Wabi-sabi and comfort

For my sins, I have perfectionist leanings. I tend to be distracted from the matter at hand if I see a spot on my new sofa, needing to get the alcohol and micro fibre cleaning kit out to attack and restore perfection. Now of course perfection is only something that can be approached in the physical world, never realised. In mathematics there is the beguiling satisfaction of a correct solution or a proof, but outside of abstract worlds, we have to live with imperfection. Nevertheless, I think most people can see that a newly painted wall or a brand new iPhone can be extremely close to perfect, close enough to perfect for me anyway.

Increasingly, though, I am aware of the stress caused by perfection. Imagine a house with freshly painted white walls, like an art gallery. Imagine the peaceful feeling that a clean, modern and simple space, painted in a perfectly even white. Given the rough and tumble controlled chaos of many urban environments, a space like that could be seen as a haven. Imagine further that you have some objects, art work or furniture that you find beautiful. Imagine the space is insulated against sound and that it is lit through windows that provide an easy, warm light. You would be living in your own personal gallery. Free of disturbance and free to contemplate the objects in the room, the calm nothingness of the space, the thoughts jumping around your mind or just your breath. Sounds good no?

Now imagine that the roof leaks during a rain storm and leaves a moist brown smudge on the sharp fold between the ceiling and one of the walls. To me, the calm of the place would be affected, the injury to the space would constantly draw my attention demanding remedial effort. The same way a zen garden, the ones made of raked stones, needs to be raked freshly, the perfect, simple space, also needs to be constantly nursed if it is to bring calm.

Now imagine a log cabin with a slate roof, freshly built, still smelling of tree sap. The floor made in rough planks. In its own way, also a perfect space, although maybe a more rustic and approachable type of perfection. In such a space the wabi-sabi inherent in the materials, the natural grain and randomness of the wood, the texture of the slate all seem, even when freshly produced, clearly apparent. In the same scenario, say the roof leaks a little or you spill a cup of coffee on the floor, the damage is almost immaterial. The wood may slightly change colour. Is that not somehow more relaxing than the meditative Zen modernist room? To continue the garden analogy, isn’t a forest somehow more wabi-sabi than a Zen garden? If a branch breaks or some leaves fall on the ground, the essence of the forest remains unchanged.

Going back to the white minimalist room, what happens if the staining and wear and tear becomes more uniform, say after a decade of use. Then I imagine there is an acquired patina, an acquired wabi-sabi that starts to give the minimalist room the comfort of the forest and the log cabin. So can I not conclude that wabi-sabi is a component of comfort? Maybe even a pre-requisite?



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