Category Archives: impermanence

The problem with preferences

 

 

One of the core insights we come to through the regular practice of meditation is recognizing the nature of impermanence. This insight is valuable because it helps to free us from the suffering caused by grasping and clinging and wanting things to stay the same.

One of the easiest ways to have such an insight is to observe how a tree loses its leaves. But for many of us, seeing a tree lose its leaves sets off an inner complaint: Oh, winter is coming and I don’t like winter. Why can’t it stay warm and light always?

Whatever our personal preferences are, they get in the way of simple observation, and the gift of insight into the nature of being.

We don’t need to make an enemy of preferences — in fact, doing so would be just another barrier to awakening — but it is helpful to recognize preferences when they show up and see their nature. We can see how they can take any moment or situation and find fault with it. It would have been a perfect vacation but it was too…(fill in the blank). One small preference unmet can sabotage the whole experience. It gnaws at us so we become blind to all the beauty and wonder that is there for us in every moment.

We all have lots of preferences; so many, in fact, that we don’t take the time to see if they are true. Sometimes our preferences go so long unrecognized that when we do take the time to notice, we might discover we no longer ‘love’ or ‘hate’ the food or condition or whatever we have been claiming to feel so strongly about.

Let’s take the example of some treat we claim to love. Perhaps we describe ourselves as a chocoholic or addicted to ice cream. Because our thoughts are so full of attachment to this idea of ourselves, with all judgments we may have about this long-accepted preference, we are often so mentally embroiled in anticipation, anxiety, guilt, etc. as we approach the food itself, that we can’t taste it. We devour it to be done with it and past this complicated set of thoughts and emotions.

Can we slow down really taste the treat we claim to love. Is it really delicious? Great! Or when mindfully attended, without the urgency and all the entangled thoughts and emotions, is it not quite so delicious as we assumed? Perhaps there are even some aspects of the flavor or texture that are actually unpleasant. If the food is not the best choice for a meal, then this may feel like a wonderful discovery to recognize that we are addicted to the mental and emotional patterns of anticipation and the nostalgia of foods and experiences often more than the food or experience itself.

When we pay attention, we see how preferences, like everything else, change. That may feel discomforting if we believe that our accumulated combination of preferences define us. And we feel unloved if someone forgets our preferences. Is that true? Well, let’s check. Are your feelings hurt if someone who professes to love you forgets that you don’t like, let’s say, mushrooms? If so, then you are entrenched in the idea that your preferences are intrinsically you.
They are not! The Buddha put together a whole list called the Five Aggregates that gently but firmly walks us through all the things that we are not, and our preferences are second on the list. [READ MORE]

We don’t have to get rid of our preferences, but it really helps to notice and question them. Preferences are often rooted in fear. If we have a preference for a certain temperature or kind of weather, we may have positive associations, sweet memories, nostalgia super-charges our preferences. We can be closed off from many experiences because they are unfamiliar, so there may be something to fear, something to make us uncomfortable, something to make us feel insecure.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do anything new to have insights. We just come to our senses: to see, hear, taste, smell, touch as if every moment is new. Because it is! It may seem the same, but because of the nature of impermanence, the world presents itself fresh to us in each moment, never to be replicated! The Symphony of Now.

Since this is the way of things, and nothing we do can make it stay exactly the same, why not acknowledge and even celebrate impermanence.

Certainly when we have a great loss, impermanence seems cruel. But that same impermanence helps us to survive the loss, and over time to ease our grief and heal from the wound of what may feel like an amputation.

Impermanence delights us when it brings on something we enjoy: blossoms in the garden, a beautiful sunrise, etc. But if we are not open to all of impermanence, even those moments are tinged with sadness because we can’t keep it like this forever.

Our extreme preference for certain aspects of impermanence and our loathing of others is something to notice. Can we be compassionate with ourselves when we feel the dread of changes we don’t like? Can we be tender without being indulgent? Can we practice being present with whatever arises just as it is, and greet it as the wonder it is?

Think about your own preferences. See if you can notice them when they arise. See whether they are as true as you thought. See if you cling to them as an intrinsic part of what makes you you. See if your preferences cause you to suffer in any way. And then see if you can hold your preferences more lightly.

Things fall apart and it’s not your fault

 

Here we sit, the mountain and I, until only the mountain remains. – Li Po

photo of mountainAs I write this I look out my window and see the mountain. Just yesterday at this time it was hidden by fog. The weather is one of the most changeable aspects of our lives. And for some of us that changeability is a source of anxiety. Our mood may hang on whether the weather suits us. It’s useful to notice our relationship with the weather, because it’s a good indicator of how we are in relationship with change in general. To what degree does our happiness hang on external causes and conditions?

I remember strolling in the garden with my one-year-old granddaughter in my arms. We paused to look more closely at the flowers. There was one pale pink rose that earned her full wide-eyed attention. Then, all of a sudden, as she watched, a petal fell to the ground. She gasped, turned away, and wept on my shoulder. For her in that moment a lovely thing had broken. It was ruined. She didn’t know it was a naturally occurring phenomenon, a part of the cycle of life, the way of things. At six she knows that now and isn’t phased by petals falling off flowers.

We all have moments where we suffer for lack of a more expansive understanding of the way of things. We cling to a belief that life is ordered in a certain way, and when that order is shaken up, we get upset. One of the greatest challenges to our sense of order is if a loved one younger than ourselves dies. This goes beyond natural mourning of a great loss in our lives. It disrupts our sense of order, how life should be. I know when my nephew died at the age of 46, it just felt wrong. How could it not? I remember I was staring out the window on a rainy morning and began to watch how the raindrops seem to chase each other down the window pane. There was no order there. Some clung longer, some raced straight to the bottom. Somehow that helped me. Not with my grief. Grief is a process that runs its own course. But it did help with my railing against the injustice of nature felling a life ‘out of order.’

As we mature, most of us recognize that change is a naturally occurring part of life. This is wisdom, or one aspect of it anyway. Understanding the inevitable nature of change or impermanence is one of the three central characteristics of awakening. In Pali it is called Anicca (pronounced ‘a-knee-cha’).

We can each look at our own relationship to change. To what degree do we fight it? To what degree do we chase it, trying to get away from the way things are in this moment? To what degree are we deluded that change is the cause of our unhappiness or the answer to our prayers?

In our class discussion we looked at how in our culture we try to hide from impermanence. While our ancestors lived closely with birth and death, over the last century we have somehow made both separate and sanitized — off to the hospital or off to the undertakers where everything’s handled under wraps — et voila, a swaddled tidy infant or a beautifully appointed closed coffin or a little box or urn of ashes. All the gritty grunt and groan of life’s natural transitions have been carefully hidden from view.

As women, impermanence can feel especially threatening because we are so often made to feel we are objects. Our culture tells us that our looks are the currency that secure our fates. Every magazine ad and every commercial reminds us of our duty to maintain the dewy glow of youth — to be always lovely, and therefore lovable. No matter how wise or intelligent we are, to some degree we succumb to the lure of products or procedures that promise to wipe away all signs of aging. We paw at our faces in mirrors wondering how others see us. A friend recently said that she only sees her own wrinkles, not her friends’. I think that’s true for most of us. It is a rare woman that isn’t harsh on herself in the mirror and doesn’t fear what time will reveal.

As one student pointed out, thanks to advances in the field of medicine, we now feel we have some control over impermanence. Our ancestors had to accept that many babies would die before reaching a year old, that many women would die in childbirth, that a cut or a broken bone could get lethally infected, and that various scourges could wipe out large portions of the population. Today we live in a world of everyday miracles. (So much so that people forget what vaccines were invented to save us from and choose not to vaccinate their children, and others overuse wonder drugs so that drug-resistant bacteria develop.) Cancers that used to be death sentences are now being cured on a regular basis. So when doctors’ procedures and drugs can’t save us or our loved ones, unlike our ancestors, we’re shocked. What went wrong?

When we think we have control over things and it turns out we don’t, we feel a sense of failure. That is how we are in relationship with impermanence at this point in time in our culture. We succeed at fending off aging and illness through diet, exercise, hygiene, medical checkups, beauty products and treatments. But ultimately we ‘fail’, because no matter how we delude ourselves to think otherwise, nature calls the shots. The deck is stacked against us. The house always wins.

Depressing? In Buddhism the very things we try to avoid — illness, aging, death — are, when faced and greeted as friends, the greatest messengers. So while we can have gratitude for modern miracles, we can still have the wisdom to see impermanence as the way of all life.

We have opportunities aplenty to practice being in a more joyful relationship with it. In most places the weather is constantly changing. We can notice if we are allowing the weather to dictate our moods. Are we only happy at the perfect temperature, or if the wind’s not blowing or if the sky is clear? Or can we enjoy the vital variations? Can we embrace each season for its particular offerings? Can we look more closely at what’s happening in this moment, registering it with all our senses, before offering up a blanket condemnation?

Take a walk in nature, always the best dharma teacher, and discover the nature of impermanence all around you. See how on the forest floor the disintegration of what was once green and vibrant is now dull and desiccated, but in that process is breaking down and fertilizing the soil to nourish new life in the ongoing cycle of being. This too is our nature. These human bodies are not separate from the flow of all life. Going to battle with impermanence is futile, and at a certain point, like a botched facelift, really really creepy.

So embrace life in all its facets. Take care of this gift of a human body. But don’t be fooled into thinking it can be sustained in its present shape forever. And that’s not your fault!

 

All about birthdays

Ah, my birthday. Again.
I remember when birthdays took forever to arrive. All that anticipation! One of my granddaughters recently turned five and she could barely contain herself with the anxious excitement. It seemed like her special day would never come, especially since she had to somehow survive her little sister’s birthday the week before. By the end of that day she retreated to her bed, all pouty and sad. I whispered in her ear that in a few more hours it wouldn’t be her sister’s birthday anymore. I don’t know if that was skillful, but it certainly cheered her up.


At my age birthdays seem to come around much faster, in turn making them seem more ordinary. Every day on Facebook it’s some friend’s birthday. It’s like a birthday ball bouncing around in a circle and each of us holds it for a brief moment before it passes on to someone else. In that moment it’s fun to be the center of attention, but it’s also a relief to let it go.


Some of us dread our birthdays as annoying reminders that yet another year has passed. There’s no getting around the fact that this corporal life is finite. Finding a way to be in a comfortable relationship with impermanence is a big vital challenge. We get training by our losses, each one carving out a little more understanding if we take the time to be present with our grief; or a little more frantic denial if we ignore it.


By this time in our lives it’s not the number of years we’ve accumulated but how we have lived that makes us feel old or young. Wallowing in regret, freaking out about the future, over-indulging and striving for distant goals all seem to add years. Living in the moment with whole-hearted authenticity, a sense of unity with all beings may make us seem younger, or may make us not care how old we look!


If our age doesn’t correlate with how we feel inside, like some alien label that doesn’t fit, it’s only that we have a whole set of misconceptions to what being that age looks like and means. If we can recognize that this right here is what this age feels like and looks like, then we can age with more ease.


My biggest problem with birthdays has been that I felt so naked in my ‘birthday suit’, waiting, passive and powerless, until this strange day passed. I create my life the way I want the other 364 days of the year, but on my birthday there was a sense of having to pass the baton for the day and hope that someone would carry it. Would the designated people ‘responsible’ for my birthday (close relatives and friends since our youth) remember to call or send a card? If so, phew. If not, woe is me. Fortunately I began to notice how people often take control over their own birthdays, throwing parties and creating the day they want for themselves. What a relief to have permission to do the same.


Throughout my birthday there were impromptu visits, cards, phone calls, emails, text messages and Facebook greetings. How delightful! This is the first year I have let Facebook broadcast my birthday to my friends. I realized how much I rely on it to remind me of friends’ birthdays and allow me to easily send them good wishes, so why should I be so churlish? It felt great to get greetings, and at every notification throughout the day I would immediately ‘like’ and ‘comment’. When my oldest son called and I told him I was feeling a wee bit overwhelmed, he said, “Mom, you just wait til the next day and respond to everyone with one comment, like: “Thanks everyone for all your birthday greetings. I had a great day and you helped to make it so.’ Brilliant. I’ll remember that for next year! Maybe.


There was also a year when I realized that a birthday can be simply a day to be grateful for having been born. How about a shout out to the mother who went through labor all those years ago? And to the father who played his part so well? And to the doctor who delivered us? My doctor was said to be grateful to me for coming out quick enough so that he didn’t miss his tee time at the golf course. Oh yes, I was a born people-pleaser.


Finding a way to live with this 1/365th of our life experience can be challenging. Some seem to do it so easily while others struggle. A birthday is a good day to be especially present to listen to the kind loving words of others and to notice the inner conversation that can make the day either pleasant or a living hell.


Last year I spent my birthday on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. It fell on Day Four of the retreat, and I was so happy to feel so fully alive in silence, aware of everything. It felt like the best birthday ever.


Maybe having had that birthday ‘time out’ from social interaction and the possibility of expectation last year, allowed me to come to this birthday with a fresher, less needy way of being. In the early morning hours when I woke up to see it was going to be a really hot day, I decided what I wanted: To have a picnic lunch in a shady place, and if my kids and grand-kids were available then we’d have it in a shady playground by a creek. And in the evening maybe we could sit out in the warm night at a local French restaurant and have a dinner salad. And thus I formulated a spontaneous birthday that suited the day and suited me, and it too was the best birthday ever.


Wishing you all wonderful birthdays whenever they are and however you choose to spend them. And thanks once again to the many people who made this birthday so lovely. And oh yes, most especially, Thanks Mom! You are always in my heart, and I’ll always feel gratitude for your greatest gift to me: This very life.

The Wisdom of the Breath, the last tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta

The fourth and final tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta is called the Wisdom Group. Continuing to be present with the breath, the Buddha instructs us first to focus on impermanence. We can do this by noting how sensations in the body arise and fall away, how the breath itself changes over the course of our meditation practice.


Then he asks us to focus on ‘fading away’. What could this mean? Is it  the edges of who we hold ourselves to be that fade away? With your eyes closed, see if you can tell where this defined person you call ‘me’ ends and where ‘other’ begins.


Without the sense of sight those edges disappear, don’t they. With the eyes closed the sense of body loses its tight definition. And with a focus on the breath we are even less sure about clearly defined edges, aren’t we? The breath is inside us and outside us. Where are the boundaries we previously took for granted?

Is there also a sense of ‘self’ that softens and loses its edge? Not just the body but our rigid idea of who we are? (Read more about this.)


Next the Buddha asks us to focus on cessation as we breathe. We know that life in this body is temporal, but in this culture we like to pretend that death is an option. I was reminded of this recently when my husband and I were in Mexico writing our Mexican wills and we were asked to write out When I die…. American wills shy away from such a simple statement of fact. I thought maybe they say something like ‘in the case of my demise’ but when I looked up a standard will template I discovered it avoids the mention death at all, just leaps right into instructions to the heirs! That’s how much we are in denial about our own death in this country. The death of strangers in the news, movies and books we find fascinating, but we’re not able to acknowledge that such an event is in the cards for us.


Coming into a deep awareness of the temporal nature of our lives is not depressing but freeing. Our acceptance illuminates the value of being fully here to enjoy life in this moment. It lets us see it as a natural part of the cycle of life.


You can investigate this yourself by sitting with awareness of your temporal nature. You might say to yourself, ‘On some undisclosed date I will definitely die.’ And then sit with that and see what you notice. Is there added tension in the body? Does the breath get shallower? What emotions and thoughts arise in your awareness?


The last step in the Anapanasati Sutta asks us to focus on relinquishment. When we understand and accept the temporal nature of life, accept that this body is an integral part of a whole complex set of processes and is not separate, and accept that everything is impermanent, then what is it we are relinquishing? We relinquish our fear. We relinquish our clinging to beliefs that don’t serve us. We relinquish it all and open to the joy of awakening to this moment, just as it is with clarity and compassion.

So those are the sixteen steps. If it interests you then you can read Larry Rosenberg’s book Breath by Breath. You can also listen to the dharmaseed.org recordings of Tempel Smith’s daylong retreat at Spirit Rock that I attended in March 2015.

What to do when we feel helpless

I attended a dharma talk by Rick Hanson this week about the Three Marks or Characteristics: impermanence (anicca), the universal sense of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and no-self (anatta).

Then Thursday our traditional brief reading of an excerpt from ‘Pocket Pema (Chodron)’ also happened to talk about them. So I shared with the class a little of what Rick had said because I felt the way he explained the relationship between the three, rather than just listing them, was very useful.


He said that impermanence is a given. (This is exactly what we have been learning week after week in our exploration of the Five Aggregates.) But we have the choice of whether to react to it with the grasping, clinging and aversive reactions that cause suffering –dukkha, or respond to it with anatta, no-separate-self, and hold the impermanence of experience with ease and even joy.


So, thanks to Rick for that nugget of wisdom.


As we have looked at each of the Aggregates over the past weeks, we first recognize the quality of impermanence. All arises. All falls away. Sometimes immediately, sometimes eventually, but if you attend it closely you’ll see the process is always in cycles of motion.


Every moment is a pivotal moment of change. (If we stay present in the moment we can have a conscious effect on the nature of that change! If we are living in the past or future, whatever change we cause by our actions or words is unconscious, and therefore often unskillful.)


Wanting things to be permanent or imagining things to be permanent and reacting negatively to that belief causes us to suffer. (And when we suffer, we never suffer alone. We always cause suffering to others with our resulting unskillful words and actions.)


What a relief to discover that we do not have to shore up or cling to a sense of separate self in order to be happy.


So if you have been asking the perennial student question How will this help me in real life? here’s your answer!


Everything we learn as we explore the Buddha’s teachings, and as we create through meditation practice the opportunity to have our own insights, is for one purpose, and one purpose only: To create spacious ease and happiness in you, that you may be in the world as a conduit of loving kindness, compassion, joy and balance.


We all have created suffering through unskillfulness, and we have all witnessed how suffering in one person can activate sometimes extreme suffering in others. What can we do as witnesses? So much depends on the situation, of course, and one hopes that our practice gives us the presence of mind to respond skillfully. But even when we are thousands of miles away watching on television a horrific event unfolding before our eyes, as many of us did this past week, there is still something we can do.


We can send metta.


Metta is universal loving-kindness that is a powerful practice we can do at any time. It is especially useful when we feel overwhelmed and things seem to be spinning completely out of our control. Send metta to the victims, to their families, the first-hand witnesses, the responders, and yes, to the perpetrators of this act.


Whoa! What? Why would we send loving-kindness to them?


Think about it. Their incredibly unskillful violent means of making whatever statement comes from such an unstable delusional place. So we send metta to them.
‘May you be well.’ Yes, may you be well enough in you mind to understand that this is not the way to make your concerns known.
‘May you be happy.’ Yes, if you were happy in your own being, you would never have thought up this violent scheme in the first place.
‘May you be at ease.’ Yes, it is the dukkha-driven restlessness and dis-ease that brought this thought to painful action.
‘May you be at peace.’ Yes, if there were peace in your heart, you would never have thought up this action in the first place.


Although we don’t send metta with the hopes that people will be different from who they are, still metta does have transformative power. But it is only powerful if it is as generous as the sun, shining on all life, not just sent out selectively to the ‘deserving’.


We challenge ourselves to recognize that sense of no separate self. We cannot send metta only to sweet-faced children or baby animals. We make no distinction while sending metta between those who we think deserve a good life and those whom we might instinctively wish hell on earth for the suffering they have caused.


Metta is not a reward. It is a universal well-wishing that actively creates a peaceful world. Those who are kind and generous do so because it flows through them as a natural response to the goodness they know to be the world they live in, even as they see unskillful painful behavior erupting sometimes.


Those who do violence do so because that is the world they know, the people they hang out with, the path of least resistance. This is not to justify their actions. It is to settle the reactivity that forces more actions and reactions within the rest of us until the violence feels entrenched and permanent. It is not permanent. When we allow the violence of others to activate the same violence of spirit within ourselves, then we are seduced by Mara, the tempter*, into mindlessness and unskillfulness. So we say, as the Buddha said again and again, ‘Ah Mara, I know you.’ Because we do recognize that quality, we are tempted by it from time to time. But knowing it for what it is, we see through it. We are spacious in our minds and spacious in our hearts, radiating loving kindness to all beings. May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be at ease, may all beings be at peace.


* An interesting note for those of us who are Christians: A quote from Catholiceducation.org: ‘The word Satan comes from the Hebrew verb satan meaning to oppose, to harass someone; so Satan would be the tempter, the one to make us trip and fall, the one to turn us from God.’
The tempter, just like Mara, who tempted Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. And just as Jesus preached wholesome living, kindness and compassion, so did the Buddha.

Meditation & Creativity: WABI SABI

We have been exploring creativity and I would like bring in the idea of wabi sabi, the Zen Buddhist concept of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence. Wabi sabi is, in effect, the expression of fully living in the moment brought into the realm of aesthetics. Fully living in the moment we see things as they are, letting go of the overlay of ideals of perfection. We treasure wrinkles, cracks and the patina of age.

I am presenting this in our exploration of creativity because artists instinctively embrace wabi sabi. I remember the uproar among a class of life drawing students when their teacher kept hiring models who were young, slender and flawless. The artists wanted some folds, some wrinkles, something interesting to draw. They wanted variety in age and size. What they didn’t want was something they could have copied out of Playboy magazine.

Although there is nothing wrong with the dewy beauty of youth, when we limit ourselves to only embracing that fleeting moment when a body or a flower is in a state of full blossom, then we are caught in the trap of perfection, and we are promoting this limited view in our art – that only one moment in the life of a flower or the life of a body is beautiful. This makes for very stagnant art and a life full of constant dissatisfaction as we cling to such a limited view. In other words Dukkha!

This is equally true in writing as in the visual arts. A character with quirks, flaws, imperfections is a delight to write about and read. A character without foibles is a character that feels surface and not fully drawn. We instinctively know that no one is perfect, nor would we want them to be.

We have been weaving the concept of finite and infinite throughout our exploration of creativity, and here is an excellent example. How finite a view it is to value only perfection, only youth, only symmetry, only sameness! Dip into the infinite beauty of impermanence and you really get into the rich and juicy stuff of creativity.

Nature, the greatest teacher of all, constantly shows us that all is impermanence. Staying connected with nature helps us to befriend this truth. The lush green leaves of spring become the dry yellow leaves we scuffle through on the sidewalk in the autumn. That is not sad, it is simply true. As we age, as family, friends and beloved icons die, this valuable lesson comes home to us again and again. Becoming spacious enough in our hearts and minds to openly embrace the fleeting nature of life is one of the basic benefits of meditation. And having a term like wabi-sabi helps us to celebrate it, even have fun with it.

The word wabi comes from the root word ‘wa’ which means, as I understand it, harmony, tranquility, peace, balance. Sabi means the bloom of time, or all the wondrous transitions that come with aging: Tarnish, rust, etc.

When we bring wabi sabi consciousness to our bathroom mirror, we can develop an appreciation for our lumps, bumps and wrinkles. We can soften our view, lighten up on our constant striving for perfection. Even artists who naturally prefer the beauty of wabi sabi in the world around them can be quite merciless when it comes to their own bodies. But there’s no way around it. Our bodies are imperfect and aging. Can we release for once and for all the filter of the perfect lithe youthful body that was or never was, and lovingly care for our bodies as we would for the fine cracked china inherited from our favorite grandmother? To whatever extent we can release ourselves from the ruthless dictates of that stagnant aesthetic of perfection, we open to the possibility of a joyous life. We can allow the authenticity of our character to shine through, adding luster to our wrinkles and a twinkle to our eyes.

As with all aspects of our practice, this is not a forced transformation but simply noticing our thoughts and emotions. We notice the sour, unkind, miserly view we tend to have of this corporal manifestation where our consciousness resides for now. This noticing sets off a subtle, then not so subtle shift. At some point the ‘shoulds’ start to soften and fall away. Only then do we stand a chance of coming slowly into a state of acceptance, then perhaps even enjoyment of the wabi sabi of our bodies.

A little gratitude practice is always useful here as well. For all its flaws how grateful we are for this body that works so hard and so well for the most part. This body that has carried us through thick and thin. This body that has tolerated so much on our behalf. Yes, gratitude practice helps to put things in perspective.

Now wabi sabi isn’t just about appreciating imperfection. It is also about paring things down to their bare essentials. An artist does this when she looks at a landscape or a figure she wants to paint and then simplifies it on her canvas. She seeks out what speaks to her and composes her painting accordingly. She recognizes what is aesthetically vital to the composition and doesn’t need to duplicate nature in every detail.

We can do this in our lives as well. Paring down our possessions to only what is truly useful, what has a vibrancy in our lives, is a wabi sabi process. D.T. Suzuki described wabi-sabi as “an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty.” He said it is “to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau, and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.”

Wabi sabi is finding beauty in simple things, each in their season. As we age, most of us feel this call to simplify, if for no other reason than we don’t want our children to have to be burdened with too much of the detritus of our lives when we die. But even for ourselves, for our own lives, this ongoing process of divesting and simplifying has rich rewards in lifting the weight of concerns. It seems almost to be a biological phenomenon that we do this.

An example from my own life just happened this week. We are in the process of reorganizing our basement storage area, and a lot of what we are doing is reassessing our feelings about these objects we have been storing. One such object is a round oak table that we bought when we were first married. It was stored in the basement of an older couple. They were ready to let it go and sold it to us for $25. That table became the centerpiece of our lives throughout the years when our children were very young. We had our family meals around it. The children did their homework there. We played monopoly, scrabble and yahtzee there. But eventually it was too small to seat our whole family or dinner guests. So for many years now it hasn’t had a central role in our lives, and ultimately it ended up in our basement. None of our children wanted it, so finally I put an ad on e-bay at a reasonable price. No takers. I posted it again asking for ‘Best Offer.’ No takers. Then this week I put ‘Free to Good Home.’ Immediately I heard from a couple in Rohnert Park who drove down Sunday evening and picked up the table. They arrived in their SUV with their two children reading comics in the back seat as we loaded the base into the back and the father Miguel strapped the round top on the roof. And off they went, and I was so happy. The table will once again be central to the lives of a young family, and we are the older couple who is letting go of whatever no longer serves us.

For me there’s beauty in that sense of continuum, our dear oak table finding its new home. And wabi sabi is all about beauty. Here’s a definition of wabi sabi beauty: It’s a mellow beauty that is striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long time.

When seen this way, it becomes clear what in our lives has value and meaning, and what we can release so that we can live more simply and with greater authenticity.

It is this word authenticity that keeps coming back to me as I study the concept of wabi sabi. Because it wouldn’t be wabi sabi to buy a table that had been distressed. It’s only wabi sabi when the scars, stains and cracks are authentic, the result of having been fully in the world. Wabi sabi is the beauty of a life lived. It is our stretch marks, our wrinkles, and all the rich living that caused them. It is appreciating what is and letting go of some false inauthentic ideal. It is not just accepting the wear and tear of aging, but celebrating its true authentic beauty.