The sacred doesn't have to be faraway and out of our reach. Japanese culture, for instance,can open our eyes to the little treasures in our dailylife, says Galina Pembroke.
Oftenwe look for the sacred beyond us, restricted to exoticor faraway places, mountaintop shrines and desert pyramids.We also have a tendency to view it as stuck in time:the moment the Red Seas were parted, rather than ourongoing relationship with the divine force doing theparting. Yet the sacred isn't limited. We choose whatwe make sacred. Depending on culture and philosophythis can include a damaged ornament, a meal on our plate,or the daily visit from our postie! The true definitionof sacred and our experience of a life rich with itsgifts, is limited only by our vision.
Wabi Sabi Wonders
What is sacred? "Official" dictionary definitionsdiffer slightly, but they all agree that for somethingto be sacred it is worthy of, or regarded with, religiousworship, and/or respect. When we seek the sacred weseek the spiritual. The terms have connotations so similarthey are nearly interchangeable. To find one is to findthe other. We can look high and low, waiting for thesacred to call to us. All the time it is in front ofus, in objects long regarded as inferior. Within theseexists the sacred. This is the concept of wabi sabi,a Japanese aesthetic philosophy that celebrates thesimple and handmade, especially the flaws. Wabi sabitakes a spiritual approach towards objects. Flaws areregarded as sacred, as an opportunity to open our soulto a new view of what can have spiritual importance.
More than just the appreciation of unpretentious artsand crafts, wabi sabi is a uniquely joyful way of viewingand contemplating the world. As Leonard Koren describesit in Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers,wabi sabi is "the beauty of things imperfect, impermanentand incomplete." It is no coincidence that thefirst practitioners of wabi sabi were Zen Buddhist monksand tea masters.
Today we have wabi sabi pottery. These handmade, gloriouslyflawed (by design) objects d'art look pleasingly "pre-owned"right out of the box. Wabi sabi regards the imperfectionsin these one-of-a-kind creations as enhancements. Westernculture unconsciously imitates this aesthetic with prefadedjeans and "distressed" furniture. We savourrecycled and retro. We have, many of us, cultivateda taste for beauty, wabi sabi -style. With Leonard Cohen(himself a Buddhist) we sing, "There's a crackin everything; that's how the light gets in." Wabisabi teaches us that rain and ice may crack and erodethe new and the beautiful, but the crumbling marks theyleave behind are the signature of water, the life giver.It teaches us to look up into the sky and see that thecloud itself is the silver lining.
Just as wabi sabi asks us to change how we view things,it also asks us to change how we approach life. "Materialrichness, spiritual poverty" are keywords in wabisabi. While acknowledging the joys inherent in objects,wabi sabi challenges us to change our relationship withthings, to nurture non-attachment. Endless pining overand questing for things is detrimental to finding thesacred. This is not to say we can't enjoy both materialand spiritual. Yet placing material longing before spiritualseeking is contrary to the philosophy. Practised correctly,wabi sabi lets us enjoy balance. Within this balance,we enjoy satisfaction with the material while developingthe spiritual.
Like balance, simplicity is also at the heart of wabisabi. The wabi sabi tea ceremony is simplicity exemplified:fetch water, gather firewood, boil water, prepare teaand serve. Still within this simplicity is somethingdeeper, something more. Through the view of wabi sabi,we understand that simplicity is rich with subtleties.According to Leonard Koren (not to be confused withCohen), the tea ceremony, "became an eclectic socialart form combining, among other things, the skills ofarchitecture, interior and garden design, flower arranging,painting, food preparation, and performance."
Wabi sabi beckons us to consider transcendence in theeveryday. To look beyond what our eyes see. With wabisabi we examine the nuances and magic of camouflage.Nothing is as it appears. As we recognise that substanceand importance are within every "thing" wefind substance and meaning are in everything.
Of all the life's ingredients, food is among the mostinherently symbolic. From birth we experience a mother'slove from milk and spoon feeding. As children we continueto associate love through the food provided for us.Yet as adults something changes. As we become providerswe abandon the joy of providing for ourselves, and withthis we discard the potential vitality and deep emotionof preparing, serving and eating.
Ritual is essential to embracing the sacred elementsof food preparation. The first step in ritual is recognisingits necessity. This acknowledges the importance of eating.We have rituals around food because rituals are offerings.In Western society, Thanksgiving is the most familiarritual food offering. Why wait until Thanksgiving tocelebrate our harvest? Ritual recognises that all mealsare a harvest and worthy of our respect and care. Thisview, scarce in modern times, can be found. "Allfood preparation is a ceremony," writes SandraIngerman, in Medicine for the Earth-how to transformpersonal and environmental toxins. More importantly,she says, "Give thanks for the life sacrificedso that you might live." Though unspecified here,within the book's context she seems to mean both animalfood and plant food.
Reflecting on our food during preparation allows usto honour it. Preferably this should be done in a mentaland physical environment free of negativity. Takinga brief time to clear unfavourable thoughts from yourmind and carefully cleaning and clearing the preparationarea creates a strong foundation for an open, receptivemind. Through these conditions we can contemplate aswe culinary-create. Blessing the food - an expressionof gratitude - also fosters a higher spiritual state.
Grace, defined as a short prayer of blessing or thanksgivingsaid before or after a meal, is a simple means of showingrespect and appreciation for our meal. The traditionof grace and blessing food is evident through differentreligions and spiritual traditions. Christians, Hindus,Muslims, Buddhist, Jews and Native Americans all practiseexpressions of gratitude for meals. Some, such as Buddhists,also say grace after meals. The words expressed in gracevary widely dependent on tradition. A classic Hindugrace is an affirmation to the body, and begins with"I recognise you are the temple in which my spiritand creative energy dwell." Part of honoring thesacred in food consists of seeing the sacred in ourselves.In this way, we open ourselves to making every bitea divine experience.
Regardless of words used, the tradition of grace isone of contemplation and consideration. Great enjoymentcomes through appreciation of food. This is pleasureseeking in a spiritual context. Unlike hedonistic pleasureseeking though, the joy that comes from appreciatingevery morsel of food is healthy and enhances our spiritualjourney. Taking time to savour and consider our foodshows an understanding of its value.
This is an expression of gratitude, which is anotherdoor to the sacred in the everyday.
Making Gratitude Meaningful
Can you see the holiness in thosethings you take for granted--a paved road or a washingmachine? If you concentrate on finding what is goodin every situation, you will discover that your lifewill suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feelingthat nurtures the soul.
- Rabbi Harold Kushner
Gratitude is an essential part of the sacred. Throughgratitude, we come to recognise the importance of thatfor which we are grateful, giving it deeper meaningin our lives. Gratitude teaches us that our experienceis partly determined by our perception and emotions.This is spiritual, and also psychological.
Naikan is a component of Japanese psychology involvingself reflection and gratitude. It is a Japanese wordwhich means "inside looking" or "introspection."Naikan sees gratitude as anchored in spirituality, sincereflection itself is spiritual. Some translate the term,with greater literary flair, as "seeing oneselfwith the mind's eye." Naikan uses self reflectionto help us understand ourselves, our relationships andthe foundational nature of human existence. The practicewas developed by Yoshimoto Ishin (1916-1988), a devotedBuddhist belonging to the Jodo Shinshu sect in Japan.
Naikan is focused and simple. Though there are varietiesof Naikan practice, at its core are three questions:the first asks the source of what we are grateful for,for instance a person or God; this is followed by askingourselves what we gave to others; and thirdly, we askourselves what difficulties or troubles we have causedin the world. This last element has led to criticismof Naikan for contributing to guilt. But is this necessarilynegative? Perhaps it is time to reconsider our viewof this primary human emotion. Robert Emmons, PhD, authorof The Psychology of Guilt, states that guilt can behealthy. "Naikan stimulates beneficial guilt,"he says. "Psychologists tend to have a negativespin on guilt, you know. You shouldn't have guilt, it'sdebilitating and so forth. But it can be very restorativeas well."We can practise Naikan in our daily lives,through asking ourselves Naikan's three core questions.In doing so it is important that we are as specificas possible. For instance, rather than saying "magazines",it is better to say what magazines and which articleswithin them. We can get more specific if we like andmention particular insights within the articles. Specificityforces us to focus and deeply absorb feelings of gratitude.The items mentioned can be those we generally take forgranted or otherwise perceive as trivial. And the sameapplies to people. The postal carrier, who arrives daily,is as worthy of mention as a friend we haven't seenin years.
Naikan summons us to see beyond the surface of everydayitems, events and people. Through appreciation, we givehonour. Whether or not we make others aware of our reflectionwe are benefiting them, since our evolved view willbecome evident in our interactions. As important ashow it profits others is how Naikan serves us. Naikanpractice weaves the sacred into everyday. It is onlyappropriate that we are grateful in response.
The practice of Naikan calls us to make gratitude away of living. As with our approach to objects and eating,this spiritual path delivers us into a sacred way ofliving. The challenge is daily, but so are the rewards.
Galina Pembroke is an internationallypublished freelance writer living in British Columbia,Canada's most westerly province.
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