We know we must seize the moment, yet we often let breathtaking little moments slide past us. The Japanese concept of ichigo ichie reminds us that every moment is unique and fleeting, and we shouldn’t take them for granted.
Nothing proves the transient nature of small but striking moments better than spring season. As those little buds on naked deciduous trees awaken from the cold winter, we know we only have a precious few days or weeks to savour the delightful display. Once the petals shed and new leaves adorn the tree, we’ll have to wait another year before we can experience anything similar.
Even the evergreen trees that come to bloom in spring, infusing Holi-like vibrance and scents in our world, won’t last for long. They’ll brighten our lives for a few weeks or months, then they too will wilt and rest.
Ichigo ichie is about becoming aware of, and truly appreciating, these brief experiences.
What is ichigo ichie?
Ichigo ichie is a Japanese phrase that roughly translates to “once in a lifetime”. It recognises that every moment is unique and impermanent. According to the authors of Book of Ichigo Ichie, Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, the essence of ichigo ichie is the realisation that:
What we are experiencing right now will never happen again.
Inspiration for the expression came from the 16th century Japanese tea ceremony master, Yamanoue Soji. Reflecting on what he had learnt from Rikyu, his own master, Soji wrote in his notebook:
Treat your host as if the meeting were going to occur only once in your life.
Over time, the ichigo ichie expression started being used outside the context of tea ceremonies. Today, the phrase is often spoken as a greeting to emphasise the unrepeatable nature of every meeting.
Ichigo Ichie is said to have a connection with Zen Buddhism, a philosophy that accords much value to the present moment. Practicing ichigo ichie anchors our awareness in the present, where our attention is unburdened of the weight of the past and the anxieties of the future.
The relevance of ichigo ichie thus goes beyond the encounters we have with other people. If the principle is to value every moment for its uniqueness, then our experiences in nature are just as worthy of appreciation.
Savouring the fleeting moments in nature
Our hearts melt when we see the morning light softly cascade over a beautiful tree from a certain angle. We must allow ourselves to savour that warm and fuzzy feeling because that exact scene will never manifest again.
The sun will be at a different position within moments, clouds may change the lighting tomorrow, petals may fall next week, the air may feel different next month, and the tree will take on a different shape by next year. And the next time a similar moment presents itself, your mind may not be as empty, or a greater number of responsibilities may compete for your time and attention. Even our core values and outlook on life may have changed in between both occasions, meaning we may no longer be the same person.
This goes for every encounter in nature that stops us, or perhaps moves us. Beautiful sunsets, awesome mountain views, soothing streams, cheery bird songs — the list is, thankfully, endless.
So the next time Mother Nature paints a heart-warming picture for you, let your mind grapple with the realisation that you’re actually witnessing a once in a lifetime event. Perhaps Greek philosopher Heraclitus summed it up best:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.