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Ichi-go Ichi-e, 一期一会: Moving Past Nostalgia to Find Presence

No.9 by Mark Rothko via Pinterest
nostalgia /nɒˈstaldʒə/ noun A sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past. Something done or presented in order to evoke feelings of nostalgia.

It’s a powerful tour de force of an emotional state, often visiting us in wave-like motions, creating pools of reflection back to fond memories, past versions of life, romantic dalliances, or soulful connections. Things that used to be but no longer are.

Depending on where you are and where you’d like to be, nostalgia can be a wonderful gift or painful ache. The history of our lives - the journeys we forge - are what make us. Reflecting back on our past is sometimes a necessity in order to make sense of where we are and understand how far we have come, despite what the path ahead might look like.

Nostalgia can offer wonderful insights into the growth we might doubt we’ve gone through.

Feelings of affection for past times in our lives should be welcomed and observed, but there is a danger of over-romanticizing the past and becoming stuck on what was or might have been. We begin to miss out on what’s happening within our present.

The Japanese Concept of Ichi-go Ichi-e 一期一会

“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”Amit Ray

You may or may not have come across the Japanese cultural concept of ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会). Loosely translated the term means ‘one time, one meeting’ and describes the process of treasuring meetings with people. Translations often include other phrases such as ‘for this time only’, ‘never again’ and ‘one chance in a lifetime’.

I’ve often enjoyed exploring different cultural terms and concepts, especially when traversing challenging seasons of my own life. Culturally, I have to accept Western society (both historical and contemporary) does not allow much room for moments of grace or pause. It can be so easy to get caught up in a nostalgic spin of ‘easier’ times and forget to acknowledge everything you have now, the lessons the present moment is teaching you ready for the next season (for there is always the next season).

When things are challenging, it’s easier still to romanticize a past way of being — whether it’s a place, relationship, or even a job role. We tell ourselves the story of our past in elevated, idealized ways and neglect to take the time to see the opportunities the present might offer.

Ichi-go Ichi-e is a wonderful reminder that everything — every meeting, every experience, every path — will only happen once. Making comparisons does the experience (and you) a great disservice. You miss out on what the present is serving up. It’s a delightful nod to embrace where your feet land, put the past behind, the future aside, and really immerse yourself in the now.

How often do we allow ourselves this experience?

If you are anything like me, I’m willing to bet rarely, if ever. The idea can sound impeccably simple, while the reality of it is impossibly hard. Grounding yourself in the present does require a few mindset tweaks.

Here’s how I started inviting more Ichi-go Ichi-e into my life:

Find a Daily Moment to Embrace Presence

I’m an advocate for mindfulness and meditation, but embracing more Ichi-go Ichi-e doesn’t have to come as part of another concept.

For me, it can be simply leaving my phone at home when I walk my dog. He is so intensely joyful to be out in the wild, running in the woods or jumping in the surf on the beach, it’s completely infectious. I love seeing him enjoy himself and it reminds me to be a little carefree myself, kick off my shoes, and join him in the water.

This daily moment of presence and joy helps ground me back in my day, no matter what may have happened or what nostalgia loops I find my mind returning to.

Make Time for the People Who Matter

The humdrum of daily domestic life can so easily dominate our cognitive processes. In the mad dash to get to work on time, appointments, obligations, and the general chaos of modern life, really taking the time to be present with the loved ones you share a home with (let alone the ones who are half a world away) can be challenging.

Living on the other side of the world from my dearest friends and family often sees me plunging into nostalgia for the days when we all lived short walking distances from each other. Finding presence in this sees me sending them little voice notes, photos, or messages of ‘remember that time when …’ instead of reminiscing on my own.

Their replies bring me back to how far I’ve come since our younger days and remind me of all the decisions made to get to where I am today. A place I once coveted so highly. It’s a wonderful feeling.

Allow Room for Spontaneity

Ichi-go Ichi-e sees us finding joy in the fleeting moments and meetings we have, which also means being open and ready to take on new experiences.

I have traditionally been a stoic planner and organizer (anxiety will do that to you) but I’ve been learning to live a little looser. Instead of saying ‘I’ll come back to that when I have more time’ I’ve been trying to seize the moment.

From trying out that new coffee place to following an unmarked trail for a spontaneous bushwalk, to saying yes to last minute flights to join my partner somewhere new. Being present is keeping me open to things as they arise. For me, it’s the perfect antidote.

Accept the Season You’re In

Falling back into nostalgia and over-romanticizing the past often happens because we feel discontent about the current life season we’re in. I certainly know that’s why I often begin to look back.

The wonderful thing about a season is that it’s temporary — as all of them are. They come along and teach us some great insights about who we are and what we want. But they can only do that if we stay present in them.

"There are seasons in life. Don’t ever let anyone try to deny you the joy of one season because they believe you should stay in another season. Listen to yourself. Trust your instincts. Keep your perspective." - Jane Clayson

I love the above quote, and I love rejigging it slightly to read ‘Don’t let yourself deny you the joy of one season because you believe you should stay in another.

Embracing a small moment of Ichi-go Ichi-e likely won’t solve every challenge or problem you might be facing, or reasons for turning to nostalgia time after time.

But it’s certainly a wonderful place from which to start.


A little note of gratitude & acknowledgment: I first came across the concept of Ichi-go Ichi-e through illustrator and author Ella F Sanders, and her book ‘Lost in Translation’ — A divine illustration of uncommon words from around the world and their beautiful meanings. I highly recommend you seek out her book and give her a follow on social media.

via @ellafsanders on Instagram

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