Wabi Sabi & Aging—the Old and the Beautiful

In Japan, wabi sabi is an aesthetic principle that sees beauty in imperfection and age. Can Kem McIntosh Lee see the wabi sabi of her own aging body?

Kem McIntosh Lee
21 November 2021
Photo by Cristian Newman.

In Japan, when a tea mug has an imperfection visible to the eye, it is considered beautiful. The flaw shows that a human touched and molded a piece of clay into its present existence. The flaw is also a tangible reminder that all tea mugs will crack in time, and that all physical existence is transient. This beauty of imperfection is called wabi sabi in Japanese, and it’s derived from Buddhist teachings on the three marks of existence—impermanence, suffering, and the absence of self.

My concrete-solid sense of self wonders, ‘Is this really me?’

My ninety-five-year-old grandmother reminds me of a wabi sabi tea mug. Nanna has a wrinkled face that beautifully displays her years, and I see her peaceful surrender with each line. Nanna has fully accepted her aging process. She no longer lives with an egoic sense of self. Nanna raised six children and knows that life is our great trainer. Through her life experiences, Nanna has learned to embrace impermanence, suffering, and the absence of self. She realizes that life includes pain and appreciates joy in the present moment. Nanna recognizes, after nine decades, that the past and future are transitory.

Though I can admire the wabi sabi in Nanna, I often forget this tender principle when it comes to my own aging. I am clearly stuck on a fixed sense of self. I want to be the special tea mug without any cracks—ever. My mind craves permanence.

My almost fifty-year-old skin has a gently used appearance. There is no returning to a wrinkle-free neck. I wince when I look in the mirror because it seems as if I am wearing the wrong size of human-skin suit. I am no longer sleek in appearance. I wish a tailor could lift my breasts and an iron could smooth out my knees. My concrete-solid sense of self wonders, “Is this really me?” I search for more tools to add to my maintenance repertoire, grasping for hope in a bottle—this time, it’s neck cream infused with sea kelp.

Reading glasses were the first aging offense I experienced. I initially believed that labels on bottles were getting smaller and that the Wall Street Journal had reduced print size. I then surrendered and bought a pair of cheap readers, hoping poor vision was a temporary inconvenience. I really believed my failing eyesight was like a power outage in a Georgia thunderstorm in that it would return to “normal” in a short time. I was, of course, wrong. I now own many pairs of glasses—with which I zealously read anti-aging articles.

Recently, I suffered injuries from walking, which was a reminder that I need to move slowly to protect my heels and wear soft-cushioned shoes. No more flying chaturangas in power yoga. Before that, I had to learn firsthand the principle of nonpermanence when my pancreas stopped working. My pancreas told me, with hard data, that it now needs insulin for daily survival. It took months to surrender to this fact and reframe diabetes as a thorny gift.

Diabetes connects me to all humans who experience disappointment with their bodies. I am authentic when I say to friends, especially those with an unwelcome diagnosis, that I understand how it feels to be disappointed in the body. Diabetes and my blood sugar scores teach me about nonattachment. I am a good and whole person even when my scores are not in range.

My insulin reminds me that I am connected to an entire universe of humans. The shots are available to me thanks to scientists, lab assistants, the plastics company, my doctors, and even my drugstore pharmacist. My reliance on insulin keeps me interdependent with others. I am grateful to be connected to the many humans in this universe who keep me alive with insulin.

The hardest piece to accept with aging is that all this change in my physical body is a soft nudge toward the big letting go. The changes I see in the mirror are reminders that I will die. This life, right now, is all I have.

For thousands of years, humans have had a difficult time accepting death as a part of life. In the Bhagavad Gita, written over two thousand years ago, Yudhishthira asks Dharma, “Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful?” Dharma replies, “That no man, though he sees others dying around him, believes that he himself will die.”

Sometimes I see a woman on the street whose appearance suggests the work of an expert plastic surgeon. She does not have any wabi sabi occurring, as she has paid to avoid the imperfections of age. Since I know that we share the same fears about aging, compassion connects me to her.

Wabi sabi instructs us to go deep into our bodies and appreciate the life lived in this skin. Our aging body keeps us connected to both the uncomfortable realities of this life and the joy of the present moment. The woman with the plastic surgeon has chosen to live a short distance from her body, disinfected from the human experience of aging.

So how to practice letting go of our obsession with youth? Life is my training coach. Each day when I meditate, I practice opening my heart and regarding my physical body with conscious gratitude and surrender. The weights that life is training me to lift are often labeled with unwelcome names. Some weights are extremely heavy and demand too many repetitions.

Yet this spiritual weightlifting practice makes me emotionally stronger and more resilient. The phrase “hurt more, suffer less” resonates because the daily practice of spiritual weightlifting often hurts. I become sore from surrendering to unpleasant emotions such as the grief and fear that emerge in my constant stream of thoughts. But the more I practice lifting spiritual weights, the more I can lift.

The physical changes of aging are gentle reminders that our days are numbered. This present moment is all we have. Even at birth, our days were numbered. If I don’t want to believe this, I can look at the wrinkles around my knees.

Kem McIntosh Lee

Kem McIntosh Lee

Kem McIntosh Lee lives in Atlanta and is a photographer, yoga instructor, and jewelry designer.