How the Japanese Concept of Ichigo Ichie Can Tune You in to Your Life

Magical coincidences are about attention to moments, not luck.

Deep within the narrow streets of Gion, in the heart of Kyoto, sits a rustic chashitsu, or tea house. That old neighborhood is home to the last remaining geishas and untold mysteries of a fading way of life; in the spring, its cobblestone roads are carpeted in fallen sakura petals. It is in that tearoom that particularly observant visitors might notice a wooden plaque hung from a brown pillar. It bears the inscription: 一期一会

Pronounced ichigo ichie, its meaning is something like this: What we are experiencing right now will never happen again. We must value each moment like a beautiful treasure. We must become moment hunters.

One way to consider the transformative weight of single moments is through the famous chaos theory concept of the butterfly effect. The term is associated with the adage that “a butterfly beating its wings in Hong Kong can unleash a storm in New York.” In other words, any change, no matter how small, ends up triggering completely different circumstances due to a process of amplification.

The crucial connection between ichigo ichie and the butterfly effect is this: Though we never know the final consequences of our actions and decisions, every moment holds an essential value. What you do now will have a unique and totally different result from what you might do at another time.

Ichigo ichie encompasses both the idea of observing and cherishing each moment, and the practice of harnessing that attention to achieve harmony with others and love of life. The teachings of Zen, the Japanese version of Buddhism, give us many opportunities to incorporate ichigo ichie into our daily lives. The following eight guidelines are particularly useful for honing the power of observation:

1. Just sit and see what happens: Our spiritual short-sightedness often causes us to look far away — in space and time — for what’s really right in front of us. Zen teaches us to simply sit and embrace the moment, with no further ambitions than this. If we are with other people, we celebrate their company as a gift.

2. Savor this moment as if it were your last breath: You can live only one day at a time, and no one can be certain that they will wake up the next morning. So let’s not postpone happiness. The best moment of your life is always this one.

3. Avoid distractions: An old Japanese proverb says that a hunter who takes aim at two prey at once will kill none. The same thing happens when we try to follow a conversation or read a book at the same time as checking our phone. Zen teaches us to do one thing at a time, as if it were the most important thing in the world. If you do it that way, it undoubtedly will be.

4. Free yourself from everything that isn’t essential: One can recognize an expert traveler more by what they leave at home than what they carry in their suitcase. Life is a thrilling adventure through which it’s best to travel light, so every day, whenever you feel overburdened, ask yourself, “What can I let go of?”

5. Be your own friend: Rather than comparing yourself to others and worrying about what other people think, assume that you are unique in the world.

6. Celebrate imperfection: If not even nature in all its complexity, with all its births and deaths, is perfect, then why should you be? Each failure is a sign that you should take a different path. Each flaw is an invitation to polish a diamond. If you have the will to improve, then it’s perfect to be imperfect.

7. Practice compassion: From a Buddhist perspective, feeling sorry for someone doesn’t mean feeling pity but rather a profound empathy that allows us to travel toward the situation of the other to understand their motivations and, if necessary, their mistakes. Each person acts according to the moment of personal growth in which they find themselves. Even when they behave in hateful ways, it’s the best they can do with what they have.

8. Let go of your expectations: Making predictions, waiting for certain things to happen, is a guaranteed way to kill the moment. Ichigo ichie is experienced with the uncluttered mind taught by Zen.

Another way to hone attention is to keep a diary. Writing down our day-to-day experiences makes us more aware of the nuances of reality and trains us to pick up on the subtle messages of chance.

Finally, practicing meditation can help us to recognize coincidences more easily. Meditating anchors us in the moment, where coincidences appear, and it increases the bandwidth of our perception.

When we experience — truly experience — special moments, it’s as if life is letting us know we’re on the right path. We are living ichigo ichie.

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