An awareness of things: Mono no aware
Today’s post is a quick one. In pursuit of monotasking, there is one path that I find quite powerful and it’s an “awareness of things”: being conscious of things and the world around you. It can be anything - a shirt, a mug, a chair, a bird, a flower, a cloud, a sound. Just be aware of it and pay it your full attention.
This concept comes from the Japanese term “mono no aware” which has a long history (the last word is pronounced a-wa-RE, not “aware” like in English). From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The meaning of the phrase mono no aware is complex and has changed over time, but it basically refers to a “pathos” (aware) of “things” (mono), deriving from their transience. In the classic anthology of Japanese poetry from the eighth century, Manyōshū, the feeling of aware is typically triggered by the plaintive calls of birds or other animals. […]
The most frequently cited example of mono no aware in contemporary Japan is the traditional love of cherry blossoms, as manifested by the huge crowds of people that go out every year to view (and picnic under) the cherry trees. […] It is precisely the evanescence of their beauty that evokes the wistful feeling of mono no aware in the viewer.
Here is how you can practice it: Choose something, anything around you, and really look at it. See the color, the shape. If you can hold it feel the weight and texture in your hands. Consider all that had to happen for that things to come to you. And reflect on everything that will become of it, likely even after you die. And breathe.
The sound of the Gion shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sōla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. (The Tale of the Heike Clan)
When you wake feel the sheets. When you eat, notice the food. When you type, listen to the sound and feel the keyboard. When you put on clothes, feel the texture and fully recognize and become aware of the fabric. When you are outside notice the breeze and the shadows. This is mono no aware.
If I’m on a walk and I have a hard time paying attention and recognizing the beauty of a bird, a tree, or a cloud then I am not truly present. It’s a sign to stop and come back to center. Jonathan Franzen once wrote about his love of birds and this encounter with David Foster Wallace:
David wrote about weather as well as anyone who ever put words on paper, and he loved his dogs more purely than he loved anything or anyone else, but nature itself didn’t interest him, and he was utterly indifferent to birds. Once, when we were driving near Stinson Beach, in California, I’d stopped to give him a telescope view of a long-billed curlew, a species whose magnificence is to my mind self-evident and revelatory. He looked through the scope for two seconds before turning away with patent boredom. “Yeah,” he said with his particular tone of hollow politeness, “it’s pretty.” In the summer before he died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was studying the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.