Yūgen is an important concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics. The exact translation of the word depends on the context.
To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds… – Zeami Motokiyo
Japanese aesthetic ideals are most heavily influenced by Japanese Buddhism. In the Buddhist tradition, all things are considered as either evolving from or dissolving into nothingness. This ‘nothingness’ is not empty space. It is rather a space of potentiality. If the seas represent potential then each thing is like a wave arising from it and returning to it. There are no permanent waves. There are no perfect waves. At no point is a wave complete, even at its peak. Nature is seen as a dynamic whole that is to be admired and appreciated. This appreciation of nature has been fundamental to many Japanese aesthetic ideals, ‘arts,’ and other cultural elements. In this respect, the notion of ‘art’ (or its conceptual equivalent) is also quite different from Western traditions.
Japanese aesthetics is a set of ancient ideals that include ‘wabi’ (transient and stark beauty), ‘sabi’ (the beauty of natural aging), and ‘yūgen.’ These ideals, as well as others, underpin much of Japanese cultural and aesthetic norms. Thus, while seen as a philosophy in Western societies, the concept of aesthetics in Japan is seen as an integral part of daily life. Wabi and sabi refers to a mindful approach to everyday life. Over time their meanings overlapped and converged until they are unified into wabi-sabi (侘寂), the aesthetic defined as the beauty of things “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” Each of these things are found in nature but can also suggest virtues of human character and appropriateness of behaviour. This, in turn, suggests that virtue can be instilled through an appreciation of, and practice in, the arts. Hence, aesthetic ideals have an ethical connotation and pervade much of the Japanese culture.
Bringing wabi-sabi into your life doesn’t require money, training, or special skills. It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate muted beauty, courage not to fear bareness, willingness to accept things as they are — without ornamentation. It depends on the ability to slow down, to shift the balance from doing to being, to appreciating rather than perfecting. Embracing wabi-sabi is as easy (or as difficult) as understanding and accepting yourself — imperfections and all. It’s about being compassionate with yourself as you are, and building on whatever that is — not feverishly trying to rebuild yourself in order to pose as something else entirely.
Today, appreciation of the things we have, people we love, and the experiences we have the opportunity to weave into our lives is losing value. Wabi-sabi represents a precious cache of wisdom that values tranquillity, harmony, beauty and imperfection, and can strengthen your resilience in the face of materialism. It gently motions you to relax, slow down, step back from the hectic modern world and find enjoyment and gratitude in everything you do. Put simply, wabi-sabi gives you permission to be yourself.
Embrace the perfection of being imperfectly you.
Peace and Love, Jim