Kintsugi: Learning To Love The Critical

Why do whistleblowers get such a hard time ? The philosophy of Kintsugi may help us appreciate the value of the critical even when it is directed at something we love; as such we can learn to love the process of finding problems because they lead to improvement. It is hard sometimes to not get caught up on the politics of group think and remain honest and true to the reality that you experience. I certainly have found this in both developing the Ragged University project and being honest in my own personal setting. I have long struggled with the uncomfortable nature of being critical especially when I worry that I may be upsetting some constructive setting or community.



An example and metaphor is that situation where you are at a birthday party in someone’s house and one person in the setting is being particularly toxic but outside of anyone else’s earshot, what is the correct way to deal with this? Often the ‘British way’ is to suppress it, put on a stiff upper lip and continue smiling – ‘grin and bear it’ I believe the expression is. But this is classic head in the sand stuff, and this way lets all kind of problems flourish.


As well as this, so often issues get built up into ‘virtual sacred cows’; issues that nobody wants to touch because they are in close proximity with something that we care deeply about. For example, when the ‘whistleblower’ issues finally surfaced in the National Health Service, it turned out that there was much oppression and negativity surrounding the idea of breaking rank in professional circles. Whistleblowers are often made outcasts and marginalised for raising vital issues central to preventing the decay of their vocation and public life.


A good examination of this troubling aspect of suppressing problems, which often are symptoms of systems failure, is the ‘Freedom To Speak Up’ report written by Sir Robert Francis QC. It feels problematic to criticise the NHS when it is so badly in need of support, however, what should be understood is that the right kind of critical thinking is the support the NHS needs to function properly.



Freedom to speak up report
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We dare not criticise a doctor for they represent the sacred profession of medicine.  It is sacred because we need it and in its purest ideals it also embodies societal values which transcend self centred ones. This, of course, is not a sustainable way to foster the ideals which benefit everyone; when there is an instance of a bad doctor, they must be highlighted as such – just as when there is a bad driver their license should be revoked.


Whistleblowing is a necessary and important part of an accountable, transparent society, and those with the courage to raise such critiques should be supported and lauded for the character it takes to see things with an independent eye.


Kintsugi bowl

How To Love The Imperfection and Learn to Be

When I was introduced to the Japanese art of Kintsugi by John Morrison at Napier University I was powerfully affected. He was talking about it in context with how we view critical thinking. His discovery of Kintsugi appealed to his appreciation of design and aesthetics. He had an eloquent and nuanced way of approaching participatory action research.


On the surface this educator was talking about a tradition in Japan of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. Ceremonial tea vesicles are held as very sacred there, and on the occasions where something which has been serving tea in ceremonies for hundreds of years gets broken, it used to get fixed with iron staples which was ugly.


One suggested origin of the art form is that it arose during the reign of the Japanese shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, a hereditary military governor. The story goes that he sent a damaged Chinese tea bowl back to China for repair it was reconstructed with awkward metal staples which were not pleasing to the aesthetics. This launched Japanese craftsmen on a quest for a new form of repair that could make a broken piece look as good as new, or better.


The craft holds within it a philosophy which treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object. Each chip and breakage is a part of a rich story of the life of the object. It treats of the damage as an artifact of change which reveals its qualities rather than a deterioration and something to be disguised.


During Yoshimasa’s reign Japan saw the growth of the Higashiyama Culture which drew its ideals and aesthetics from Zen Buddhism and the concept of wabi-sabi; an aesthetic embracing transience and imperfection. At the same time the rise of the Sado (tea ceremony), Ikebana or Kado (flower arrangement), Noh (Theatre), and Indian ink painting.


Wabi-Sabi is a philosophy reflecting the transient or imperfect. In the grain of a handle is every moment it has been taken in hand; implicit in the philosophy is that the marks and wear found as part of an object tells a story of value. When something breaks it is often at the weak point(s) of the structure, and the repair process is a visible narrative of circumstance and the skills applied. The mindset challenges the reduction of all things to utility, and opens out a view that the life of an object continues after it has been damaged or broken. The wastefulness of redundancy is challenged by this aesthetic and can be a useful symbolic way of rethinking the way we approach the world.


Curtsy of Lakeside Pottery Studio

The aesthetic is a beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete” and draws from the Buddhist teaching of the characteristics of conditioned existence shared by all sentient beings which are impermanence (Annica) , suffering (Dukkha) and the emptiness or absence of self-nature (Anatta). Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.


The black cups which are featured as images in this article were remade with Kintsugi by the husband and wife team of Patty Storms and Morty Bachar at their Lakeside Pottery in Lewes, DE, USA. They combine their many years of teaching art, pottery, sculpting, engineering, and painting experience to operate their studios. Take a moment to visit their website for a sense of the beautiful pottery work they create but also an impressive collection of educational videos.


For Richard Powell, “Wabi Sabi is a way of life that appreciates and accepts complexity while at the same time values simplicity.  It nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.To accept these realities is to accept contentment as the maturation of happiness, and to acknowledge that clarity and grace can be found in genuine unvarnished existence.” [Page ix, Wabi Sabi Simple: Create Beauty. Value Imperfection. Live Deeply by Richard R. Powell]


“Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated… a kind of physical expression of the spirit of mushin….Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. …The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identification with, [things] outside oneself.” [Christy Bartlett, Flickwerk The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics]


Flickwerk; The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics
Click to Download a copy of: ‘Flickwerk; The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics’


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One way of perceiving wabi sabi is as a learning process where the student of learns to find the most basic, natural objects interesting, fascinating and beautiful, for example the falling autumn leaves or the shedding of cherry blossom. The philosophy holds the potential of changing  the way we view the world such that a crack in a mirror makes it more interesting and gives the object itself greater meditative value. Books and paper become infused with the journeys they have taken, and instead of tattered spines, notes in the margin, or coffee cup stains being blemishes, they become important retentions of the past that inform deeper understandings which evolve over time.

Japanese Kintsugi cup
Curtsy of Lakeside Pottery Studio

Kintsugi has been related to the Japanese philosophy of mushin which focuses on the concepts of non-attachment, acceptance of change and fate as aspects of human life. Mushin refers to a mental state into which highly trained martial artists enter, even in their simplest everyday actions. The term comes from ‘mushin no shin’, which is a Zen expression meaning ‘the mind without mind’ but is also referred to as the state of “no-mindness”. It describess a mind which is not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and therefore open to everything.

The state is achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgment, so the person is free to act and react without hesitation or interference from such thoughts. The person relies not on what they think should be, but what is a natural reaction to the circumstance and what is felt or recognized intuitively. The mind works at a very high speed, without agenda or intention, pre-occupied action or direction. Some have expressed mushin as the state where a person finally understands the uselessness of techniques and becomes truly free to move. Once mushin is attained through the practice or study of arts that refine the mind and body the aim is to then bring the same level of complete awareness in other aspects of the practitioner’s life.

critical thinking

Embracing the Flaws as Opportunities to Learn

As you might have guessed, what I see in the craft of Kintsugi and the philosophys which flow through it are opportunities to reappraise the way I/we are thinking, behaving and acting without the tyrannies of correctness inhibiting our progress.  Professor Penny Jane Burke refers to ‘regimes of truth’ [Re/conceptualising Widening participation, pages 33 – 39, The Right to Higher Education: Beyond Widening Participation By Penny Jane Burke, published by Routledge, 2013, ISBN: 1136450963]; this provokative phrase offers us a means to understand how ‘orthodox’ perspectives of what knowledge is crowds out and omit alternative or contested accounts of knowledge and meaning.


There is a fetish around being ‘right’ in our culture, and the appeal is obvious with the accolades which come attached to prizes and awards.  What gets less mention is the reality that success is built on a joined endeavour of failure.  The way we measure progress is all too often unrepresentative of the nature of developing ability and knowledge, and is based upon a single moment of examination.  People tend to get a single chance to demonstrate their knowledge or skill in say exams and this is very unforgiving to many. In this approach is a lack of receptiveness to a slower, more empathic way of learning and coming to know which is deeply valuable.  Science and learning is predicated on failure – too often does our culture neglect to value asking the questions which turn out to be wrong directions retrospectively.  Henry Ford put it well when he said ‘success is 99% failure’.


Working within policy led structures particularly, an attitude can develop where people avoid responsibilities and ownership of problems especially where a blame culture is perpetuated through punishment of percieved failure.  This is often unhelpful. There are many unpredictable things rising through the law of unintended consequences in complex systems and situations.  I have heard the phrase ‘never apologise, never explain’ too many times in seriousness as a mantra for abnegation of responsibility; largely because the social environment is percieved as unforgiving. When an initiative fails and a blame culture takes hold, it can create a damaging phobia of taking necessary risks to achieve the innovation we need.

I have now heard a few complaints in academic conferences of the ease of attacking something rather than trying to understand the virtues of what is presented.  The problem I am referencing here is not unlike overly cricitizing a mathematician for their handwriting – beside the point.  On several occasions I have listened to the weary tones of people in conferences who have invested their lives in understanding something and trying to communicate it to others only to be met by people who set out to cut things down in unhelpful ways.  This is by no means the dominant norm, but it is a problem when people score points by attacking others – it is easier to criticize than to be constructive.  Criticism on its own is empty calories, and lacks proper investment in discovery.
Thinking critically
Thinking critically


Equally, in not criticising those things too precious to lose, we may lose them altogether.  Examples are family, friends, and institutions we know and love.  These important things take form in our minds as the aspirational ideal that paints the world. For example, in the ideal, doctors continually embody the Hippocratic Oath and always put the patients needs first; mothers are nurturing and loving; teachers always seek to improve you and give you the knowledge that you need; your lovers always love you.


These aspirational ideals embedded in the ideals we hold aloft are misleading on the occasions when human fallibility becomes manifest. It is imperative to accept this fallibility and acknowledge it as a reality, especially in institutional spaces where the professional is shielded by governance structures – as an organisation protects itself. The imperative to criticise and embrace the problems which exist is vital to protect the erosion of the ideal via its positive overshadowing of calamitous failure.


For example, doctors can malpractice, mothers can be abusive, teachers can impede the growth and understanding of people; and your lovers can destroy you. The ideal, the role and the individual can all be assumptions, and assumed upon. In the world which ideals construct and inhabit, stereotypical thought prevails and ultimately generates real world behaviour based upon misrecognition which comes through ladders of inference (a common mental pathway of increasing abstraction, often leading to misguided beliefs). In short, critical thought is essential to prevent us from living in a fantasy world when we need to be attending to very important issues – or even mundane but relevant issues.


Critical thought is well expressed by Richard Feynman: “Science is a system we have developed to keep us from fooling yourself”.  Science has a broader root ‘scientia’ meaning ‘knowledge’.  If we are not to fool ourselves – and consequently suffer all the problems of using incorrect information – then we have to adopt a philosophy similar to that held in the work of Kintsugi; we have to be able to hold in mind apparently conflicting positions but which all express a different aspect of ‘truth’.


We must be happy to embrace imperfection and flaws, we must understand that these flaws are beautiful or have the potential to yield the beautiful, we must realise that problems are the beginnings of discovery, and we must understand that all things are perfect in their imperfection.


Taking Kintsugi into the way we frame the world helps us to re-orient the critical to something more positive and celebratory about the process we are involved in.  Being reflexive and reflective are important partner skills to the criticality we need to develop about ourselves and about the structures we live and work in.  That criticality, whilst being incisive and honest also needs to embody the understandings and forgiveness we need to evolve as individuals and as a society.