Kintsugi & Ma
The stories I write come to me when I am by myself, out in the wilderness, at that moment when I let go and start embracing the solitude and welcoming the silence. When I connect with the magnitude of nature and humbly bow to its wisdom. Unfortunately, I haven’t had many of those moments this past year. While I did spend some time exploring the old-growth forest around Port Renfrew at the beginning of 2020, all my other expeditions were canceled: Haida Gwaii, Bella Bella, and Northern British Columbia. So were my trips to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Las Vegas for public speaking and book events. I couldn’t even just grab my kayak and paddle up the Inside Passage. My kayaks are stored at my brother-in-law, right across the border (20min from my place), which has been closed since March.
For the first time in my career as a professional photographer, I added only one fine art image to my portfolio. For the first time in my career as a solo wilderness explorer, I didn’t venture out on the water even once.
Instead of reaching out and seeking the wild, I had to stay put and let nature reach in. Instead of enjoying the unexpected discoveries that come with traveling, I had to find joy in the mundane and the routine. Instead of riding the uncertainty of life, I found myself locked-in because of it. Instead of hitting the road and exploring new realms, I was forced to stay city-bound, re-allocating my energy to volunteering and delivering food to those in need. And instead of pouring blood and sweat pushing myself to access the inaccessible, I started donating to the blood bank and raised funds for the frontliners.
Needless to say, this past year has been quite a drastic change and a challenge.
Yet, amidst the doldrums, I found myself having twice the kind of life epiphanies that are usually reserved for my time in nature. And that in itself is one of my main take-aways from 2020. In my book FEEL THE WILD, I wrote a story titled SHADOWS, looking at what is to be gained from embracing the darkness of life and opening ourselves to being vulnerable:
“In the shadows, we might lose our sight, but we gain more intimate senses. Our hearing opens up. Our smell tunes in. Control gives way to intuition. Instead of going outward, we must journey inward. Instead of reaching out and introducing ourselves, we must become vulnerable and let the world in. In the darkness we process, contemplate, and dream; in the absence of light, all and everything is equal.”Feel the Wild, Daniel Fox
It is without argument that our world is going through a profound transformation where the things we took for granted are being threatened. But transformation doesn’t happen on a linear level. Rather, it finds itself within a rhythm, a cyclic movement between two states, like the ebb and flow of a tide. And in between those states, there is a moment where the energy is neither going one way or the other (slack water*). One could say that when experiencing this transition, time seems to come to a halt, literally. It wouldn’t be wrong to assume such. The Japanese have in fact a word to express this concept – MA.
The idea of MA is that we need to create interruptions or absences that allow for differences to be reconciled. Designing for MA is about creating moments of awareness and quiet… Being intentional about creating spaces that allow for reflection and integration might allow us to better address some of the contradictions and tensions of modern life. The difference of opinion rarely seems to coexist peaceably, and transitions from home to work to home again are often marked by crowds and stress”The Japanese words for “space” could change your view of the world.
“Ma has also been described as “an emptiness full of possibilities, like a promise yet to be fulfilled”, and as “the silence between the notes which make the music”.When Less is More: Japanese Concept of “MA”, Minimalism and Beyond.
Visualize when throwing a ball up in the air. As the ball rises up, it slowly decreases its speed, and right before it starts falling down, there is a micro-moment where nothing is happening. The ball is neither going up nor down. It exists in this place of nothingness and infinite possibilities. It is this emptiness that calls for creation. It is everything that can be but has yet to fulfill. It is not a feeling, but a space, and the most powerful place to be.
This is where we are and are going through right now, collectively. As one chapter ends, and before the next one begins, we are forced to take a deep breath and reassess how we want to move forward.
*Slack water is a short period in a body of tidal water when the water is completely unstressed, and there is no movement either way in the tidal stream, and which occurs before the direction of the tidal stream reverses.
For some weeks I have been contemplating the philosophical depth of kintsugi, the Japanese art form that repairs broken pottery by pasting back together the pieces with lacquer dusted or mixed with gold. On the surface, the idea of kintsugi is that an object shouldn’t be discarded because it is cracked or fractured. The breakage shouldn’t be disguised but emphasized. There should be no attempt to hide the damage but rather to illuminate it.
“This can be seen as a rationale for keeping an object around even after it has broken and as a justification of kintsugi itself, highlighting the cracks and repairs as simply an event in the life of an object rather than allowing its service to end at the time of its damage or breakage, and can be seen as a variant of the adage “Waste not, want not”Exploring Japanese Art and Aesthetic as inspiration for emotionally durable design
A similar philosophy, Wabi-sabi, embraces the flawed and imperfect, inviting us to find purpose and value in the impermanent and incomplete. But kintsugi goes even further. Suggesting that those scars and repairs are actually more valuable than the original creation. Using gold as the mean through which the pieces are held together tells us that the original only exist so that it can be broken. By itself, the creation might have a purpose but with little value. Only when fractured can it truly rise above its purpose and become more valuable. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
So is our lives.
Our bodies are simple vessels for life to propagate. By themselves, they hold little value other than for their biological purpose. What brings value (or misery) to our lives is all the suffering along the way, the breakage, and the way we put the pieces back together. That theme was at the center of the television show Westworld – suffering is a cornerstone of our awareness and it is essential for the existence of consciousness. You can read more about what I wrote here: What Does The Fox Say? SUFFERING
I was sitting at my computer, staring at a photo of Planet Earth while construction work outside my place was exasperating my senses. For days I had been looking at different styles of kintsugi pottery: flat bowls, round bowls, plates, vases, and cups. Perhaps as a way to escape the auditory aggression or maybe because I had been staring at the screen for too long, but my sight started to blur as if my eyes were trying to see beyond the image, beyond the screen, just like when looking at an autostereogram. The earth turned into a fuzzy sphere of blue, white, and brown colors. After a few hypnotizing minutes, out of this fuzziness, an image appeared and along with it an unmistakable clarity.
The EARTH is KINTSUGI!
All those broken continents glued together with the most valuable substance in the Universe – water. The planet is a giant pottery that keeps breaking, again and again, every time repairing itself, the water filling up the cracks and connecting all the pieces. As unpleasant the thought of it might be, this, is what life is about. This, is what our lives are about. They are meant to be broken so that we can learn, evolve, grow, create value, come together, and develop empathy.
In 2020, the world broke. It is no secret that the cracks had appeared a long time ago. It might be easy to blame ourselves for not acting pre-emptively, but the incentives to do so were few and little. Anthropologists will confirm, evolution has nothing to do with being proactive. Things happen. If they happen often enough, then we change. If they don’t, well we worry about other more important issues. It is also how Nature works. It throws a bunch of stuff on the wall to see what sticks and what doesn’t. Then it goes with it until it breaks then readjust. It is not about being rational, but practical. And the stubbornness we show for not listening is the same stubbornness that allows us to go off the beaten path, innovate, and make the impossible possible. You can’t have one without the other. Yes, let’s learn from our mistakes but let’s stop the blame game. Let’s stop pointing the finger at the past instead let’s point it forward and into the future.
History, (not just our own, but the planet and the Universe) is filled with moments like what we are going through right now. It is not the first time and won’t be the last time. Even if we do everything in our power to control the outcome and manipulate the parts, there will always be times when the system falls apart.
If there is one major lesson from all this, is that instead of creating static, hollow, and naive solutions, we must accept the dynamics of evolution (change/transformation) and the realities of social sciences (since we are a social species). We must humble ourselves and move forward by applying the FOX rules: Embrace DISRUPTION, Become RESILIENT, Nurture GROWTH, and Flow with the RHYTHM.
This year, and the years to come, just like we have done in the past after every tragedy, we will come together and repair what has been broken. We will reassess our priorities and be reminded of what really matters. Through this process, we will grow and become more resilient. There will be some wonderful and some awful. We will witness the beauty of life and its ugliness. But just like with a kintsugi pottery bowl that is fixed with gold, what will rise from the ashes will have more value (I am not talking economics here) than what we have today.