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Proclaiming Your Wabi-Sabi Is a Cathartic Antidote for Shame

The courage to admit your imperfections is key to embodying your true nature.

This post is in response to
Deconstructing Ryan Lochte's Shame and Fear of Vulnerability
The Rio 2016 Summer games banner captures the triad of quirky beauty, fluidity, and wabi-sabi. 
Source: ArtDesign Illustration/Shutterstock

Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking (and writing) a lot about the juxtaposition of Team USA swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. They are the two of the most highly decorated Olympic athletes of all time—but, the trajectories of their lives after the 2016 Rio Games could not be more diametrically opposed.

Michael Phelps's heroic journey has been especially inspiring because he's had the courage to let the world see who he really is once he hit rock bottom and entered rehab after his second DUI in September 2014. In his heart-to-heart interview with Bob Costas (just prior to the Rio Olympics) Phelps reminded us all about the life-affirming power of transparency and the inspiration created by allowing the world to see who you really are, warts and all. 

On the flip side, Ryan Lochte has held his cards very close to his chest after a gas station incident in Rio that created an international scandal that overshadowed many of the athletes' performances at the Rio games. Instead of giving a wholehearted apology and coming totally clean in an interview with Matt Lauer last week, Lochte would only go so far as to apologize for "over-exaggerating" parts of his story.Of course, none of us were there to see what really happened at that Rio gas station. Clearly, the four Olympic swimmers had been out partying until the predawn hours and were intoxicated. But, we'll never know all the details of the fiasco. That said, there are lessons we can take away from how Lochte handled the fallout of this scandal. 

Regardless of what actually occurred at the gas station, I feel empathy for the emotional suffering Ryan Lochte must be experiencing in his darkest hour. I wish him the very best. While some of the satires and spoofs of his interview with Matt Lauer are funny, they must make him feel even more ashamed. 

I hope that being thrust into the abyss of public shame and embarrassment will ultimately prove to be a life-affirming and transformative experience for Lochte, much as it was for Phelps. Only time will tell. As Phelps said, after winning his 23rd and final gold medal, “I don’t see this as the end of a career but as the beginning of a new chapter.”

Embracing Vulnerability Is Key to Living Wholeheartedly and Feeling Connected

 ArtDesign Illustration/Shutterstock
Source: ArtDesign Illustration/Shutterstock

As a retired athlete—who spent decades training and competing on a global stage—I am simpatico with the position that both Lochte and Phelps find themselves in today, on a variety of levels. 

After much contemplation, I decided last week that one thing that sets Phelps and Lochte apart is how they handled their darkest hour. Phelps ultimately embraced vulnerability, while Lochte seemed too ashamed to make himself vulnerable about his embellishment of being held at gunpoint in a robbery. 

As Brené Brown has informed us through her writings and brilliant TED lecture, the key to feeling worthy of love and belonging is the willingness to live wholeheartedly and to make yourself vulnerable by letting the outside world see the chinks in your armor. I examined the Lochte debacle through the lens of Brown's hypothesis in a previous Psychology Today blog post, "Deconstructing Ryan Lochte's Shame and Fear of Vulnerability."

In an attempt to put my money where my mouth was (and not appear to be a hypocrite), while writing about the power of vulnerability in relation to Phelps's and Lochte's alcohol-fueled run-ins with the law, I purposely revealed some potentially dark truths about myself. 

The most valuable lessons I've learned by making myself vulnerable in a very public forum over the past few weeks is the confirmation that Brené Brown is right. Yes! Making myself vulnerable by discussing things that I've been ashamed about in the past elicited a mind-boggling amount of positive support from friends, family, and complete strangers. This fostered a feeling of connectedness and relief.

Instead of being shunned after I admitted to a variety of character flaws or traits that might have made me feel unworthy of love and belonging in the past—the opposite occurred. In response to making myself publicly vulnerable and admitting I was "flawed," dozens of people I hadn't heard from in years actually came out of the woodwork via social media and email with kindhearted messages of support.  

It became clear that remaining guarded or putting on airs would have stifled this sense of connection with people, many of whom were probably there all along to embrace me with open arms if I'd let my guard down earlier. By sticking my neck out—and publicly admitting that I have many chinks in my armor—I was able to fortify a genuine sense of human connection and belonging.

What Is Wabi-Sabi? Nothing Lasts. Nothing Is Finished. Nothing Is Perfect.

Source: ArtDesign Illustration/Shutterstock

In Japanese culture, there is a concept called wabi-sabi, which represents an  aesthetic and mindset based on embracing imperfection. Wabi-sabi reminds us that nonconformity and irregularity can be much more eye opening than cookie-cutter perfection. The roots of wabi-sabi can be traced to the core tenets of Buddhist teachings.

Among artists and potters, wabi-sabi is sometimes described as flawed or quirky beauty. Some design characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include nonconformity, irregularity, asymmetry, simplicity, and an unspoken appreciation of the organic fluidity of the constantly evolving. 

The words wabi and sabi are difficult to translate. That said, the connotations of wabi can be described as quirks, glitches, and anomalies that add uniqueness to something or someone. Sabi could be seen as the beauty of an individual or object that is embellished with a unique patina that comes with age. In a person, it reflects how myriad diverse life experiences have shaped your psyche and gestalt.

I love the idea of wabi-sabi as a way to take away the power of shame to make you feel "less than." By consciously making yourself vulnerable through the act of publicly acknowledging specific traits that could be viewed as imperfections—or genuinely expressing remorse for specific behavior you regret—it's possible to achieve atonement and complete your archetypal hero's or heroine's journey by returning home. 

Historically, as a fundamental aspect of Zen Buddhism, embracing imperfection was honored as a tantamount first step to satori, or enlightenment. The concept of satori refers to the enlightening experience of kenshō, which implies "seeing into one's true nature or essence." According to D. T. Suzuki, satori is, in many ways, the lifeblood of Zen Buddhism. Over the centuries, the concept of wabi-sabi has evolved to become more playful and lighthearted. 

You don't have to be a Zen Buddhist living in a monastery to embrace the power of wabi-sabi. For example, by tapping into the essence of my self-nature and exposing my vulnerabilities—by shouting out, along with Gloria Gaynor, "I Am What I Am"—I've found liberation from self-loathing. I believe that I'm OK just the way I am. Nonetheless, I know that I must always strive to become a more evolved human being. Life is a work in progress for all of us. 

Interestingly, the older I get, the more I realize that maintaining equanimity and not holding a grudge against myself (or others) for being less than perfect is of paramount importance. Wabi-sabi is helpful for achieving this, too.  

Conclusion: The Concept of Wabi-Sabi Applies to People From All Walks of Life

In the world of pop music, Madonna hits the wabi-sabi nail on the head in her song "Beautiful Scars." This anthem is about declaring your imperfections as a fundamental part of embodying your true nature and feeling worthy of love and belonging. The message of this song captures the essence of wabi-sabi. In "Beautiful Scars," Madonna sings,

“Just take me with all my stupid flaws. I’ll never be as perfect as you want me to be. Take me, with all of my beautiful scars. I won’t apologize for being myself. I love you the way that you are . . . Don’t judge me, although I’m incomplete. My imperfections make me unique. That's my belief. I come to you with all my flaws. With all of my beautiful scars."

Richard R. Powell, author of Wabi Sabi Simple: Create Beauty. Value Imperfection. Live Deeply, once said, "Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."

Looking at the universal power of wabi-sabi through the lens of Olympic athletes, Brené Brown, Zen Buddhists, Madonna, and my own personal experience will, I hope, inspire you to make yourself more vulnerable and to live more wholeheartedly. I believe that wabi-sabi can be an antidote to shame by making you feel simultaneously more connected to your core self and to others on a visceral level. 

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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