Mono no Aware

Because my main focus when working with sustainability is aesthetics I am always intrigued when I stumble upon aesthetic philosophies, methodologies or approaches. And my latest finding is the Japanese term of mono no aware.

The term is a combination of aware, which means sensitivity, feeling or pathos, and mono, which means things. The mixture of these words, which can be translated as the pathos or the feeling of things indicates an awareness of the fleeting, impermanent nature of life, as well as a recognition of this impermanence.

Awareness of impermanence contains both sadness and appreciation. In Japanese poetry it is often described by the ephemeral nature of beauty and the melancholic, and beautiful (!), realisation that nothing lasts forever.

“If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty”

Yoshida Kenkō (Japanese poet)

Mono no aware contains an encouragement to enjoy life, to be present and to notice and appreciate our physical surroundings; the nature around us and the physical things in our milieu. It is an incentive to enjoy the pathos or the ambience of the things with which we share our lives – and it is, importantly, a hymn to the constant shifts around us (and within us) that manifest in our physical surroundings; seasons that change, trees that bloom and wither, rainstorms that move in and turn heaven and sea into one only to clear up into blueness or the red-purple bliss of a sunset, flowers that blossom for a short while and then deteriorate (and that shortly before deterioration smells the sweetest and the most alluring), fruits that are juicy and fragrant, but only last a short while before they start to rot, or animals that die and turn into food for other animals or nourish the soil beneath them. – But also the changes in our physical artefacts: traces of usage on a beloved chair, the wear and tear that manifests on a jacket or a pair of cherished trousers and that tell stories of the owner and her life and habits, or the decay of an old building that has hosted generations of people and has been moulded by their lives. Mono no aware holds an awareness of the powerful sentiments that physical objects carry and can evoke in us.

Mono no aware is consequently the ultimate ode to everything always being in flux (as a wise man thousands of years ago said): to the shifts and alterations that characterise the world we live in as well as human life. It celebrates, rather than bemoans, deterioration, decay, things and experiences coming to an end, shifts and alterations. It is a state of mind that you reach when you learn to appreciates transience and impermanence and learn that the most satisfying aesthetic nourishment is to be found in ephemerality and in the changes in and around us. It is a state of acceptance and it brings harmony.

Another thought-provoking aspect of mono no aware is that it underlines the human tendency to clinginess as a major obstacle on our path towards fulfilment. Mono no aware celebrate Mujo. Mujo is a word originated in Buddhism, and summarily it means impermanence, transience or mutability.
Mujo is a particularly important concept to understand in relation to the human strive for happiness. If all things are impermanent and hence never-ending subjects to change, the human need for persistence and security, which materialises in our tendency to accumulate lots of possessions that we store in our increasingly big home-boxes doesn’t make much sense. The result of this clinginess and heaviness is the unsatisfactory nature of ordinary, unenlightened human existence. We seem to think that by changing nothing we can capture and secure the status quo – but as everything is always in flux, including our own minds and desires, this is the direct pathway to dissatisfaction. Being overly attached and forcefully trying to fixate and hold on to things and situations causes what in Buddhism is called Ku, which translated to emptiness. Our lives are not fixed, but dynamic, constantly changing and evolving.

The above conclusion makes me wonder about two things: 1. why most things are created out of materials that last for a very, very long time, well almost forever, and 2. why more things are not designed to be alterable, moudable, or even fleeting. I will return to these questions in a forthcoming post, as they are closely interrelated with my anti-trend research.

If you want to read more about mono no aware I recommend this description of Japanese aesthetics, this article on mono no aware as well as this one, and this book.

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