing the space and light in a house to take primary place.
In a wabi-sabi room, you might have only one piece of artwork on the wall, and change this every week, rather than covering the wall with art that you then forget to look at. You might leave a third of each bookshelf empty. You might have one chair for each person in the house, and no more – no extra furniture for your occasional guests that then sits empty the rest of the time. It means getting rid of rugs and carpets, so you can sweep instead of using the vacuum cleaner. It means getting rid of curtains and instead using blinds or opaque glass for privacy. It means lining your cupboard drawers with cork to minimise sound.
What wabi-sabi is
Wabi-sabi is a relaxed philosophy. With wabi-sabi you have well-worn, comfortable furnishings that can cope with kids and animals. It means having old chintzes, crockery that doesn’t match, rusting fire irons. It means having things that grow better with wear, like natural fabrics and wooden furniture, and things that are handmade, like wooden bowls, so they contain a subtle human spirit. It means keeping loose covers on the furniture and a changing display of your kids’ art pinned to the fridge. Wabi-sabi is is loose and easy to live with. It is a very long way from smart.
Wabi-sabi celebrates ordinary things rather than valuable things. Earthenware dinnerware that shows off the food to perfection, recycled glassware that doesn’t hurt the environment, flowers that you picked from the garden rather than hot-house blooms. It says dust once a day and then leave the room as it is. It does not care what other people think.
What wabi-sabi is not
Wabi-sabi is not minimalist. Minimalism in itself is a way of trying to impress people, and it results, very often, in environments that are as cold and sterile as a hospital ward. A minimalist house is hostile to children and animals and takes too much discipline (or more likely hired help) to keep clean and clutter-free.
Wabi-sabi is spare, but not spartan. What it really hates is the new, the synthetic and the shiny. The industrial coffee table of chrome and glass, the International Modern look, laminate and melamine, acrylic carpets. It’s also antithetical to the very grand – to the designer sofa that looks great but is purgatory to sit on, to the Venetian mirror and Swarovski chandelier that fill your living room with glittering light, to everything matching, to conspicuous consumption, to ‘bling’.
However, although it may embrace the well-worn thing, wabi-sabi is a long way from dirty. A wabi-sabi tablecloth is not covered with set-in egg yolk, but is flawlessly washed and ironed, even if darned. Wabi-sabi is not the unmade bed and the uncleaned house – in fact, Zen buddhists start each day with meticulous cleaning. Instead it means buying quality things and then respecting and maintaining them.
Wabi-sabi in real life
Wabi-sabi is not difficult to accomplish, and starts, for most of us, with a process of letting go which can be very liberating. If you want to try it, start first by emptying out a room and then replacing in it only exactly what you need. In a living room, this is perhaps one piece of seating per person and somewhere to put a coffee cup, or in a bedroom it’s a bed and perhaps a chair.
Put the wardrobes in another room, if you can, or in an alcove. If you need more wardrobe space, consider getting rid of some clothes instead and making do with the storage you have. Keep the floors easy to clean – tile, cork, wood: don’t add carpets and rugs. Avoid needless cushions and ornaments. Clear your surfaces and keep them clear – no clocks, paperweights, bowls and knick-knacks. Create a sense of temporariness by covering your furniture with slip covers rather than grand upholstery. And make room somewhere for one vase of flowers to bring nature inside.
Try to acquire the art of looking at things without judging their material value. Whe aluminium was first discovered, it was the most precious metal in the world – until we discovered that there were tonnes of it. But the metal itself did not change – only our attitude to it. When the things you own have no intrinsic monetary value, you can accept their loss lightly when you break them or chip them or damage them. This way it becomes easier to have only objects in your house that you actually use.
Focus instead on what you yourself value – the patchwork quilt your gran pieced together, the pressed flower card you made at school, the clock your father left you.
In the past two years the DH and I have discarded almost half of what we formerly owned, and with each piece of furniture we sell (as needed) or give away (better karma), the more do we appreciate the extra space. My husband no longer has to maneouvre around the furniture, getting irritated by bumping into things. Meanwhile, having empty surfaces means less housework, and as your eye adjusts to these more spare surroundings, you realise there is space in your heart for other things – for learning, for study, for new experiences.
The great thing about wabi-sabi is that you can increase your commitment to it as you go along, starting with one drawer in one cupboard, and gradually moving to the entire house if you so please. This might mean embracing a new way of living, but like everything that entails some difficulty, the result is very definitely worth it.