A Wistful Meditation on Mono no aware

By Michael W. Harris

N.B.—I wrote this post prior to Tuesday, November 8. Look to the end for a post-election postscript.

The sun sets over the Boulder Public Library on a Saturday Evening in November.
The sun sets over the Boulder Public Library on a Saturday Evening in November.

All things considered, this has been a fairly mild autumn in Boulder, CO. We have had scattered days of temperatures in the 80s with most days having been in the 70s or mid to upper 60s and mornings rarely dipping below freezing. Despite this, the green has slowly faded from the world with the exception of the evergreen pines of Colorado, and I can’t help but begin think more about the cycles of life and death and the concept of mono no aware.

Mono no aware is a concept in Japanese aesthetics that translates literally as “the pathos of things.” However, it is better to think of it as an appreciation of the impermanence of life, a wistful sadness that comes with the knowledge that all things end. But unlike how life and death are treated in most Western cultures, this concept does not trigger an existential crisis on how life is pointless, or cause one to suddenly take up religion and a belief in the afterlife.

No, it is an acceptance of this fundamental condition of reality. Yes, there is a twinge of sadness, but it also fosters a deep appreciation of life while it is there. The annual cherry blossom celebrations are a manifestation of this as the blossoms only bloom for a few weeks every year. The blossoms are prized for not only their beauty, but also their brief existence.

I think about this when I contemplate fall. It is a weird season. It is the transition from summer to winter, yet in American culture it is the start of the school year and so it also feels like a time for new beginnings rather than endings. But it is a time of endings. The life that emerges in spring and flourishes into summer dies in fall. For this reason, Americans, and the West, seem to have so much of our lives backwards.

Maybe this is because American society still aligns so much of our lives to the routines, rituals, and schedules of farmers, but this seems like the wrong way to do things in a modern society. We have so many things backwards when it comes to aligning our lives to the cycle of nature, at least emotionally.

Our cycles should begin in spring and close in fall. Not begin in fall and close in spring.

So maybe we should take a page from this Japanese emotion and aesthetic. Instead of celebrating death and fear in fall, as we do with Halloween, maybe we should embrace the wistful sadness of mono no aware come autumn. Embrace the impermanence of existence instead of fearing it. Maybe then we won’t be so focused on hording all that we can for ourselves while we are alive and instead live in peace with each other.

I know this is a very odd post from me, but sometimes I feel wistful and have to write about it.


P.S.—Maybe now more than ever we need a reminder of the ephemerality of all things, especially our lives. But we might also consider the ephemeral nature of our politics and nation-states. No nation, no kingdom, no empire has lasted forever, which is a good thing. And maybe it is time for America to either accept that its time has passed or else accept that our current system of election and governance has outlived its usefulness and it is time for a renewal.

Though for this to happen, we would need to not only accept the impermanence of ourselves, but also our institutions. For so long, our politics have been dominated by the opposing ideologies of conservative vs. liberal, which can also be read as looking towards the past vs. looking towards the future. This was made explicit by Trump’s slogan to make our country great “again,” implying that what was past can, and more importantly SHOULD, be what we strive to be.

The liberals are no angels in this, but at least they look toward the future with promise and excitement at the unknown. They are still, however, as cravenly focused on seizing and holding onto power as the conservatives are. And until we accept that our power will never last, and learn to let go, then our lives will continue to cycle back and forth between hope and despair, and probably with ever greater fequency.

We need to think of others first, not ourselves, and this includes those who will only be born years from now. We are impermanent beings in an impermanent world. All things will pass away. Yes, we should be sad about this, but not fearful.

Fear leads to Anger.
Anger leads to Hate.
Hate leads to Suffering.


P.P.S. – As I post this Boulder, CO, is having its first snow of the season.

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