Friday, 23 November 2012

Wabi-Sabi Fitness

I just read an excellent article on the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi.  It’s a concept that has fascinated me for a long time, and this provides a really succinct and thoughtful summary. Wabi-Sabi is a sentiment that I think is often felt by westerners as well (i.e. it’s universal to the human experience), but not well-articulated here because we don’t tend to have the vocabulary or the cultural context to capture it.  To me, it’s the aesthetic beauty - a kind of sad, melancholic beauty - to things that are transient and fleeting.  It carries over into an appreciation of the simple, rustic, humble, weathered and imperfect.  It’s the antithesis of the mass-produced, homogenous, throw-away products that are so common to modern culture – ironically, perhaps, since so much of those products are imported from Asia, where the Wabi-Sabi concept arose.  At its root I think is also a feeling of authenticity or naturalness, in contrast to artifice or something being contrived.

With the cherry blossoms gone
        The temple is glimpsed
                 Through twigs and branches.
                                 - Yosa Buson

For me, it’s always been that almost ineffable feeling that is produced by great haiku poems; or the beauty of an old crumbling stone wall, covered in different hues of green mosses; the a flight of departing geese at sunset; fragile, faded photographs; dew-covered spiderwebs at dawn.  It’s the somewhat pleasant feeling that things are beautiful because they are ephemeral – they exist only for a time.  And while it’s often in nature that these feelings are aroused, I think it can also be felt amongst urban decay:  a crumbling graffiti-covered wall; pigeons roosting in the eaves of buildings, old books piled high in second-hand bookshops, rust-stained concrete.
The concept is not exclusively Japanese, although it’s perhaps most beautifully captured through the aesthetics of zen rock gardens, tea ceremony, calligraphy and ink painting.  The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius felt it similarly when he wrote:

"Watch well the grace and charm that belong even to the consequents of nature's work. The cracks for instance and crevices in bread-crust, though in a sense flaws in the baking, yet have a fitness of their own....In ripe olives the very nearness of decay adds its own beauty to the fruit.  The bending ears of corn, the lion's scowl, the foam that drips from the wild boar's mouth, and many other things, though in themselves far from beautiful, yet looked at as consequents of nature's handiwork, add new beauty and appeal to the soul..."
                                                                                            - to Himself, Book III

Compare, in the Iliad, how the gods are envious of mortals for the precise reason that their lives are beautiful because they are so brief.  It also shows up in the Hellenistic Baroque period of art, when sculptors turned their attention away from the perfect, ageless forms of Greece’s Classical Age to explore subjects that were more flawed – an aged fisherman bringing in his catch; a battered boxer, scarred from his numerous victories; an old woman, with her deeply lined face.   

I think that the beauty of these things is that they remind us, in a gentle, sad way, or our own mortality and of the transience that we share with all of nature – the implacability of time and decay, and thus the admonition to squeeze every last drop out of the time that is given to us.
It’s a rebellion also against materialism, or that is to say against the constant churn of acquisition and disposal of material goods.  And therefore it seems to be focused on simplicity, austerity, sparseness and poverty (not in the negative sense, but in the sense of only having what one needs and nothing more) – on economy.  It is contingent upon the recognition, as in the Old English poem The Wanderer, that all material or worldly ‘success’ is only lent, and can vanish as quickly as it came:

"Wealth is lent us, friends are lent us, 
man is lent, kin is lent, 
and all the frame of the earth
shall stand empty" 

Han Shan, in his Cold Mountain poems writes about the pleasant simplicity that comes with this recognition of impermanence:

"A thatched hut is home for a country man;
Horse and carriage seldom pass my gate;
Forests so still all the birds come to roost;
Broad valley streams always full of fish.
I pick wild fruit in hand with my child ,
Till the hillside fields with my wife.
And in my house what do I have?
Only a bed piled high with books."  

How might all of this apply to fitness and training, you might ask (and rightfully so since that’s the subject of this blog)?  In several ways, I think, and firstly in the concept of economy and simplicity.  Good health and fitness need not be complicated.  It doesn’t require fancy machines and gadgets.  Often all that requires is a person’s own bodyweight and willpower.  To me, pull-ups done on a piece of old scaffolding or a tree branch have wabi-sabi; lat pull-downs done in an air-conditioned gym do not.  

Going for a run in the rain and snow, subjecting oneself to the vagaries of mother nature, has wabi-sabi; running on a treadmill does not.  Utilizing found objects (old tires, sandbags, sledgehammers, cinder blocks, my favourite wheelbarrow, etc.) rather than the latest, greatest, hermetically-sealed and sanitized fitness equipment – these things evoke the same feeling of simplicity.  Compare, in Rocky IV – Rocky training in the old barn in the snow, carrying logs, hauling wood - versus Drago training in the state-of-the-art gym.   

In my mind, these rusted weights have a kind of wabi-sabi that pristine fitness equipment can't replicate:

That simplicity carries over to nutrition as well.  To me the same wabi-sabi concept can be felt in good, simple food – not too much of it – well-prepared and savoured.  A steaming bowl of sautéed greens, fish, boiled eggs; a cup of plain tea – rather than protein powders and ‘engineered’ meal replacements, or worse yet mass-produced pizza pockets and frozen dinners.

In its appreciation for imperfections, I think that wabi-sabi has important connotations for fitness as well.  It leads to an acceptance of ageing as a natural evolution, but not in any sense of giving-up. Rather, it’s an aesthetic appreciation of how a constantly-challenged and well-taken-care-of body changes, and how there’s no need to camouflage the progression of time with plastic surgery or other artificial means.  It’s the kind of strength that can only come as a result of hard work, experience and a refusal to take short-cuts – the kind that can’t be faked.

Furthermore, by the apprehension of wabi-sabi, one cannot avoid the sense that life is fragile, fleeting and sometimes all too brief.  That reminder, that all things (pain and discomfort included) are temporary, can be important motivation to squeeze out that one last rep, or to simply get up off the couch.  If that’s not an admonition to carpe diem, I don’t know what is.

The sound of the Gion Shôja bells echoes the impermanence of all things;
the color of the sâla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.
The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night;
the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

     - The Tale of the Heike (trans. by H.C. McCullough)

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