Looking at other cultures always enriches us, especially when they differ greatly from our own, since they can offer us very different perspectives on life. In Japan there is a very interesting concept that is used in the arts, especially in literature, but that also extends to the way of facing life: mono no aware.
What does mono no aware mean?
From an etymological point of view, the expression mono no aware (物の哀れ) is composed of “mono”, which refers to “things” while “aware” indicates a “feeling” and the particle “no” reflects the non possession of that object. Therefore, a literal meaning would be the “pathos of things”, referring to that essence that lies in the nature of things and that resonates with ours.
It could also be translated as sensitivity, but in reality the concept mono no aware goes much further because it encompasses that ability to be moved by the ephemeral. Many relate it to a state of nostalgia or temporary melancholy, although in reality it is rather a deep sensitivity to the transience of life.
Proposed by Motoori Norinaga, a scholar of classical Japanese literature from the 18th century, he maintained that mono no aware was much more than a feeling. It is also a very deep type of knowledge. “It is to discern the power and essence, not only of the moon and cherry blossoms, but of every thing that exists in this world, and to be moved by each of them, to rejoice in happy occasions… to be saddened by sad events and love what should be loved,” he explained.
The origins of this Japanese concept date back to Shinto beliefs, although it also has a deep Buddhist influence. Shinto promotes greater awareness of the deep bond that exists between the persons and their environment, emphasizing openness and sensitivity to the energy present. Instead, Buddhism emphasizes the transitory nature of things and everything that exists. The communion of both philosophies gave birth to the concept of mono no aware, which involves recognizing the transience of everything that exists and creating a deeper connection with it precisely because of its brief nature.
The ability to appreciate the ephemeral without clinging
Mono no aware refers to a moving feeling in the face of the transience of things in which both wonder and sadness can be mixed. It’s the bittersweet feeling that everything is impermanent. The awareness that life is fleeting and nothing is eternal.
And while mono no aware is imbued with a certain nostalgia, it also encourages us to embrace change and the ephemeral, understanding that its beauty and grandeur lies precisely in its fleeting nature. Unlike the Western view, which links the impermanent with loss and, therefore, with sadness, the concept of mono no aware promotes a state of calm and serenity.
In this way we do not completely get rid of the sadness of loss, but we transform it into a more bearable feeling, a kind of quiet joy that comes from being aware that we have had the privilege of appreciating life in all its splendor. It’s as if instead of crying over the passage of time, we simply sigh.
Mono no aware invites us to conceive impermanence from a new perspective to understand that the most valuable aspect of life lies precisely in its unpredictability. It teaches us that trying to stop the flow of life is not only futile, but often causes suffering. Therefore, it encourages us to be spectators of this constant change without clinging to anything, allowing ourselves to be moved by the transience.
An invitation to live in the present
In the busy lives we lead, we have little time to look around us. We lack that slow gaze that allows us to capture the beauty and fragility of what surrounds us. Mono no aware urges us to stop before the ephemeral beauty of the leaves of the trees in autumn, the ray of light that slides over a rock, the laughter of the person we love or the attentive gaze of our pet.
It is no coincidence that in Japanese culture the concept of mono no aware is deeply linked to its fascination with cherry blossoms, a phenomenon as incredible as it is ephemeral. That means that to apply mono no aware we need to learn to capture the fleeting, intangible and wonderful moments of our existence.
Ultimately, it is about raising awareness that in life nothing is permanent, everything passes. And although that certainty can generate a certain melancholy and sadness, it can also be lived with serenity and peace. But for this we must be fully present because only then can we feel that we have been part of it.
The concept of mono no aware does not try to break the illusion that things, people or relationships last forever, but rather to learn to appreciate things for their transience and vulnerability, connect with their essence and be able to enjoy them They are part of our life.
What we are experiencing at this moment will not be repeated again. Life changes. We leave some things behind to find new ones to marvel at, like the cherry blossoms that die each season, but also return each year to give away their ephemeral beauty.
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Lomas, T. (2016) Untranslatable Words: Mono No Aware, and the Aesthetics of Impermanence. In: HuffPost.
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