Art credit: Sudha Neelam

A gut feeling: Finding beauty in the wabi-sabi way

Sudha Neelam

The classic notion of beauty revolves around the idea of immaculate perfection and an appealing portrayal of elegance. While we aspire to surround ourselves with beautiful and perfect things, ancient Japanese philosophers created a unique concept of imperfection called wabi-sabi.

Leonard Koren, the author of Wabi-Sabi for artists, designers, poets and philosophers came up with a rather poignant definition for the term, “Wabi-Sabi is the beauty of all things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. The words 'Wabi 'and ‘Sabi’ are conceived separately and mean different things. Wabi is referred to as living a quiet, rustic, simple life close to the elements of nature. The word Sabi is more descriptive; it refers to a beauty that comes with weathering and ageing, it’s an appreciation of the circle of life. Wabi-Sabi embraces the idea of finding beauty in subtle imperfections, asymmetry and chaos.”

It is often described as a feeling that is experienced rather than a concept with a rational definition. Perhaps the closest English synonyms to describe the idea of wabi-sabi would be ‘simple,’ ‘rustic,’ ‘unconventional beauty’ or ‘unsophisticated.’

The Japanese lifestyle, at a glance, may appear to be filled with precision and perfection. However, the ancient Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi is all about experiencing the pleasure of embracing the imperfect beauty around us.

The subtle influence of wabi-sabi is seen in the Japanese Zen gardens, in their pottery and even in their famous Sakura or cherry blossoms. Every year, folks in and around Japan wait with bated breath for the beautiful sakura blooms. The silent magic of the changing seasons weaves through the strings of Sakura, taking us on a merry-go-round of emotions. Usually, March to April is considered the peak season for these beautiful blooms. At times, the Sakura will bloom a little too early, or they may be quickly washed away by the rain. Sometimes they take a little longer to bloom. But they seldom last longer than a week or so once they do. The beauty of the Sakura blossoms is not just their bright and vibrant colours, it’s also their elusiveness. These flowers not only usher in spring, but they are also embodiments of the wabi-sabi philosophy. They teach us to appreciate the transient and fleeting beauty of changing seasons.

The aesthetics of wabi-sabi are also observed in the Japanese tea ceremony. The tools and utensils used in the tea ceremony are often rustic, imperfect and mismatched. Another Japanese practice, which perhaps is the quintessential example of wabi-sabi, is kintsugi. Kintsugi is the art of piecing together broken shards of ceramic or pottery with gold-dusted lacquer. Kintsugi cherishes the broken pieces and appreciates the beauty of the flaws.

Wabi-sabi is a way of life, with emphasis on experiencing and listening to the beauty around us without cascading into the abyss of perfection.

This idea of imperfection and chaos may not be to everyone’s liking. However, if we look around, it’s hard to ignore that we all thrive in a world of wabi–sabi. A world of uncertainties, imperfections and vagueness. I believe this concept of wabi-sabi closely resembles the aesthetics of the human body, more specifically our gastrointestinal tract or the gut for short.

The science and artistry of our gut

Our world is filled with an artistic display of colours, patterns and textures. Long before words and language evolved, humans communicated through pictures and paintings. Often when words fail to articulate our thoughts, we resort to art. Art can bridge the gap between reality and our whimsical thoughts and vivid imaginations.

While we cherish the art around us, we harbour our own army of micro artists — the gut microbiome. The gut of the human body nourishes a secret garden that is home to trillions of microbes. The number of microbes we carry in our bodies outnumbers the number of cells. We have close to 30 trillion cells and 39 trillion microbes in our bodies. Because of their small size, these microbes only take up 1-3 percent of our body weight. The microbes in our bodies, especially the ones in the gut, influence our emotions and wellbeing from the time we are born. The microorganisms in our gut are arranged in asymmetric, mismatched patterns, creating a wabi-sabi masterpiece of symbolism where the microorganisms benefit from the gut and the gut benefits from the microorganisms.

Esoteric gut feelings

When artists create a painting, they use different colours to create a vibrant, joyous image or make a melancholic statement. Take a look at this image. It’s filled with bright colours, cheerful patterns and might bring a smile to your face.

If we change the colour palette of this image and add more tinted shades of beige and brown, the ambience of the image becomes more sombre. Instead of spreading cheer, this may make us more nostalgic, taking us down memory lane and reminding us of unfinished dreams.

Art credit: Sudha Neelam

The gut and its micro artists are akin to the colours of a painting. They can either paint the gut with cheerful tones or douse it with tinted shades that indicate gloom. These microbes have the ability to control our thoughts, moods and our general well-being.

The importance of the gut microbiome became a subject of discussion when the human microbiome project was established in 2008 by NIH (National Institute of Health), USA. A series of research studies conducted as part of this project showed a strong correlation between the gut microbiome and our brains, referred to as the gut-brain axis. These studies have shown that the number, composition, and type of bacteria can significantly influence our metabolism, moods, and ability to fight diseases. The microorganisms in our gut release chemicals known as neurochemicals. These neurochemicals are processed by our brains and used to regulate basic physiological processes like mood and memory.

Serotonin is one such neurochemical that acts as our body’s natural mood stabilizer. It regulates our emotions, keeps us calm and focused, and reduces anxiety. It also helps in maintaining a normal sleep cycle, aids in digestion and maintenance of regular bowel movements. Serotonin levels are found to be reduced in people suffering from depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Nearly 95 per cent of our body’s serotonin levels are maintained in our gut, and the gut microbiome regulates these levels. Research studies conducted in mice have identified a specific bacterial species in the gut called Turicibacter sanguinis, which stimulates the gut to secrete serotonin.

Our feelings are tethered to the artistry of our microbiome. This cornucopia of emotions and microbes lingering in the nooks and crannies of our gut paint a picture of elusive beauty, which is the very essence of wabi-sabi.

Our diet and lifestyle: inspirations for the art of microbiome

Art has the ability to make us feel, it touches our emotions and makes us vulnerable and human. Any form of art starts with a burst of creative inspiration. The inspiration can stem from our thoughts, surroundings and experiences. The artists in our microbiome get their inspiration from our diet and lifestyle choices. How we nurture their creativity can influence our physical and emotional well-being.

Our gut microbiome continues to evolve throughout our life. It changes depending on whether you are on a vegan diet or a protein-rich diet. Based on the environment you live in, your surroundings and the weather patterns in your area, your microbiome continues to evolve.

The micro artists of our microbiome help break down the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates from our diet into essential nutrients our body needs. In the process of breaking down the food we consume, the micro-artists in our gut generate a versatile palette of by-products. The nature of these by-products depends on the type of food we consume. Let us take the example of the lactobacillus which is found in most probiotics and dairy products. The byproducts generated by lactobacillus can boost our immune responses and even help us combat viral infections.

Not all by-products are beneficial, some bacteria can generate harmful toxins. A diet rich in saturated fats will shift the balance in our gut. Intake of high-fat diets favours the growth of harmful bacteria as opposed to a low fat-high fibre diet. Therefore, maintaining a diverse, imperfect yet thriving population of beneficial microbes in the gut is important for our well-being. Several studies have shown that an imbalance in the beneficial and harmful gut bacteria can lead to what is referred to as gut dysbiosis. This gut dysbiosis or imbalance in the microbiome is also associated with weight gain.

Diet and lifestyle choices have a direct impact on how our microbiome and its artists thrive. We should be mindful of what we eat, how we prepare our food and how much of it we consume. Celebrating different flavours in our food, embracing the benefits of a healthy diet and being conscious of the emotional energy in our food allows us to experience culinary bliss; and bring in the spirit of wabi-sabi into our lives.

Art credit: Sudha Neelam

The aesthetics of wabi-sabi

When we look at this image, we notice layers, colours, textures and patterns. It’s abstract, asymmetric yet beautiful with its precise imperfections. This is an artistic representation of our gut and its resident artists, the microbiome.

Living in tune with our surroundings, being aware of our transient presence in this world and embracing the chaos around us captures the essence of wabi-sabi. The essence of wabi-sabi resonates in the strength and wisdom of our gut microbiome. We may not be able to visualise the beauty and diversity portrayed by these micro artists, but we can experience the feelings they generate with their artistry. These microbes are always in sync with their surroundings and the art they create will affect us throughout our lives.

So, the next time you refer to your gut feelings, remember that you are referring to the aesthetic array of microorganisms in your gut and their ability to control your emotions. Humans and their gut microbiome are an abstract work of art, unfinished and perpetually in progress. In the end, we all harbour a surreal poetic reflection of the wabi-sabi philosophy within us.

About the author

Sudha Neelam graduated from the University of North Texas, Dallas, USA with a Ph.D. in Biomedical sciences. She is currently working as a research scientist in the field of cell biology. She is interested in studying the mechanisms of protein synthesis; how misfolded proteins cause diseases and how therapeutics can intervene to correct the damage caused by misfolded proteins. Apart from science and writing, Sudha loves to cook. She also enjoys reading, biking and traveling.

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