Kintsugi — How broken becomes beautiful

In movies and life, people say they wish they could go “back to how things were.”

They wish not just for things to be good again, but also that they’d never been bad.

It’s a sort of ploy to deceive oneself that the bad can be erased by pretending it never happened.

The arrow of time is, of course, irreversible. Things can become good again but not in same ways as before. Only in new ways learned from how the old ways went wrong.

As much as we might want to, there is no way around trauma. It can be repressed, but it can’t be erased. Only by embracing how things have irreversibly changed can we really move on.

Golden fractures

This idea of growing from our wounds, our brokenness is poetically expressed in the Japanese mending practice "kintsugi".

Literally meaning golden (kint) joinery (sugi), kintsugi is the art of glueing broken pottery back together with a wax of dusted gold. The broken is not discarded, but transformed into something more beautiful.

Kintsugi embodies the Japanese aesthetic ideal of wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi finds beauty not in perfection, symmetry and eternity as we do in the West, but in Buddhist ideas of impermanence and imperfection.

Fractures don’t mark the end of the object’s life, but defining moments in its unique history. They are not hidden or disguised, but adorned with golden significance.

(Im)perfect illusions

Buddhism roots impermanence and imperfection at the heart of human experience.

Impermanence means the only constant is change. Things are always changing, and so they are always "imperfect." Perfection exists only in the mind.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it's not the same river and he's not the same man.” — Heraclitus

As humans, we suffer trying to control impermanence.

Because we don’t know what comes next (future), we cling onto what we do know — what has been (past). In a futile attempt to defy future uncertainty, our minds sculpt an illusion of permanence out of past certainties: the self.

"One is never afraid of the unknown. One is afraid of the known coming to an end." — Jiddu Krishnamurti

You feel like you are not simply what you are doing right now, but more so everything you have done. Because what you are is so fleeting and intangible, while what you were is fixed and final; a solid foundation for predictions of what you will be in the future. So **you come to more closely identify with what no longer exists than with what actually is.**‍

From an infinitude of experiences, the mind handpicks, ranks and values memories to construct an identity. A bulletproof origin story about itself through which it habitually interprets (distorts) everything else.

"You are a story you tell yourself." — Naval Ravikant

The self is what you experience when thinking.

You may think you are a thinker authoring thoughts, using them. But the thinker itself is a product of thought. Thinking, in fact, creates the deception that there's a thinker. The self is the automatic experience of identifying with that illusion, as it chains from thought to thought. While thoughts come and go, the self has a false sense of continuity throughout — permanence.

You're not producing thoughts; thoughts are producing you. Our relationships, careers, concerns about past and future — even pain itself; all are mediated by thought. We don't so much experience reality as it is, but through the stories we tell ourselves about it  — what has been (memory) and what is to be (expectation).

As such, the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between weight of the past and pull of the future.

Pain is sensation. Suffering is narrative.

Pain is objective. Suffering is subjective.

Pain is biology. Suffering is literature.

— gillesdc (@gillesdc) January 13, 2023

The self wants to hold its past certainties together. It wants to stay solid moving through change. It desires more of what was (past) — and fears what may change.

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” — William Shakespeare

Alas, longing and resistance only make it suffer imperfection more. Fluid inevitably comes down on fixed. Everything wears, tears, changes, breaks, and dies. So our pots, so our bodies. But while the atoms at once move on into new configurations, our minds struggle to let go of its stories about them.

We remain upset, angry, sad, depressed long after the change happened. The friction between perfect self and imperfect nature makes us suffer.

It's not impermanence/imperfection itself that makes us suffer. It's wanting things to be permanent/perfect when they're not.

Life is suffering

Thus the genesis teaching of the Buddha: life is suffering* *or dukkha.

  • We suffer because we fear an uncertain future and because we desire more of what we have/know.

  • Fear and desire express from the self — a fixed idea of who we are built from memory — as it clashes with the inherent impermanence of life.

  • Paradoxically, it's in trying to uphold the illusion of permanence in a sea of change that we really suffer.

"The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless." — Alan Watts

Case in point: mindfulness is about letting go of the self-illusion through awareness.

When we recognise a thought as just a thought, it dissolves — like feeling or sound that passes— and we cease to be its captive.

We can then simply *be *in the present moment. There, in the middle of fear and desire, the stories dissolve and we cease to suffer.

"Do no dwell in the past, do not dream of the future. Concentrate the mind on the present moment." — Buddha

Life is trauma

Still, we spend most of our lives somewhere in the complex dance between fear and desire.

In this sense, suffering is just a part of life: we all suffer in our own ways. Whether rich or poor, looking this way or that way, coming from here of there, praying to this God, that God or no God at all.

This isn't good or bad in itself. It just means we all have different joys and struggles in life — as they converge from the infinite dance of the unique experiences and perspectives that make us.

"To live is to suffer, and to survive is to find meaning in the suffering." — Friedrich Nietzsche

Life shatters our self-illusions over and over again. Because its only constant is change, it constantly proves what we believe about ourselves untrue. The mind doesn't like uncertainty and so by default we choose to act as if nothing changed.

To others, we choose to hide the broken image — present it as still whole. The longer we keep this lie up, the more we ourselves identify with it, while, behind the mask, the wound is still there festering. We feel the pain, but forget where it comes from.

Going against the tide only makes it harder to endure. Rather, our psyche's well-being depends on how we pick up the broken pieces and put them back together in new ways.

Loved ones (and psychologists) help us make sense of the shatterings, to find meaning in the suffering. So we can make peace with trauma, accept it as part of who we are, and move onwards — reintegrated.

Each time we are able to do that, we invent a new version of ourselves. Better, stronger, more resilient and more beautiful than before. The cracks are not hidden away, but worn glowingly as the uniquely defining features of the whole.

"He who has a why can bear almost any how." — Friedrich Nietzsche

In that spirit, psychology rhymes "life is suffering" with "life is trauma".

We all have egos until life punches us in the face. It's not the going down but the getting back up.

This is the essential meaning behind Nietzsche's famous "what doesn't destroy me, makes me stronger." Only by making habit out of facing your wounds do you become invulnerable. For the self to be strong, it cannot identify with a fixed ideal but must dance with the unwavering wave of change.

"Life confided to me this secret: I am that which must always overcome itself." — Friedrich Nietzsche

"We must be traitors, practice faithlessness, and always relinquish our ideals. — Friedrich Nietzsche

Many have made many things out of Nietzsche's Übermensch — some more grotesquely so than others.

His philosophy of what makes a human superior however did not point at genetics but at courage. The courage to push through hardship, move on and re-invent yourself in the journey — time and time again.

To over-come (überkommen) the self; the perfection illusion of who you are you are so invested in.

Yes, Nietzsche was a buddhist much more than a nazi.

Post-traumatic growth in the Nietzschean sense of self-overcoming (self-überkommen)
Post-traumatic growth in the Nietzschean sense of self-overcoming (self-überkommen)

Traumatic neuro-science

I came to particularly appreciate the philosophy of life as trauma upon learning the neuro-scientific mechanics of how the mind actually constructs its self-illusion.

What follows is an essential sketch inspired by the popular work of neuroscientist Lisa Feldman-Barrett.

When we are born, we have no sense of self — no I.

A new-born's experience is pure sensation. They get overwhelmed by sense data (sights, smell, sounds, touches) they don't know how to deal with because they have no memory to interpret from. Their world is uncertain and chaotic — even if it's just a crib or sofa at this point.

But as the baby crawls, grabs and plays around, its brain maps sensations to the environment and, through trial and error, learns what it should and shouldn't do. Through sensory feedback, it learns that the couch is soft, the floor hard and the dog kind. I can relax in the couch, should be careful not to fall on the floor and can feel safe with the dog.

When sensation doesn't resolve uncertainty and the baby doesn't know what to do, it turns to mom and dad. When my mom is calm, I calm too — thus learning to be calm in similar situations. Vice-versa, if my mom is anxious, I internalise that anxiety and am likely to re-project it in the future.

Caregivers help baby brains form their first mental maps by contextualizing uncertain sense data. These maps make the uncertain navigable so the baby brain gains control and agency.
Caregivers help baby brains form their first mental maps by contextualizing uncertain sense data. These maps make the uncertain navigable so the baby brain gains control and agency.

Nervous synchronicity

Such psychological syncing is called limbic resonance. Parents regulate their baby's nervous system and thereby help it contextualise reality. They help the baby form its first mental maps to interpret reality around them from — making the uncertain navigable so the baby gains control and agency.

As we develop faculties for language, we come to conceptualise our bodily sensations as emotions. Emotions — like joy and sadness and peacefulness and anger — are names we give to specific configurations of feeling. They signal how to act in specific contexts as it relates to health and survival. If something made you happy in the past, you’re more likely to seek it again. If something scared you in the past, you’re more likely to avoid it this time.

"An emotion is your brain's conceptual construction of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world." — Lisa Feldman Barrett

From the neuro-scientific perspective, life is trauma because there is always fundamental uncertainty as to what my sensations mean — especially when I'm young.

In every particular context, there are only a few "right" ways to feel+act — and many wrong ones (in both biological and social terms). Learning through trial-and-error and helped by people close to me — family, friends, community — my self learns to contextualise emotions for well-being.

Individually, I’m always facing uncertainty — trauma — but when someone else helps me contextualise my sensations, I gain more agency. In this sense, human connection is the antidote to trauma: it releases the pressure of not knowing.

Limbic resonance helps us feel safe and confident in the face of life's fundamental uncertainty.
Limbic resonance helps us feel safe and confident in the face of life's fundamental uncertainty.

The (un)certain self

Growing up, emotions solidify in a foundation of memory through which we come to actively filter reality (rather than sensing it): perception.

Projecting present from past experience, patterns of interpretation self-reinforce and become habitual over time.

From those self-referential loops emerges the experience of self — a concept that clarifies the distinction between body environment. The self is how the brain experiences itself through the network of mental models it learned from the past. It's a prism through which we perceive and interact with everything else.

But the development of that self-concept is messy and the patterns it develops inevitably imperfect.

No matter how great your parents and childhood, you inevitably pick up some "stuff" on the bumpy way through life. That is, some traumas — collisions of your preconceptions with reality — remain unresolved. Needless to say, this gets worse as a function of how “bad” your parents were — let alone if they were absent altogether.

From within the self, this stuff then propagates into misguided cycles of interpretation and habit that consistently lead you astray. As long as not interpreted and accepted as part of who you are, the "stuff" typically leads to more stuff — compounding on top of it.

“Trauma is not just a past experience. It is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. It has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganisation of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.” — Bessel Van Der Kolk

The body has an incredible memory. Every wrongly contextualised sensation gets stored until it is adequately processed. The longer it sits repressed, the more problematic it becomes. Psychologically, but also biologically: pent up trauma stresses the body, even manifesting as chronic pain.

It’s estimated that ~30% of American adults (18+) suffer from chronic back pain. Surely, part of the explanation is that aging wears out the body. But evidence also points at unprocessed trauma continually causing psychological distress, manifesting as back pain.

Shrink away or lean in

Between 20 and 40, most people start to pick up on this baggage stored behind their sense of self.

In one of two ways: they either shrink away or lean in.

  • Shrinking away leads to addiction — Addiction is the habit of seeking short-term escape from trauma — and only feeds the destructive loops. Instead of dealing with trauma, we seek release in substances, consumption, relationships and/or cycles of resentment, anger and self-pity. Whatever it is, the object of addiction becomes a crutch, bound to eventually break under pressure.

  • Leaning in leads to personal growth and interestingness — Leaning in is to accept there is no way around trauma. If life itself is trauma, if our being is constantly negotiating with uncertainty, we have to deal with it in one way or the other. Every time we do that in a way that affirms life, we create a piece of ourselves that wasn't there before.

Because each leads to release — albeit in opposite directions — both addiction and growth become habits through self-perpetuating feedback loops.

Nassim Taleb would call one state fragile (harmed by disorder) and the other antifragile (gains from disorder). In psychological literature, the distinction post-traumatic stress versus post-traumatic growth.

Shrinking into the limited idea of yourself vs. leaning into your infinite possibilities
Shrinking into the limited idea of yourself vs. leaning into your infinite possibilities

There is no escape from trauma.

It’s a continuous source of stress, a sort of cancer that sits there doing harm for as long as it is not accepted and parsed within our selves. We have to face it,‍ interpret it, find meaning in it, make sense of it. We have to act, and we have to change. Every time we do that in a way that affirms life, we create a piece of ourselves that wasn’t there before.

To face your trauma head-on takes self-love and self-responsibility.

Self-love without self-responsibility leads to self-pity: it leaves you feeling sorry for yourself. Through self-responsibility, you can muster the courage to accept that you are not perfect nor free of vulnerabilities.

This courage helps you lean in, to approach trauma (and any sort of fundamental uncertainty) not with fear but with curiosity; a loving wanting to understand.

Curiosity as such is the antidote of fear. Dare to look closer at the unknown thing and you effectively disarm it, make it yours. To love (yourself) is to want to understand (yourself), and to understand (yourself) is to be free of fear.

Easier said than done, of course. Traumas can cut so deep we don't dare look at our selves anymore. It's in these moments where we need others to make us feel safe and loved — unconditionally of cracks and wounds, like mother and child — and to do this in a way that hints at their confidence in us. To get up and keep going.


In this sense, trauma is a process of differentiation.

Everyone faces their own trauma. Some compound over decades, others much faster. Denying its pain only makes it grow bigger and leads to addiction, because the body needs a way to express what it feels. It becomes hardened, numb. Lifeless.

**Channelling trauma as a part of who you are is what makes life art. **A particular expression of the unique mosaic of lived experiences and felt emotions that have sculpted someone’s character. It’s what makes a person different and unique — interesting in a way that can’t be replicated by anyone else, because they haven’t lived the same life.

This is what people mean when they speak of authenticity. Honestly, confidently and glowingly expressing who you are in all you do. Be it in creation (writing, painting, music) or simply connection with others; nobody could do it like you do. Authenticity is a vibe, hard to describe but unquestionably felt.

Sensing something human

Our sense of self paints itself as a kaleidoscope of all of our experiences.

In the beginning, the canvas is blank and the painting playful and spontaneous. As we grow up, clear patterns and concepts defining who we are emerge out of the chaos. We start brushing aside new experiences that don't fit the image we've come to deeply identify with.

When life throws something at us we can't ignore but also can't integrate, it impacts and leaves a crack. Afraid of what might happen when others might see it, we paint over it: we develop defense mechanisms. The painting we present outwardly more and more becomes a mask, a phony layer covering the cracks. Expression of our selves becomes obstructed — no longer wholesome and genuine. With the cracks, we also shroud our inner light; the spontaneous human energy felt by others as authenticity.

Working with his patients, the psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden would try to "sense something human." His focus was to bring out the inner light hiding behind the rigid self-concept; the mask built as a comfort zone from defense mechanisms against life's challenges.

In addiction, the light remains trapped because you believe you can rely on something external — a crutch — to fix you, without you doing real hard work yourself. It's a complete relinquishing of personal agency, a choice to stay in the safety of a cage at the expense of self-development.

So, how do you bring out the light? What really is the difference between shrinking away and leaning in, between escaping in addiction and shining authenticity?

Ogden's "sensing something human" is connection.

Not connection as a crutch, but connection as a sort of emotional regulation.

What we need is limbic resonance, akin to the way a child connects with its mother. To sync our nervous systems with someone or something that makes us feel safe enough to take off the mask and let our lights out — express ourselves wholesomely.

This can be a friend, a spouse, a community, or something more personal like a passion project — a canvas for unapologetic creativity. Someone or something that supports us but, more than that, something that actually asks something more of us, to be courageous.

This other becomes an attractor with which those repressed bodily sensations can safely sync themselves. Within that process, they are made sense of, and become something more as they are released.

The broken pieces are rejoined in new ways that let the light out — beautifully glowing like the golden wax of kintsugi.

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