Wabi-sabi house

Wabi and sabi are, strictly speaking, aesthetic principles, but because ultimately they originate in the aesthetic experience of the Japanese hermits, these principles confirm a given philosophy of life as clearly as does any other likely correspondence between a way of life, a philosophy, and an aesthetic sensibility.

Wabi and sabi have a formal or definitional understanding (touched upon in a 2004 Hermitary article: http://www.hermitary.com/solitude/wabisabi.html — one of the most popular articles on the site, by the way). A technical understanding is a prerequisite to an aesthetics of solitude. However, the application of wabi-sabi outside of the specific Japanese arts of poetry, tea ceremony, gardening, etc., is not easy for anyone without a specific skill and aesthetic taste. One may admire from afar but dare not attempt to mimic the effect.

At least one can drill down from the principles to practical applications in one’s daily life. A 2004 book by American writer Robyn Griggs Lawrence is a successful popularization of the complexities and nuances of wabi-sabi. The book offers practical suggestions with a warm and and a worldly-wise tone that encourages the possible: The Wabi-sabi House: the Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty, by Robyn Griggs Lawrence.

Here is the very useful table from Lawrence to correspond with the more technical one in the Hermitary article. These principles can be put to good use in one’s immediate surroundings.

wabi-sabi is … wabi-sabi isn’t …
dry leaves cherry blossoms
bare branches floral arrangements
handmade machine made
weathered wood plastic laminate
crumbling stone polished marble
wildflowers roses
wool polyester
rice paper plate glass
clay china
unbleached cotton cashmere
tea latte
vintage designer
cobblestones concrete
adobe steel
arts and crafts rococo
flea markets warehouse stores
salvaged made to order
burlap velvet
oil finish polyurethane
recycled glass crystal
native landscaping kentucky bluegrass
natural linoleum vinyl
hemp silk
clean cluttered
frank lloyd wright ludwig mies van der rohe
natural plaster drywall
natural light fluorescent light
clthoeslines electric dryers
handmixers food processors
rust dirt


Nietzsche’s Jesus

Nietzsche is identified as the arch-atheist of the culminating 19th century, the prophet of the Death of God and of Christianity. Like like many thinkers, Nietzsche described what he saw and what influenced him. Thus his reflections on Jesus are remarkably mild, remarkably positive.

Atheism is neither relevant nor contributory to this process, working to demolish rather than to understand. Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer” (the subtitle of Twilight of the Idols is “How to Philosophize with a Hammer”) is also an exaggeration, as his translator Walter Kaufmann points out. Nietzsche isn’t demolishing anything; he taps each idol to discover if it hollow.

In the 20th century, the demythologizing of Jesus begun in the Enlightenment culminated in the “historical Jesus” movement. The archaeological discoveries of the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea documents and apocryphal writings, plus the rise of exegesis and content criticism largely confirm the consensus about the historical Jesus. Also relevant was the rise of knowledge about Eastern thought that would provide a context to universal ideas.

Here are a couple of examples. Already in the mid-18th century, the deist Thomas Jefferson had written:

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.

By doctrines, Jefferson makes clear that he refers to the virtues and ethics Jesus taught. And in the 19th century, French writer Ernst Renan says in his biography of Jesus:

Never has anyone been less a priest than Jesus, never a greater enemy of form, which stifles religion under the pretext of protecting it. By this, we are all his disciples and his successors; by this he has laid the eternal foundation stone of true religion; and if religion is essential to humanity, he has by this deserved the divine rank the world has accorded to him. An absolutely new idea, the idea of a worship founded on purity of heart, and on human brotherhood, through him entered into the world — an idea so elevated that the Christian Church ought to make it its distinguishing feature, but an idea which in our days only few minds are capable of embodying …

Whatever may be the transformation of dogma, Jesus will ever be the creator of pure religion; the Sermon on the Mount will never be surpassed. Whatever revolution takes place will not prevent us from attaching ourselves in religion to the grand intellectual and moral line at the head of which shines the name of Jesus. In this sense, we are Christian, even if we separate ourselves on almost all points from the Christian tradition which has preceded us.

Although he thought Renan too romantic, Nietzsche was equally interested in a human and humane Jesus rather than in a refined secularization of Jesus. He essentially salvages the core values of what can now be linked to Eastern thought in general and religious thought universally. These values are not so much ethics as a method or philosophy of how to live.

Nietzsche’s portrayal of the historical Jesus is startlingly at odds with the anti-Christian bombast of many predecessors, including much of his own work and specifically The Antichrist and Twilight of the Idols, where his most delicate passages on Jesus are found. Kaufmann notes that Antichrist could better be titled Antichristian, referring to the institutional “Christian” as his chief opponent, the adherent to authority, using the pointed vocabulary of slave morality in his exploration of the genealogy of Western morals.

Like earlier philosophers, Nietzsche rescues Jesus from both Judaism and Christianity. Nietzsche’s exceptionalism rescues Jesus as much from the atheists as well. This is because Nietzsche detects in Jesus not a dreamer, an idealist, a magiciana or a fraud (as do atheists) but a philosopher, and, therefore, a kindred spirit. The parallel is to Zarathustra, a philosopher misunderstood by the masses, offering a message doomed to fall on deaf ears, if not to be distorted for a nefarious purpose. Jesus is, like Nietzsche’s alter-ego Zarathustra, a “hermit” philosopher.

If I understand anything at all about this great symbolist, it is this: that he regarded only subjective realities as realities, as “truths” — that he saw everything else, everything natural, temporal, spatial and historical, merely as signs, as materials for parables. The concept of “the son of God” does not connote a concrete person in history, an isolated and definite individual, but an “eternal” fact, a psychological symbol set free from the concept of time. The same thing applies, and in the highest sense, to the God of this typical symbolist, of the “kingdom of God,” and of the “sonship of God.”

Nothing could be more unchristian than the crude ecclesiastical notions of God as a person, of a “kingdom of God” that is to come, of a “kingdom of heaven” beyond, and of a “son of God” as the second person of the Trinity. All this — if I may be forgiven the phrase — is like thrusting one’s fist into the eye (and what an eye!) of the gospels: a disrespect for symbols amounting to world-historical cynicism.

The “kingdom of heaven” is a state of the heart — not something to come “beyond the world” or “after death.” The whole idea of natural death is absent from the gospels: death is not a bridge, not a passing; it is absent because it belongs to a quite different, a merely apparent world, useful only as a symbol. The “hour of death” is not a Christian idea — “hours,” time, the physical life and its crises have no existence for the bearer of “glad tidings.”

The “kingdom of heaven” is not something that people wait for: it had no yesterday and no day after tomorrow; it is not going to come at a “millennium” — it is an experience of the heart, it is everywhere and it is nowhere.

This “bearer of glad tidings” died as he lived and taught — not to “save mankind,” but to show mankind how to live. It was a way of life that he bequeathed to man: his demeanor before the judges, before the officers, before his accusers — his behavior on the cross. He does not resist; he does not defend his rights; he makes no effort to ward off the most extreme penalty. On the contrary, he provokes it. And he begs, he suffers and he loves with those, in those, who do him evil. Not to defend one’s self, not to show anger, not to blame others. On the contrary, to submit even to the evil one — to love him, was nothing other than this practice — nor was his death anything else. The deep instinct for how one must live, in order to feel oneself “in heaven,” to feel “eternal,” while in all other behavior one decidedly does not feel oneself “in heaven” — this alone is the psychological reality of “redemption.” A new way of life, not a new faith.

These passages from The Antichrist, 33-35, place the historical Jesus with the sages of the East and the philosophers of life in the West. The concept of living in the present has become hackneyed and abused today, but the historical Jesus assembling common people to understand and practice the values of community are timeless. Together, the wise and the simple could order their lives into a kingdom of heaven would they but heed the sages.

This is not to say, of course, that Nietzsche was innocent of great bluster and belligerence, but those who claim that Nietzsche’s last ideas and works (published posthumously) were beset by insanity have only to read these passages on Jesus to know that Nietzsche was, on the contrary, in this instance, generous and soulful, striving for some personal accord that he would, however, never attain.


Popular psychologist Oliver Sacks did not coin the phrase “earworm” — the snippets of popular music that repeat themselves over and over in one’s mind — but his book Musicophilia offers a fascinating look at the relationship between the environment of sound and the mind. Awareness of “earworms” is now familiar but the discussion is not original. Advice on getting rid of earworms ranges from simply replacing the earworm with a new snippet, or ignoring them, but the logical question is why they occur in the first place.

Most of the discussion concentrates on sound and its reception in the brain. But a larger analogy is more instructive. Earworms occur in the same manner as thoughts.

Thoughts can embed themselves in the mind as obnoxious little refrains, but have the ability to spawn off more thoughts, producing a mesh of mental entanglements. Most people do not notice “thought-worms” because they fill their time with busy work, conversation, self-commentary, and noise. Silence brings them to consciousness. Meditation instantly reveals the presence of thought-worms, like an unerring diagnostic. But there is no easy treatment for thought-worms other than meditative practice applied consistently.

As with obnoxious sound, advice for breaking the clutches of thoughts ranges from replacing annoying thoughts with benign “thoughts” such as numbers or words. Meditation advisers suggest “in breath-out breath” or “one-two,” etc., or other mantras and prayer formula. These methods are the equivalent of replacing earworms with new snippets of music, different earworms, more innocuous ones re content, helpful at first but inadequate in the long run.

Another method of getting rid of thoughts during meditation is allowing thoughts to dissipate, like floaters before one’s eyes, or looking at something fixedly, either in the mind’s eye or physically before us, such as a statue or the floor or a point in space, or looking at nothing at all, with eyes closed or nearly so.

Perhaps the optimum meditative state, regardless of method — and the simplest, emptiest method seems best — is achieving a sleep-like consciousness or awareness wherein the body becomes rested and autonomic by design, a state wherein the meditator watches the body as from afar — but not too closely or the “spell” is broken and the meditator “awakens,” if ever so delicately.

This is not self-hypnosis, for consciousness remains clear, available, independent, and autonomous.

The dream states of sleep are forms of rest wherein the conscious part of the mind, the part which guides our conscious actions throughout the waking day, is unraveled and helpless in its needed state of non-intervention. This state parallels the calm emptiness and attentive silence of meditation, except that at this point the phenomena of dreaming begins.

Dreaming repairs the damage of thoughts and articulations of emotions (fear, anger, love) transmuted into suppressed feelings during waking states. We may well have acted on our feelings during our conscious state, but the bulk of feelings lies deep within our mind and remains unseen by the conscious state. Deep sleep allows these feelings to express themselves, to unravel and dissipate themselves if our mind is in a healthy state, or to intensify and spread if our minds are not healthy. We awaken refreshed, resolved, and capable — or we awaken uneasy, fearful, and uncertain. It is not the uncertainty of philosophy but rather the animal instinct of fear and uncertainty of one’s plight and situation. Like an animal without its habitat, we instinctively waste the function of sleep when we enter it with thoughts afire. Thus are thoughts called “poison” in the Buddhist tradition, for any thought is a concession of sorts.

Sages and saints have often been described pursuing austerities such as little sleep. Such a practice is not to be pursued by the average, or even advanced, person, for the function of sleep is biological, intrinsic to health and well-being. What is the advantage of sleep deprivation among the saints and sages? We must speculate that at their point of mental control, their short sleep is not deprivation after all. For if sleep repairs the damage of conscious thoughts, of thought-worms, then an advanced meditator has achieved significant control of the mind, has a mind already at subconscious rest, so that the detoxifying function of sleep is not needed, and only the physiological function of physical health is required.

Meditation mimics the positive function of sleep by allowing the mind to achieve a respite from thoughts, a respite that can form a practiced understanding of balance and health. Sleep then is freed to complete its function of scavenging for bad effects in the mind. Dreaming becomes creative and playful rather than instrumental and function. In the latter state, the subconscious mind needs to work with projections and symbols of repressed fears and anxieties. Constructive dreaming demonstrates the potential of all of us to create, to maintain a convivial relationship to our environment, to our world, and to the natural world especially.

The whole of dream interpretation remains too embedded in Freudian typology, which reduces dream content to representations of specific objects and meanings. While we cannot take Freud’s symbolism literally, the notion that certain objects represent certain emotions is now taken for granted, especially after Jung. Situational presentation of the symbols is what counts, however. A bear in a dream, for example, may represent a menace or may represent innocence, clumsiness, or naivete. Though books offer dream interpretation as how-to manuals, most of what we dream and what the objects represent have to do entirely with our own situations.

Art and creativity is lucid dreaming. They express what is within through a channel of emptiness within the mind, like an aperture in our otherwise conscious and tight mind, like sunlight behind the mask or masks we may be carrying. The artist is someone who has discovered the aperture from which creativity can bypass the masks. The aperture widens as the masks shrink. Art is so often pursued in privacy and solitude because the creation of art is an intensely subjective activity, intensely personal, like a dream not to be interrupted, like meditation not to be interrupted.

Yet this creativity, the potential to express the deepest feelings and perceptions, exists in every person. This creativity is not expressed by every person not because of shame or guilt over its content or a sense of humility in relation to other. In part, the skills and aptitude will never be discovered because most people take socialization as a terminus to creativity, a vast conforming to and pursuit of what society and culture demands, a constant chase after its design and presentation of reality. The suppression of self and potential becomes a necessity not so much for social function but for civil order and cultural conformity and control. The waste of creativity is the extinction of individual potential, regardless of whether potentially expressed as art or other self-expression. Few people ij life even perform the work that they like, let alone express creativity of any sort.

To rediscover creativity in the self is to discover potential. To express that which will develop potential in the self requires first access to the tools of the mind, combined with the tools of the environment. To begin this process one cannot assume the gift of the artist, which is the gift of accessing the aperture in the subconscious mind. To begin this process requires the detoxifying of the mind’s accretions derived from society, culture, and the baggage of self. At the heart of this process cannot be mere belief or hope or desire but simply practice, meditative practice, in whatever form the individual discovers it to be most efficacious.

Even if our potential seems to dissipate in the passage of time and responsibilities, the moments of contentment that result from meditative practice will filter the mind, the emotions, the instincts. Practice brings the respite of solitude and silence that permits moments of insight and contentment.