Be here in this moment. Sacred, I'm saying your name.
The Japanese have a saying ‘ichi-go ichi-e’ (一期一会) meaning ‘one time, one meeting’. It roughly translates to the idea that we live ‘each moment, only once’ and that the value of each encounter is that it happens only once in a lifetime.
I was introduced to the concept of ichigo ichie at a Japanese tea ceremony in Kyoto. Being a tea lover, I jumped at the opportunity to sit inside a century-old tea room and experience the artistic display of tradition and hospitality. Our tea hostess was captivating – a graceful lady in her sixties with an unhurried elegance and a quiet passion. I intently watched her transfer the hot water from a cast iron cauldron with a wooden ladle into ceramic bowls before whisking the matcha tea and serving us. I was overcome with the feeling of beauty and intense presence.
The Japanese have a way of doing things – it is slow and measured, with everyday gestures being undertaken with reverence and intimacy. I frequently got goosebumps while traveling in Japan, like when watching someone gift wrap something for me in a shop or when sitting at the counter of a tiny restaurant and seeing my meal being prepared.
The phrase ‘ichigo ichie’ was coined by Ii Naosuke, the Japanese tea master who lived from 1815-1860. The story goes that he was constantly threatened with assassination and so he made his tea each day as if it were his last. Every time he made it, he said the tea was unique and more beautiful than the time before. He knew that he would never have the chance to drink another tea exactly like the one he had just made, and so ichigo ichie is a way to understand and embrace the impermanence of life. In the words of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.
Fast-forward a few centuries, and the term is still used in Japan today. Interestingly, the Japanese subtitle for the widely loved Forrest Gump is ichigo ichie, perhaps as a nod to all the chance encounters and serendipitous moments in the film.
After attending my first tea ceremony in Kyoto, I sought out and found the oldest tea room in Japan in Uji (the birthplace of green tea) and Wazuka (famous green tea town). Since then, the concept of intense presence is something I am trying to incorporate into my everyday life. The simplest way I do this is with my morning cup of sencha – where I make a ritual out of boiling the water to 80 degrees, wait for the steeping time of 50 seconds, and pour until the last drop called the ‘golden drops’ as they have the richest flavour of the tea. Some mornings I try to multitask and burn the tea leaves, or I look away for 10 seconds which turns into 10 minutes and have over brewed in oblivion. I’m learning to:
Always sip tea as if it were life itself. – Lu Yu
Being present sounds remarkably simple, but in reality, it can be tricky.
How Ichigo Ichie Can Teach You Intense Presence
- Every encounter only happens once and cannot be replicated: Savour every interaction and experience you have as it can never be recreated or relived. Nothing will happen in the same way again.
- Every single person you meet can change you: Be open to new people as every other stranger could be a kindred spirit that you were meant to meet. Often the person we least expect can make us feel the most alive.
- Be fully yourself with loved ones and friends: Being present is a lifelong challenge and often the hardest to do with the ones closest to us. Put your phone away, be fully with loved ones and friends, and don’t miss out on all the good things in front of you.
- All experience stand-alone and will never be repeated in the same way: Trust that every encounter is in fact, once in a lifetime. Say yes to random opportunities and spontaneous invitations that come your way.
In truth, ichigo ichie can be a downer. By nature, we want to eat our favourite foods again, relive happy holidays, repeat life affirming experiences and hold onto the people we love. In short, ichigo ichie can be a gentle reminder that there is no guarantee that anything will happen again and so it encourages us to act with intense presence because, in fact - this is it.
Be present when it matters most.
Everything can wait except what is happening right now.
The reward for paying attention is you can lose yourself and find yourself.
Perhaps it can start with a cup of tea and nowhere to be.
Listen to my playlist Ichigo Ichie on Spotify – a story of songs about how everything in life happens just once.