2019-04-22 concepts

Wabi-sabi, aphantasia

Hey all -

Last newsletter I waxed poetic about Eastern philosophy, which is nice for a change, but it’s not my favorite tone honestly. I think if you truly subscribe to Eastern philosophy, you’re actually quite silly and playful a lot of the time. It’s okay to look dumb and make mistakes! That’s the whole point!

Sometimes I wonder if the most enlightened Buddhist monks, sitting in their little monasteries atop the world’s tallest mountains, are ever so humbly cracking the most filthy toilet jokes.

I wouldn’t be surprised.

+ mental models

* Wabi-sabi

A few weeks ago, I was walking in Stamford with my mom - who’s Japanese - and she pointed out something surprisingly banal about the shrubbery: it was all in a straight line.

Well, what else could it be, I wondered? Not a straight line? That wouldn’t make any sense.

She then pointed out that, in Japan, you don’t have the same aesthetic when it comes to straight lines. Straight lines don’t exist in nature: they’re unnatural, artificial. They’re too perfect.

In Japanese aesthetics, you have the opposite. Lines aren’t straight, shapes aren’t symmetrical, objects aren’t shiny and new. Things are imperfect.

Well that just blew my mind. It always seemed very obvious to me that there’s just one way things should be. They should be new, clean, orderly, symmetrical, unchipped, unscratched. They should be perfect.

Look around you. Isn’t that what all this stuff is trying to be - perfect?

A new phone is new precisely because it’s perfect. It’s sacred, pure, divinely crafted. And the moment it’s scratched, it’s not. Suddenly it’s somehow tainted, impure, defective. And it’s only a matter of time before you get a new phone, a perfect phone, a replacement for the old phone.

Of course, this never quite sat right with me. Aren’t things always just one near-miss away from imperfection? Won’t we spend our whole lives walking on eggshells in pursuit of perfection?

So when I started researching wabi-sabi, I was blown away. Here was an aesthetic philosophy that was entirely different from what I ever thought was “normal.” Wabi-sabi elevated the irregular, the austere, the plain, the worn, the tattered, the understated, the natural. Wabi-sabi not only accepted imperfection, it celebrated it.

Those scratches, those scars, those little imperfections - that’s the good stuff.

Now it’s not hard to see how wabi-sabi was influenced, largely but not exclusively, by Buddhism. Nothing is perfect, nothing is complete, nothing is permanent - and that’s life - so celebrate it.


* Aphantasia

Now that we’re done with all that philosophy stuff, let’s get to something a bit more fun.

I’d like you to imagine a red triangle. Close your eyes and imagine a red triangle.

Really focus.

Do you see a red triangle? How red is it? Can you make it blue, or purple? What if I ask you to imagine a beach?

If you can do this - and easily no less - you’re probably “normal.” You don’t have what some people would call “aphantasia.”

In other words, you’re able to see things in your mind’s eye, almost like seeing with your real eyes - except from your mind. You can visualize before you a vivid canvas with anything you choose to paint on it.

Well, good for you.

Because to me, that’s damn near magical. When I first discovered that people weren’t just loosely speaking in metaphor - that they were literally seeing things - that was a big surprise to me. I know we’re all different, and we all have different ways of seeing the world, but I didn’t appreciate just how differently we’d actually see the world. That’s pretty different!

This helps me better understand why people may have starkly different worldviews. They may be literally seeing a different view of the world. And so, for them, it may be okay to have that worldview!

Now I don’t think this “condition” is all bad, nor am I sure it’s even a real “condition,” nor am I sure that I even have it.

But if you’re curious what the world looks like for someone with aphantasia, I highly recommend this essay by Blake Ross. It’s engaging, it’s fun and it really helps you visualize just what it’s like to live with something like aphantasia. (Unless, of course, you are aphantasic, in which case I am just speaking metaphorically.)

Thanks for reading,

Alex