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Kintsugi: The art of being broken


Kintsugi: The art of being broken

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The ancient Japanese art of kintsugi — which repairs broken ceramics with gold to make them stronger and more beautiful — has become a powerful metaphor for self-development.

Like the golden fault lines running through kintsugi, just as we are broken, we can be repaired — and the manner of that repair, the learning in that growth, becomes a strong and beautiful part of who we are.

Kintsugi is the ancient art of fixing broken pottery with gold. Dating back to the 1400s, it was thought to be the invention of Japanese shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who charged his craftsmen with finding a more thoughtful, aesthetically pleasing way of fixing a broken tea bowl, rather than the traditional method of using ugly metal staples. Using precious metals, including gold, Japanese craftsmen started to bond together pieces of pottery by drawing attention to, rather than away from, the breaks, which in turn had the effect of making the break the most important part of the piece itself.

Translating literally as “golden joinery”, this beautiful concept from Japanese history is now considered an important art form, but also one that teaches us to embrace the beauty in our imperfections. Kintsugi reminds us that something can break and yet still be beautiful, and that, once repaired, it is stronger at the broken places. This is an incredible metaphor for healing and recovery from adversity. “The philosophy behind it goes much deeper than a simple artistic practice,” explains Celine Santini, author of Kintsugi: Finding Strength in Imperfection. “It has to do with the symbolism of healing and resilience. First taken care of and then honoured, the broken object accepts its past and paradoxically becomes more robust, more beautiful and more precious than before it was broken.”

A metaphor for life

“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen

When something breaks, it is changed forever. Shape, structure, form and function may all be affected, and the way it is put back together, the bonds forged to fix it, become as much a part of its new incarnation, as its older parts.

As a metaphor for personal development and healing, kintsugi is a powerful symbol, and is becoming an increasingly popular theme in the world of wellbeing and psychology. In an age when we are all too focused on perfection and strength, kintsugi teaches us that imperfection and fragility are two things to be celebrated. Increasingly, you can find these concepts being translated into life-coaching, counselling, art therapy, sports theory and team coaching, and even business management techniques and self-development.

Our bodies and minds have an innate drive to repair, and this forces us to keep going, and to recognise that this repair is as important as the break itself.

In her 2018 book Kintsugi Wellness: The Japanese Art of Nourishing Mind, Body and Spirit, bestselling author, chef and health journalist Candice Kumai uses the concept of kintsugi to provide a road map for a life lived better. Returning to her Japanese heritage, Kumai’s book features recipes and practical tools for living well and celebrating the things that have brought us to where we are now. “Kintsugi connected me to my ancestors and helped me to find myself when I was lost, broken and unable to get back to my roots,” she says. “It’s beautiful to think of this practice as a metaphor for your life, to see the broken, difficult or painful parts of you as radiating light, gold and beauty.”

For Santini, the concept of kintsugi is also a very powerful metaphor. “Kintsugi is the perfect symbol of the famous sentence: ‘What does not kill you makes you stronger’,” she says. “And it works very well because it implies such a hopeful message, which can be applied to any kind of issue. A person going through very tough ordeal can remember that they have survived all of their worst experiences up until now … and are still standing.”

Psychologist Tomás Navarro, who published his book Kintsugi: Embrace Your Imperfections and Find Happiness — the Japanese Way in 2018, says the core message for him is about using kintsugi to develop resilience and strength, giving us the tools to overcome adversity and not to be frightened of it. Navarro uses the philosophy of kintsugi as a way to provide practical applications for problems in our lives, from career disappointment to heartbreak or illness. “Everyone faces suffering,” he says. “But it is the way in which we overcome our troubles, and heal our emotional wounds, that is key. Far from avoiding living, we must learn to repair ourselves after an adversity.”

An authentic life

“My scars show pain and suffering, but they also show my will to survive. They’re part of my history that’ll always be there.” ~ Cheryl Rainfield

Kintsugi encourages us to live a full, rich life because we are not afraid of the things that might break us. Just as a ceramic is fragile, beautiful and strong, so are we. And just as ceramics can break, so too can they be repaired. “Ceramics and life can break into a thousand pieces, but that should be no reason to stop living life intensely, working intensely and keeping alive all our hopes and dreams,” says Navarro. “Adversity is nothing more than a challenge, so do some training to overcome it.”

In truth, living intensely and running head first into your life, without fear, instead of backing away from it, is what ensures we are living lives of true depth and experience. But living this way means opening yourself up to pain. Where kintsugi comes in, is in recognising and accepting the role of adversity in your life. For many people, a moment of crisis — the loss of a job, a divorce, a serious accident — can, with hindsight, be a powerful motive for change and the chance of a new, happier, more deeply lived life.

Kumai explains that the pain we feel as we face challenges is one of the most important parts of the human existence. “The realisation is that pain awakens you and makes you feel alive. It will remind you of what is important and how without darkness, light cannot exist.”

Kintsugi makes us strong

“My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds … they remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present.” ~ Steve Goodier

Repair after adversity is like therapy. It gives us the tools and the drive to heal, again and again. Our bodies and minds have an innate drive to repair, and this forces us to keep going, and to recognise that this repair is as important as the break itself. As we grow through the challenges of our own lives, we can make changes to ensure we survive, thrive and flourish. “Admiring the beauty of a finalised piece of kintsugi art is to remember that we too can be broken and repaired in a stronger and more beautiful way,” says Santini. “And that we can gain from our experience, however awful and painful that may be.”

The precious nature of the gold used to fuse pieces together signifies the strength, confidence and value we should put into repairing our own breaks.

It is important that the method of repair in kintsugi is gold — strong, but beautiful at the same time, and most importantly, noticeable. The precious nature of the gold used to fuse pieces together signifies the strength, confidence and value we should put into repairing our own breaks. “In order to heal and feel whole, we have to do the work,” says Kumai. “For many years, I went through life with parts of my heart that were broken. I wasn’t aware of it then, but I wasn’t taking proper care of myself. I constantly felt as if I needed to keep going. My experience of learning how to put myself back together made me stronger, tougher and more resilient.”

Kintsugi marks our progress

“Some people see scars, and it is wounding they remember. To me they are proof of the fact that there is healing.” ~ Linda Hogan

As we grow in strength, we also start to chart our own journeys. Just like scars on our bodies, the golden joinery of kintsugi ensures we do not forget not only what lead us to this point, but what we have done to move forward. One of the key points about kintsugi repair is that instead of attempting to disguise or minimise damage, every effort is made to celebrate the breaks and the bonds, to draw the eye to what was broken — and how it was mended.

“We shouldn’t conceal our repairs, they are proof of our strength,” says Navarro, who explains in his book that failing to heal and to repair leaves a wound or a heartbreak as your guiding compass, as your life’s vital reference point. This traumatic event will then govern most of your choices and you will live a life fearful and anxious. But having the courage to seek help, to allow the raw wound of adversity to become a scar of healing sends a different message.

Kintsugi teaches you to be kind and makes you beautiful

“If your heart is broken, make art with the pieces.” ~ Shane Koyczan

The real power of kintsugi lies in the beauty of both what you have lost and what you have gained. Kintsugi shows us that scars and breaks are important. We shouldn’t be looking to cover them up, but instead to recognise and acknowledge both the part they have played in shaping us, and the work we have done to fix them. “Instead of throwing it away or hiding the wounds, paradoxically, the object thus becomes more interesting, more unique and more precious, for having been broken,” says Santini.

This is true of pottery, and it is true of people. Like the golden fault lines running through kintsugi, just as we are broken, we can be repaired — and the manner of that repair, the learning in that growth, becomes a strong and beautiful part of who we are. “The first time I saw a piece of kintsugi … It was like an epiphany. I felt I could relate so well to the concept, because it symbolised my whole life,” says Santini. “I too had been broken, but I was still there, repaired, proud of my experiences and my scars. And stronger than ever.”

Recognising your beauty links deeply to self-worth. In Kumai’s book she lays out clear guidelines for self-care, from eating right and exercising to practising meditation and sleeping well. Kumai explains that too many people feel broken or damaged — or simply not good enough — too much of the time. “We’re so busy being hard on ourselves that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we are also deserving of the self-care it takes to maintain our health and our happiness,” she says. “Look deep inside of your heart, because it’s full of those golden cracks, where the light, the grace, the humility comes in. We are not perfect, yet we are kintsugi.”

Celebrating imperfections

For the masters of kintsugi, a reconstructed piece is a symbol of fragility, strength and beauty. It is celebrated as an art form not because of the craft involved in the creation of it, but because of the process involved in repairing it. This is what makes kintsugi pottery beautiful. “Golden repair celebrates our imperfections,” says Kumai. “It teaches us that we are more beautiful for our flaws, our battle scars, our lessons learned.”

As people, the things in life that are sent to try us can also be the things that truly make us. They create golden threads of experience that run like fault lines across our souls, pushing us to extremes so that we emerge bolder, wiser and more beautiful for the healing we have done. “We humans are fragile; susceptible to breaks and knocks. Discover how to pick up the pieces and repair what may have been damaged in your life. Find out how to embrace your emotional scars and make them beautiful. They are proof that you have suffered; let them remind you that you are strong,” concludes Navarro.