Asymmetry, Ikebana, Writing and The Mind
Mar 06, 2023

12 minute read


The following is an excerpt from the essay, "Asymmetry, Ikebana, Writing and The Mind," by Andy Couturier

As an artist or writer, how do you compose a work that is generous?

      How do you place a group of rocks together in a garden, or branches, berries and blossoms together in an ikebana arrangement, — or ideas and language on a page — to invite real participation?

      The artist is giving a gift, I think, if she leaves some connections unfinished. Implied. The artist is giving a gift, I think, when the composition is multifaceted, offering a multitude of elements that combine in an abundance of ways. There's "space" for the viewer — or reader — to move around inside.

      While the Western ideal in art and writing has often, but not always, been that of the One Main Point — unambiguous and decisive — much of East Asian art and poetry reaches toward a different ideal. It does not force a particular interpretation, nor does it reveal all its secrets in a single viewing. The mind is refreshed and energized. And we feel invited to play.

It's asymmetry that does this. Because each interaction of dissimilar objects suggests its own meaning, its own dynamics — and power — asymmetrical ambiguity is rich with potential. It allows participation in the process of creation.

Arrangement 1:

      Lying fallen on the ground, a broken, russet-red pomegranate spills open its seeds, drawing your attention down. The drama of death and decay. Above, jutting up and to the right, a woody branch. A smattering of tiny, apple-green leaves clamber up it. From the center of the collage, deep among the shiny-leafed foliage, a brilliant borscht-red blossom peers out, intense and unapologetic, yet shadowed by the plenteous verdure. And, then, like a crown, trending gently up, a feathery spray of bright white carnations moves the eyes leftwards and out.

Arrangement 2:

      A vast watery world. On the left, a solitary brown lotus seed pod, old, withered, bent over. In front, two violet lilies. A few low waterplants sketch out a theater for the expanse of empty space extending out across the water. Far on the right, huge, a gnarled chunk of wood with root and peeling bark sits heavy and wizened, solid in the lake. Above this, thick twisted conifers, dense and opaque, thrust outward and over, defining the empty space into the sky. On the farthest margin, on the right and in front, minuscule pink budlets, tiny and clustered, break over the edge like the spray of a wave, and scatter their benediction beyond the frame.

For The Play of The Imagination 

      How exactly does asymmetry produce generous creations? How does placing two dissimilar things against each other conjure a feeling of space?

      In The Book of Tea, a beautifully written work published in 1906, painter, writer and museum curator Okakura Kakuzo observes:

The tea room is an 'Abode of the Unsymmetrical' inasmuch as it is consecrated to the worship of the Imperfect, purposely leaving something unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete.

      In the tea room, in Chinese ink paintings, in the arrangement of rocks in a traditional Japanese garden, and in the development and organization of a beautiful essay, asymmetry provokes the viewer to move about the piece. The movement is prompted by a sense of disjuncture between asymmetrical parts. It invites us to look for places to link. If nothing is forced, the sense of potential, on a subconscious level, is encouraged to fruit.

As Okakura writes:

The dynamic nature of the Zen and Taoist philosophy laid more stress upon the process through which perfection was sought than upon perfection itself. True beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete.

Asymmetry allows us to hint at things which are difficult to communicate in a straightforward manner, at ideas that can only be grasped from the side

In the tea room it is left for each guest in imagination to complete the total effect in relation to himself. The art of the extreme Orient has purposely avoided the symmetrical as expressing not only completion, but repetition. Uniformity of design was considered as fatal to the freshness of imagination.

(Book of Tea)

Asymmetry invites an engagement with elements of dissimilar types. As you place them in creative new relationships — a rusted old hook and a verse from the Buddha — energy is released, catalyzing our thinking with every connection.


Neither the Same nor Opposite: Asymmetry Defined

Symmetrical structures are evenly divisible. When bisected, they are of equal weight on either side. While there may be a kind of "harmony" or "balance" to this, they are complete in themselves, and static. As Okakura writes, the symmetrical is redundant:

In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence. The various objects for the decoration of a room should be so selected that no colour or design shall be repeated. If you have a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowable...In placing a vase or incense burner on the tokonoma, care should be taken not to put it in the exact center, lest it divide the space into equal halves. The pillar of the tokonoma should be of a different kind of wood than the pillars in order to break any suggestion of monotony in the room.

In asymmetrical art or design there is a differential of number or size or proportion. A lot of one thing, and a little of another. Elements clustered here, and not over there.

      Elements or pieces are not exact opposites to each other, nor are they simply variations on a theme. They are different either in class, shape, color, ambiance, age, texture or tone. At least two of the elements are of a significantly different volume or size. The larger element, or group of elements, creates a theater in which the smaller elements engage . Asymmetry is a counterpositioning of dissimilar — but not opposite -— types. The breadth of the lake is not opposite to the jump of the fish. And yet they relate. A cluster of red berries against a matte-black stone . . . neither opposite nor the same. A pile of pink rose petals on an expanse of gray sand — objects in relation cause the imagination to move.   

Asymmetrical design is a theater defined . . . in the space of which . . . an object or event . . . of a different nature . . . is intentionally placed.

In a dry rock garden, what is the interaction between the expanse of the gravel and the grouping of stones? And in the Chinese ink painting, what is the interaction between the massive bleak mountains and the hermit's tiny thatched-roof hut? What are the points of contact? And what might they say?

      Asymmetry engages on various planes: in ikebana, a gnarly, heavy old root next to a wispy, translucent corona of flowers; in writing, a careful delineation of a thermodynamic concept against an extended interior monologue; or a long, luscious landscape abutting a crisp, profound philosophical insight.

      Juxtaposed objects spark the mind to create. And what makes an "object" is all up to you:

            Voices and branches,

                  water and notions,

                        brushstrokes and kindness . . .

Pieces of our world, parts to combine.


•  Overcome linearity

• Juxtapose dissimilar elements without transition or padding

•  Create empty space

•  Make elements of significantly different volume or size

•  Allow chunks to group and regroup by placing them close enough to each other to suggest connections but not so close as to force them

• Define a 'theater' or environment, but do not circumscribe or close it

Let similarities play with differences--similar things 'group' themselves together 

•  Embrace ambiguity and surprise

• Insert at least one piece that's barely noticeable

• Prevent the eye from staying fixed

•  Leave more space than you think

The Movement of the Mind


Calligraphy and puppet carving by Wakako Oe

Asymmetry is connected to the way people communicate, and to the structure of the brain, and to consciousness itself.

      The human mind moves from one thing to the next. From synapse to synapse, electric impulses jump, linking one idea to another. They link a scent to a memory, or an emotion to a faraway sound. So also, as you read these words, your mind moves along, attaching idea to idea.

      A thought in the brain is a network of neurons, a pattern in liquid. Every sensation or memory, conjecture or hope exists in the mind as object . . . and matrix. The movement of the mind is a sequence of happenings, a linking of matrices, a pattern in process.

      How do we juxtaposition the things of the mind?

What Is Expected, and What Is Not

We live our lives in a trance of perception. Voices heard, things seen, "the way things are done:" they sculpt pathways in the brain. Patterns repeat themselves, and the pathways are grooved. We become steeped in our context, used to our patterns, and so it's hard to be new.

      If thinking is structural, a sequence of patterns, then to break from our habits we need new connections. It is the reshuffling of sequence that disrupts expectations, challenges "order" and opens the system. New structure: new gaps. New gaps: new guesses. Guesses are linkages--they give us new pathways, and thus a new mind.

      The revision of structure is an alchemy of perception. We are breaking the tyranny of what we already know.

"A new form often must be created in order to express a radically new idea--and knowing a form with which an idea can be articulated improves the likelihood of thinking that idea."

Richard Coe, "An Apology for Form"


This is why asymmetry is so powerful, so important. If totally disparate things are collaged together the human brain itself, little by little, is generated anew.

       Psychic geography, ethnography and botany, a poetry of stones. These things feel "far" from each other, and there's a sensation of space. [note movement of this sentence and rewording]. There's a "Huh?" and a "How?" -- a space in our consciousness which is the desire to know. The words jump from their context, without transition or link, and energy is released. "An Asymmetry of Writing? What does that mean?"

      Asymmetrical systems are a methodology of discovery, a way to uncover what we don't know we don't know. Because they prompt many meanings at different places and times, as we move through our lifetime they will tell us new things.

Creating Absences: Asymmetrical Writing

      When a writer is writing, words follow words. The intellect in motion leaves tracings on paper, a form on a page. Thus a textual form is an afterimage in language of the linking of patterns of the mind as it moves.

Think now, if you will, of the story of your life. Imagine writing it out in the sequence of time: first there was this and then there was that. Now imagine, with scissors and Scotch tape, rearranging its sequence. With either "random" arrangement or intuitive intention, you'll be surprised what you find. Phases of your life converse with each other, and relate in new ways. If you seek for asymmetry, for intriguing connections, you may learn who you are.

      Now try the same process, but this time with ideas not events. Follow a sequence of thinking, a free association, and then rearrange it. The newly linked pieces will give you new meanings.

      By adding insight to impulse, you can create contexts and movement, and thus a wanting to know. Dissimilar objects in contact produce a presence of Absence, the desire in the reader to want "just a little bit more." What kind of absences are most generous, most kind? Which juxtapositions come close enough to suggesting new meaning, but do not force a preordained one? Picture the ikebana with its elements from nature in kinetic relation. Invoke the same sense of placement, and see what you find.

In a quirky little monograph on symbols in Japan entitled Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes says of ikebana:

In a Japanese flower arrangement . . . what is produced is the circulation of air, of which flowers, leaves branches . . . are only the walls, the corridors, the baffles, delicately drawn. .  .  the Japanese bouquet has a volume . . . you can move your body into the interstice of its branches, into the space of its stature, not in order to read . . .  its symbolism, but to follow the trajectory of the hand which has written it: a true writing since it produces a volume and since, forbidding our reading to be the simple decoding of a message (however loftily symbolic) it permits the  reading to repeat the course of the writing's labor.

The sequence of sentences as they appear on the page is the movement of thoughts. But it's more than reflection. Writing is creating, and words next to other words make fresh channels in the brain. Thus writing has power to change who we are. It works on the reader and the writer as well. As Deena Metzger tells us, "To write is, above all, to construct a self... Journal entries and life histories as well as fictions, poems and plays are variations on the most fundamental human desire to know oneself deeply and in relationship to the world."

      If writing is discovering the things you don't know, the reshuffling of sequence takes you one step beyond. Because moving the text reorders the mind, revising [note italics] the text revises the self.

When the text leaves its home and moves out in the world, the process continues. The sequence of discourse moves the mind of the reader--it patterns the motion of the brain as it grows.

      Here is a passage from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard:

Everywhere darkness and the presence of the unseen appalls. We estimate now that only one atom dances alone in every cubic meter of intergalactic space. I blink and squint. What planet or power yanks Haley's Comet out of orbit? We haven't seen that force yet; it's a question of distance, density and the pallor of reflected light. We rock, cradled in the swaddling band of darkness. Even the simple darkness of night whispers suggestions to the mind. Last summer, in August, I stayed at the creek too late.

       The generous piece of writing, the asymmetrical piece of writing, doesn't boss you or pull you; it creates many emptinesses, fills them in partly, inconclusively at times, and creates them again. This offering of emptinesses, this creation of spaces, gives to the world a new way of thinking about who it is. And the gift keeps on changing, through the movement of time and the difference between people. Each mind is topographically its own, with its own currents and eddies. It has its own humors, and its penchant for change.


Join a special 2.5 hour workshop this week with Andy Couturier: "Asymmetrical Writing: A More Generous Way to Write." More details and RSVP info here. 


Andy Couturier is the author of Writing Open the Mind and A Different Kind of Luxury, now going into its fourth printing. He loves teaching writing, and is the founder and creative director of The Opening, a private writing school which offers courses in-person and online.  Andy and his partner built a house with hand tools in the mountains. In his personal life, he enjoys doing hand work such as tree-planting, splitting firewood, home scale gardening and food production. He loves to spend mornings reading classical Chinese poetry, or twentieth-century experimental, imagist and nature poetry.        

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