(Note- I wrote this after the Japanese Tsunami. Many of the same themes apply to any tragedy)
A verse in the Jewish text the Talmud says, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, Grow.” What a beautiful image! Today, where I live, I’m watching brown grass squeeze out the last reminders of snow and frost as it strains to kick start its green growth. The sun is doing its utmost to break through clouds and call to the grass to “Grow! Grow! Take my rays of light and reach for the stars with me.” It’s as if the tiny beads of dew are perspiration as the grass prepares for another spring on green duty.
Nature has spectacular patterns of growth and change. Mushrooms hover over grass as if they are umbrellas to soften the fall of rain. Every blade of grass, every leaf and drop of water is part of an elaborate ecosystem. We can learn so much from nature. It’s as if nature is your angel bending and whispering to you, “Grow, Grow. Just a little bit more.” Every turning and falling leaf is calling you to fulfill your personal potential and be all that you can be. They are reminding you that growth is not always a linear process but it always involves change. Human beings grow the same way a leaf falls to the ground- back and forth, two steps forward and one step back. Be prepared to change and fall, many times and then get back up. Sometimes you grow in one area of your life and not in another. As Anais Nin said, “Growth is relative. We are mature in one realm, and childish in another.” Celebrate your own crazy, unpredictable and sometimes even erratic, growth.
As well as being angelic and nurturing, nature is also wild and destructive. We have seen many examples of this in recent weeks. Nature’s wild outbursts call for a different human response, more active and decisive, but growth nonetheless. In this case its often courage and resilience that are added to beauty’s inspiration. Among the devastating stories of death and destruction on Japan’s north coast, some awesome stories emerged of survival against the odds. Many people, the elderly and babies included, rose from the ashes days after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. Against all odds rescuers gave hope back to families like a spring miracle of rebirth. Life can be a wild and unpredictable ride, but there is always more to come, more to learn and more to become. Spring is a reminder that nature, like the seasons of personal circumstance, cycles from death to life.
Imagine the joy of holding your four month old baby three days after being separated by a massive tidal wave, followed by even larger waves of grief. It is a reminder, like every spring is a reminder, to take nothing for granted and to stay open. Life is a precious gift. Give thanks for every moment of living and loving. Make the most of every opportunity for giving and growing.
We tend to want everything NOW, but it may not be time and you may not be ready. There is a time for patience and there is a time to dig in the rubble and get active. Learn from the people of Japan. What a wonderful example of grace under fire. I bow to the people of Japan and hope that if I am ever struck by tragedy I can respond with just as much character. For a culture that values nature, beauty and order so deeply, we can only imagine the heartache of living in the midst of so much chaos. But you don’t see stories about Japanese people looting or disrupting food lines, and you DO see images of people still bowing to each other and helping wherever possible.
Every year at this time Japanese people celebrate the blooming of the cherry blossom tree which bears no fruit and flowers for just a few days. Even so, it represents something incredibly powerful. The cherry blossom is a reminder of new beginnings and the briefness of life. Seeing the seed of change in a cherry blossom, or the cries of hope under the rubble is the essence of wabi sabi, recognizing order beneath the surface level chaos, perfection beneath the appearance of imperfection. It’s this perspective that enables people to maintain dignity and optimism when all seems to be lost. There is a saying, “The cherry blossom among flowers, the warrior among men.”
Wabi sabi is an inner strength and perspective that can see a cherry blossom nestled in a pile of debris or hear the cries of a baby from the middle of rubble and know that life is beautiful. Where does this hope come from? It comes from stillness that collapsed houses and disheveled gardens can’t disturb. I can appreciate beauty, but don’t attach even to the beauty because that too will change. From stillness and simplicity, your positive thoughts and acts of kindness create beautiful symmetry in an imperfect world. This story illustrates the power of Wabi sabi-
Sen no Rikyu desired to learn The Way of Tea and so visited the Tea Master, Takeno Joo. As a simple test of whether to accept Rikyu or not Joo ordered him to tend the garden. Rikyu raked the garden until the ground was in perfect order. When he had finished he surveyed his work. He then shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers and leaves to fall randomly on the ground. At that moment Takeno Joo knew Sen no Rikyu would be one the greatest example of wabi-sabi way of life.
Cherry blossoms scattered on a perfectly raked garden are just as disarming as blossoms in rubble. They both shake you out of preconceived expectations and lead to an act of surrender. You can’t control nature, you can’t control growth, you can’t control the timing of events. But you can control your responses to life. The cherry blossom takes most of a year to prepare for its spring splash of color. Growth is like that. It arrives like a stray cherry blossom or a wild wave. You can’t always trace its path and the source of growth may be as random as stray seeds or buried dreams. In any case you often become aware of growth only after being reunited with hope. Nature reminds you to watch and be mindful. Your thoughts are powerful, and wherever you place your attention there you shall dwell.
Begin with awareness of change and possibility. Scatter a little positive thought and kind action on your awareness. You are a beautiful flower opening yourself to life, as if to say, “I’m here and I’m growing and I’m ready to bloom.”
My friend Richard Powell, author of “Wabi Sabi Simple”, has a profound understanding of wabi sabi. He summarizes the essence of wabi sabi as “nothing lasts, nothing ends, and nothing is perfect.”
May you remember that without darkness nothing comes to birth, as without light nothing flowers.
May nature teach you patience as snow covered grass.
May the earth teach you courage as the tree which stands tall and strong.
May survivors inspire optimism as the seed which rises in the spring.