What's wabi sabi got to do with it?

Thanks to the magazine Whole Living, I have a new favorite life-guiding principle that sounds like something you order at a sushi restaurant. Wabi sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in an imperfect world. And while it's hard to define precisely, a definition by author Leonard Koren has come to take hold: "Wabi sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental." Here's what this means to you and why it matters.

The magazine article set out some examples on what wabi sabi is, but also what it isn't. Wabi sabi is those cracked, crazy looking heirloom tomatoes at the farmer's market, handmade pottery, wrinkles from smiling. It's not "Botox, glass-and-steel skyscrapers, smart phones or the drive for relentless self-improvement." And it's not our sleek, stylized, 21st century idea of modern simplicity either (which is often just code for clinically spare rooms or the meticulously organized). "[Wabi sabi is] a beauty hidden right in front of our eyes, an aesthetic of simplicity that reveals itself only when animated through the daily work of living."

It all kind of reminds me of a French term I read about in a fashion magazine years ago. "Jolie-laide" is often used to describe a woman who, though perhaps not classically beautiful, takes your breath away. And while the term literally joins the words "pretty" and "ugly," that translation doesn't strike to the heart of the term, or capture its nuance. Jolie-laide is a beauty that is wondrous because of its flaws, like Lauren Hutton's smile or Cleopatra's nose. It defies convention but is singular in its uniqueness.

Let's get a little heady for a sec: I've long loved the idea that language can provide a kind of key to a culture's values. Linguistic anthropologists demonstrated this idea of linguistic relativity in the 20th century (which later scholars challenged) by noting the seven Inuit words for snow, the four Greek words for love, or the way the Hopi language discusses time as one continuous span. American English doesn't have a concept for wabi sabi or a particular appreciation for flaws or ephemera. When we talk about how things look, we rhapsodize most often about beauty and perfection.

Here's why wabi sabi matters to us on daily, to-the-core level: If we can't learn to welcome our flaws as part of what makes us unique, then we're constantly stuck in a cycle of self-improvement rather than self-acceptance. But what self-improvement offers us is often a false hope: that we'll be able to accept ourselves only once our personal shortcomings have been perfected. That's so not the way it works.

Take that crazy-looking Brandywine tomato: it's about a billion times better than the perfectly-shaped, dull-tasting supermarket variety. Just like flawed, quirky, crazy beautiful you.

More from Real-Life Makeover>>