Wabi Sabi: Find Peace by Embracing Flaws and Releasing Judgment


“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” ~Dalai Lama

Several years ago, a colleague and I were invited to give a presentation on mindfulness at our State Mental Health Conference. I was a novice and flattered to be asked.

Singing bowls, which are metal and look like a mortar and pestle, are useful tools in mindfulness practice. The bowl is placed on a cushion and, when struck, makes a beautiful sound like a bell.

The tone and pitch are determined by the size of the bowl and thickness of the metal. They’re used for various purposes, but always signal the beginning and ending of a mindfulness meditation.

At the time I owned a tiny brass bowl that made a beautiful high-pitched tone. It was a lovely bowl, but the sound only traveled to a small area.

Needing the sound to travel to a larger audience, I took a shopping trip to our local New Age Emporium. It was a large store with every thing you could want: art, bamboo plants, books, Buddha statues, hemp clothing, incense—and singing bowls.

I made my way to the meditation section and was quickly drawn to a Tibetan bowl with metalwork that looked old and well used. I picked it up and felt how it nestled in my hands like a warm cup of tea.

To quote Goldilocks, the words “just right” came to my mind. I fell in love with it, and though the bowl was a little pricey, the comfort it gave me when I held it was priceless. The singing bowl was going home with me.

Next I needed to find a cushion. I wanted it to be deep red, green, or maybe even royal blue, but where were the cushions? I was expecting a large stack to match the number of bowls, but alas, there was only one. 

It was magenta: not my favorite color to say the least. Magenta! Absolutely not! I am not a magenta person, and it looks so garish next to my earthy singing bowl. But if that wasn’t enough, there was something even more disturbing than the color magenta.

The embroidered circle on the top of the cushion was off center. It wasn’t a little off. It was a lot off.

Are you kidding, I thought. How could anyone expect to sell this thing? No wonder it’s the last one. It’s the leftover; who would want it? I can’t imagine using a “misfit” cushion for my presentation.

It would be humiliating—almost like I left my zipper down or had toilet paper hanging under my skirt.

I felt a physical sense of resistance when I looked at it, as if my heart had hands that were pushing it away. My stomach began to twist, and I felt a golf ball forming at the base of my throat.

After recovering from my horror, I laid the cushion down and decided to scavenge the store. I was banking on the chance that there was an abandoned cushion misplaced. Surely in a store this big, there was one more cushion.

I investigated as though I were a detective looking for clues. Trust me, if I had been looking for a needle in a haystack, I would have found it—but I didn’t. There wasn’t another cushion.

I sulked back to the scene of the crime, aka “the misfit cushion,” and glared at it. Once again, the resistance began to bubble up, but this time something miraculous happened.

The whisperings of wakefulness called my name, and gently I returned to the here and now.

Stop I thought. If you’re going to give a presentation on mindfulness, practice what you preach. You can’t be mindful if you have fallen into the trance of being judgmental. You are being mindless.

Observe the resistance. What does it feel like viscerally? How does it feel in your hands? Close your eyes. Hmmm, it feels like a cushion. Set the bowl on it and strike it. Oh, it sounds beautiful—what a mellow tone. The cushion is perfectly functional.

Look closely at it…

The solid color is magenta. It’s shiny and soft. The embroidered circle is on the bottom left hand corner, and it’s about 3 inches in diameter. Hmmm. The sides have a band of embroidery circling it. Hmmm.

Then the insight began to pour in. Who said the circle has to be in the middle? Why is the middle correct, and off center not? Perfection and imperfection imply right and wrong, but is that true? Who said symmetry is beautiful and asymmetry is not?

As I questioned everything I had mindlessly assumed, I realized the cushion was perfect in its imperfection and utility.

Understanding, along with my new eyes for finding beauty in unexpected places caused me to meet my teacher, in the form of a singing bowl cushion. I held it close to my heart and welcomed it home.

My epiphany was an example of the Japanese term Wabi Sabi, which is a hidden treasure available to us all that offers peace, balance, and freedom. 

Wabi means simplicity, quietude, harmony, peace, and poverty as in being stripped down to the basics.

Sabi means things that come with age or time, and taking pleasure in that which is old or well used; “the bloom of time” as someone once said.

Put those two words together and you have a feeling similar to faith—hard to explain, but a way of knowing that represents the peaceful acceptance of things as they are, including imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness.

Wabi Sabi doesn’t only help with changing how we see physical objects. We can practice Wabi Sabi in our relationships, in our professional lives, and in any situation where we may be causing ourselves stress with expectations and judgments.

When navigating these life experiences, it’s important to remember:

1. Flaws are the leveling field of humanity.

We all have them, rich and poor alike. It is our blemishes that connect us with our humanness.

2. Wabi Sabi doesn’t imply giving up striving for excellence, but it does ask us to accept what is true.

It asks us to slow down and look at things deeply, discovering beauty that might ordinarily be passed over in unexpected places.

3. Resisting judgment allows us to see the whole picture, not just the fragment that too often is allowed to run the show.

In doing so, we make room for peace that comes with acceptance. Peace brings relief, wisdom and connection.

4. By calling a truce with imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness, a paradox happens, and we discover harmony and balance.

My magenta, off centered cushion; my sensei, takes its place at the top of my gratitude list and continues to teach all who meet it.

Photo by Wabi Sabi

About Barbara Scoville

Barbara Scoville is a licensed clinical social worker practicing psychotherapy in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is passionate about cultivating resilience and combines both Eastern and Western Philosophy into her practice. Check out her blog at www.barbarascovillelcsw.com for an eclectic boost of wisdom and encouragement.

See a typo or inaccuracy? Please contact us so we can fix it!