Ichigo ichie: The key to a happy life according to Japanese philosophy

What do you see in this picture? Some cherry blossom or a unique moment to be savoured? According to Japanese philosophy, giving everyday things our full attention is the key to a happy and fulfilled life… that’s got to be worth a go. 

ichigo ichieIn our age of complete distraction and our culture of instant gratification – when we often fail to listen, and engage only superficially with our surroundings – each person contains a key that can open the door to attention, harmony with others and a love of life. The key is called ichigo ichie (pronounced ichi-go, ich-eh). A Japanese phrase, ichigo ichie can be translated as ‘once, a meeting’ and also as ‘in this moment, an opportunity’. This means that each meeting and everything we experience is a unique treasure that will never be repeated in the same way again. If we let it slip away without enjoying it, the moment will be lost for ever. As the well-known saying goes, you only live once. This is something we all know as human beings, but easily forget when we allow ourselves to get caught up in our everyday worries and obligations.

Becoming aware of ichigo ichie helps us to remember that each morning we have in the world, every moment we spend with our children or our loved ones, is infinitely valuable and deserves our full attention. We don’t know when life will end. Each day could be our last. Ichigo ichie is a clear invitation to ‘now or never’.

The Japanese use the expression in two situations: when meeting a stranger for the first time and when meeting acquaintances, to emphasise that every occasion is unique. In both uses of the expression, the point is to show gratitude and appreciate a shared moment in our lives. At the same time, it also conveys a hint of nostalgia, and it reminds us that our passage through time is fleeting.

The cultivation and practice of ichigo ichie will allow you to lead a happier, more fulfilled life, without feeling weighed down by the past or anxious about the future. You learn to live fully in the present, acknowledging and appreciating the gift of every moment. Just as pregnant women see baby bumps everywhere they look, as soon as we become ‘moment hunters’, everything ends up being unique and sublime. If we know how to seize and value these moments, they can light up the rest of our lives.

Here’s how you can incorporate ichigo ichie into your own life…

Pay proper attention to others

Many of the problems we experience in our daily lives as individuals – and as a society – have their origin in a lack of attention to others. In our globalised world we have the chance to connect with thousands, even millions, of people, but it’s extremely rare to find someone who really knows how to listen.

If we look at the people around us, or even at ourselves, we’ll see that it’s difficult to stay in the present. Our thoughts wander in all I directions and it’s hard to keep them focused on where we are now, on what we’re doing now and on who we’re with right now. Ichigo ichie is a call to recover the power of attention with your partner, friends, family and co-workers. In a world full of conflicts, we need more than ever to stop navel-gazing. Practising attention and awareness together can save the world.

Be a good friend

Good company is also essential for ichigo ichie, since people with no joie de vivre can ruin a gathering with their negativity. Surround yourself with happy, inspiring people who are capable of valuing and sharing the beauty of every moment, and who have the ability to listen.

If you find yourself alone, make sure that you are good company! With the right spirit, a cup of tea with yourself can be an unforgettable celebration.

Put down your phone

Ichigo ichie depends on our ability to listen, see, touch, smell and savour every moment; doing only one thing at a time and putting our heart and soul into it, as if it were the last thing we were going to experience on earth.

To make this happen, we need to put our phones away. The moment is a jealous lover that demands we give it our all. Every unrepeatable moment is a small oasis of happiness. And many oases together make an ocean of happiness.

Appreciate your surroundings

The Japanese expression mono no aware is used to express the appreciation of beauty and translates literally as ‘being aware of the passage of time’. It is bittersweet because we realise the nature of it is ephemeral. But it is not a negative experience; on the contrary, it means being connected to life’s true essence, to the impermanent, and is therefore a direct path to ichigo ichie.

Nature provides beautiful moments: the golden light of the setting sun, a light dusting of snow or a path covered with dry leaves on an autumn day. These moments deserve our full attention; they charge the batteries of our soul.

Make every moment matter

  1. Live as if everything will happen only once. Be aware of the unique and once-in-a-lifetime nature of each meeting.
  2. Dwell in the present. You can’t change the past or predict the future, but here in this moment all possibilities are alive.
  3. Do something you’ve never done before. As the saying goes, you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect different results. Give yourself over to the moment when something unknown begins to blossom within you.
  4. Don’t postpone special points in time. Each opportunity presents itself only once. If you don’t embrace it, it’s lost for ever.
  5. Practise ‘sitting zen’. This is one of the most popular forms of meditation in Japan. But you can just sit and observe life. The simple act of stepping away from the daily whirlwind of hurry and obligations opens the doors to wellbeing.
  6. Apply mindfulness to all five senses. Train yourself in the art of listening, watching, touching, tasting and smelling to give each moment the richness of human perception.
  7. Notice coincidences. Being aware of coincidences helps us get better at reading signs from the universe. Keep notes in a journal of these moments of daily magic.
  8. Make every gathering a party. Don’t wait for a holiday or birthday to experience extraordinary things. With the right frame of mind, every day can be a celebration.
  9. If you don’t like what there is, make something different. Human beings have the power to reinvent themselves as many times as it takes. If your reality is too dull and predictable, you have the opportunity to create another.
  10. Be a hunter of special moments. As with any activity, the more you practise, the better the results will be.

This is an edited extract from The Book of Ichigo Ichie: The Art of Making the Most of Every Moment, the Japanese Way by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, published by Quercus, price £12.99