This Japanese Philosophy Will Help You Embrace Change & Accept The Past

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A new year is here! While we're looking forward to a fresh start and a hard refresh, we realize the pressure of resolutions and the heightened presence of change can make this season daunting. Wabi sabi offers relief for those of us striving for perfection or having a hard time embracing the past. In this excerpt from Beth Kempton's book Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life, we learn how to reshape that pressure and find contentment just where we are.

Things change. That's life.

Every time I go to Kyoto, it is familiar yet different. Buildings have gone up; buildings have come down. New shops have appeared; others have vanished. One favorite café has given way to another. Over the years, this city has been altered by war and earthquakes, fires and tourism. And, of course, the changing seasons are a part of daily life here, a visual and emotional reminder of the passage of time.

Recently, I met up with an old friend in Tokyo whom I hadn't seen in more than a decade. On seeing each other, we both squealed, "You haven't changed a bit!" although, in truth, of course we had both changed in so many ways. Since we last got together I had gotten married, had two children, built a business, and moved more times than I care to remember. She had spent time abroad, switched careers, battled an illness, lost a parent, and learned a new language... Each of these formative experiences has shaped us, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

Our lives, relationships, careers, health, finances, attitudes, interests, capabilities, responsibilities, and opportunities are changing all the time. Sometimes the change is significant or fast, and you feel it as clearly as a rushing wind. Other times the change will be minor or slow, like a daffodil raising its head to the sun and you have to pay close attention to see it.

Nowhere ever stays completely still. And neither do we.

Wabi sabi teaches us that dynamic transience is the natural state of all things. And as change is inevitable, trying to hold on to the past or the present is pointless and stressful.

Over the many years I have spent supporting people through major life transitions, I have noticed how vastly different our attitudes toward change can be. At one end of the spectrum are those who are terrified of it and will do absolutely anything within their power to hold on to the status quo, even when they don't actually like it. At the other end are those who embrace change as an escape mechanism, often habitually, so that as soon as things start to get difficult, they jump to something else, often later chastising themselves for never sticking to anything. And there are many in the middle who recognize the need to change and genuinely want to embrace it but are stalled by fear. I wonder where you sit on that continuum?

I was talking to a friend about the idea of transience over red rice and niimono (simmered vegetables) at his home in a rural suburb of Tokyo. He gestured toward his garden, where a small bamboo forest stood and said:

You can see change happening right there. The bamboo is growing all the time and is also sensitive to its dynamic environment. It's firmly rooted but flexible. When the wind blows, the bamboo doesn't resist; it lets go and moves with it. And still the forest grows. Think of the buildings in this earthquake-prone country. The ones that survive the shaking are those that can move when the trembling begins.

I think I just had a Mr. Miyagi moment. Stability can make us feel safe, but it is a precarious stability that is built on the misguided assumption that things won't change, because everything does. When a sudden change comes from an external source—a layoff, a loss, an affair, an illness, for example—the shock is considerable. Rigidity actually makes us vulnerable to that. If it hits us when we are desperately trying to hang on to what we know, it can knock us flat. But if we are accepting of what is happening (not necessarily happy about it or condoning it but realistic about the fact that it is going on), we may be blown about but not completely knocked off balance, and we can recover sooner.

Accepting the past

It is so easy to spend time caught up in the past, lost in nostalgia, heavy with regret, chastising yourself for not having made different choices or blaming someone else. Back then, you didn't know all you know now. You didn't have the same resources, environment, or responsibilities. Perhaps you didn't have the same outlook, self-awareness, courage, or support. Or maybe you look back on the past as the golden years, when things were easier and you were more this or more that. But here's the thing: The past is no longer here. Whatever happened, the good and the bad, it is gone.

Whatever it is that keeps pulling you back, take a moment to make peace with it, then let it go. This sounds hard, but it can be as simple as deciding to do it. Write it out. Speak to a professional if you need to or talk to a friend. Then pick a day—like your birthday, or the turn of a season, or the new year, or the next Tuesday—and make it the day you leave that particular thing in the past. It is only you that keeps paying it attention.

Wabi sabi teaches us to accept that the past was then, and it was what it was. This is now, and it is what it is. Your life is happening right here, and every day is the beginning of the rest of it.

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Accepting the present

Acceptance is alignment with the truth of the present moment. In this present moment, what is true about your life? You are holding this book, opening yourself up to ideas from another culture. Perhaps you are drinking a cup of your favorite tea or you keep getting distracted by a fly buzzing around the room.

Maybe your window is open and you can hear cars going past. Or the sun is casting shadows across your desk. Perhaps you are at the hairdresser's, getting ready for a special night out. Or you have just come back to this page after an inspiring conversation, or a big argument, or some surprising news. Maybe you are reading this on the bus or in your kitchen with half an eye on the oven to see if your pie is baked.

I wonder if you are hot or cold or just right? If you can smell cooking or the garden or the impending rain. Do you have music playing? Is the clock ticking? Are you soaking in the tub listening to the sound of your own breathing?

Take a moment to think about the facts of your life in this exact moment. This moment is the one you are living right now. You cannot extend it forever. At some point the pie will be done, the bathwater will go cold, the night will close in. Accepting that we cannot hold on to or control the status quo is a powerful lesson from wabi sabi, reminding us to treasure the good we have right now and know that the bad will pass.

Any time you feel stressed or worried, upset, lost, or lonely, anchor yourself in the facts of now. Notice what's going on in your body and what's going on around you. Feel what you are feeling. Know that this is just a moment and soon it will give way to another.

Any time you are feeling overwhelmed, try to accept that what is possible in the present is limited. You can only do what you can do. This is not a shutting off of possibilities but rather a recognition of your own capacity, so you can stop expecting impossible things of yourself and give yourself a break.

Any time you recognize a moment of true joy, soak it all up. Anchor yourself to the sights, sounds, and smells of right there and then, so they can transform into a precious memory when the moment has passed, which it will.

Based on an excerpt from the book Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life by Beth Kempton with permission by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2018.

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