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  • Ellen Brown L.Ac. DACM

Mending our wounds and cracks with gold

Life isn’t perfect. It’s messy, awkward, challenging and disappointing at times. It can knock us down and even threaten to break us. It wounds us, sometimes deeply. To live life is to be marked by it – with breaks, bruises and cracks. These scars make us who we are: they define our character, teach us lessons, and help us grow into the person we are meant to be.

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are stronger at the broken places

Ernest Hemingway

While it can be difficult to acknowledge and accept our imperfections and weaknesses, it’s critical if we are to grow and evolve – and become stronger and more resilient – as we age. Over the last thousand years, the Japanese arts have been greatly influenced by Zen and Buddhist philosophy, especially as it relates to the acceptance of imperfection and contemplation of the impermanence of all things.

Kintsugi – the art of transforming flaws

Japanese culture celebrates flaws, viewing broken items as an opportunity for rebirth. Instead of hastily sweeping up pieces of a broken vase or plate and discarding them, the ancient art of kintsugi breathes new life into these items – studying them, understanding them, and mending their cracks with gold or silver. The resulting objects are transformed into something even more precious than their original forms. They are stronger, more beautiful and more resilient. If broken ceramics can be mended with gold or silver to become more valuable, what does that suggest for our own flaws and breaks?

This tradition of ceramic repair is called kintsugi or golden journey, literally translated as ‘to join with gold’. In Zen aesthetics, the broken pieces of an accidentally smashed pot are carefully picked up, reassembled, and then glued together with lacquer inflected with luxuriant gold or silver powder. Importantly, there is no attempt to disguise the damage. Instead, the intention is to render the fault-lines beautiful and strong. Indeed, the precious veins of gold or silver are there to aggrandize the damage, emphasizing that breaks have a merit all of their own. By repairing breaks with precious materials, the damage and repair become part of an object’s history rather than hidden or discarded. Ultimately, kintsugi transforms a ruined vase or bowl into a work of art that is, in fact, more beautiful precisely because it has suffered damage or ruin.

Legend has it that kintsugi originated when the Shogon of Japan, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu broke his favorite tea bowl and, distraught, sent it to be repaired in China during the 15th century. On its return, he was horrified by the ugly metal staples that had been used to join the broken pieces, and charged his craftsmen with devising a more aesthetic means of repair. What they came up with was a method that didn’t disguise the damage, but made something artful out of it. Collectors became so enamored with the new art that some were accused of deliberately smashing valuable pottery so it could also be repaired with gold seams. While the process of kintsugi is associated with Japanese craftsmen, the technique is also applied to ceramic pieces used for tea ceremonies in China, Vietnam, and Korea as well.

Kintsugi pieces are prized precisely because they have been broken. They are said to be more beautiful, more unique, and stronger at the broken places than they were in their original form. The gold alloy symbolizes their real value – a representation of how the broken lines are so beautiful, and so valuable, that they are rejoined with gold instead of glue.

Kintsugi emphasizes imperfection, highlighting the mends, seams and repairs we make to cracks rather than trying to hide them. Instead of concealing the damage, the repair is literally illuminated with compassionate sensitivity using precious metals. In many ways, kintsugi can be thought of as the art of embracing damage.

Kintsugi expresses a beautiful way of seeing fractures.  As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something that needs to be disguised or hidden.   More than a way to mend broken pots, kintsugi is a metaphor for our lives.  We all contain broken pieces and it is through the process of repairing the pieces with lacquer and gold – with friendships, community and family – that we heal and use our past wounds to make us stronger.  

Wabi Sabi – celebrating imperfection

Philosophically, kintsugi is similar to wabi sabi, another Japanese concept that also emphasizes the ideal of embracing flaws and finding beauty in imperfection. Specifically, it is an aesthetic that admires and values objects that bear the marks of use or wear. Beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete is revered. Elements of the wabi sabi aesthetic include a-symmetry, roughness and simplicity.

Wabi sabi is a term that is so broad it is sometimes difficult to understand. The term wabi signifies the kind of paradoxical beauty that is caused by imperfection – akin to kintsugi’s art of repairing cracks with gold to embellish scars. Sabi refers to the kind of beauty that can only come with age, such as the patina found on an ancient bronze statue.

Wabi sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple but profound realities: nothing lasts, nothing is ever finished, and nothing is perfect. Buddhists view wabi sabi as the wisdom and beauty of imperfection or natural simplicity. It values modesty and humbleness, as well as unconventional beauty. It cherishes what is simple, unpretentious and aged – especially if it has a rustic or weathered quality. Among some artists, wabi sabi is defined as flawed beauty. As with kintsugi, wabi sabi would argue that a chip or crack in a vase makes it more interesting, not less.

Wabi sabi also appreciates the transient beauty of the physical world which reflects the irreversible flow of life over time. It is an understated beauty that exists in the rustic, imperfect or even decayed – an aesthetic sensibility that appreciates the impermanence of all things. These underlying principles are, of course, diametrically opposed to those emphasized in the West, whose aesthetics are rooted in the Hellenistic world view that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry and perfection.

Wabi sabi has permeated Japanese culture in the arts of gardening, flower arranging (ikebana), tea ceremonies, and fashion. More than this, wabi sabi is an outlook on life – a way of seeing the world and reconsidering the beauty of imperfection. It suggests that the most beautiful things in life – the most unique, the most fascinating, and the most miraculous – are those that have become more perfect through their imperfection, more valuable by being broken, and more precious because they do not last.

Embracing a kintsugi life

We all carry scars, whether internal, external or both. We all break in different places and in different ways. Too often we beat ourselves up because we are not perfect, not worthy, or not deserving. In our busy modern lives, we often try to repair our broken places with glue. We quietly work to piece our lives back together after life-changing events, hoping that if we do a good enough job, the cracks won’t be readily visible. Instead of seeing our scars as unsightly, what if we chose to appreciate how their experience can transform us into something more beautiful than we ever imagined?

In an age that worships youth, perfection and newness, the art of kintsugi retains a particular wisdom. The care and love expended to shattered pots should inspire us to respect that which is damaged and scarred, vulnerable and imperfect – starting with ourselves and those around us. Wabi sabi reminds us that we need to forgive accidents, faults and asymmetries. The principles of living simply in harmony with nature inspires us to live a life of quiet contemplation, discouraging over-indulgence in the material world.

To anyone who has ever viewed their traumas, scars and wounds in a negative light, kintsugi and wabi sabi offer a message of beauty and renewal that can help us move beyond our pain to create a new story for our life and become a source of strength for others. Just as kintsugi gives new life to damaged or aging ceramic objects by celebrating their flaws and history, consider how we might live a “kintsugi life” that finds value in the missing pieces, cracks and chips that inevitably add up over time. Rather than conceal or mask the damage we have suffered, we should appreciate and celebrate the scars that come from experience and find new purpose as we age. Rather than “repairing” ourselves (through plastic surgery or pharmaceuticals, for instance) to look and feel as good as new, we could choose to see the beauty of 'imperfection' and love ourselves, not in spite our flaws, but because of them.

Embracing and accepting the beauty of our injuries and scars will invariably put us at odds with a culture that attempts to sell us perfection and youth. Instead we need to see the real value lies in our ability to “fix” and heal ourselves with the gold of experience, wisdom, love and kindness. Kintsugi and wabi sabi compel us to create a better – and more beautiful life – out of our own broken pieces and hardscrabble histories.

Each of us experience a unique healing journey that calls for us to embrace all that is chipped, broken, flawed within us. The lines that occur as we age, and the wounds we have endured over time, make us who we are and show what we have endured. Our scars show that we have healed and have overcome what life has put before us. And we are more precious, strong and beautiful for doing so. Together, kintsugi and wabi sabi suggest a remarkable kind of resilience that calls for us to repair the scars of our life with gold.

Regardless of our paths in life, we all endure cracks. The ones that leave us broken can be mended with gold. These experiences help us to grow. They make us stronger and more resilient. And in growing and learning, these mended cracks make us more beautiful. Instead of letting the painful broken spaces define us, we need to fill our cracks with gold and become whole.

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