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Language: English / Japanese
Issue Eight / Essay
“Mono no aware is the understanding that the most beautiful moments of life come right before the moment ends”

Keeping Time

Words by Rebecca Parker Payne Photograph by Laura Dart

The concepts of ichi-go ichi-e and mono no aware show us how to focus on the here and now and appreciate the ones we’re with.

It’s Monday night, and it is late. My mind is occupied by tomorrow’s work, but my sister sits in front of me, and she is asking me to talk. In a deeper way, she’s asking me to be with her, and I cannot say no. So we talk, far into the darkest hours of this arbitrary Monday night. But this is our time.

Japanese tradition tells of ichi-go ichi-e, a concept fortified over centuries of practice that says we only have one meeting, at one time—our experiences with one another stand alone. Every encounter we have—a dinner, a shared bottle of wine, a late evening of conversation on an old red couch—will happen once, and then will never happen again. The circumstances surrounding an encounter, the people involved and their exact dispositions and history make each event unique. We may interact with the same people, within similar circumstances, but ichi-go ichi-e says that each interaction is an experience all unto itself, never to be re-created perfectly.

This concept is often used to describe the famous Japanese tea ceremony. An artistic display of both hospitality and decorum, the tea ceremony demands vigilant preparation, as well as keen attention to the practice of being present. The host’s aim is to garner a high level of mindfulness and intention for the event, but once the event begins, she must be acutely aware of what is happening. This is the host’s time to be here fully and to be with her friends and loved ones.

Ichi-go ichi-e reminds us to be mindful, but also to be present, so we may be moved by the natural combination of factors at play in any moment: people, food on the table, the weather outside. In traditional Japanese Noh theater, actors only rehearse a few times before a performance, so the authentic interactions of the performers, along with the natural combination of factors present at that moment, will move the performance. Even in theater, an art where scripted rehearsal is typically of the utmost importance, the Japanese remind us to relinquish control.

Ichi-go ichi-e holds both the purposefulness of preparation and the spontaneity of presence in perfect equilibrium. The culture I know and live within often celebrates polarity. We are stalwarts of the extremes, either holistically spontaneous or absolutely controlled. And it is the Japanese who remind us that spontaneity and intentionality are not mutually exclusive but become more necessary within the light of the other.

Relinquishing control in my day-to-day existence does not involve a tea ceremony or improvisational acting, but the concept is relevant enough: I relinquish my internal script when I host friends in my home, relinquish my plans of going to bed early when an important conversation arises instead. For me, ichi-go ichi-e looks strangely similar to working hard and also letting go. And it makes complete sense, as if that’s the way all hospitality should be—purposefulness mingled with whimsy.

Furthermore, Japanese understand this concept within another framework called mono no aware. Literally translated as “the pathos of things,” mono no aware is the understanding that the most beautiful moments of life come right before the moment ends. In a full acceptance of the transient and temporal state of life, the Japanese don’t hold much appreciation for an eternally blossoming flower. Instead, the greater beauty comes within the constraints of our yearly life and death rhythms. Mono no aware calls us to sit below the cherry blossoms as the tree sheds its blooms. It tells us not to lament the passing of summer but to rejoice in its final hours.

We are creatures capable of awe and reverence. And we can position ourselves and our hearts to feel heavy and wonderful things. But to choose to see the beauty in the passing is no easy task. We must first cast off our illusions of control, and then we must take a step back and prepare ourselves for the full spectrum of pathos—love, beauty, loss. Perhaps then we will see all the gold that doesn’t stay as beautiful instead of defeatist.

Mono no aware tells us to love now. Act now. Be here now. Invite our friends over, and stay up late. Because this time, this opportunity, this season will soon pass. Bask here while it is still possible. Our days are ebbs and flows. Our lives are a collection of seasons where tides approach and recede, and trees flower and wither. The green fullness of summer is made more precious by the skeleton branches of winter. So don’t fight time and don’t fight the season. Don’t keep things from ending but celebrate them for the life they have now.

Our lives are rife with endings—the close of an evening or the triumphant finality of summer’s last stand. If we reorient our hearts to accept and appreciate these endings, we begin to see our lives outside our limited terms—not only for our wanton control and desires, but also for mankind as a whole. Time is not ours. We can’t slow the Earth’s rotation, and we can’t expect a wedding celebration to last forever.

I want to respect that which is larger than me—the sun that rises in the East and sets in the West, the gravity that keeps my feet perpetually on the ground below and the rhythm of time that says to all creation: this too shall pass.

So I find myself on this old red couch, my young sister’s big brown eyes peeking up at me from behind her glasses, asking me to talk with her. On this night where I expected to eat soup, watch a movie and go to bed at a decent hour, we talk. We talk well past my planned bedtime, and then well past midnight. I invited her into my home, and my rehearsed plans for the evening evaporated— because who we were and where we were on this night demanded a long conversation, and because we will soon outgrow this season of her crashing on my couch on any arbitrary Monday night.

I can’t budget for time like this. I do my best to prepare, putting my heart where it needs to be, but I can’t rehearse it or perfect it. So much of life happens outside of our expectations and our preparedness. So much of life does not look perfect. I’m far from perfect: eyes dark, makeup long gone and any sort of style replaced by wool socks and my husband’s sweater. This does not look like perfection, but it does look a lot like being completely here, in this moment, with her.

Because she is here now, in my living room, and in the morning she’ll be gone. This is our one meeting, one time. It might be one out of a million like these, but it stands alone if I let it. And because she will leave for school in the morning, and I’ll go to work, our time now is that much sweeter. So as the hours wane and our conversation draws to a close, we rest in an evening fulfilled. In these last few minutes, we could not be closer, even though we are seconds from parting ways.

It is here that these ancient concepts converge. It is the ichi-go ichi-e and it is the mono no aware in perfect tandem: one meeting, one time within the beauty of the temporal. With these traditions, we are engaged unto the end, because we have been made present from the beginning.

Rebecca Parker Payne is a writer from Virginia, where she bakes pies, drinks bourbon and spins old bluegrass on vinyl with her husband. She writes about all things concerning food, family, community and place. 

Thanks to Martha Robinson for speaking with Kinfolk about ichi-go ichi-e and mono no aware and about how each of the two concepts is heavily influenced by, and seen through the lens of, the other. 

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