The sadness of impermanence – Mono no aware

Mono no aware (物の哀れ), literally “the pathos of things”, and also translated as “an empathy toward things”, or “a sensitivity to ephemera”, is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常, mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) (Wiki).  The beauty of impermanence is in allowing some optimism over the passage of time. It is in extending and enjoying the embrace with our beloveds while it still exists, before entropy takes over.

Here are a few examples:

The self of fleeting disappearing dew


Life is like a set piece of fireworks


The fog rolls on saying goodbye


Impermanence is impossible to escape. Change is inevitable.

We can let the awareness that all things end wake us up to the importance of enjoying things or finding the courage to experience things when they are happening, knowing we may never pass this way again.

However, if we work with the breathing and other practices of awareness, we may begin to feel a greater ease with and acceptance of the inescapable reality of impermanence.

Try this practice and notice if it helps you feel more present:

  1. Pay particular attention to the breath coming in.
  2. Notice the physical sensations of breathing.
  3. Continue to pay attention to the “in-breath.” Notice yourself being here, right now.
  4. Shift your attention to the sensation of the breath leaving the body.

In this basic act of breathing in and out, we have the experience of impermanence. Our breath comes in, our breath goes out. If we try to hold on to either, we die.

“Perhaps when we are in love, we are also kind of sad.  There is a sadness to the ecstasy.  Beautiful things sometimes can make us a little sad, and it is because what they hint at is the exception, a vision of something more, a vision of a hidden door, a rabbit hole to fall through but a temporary one and I think that ultimately that is kind of a tragedy.  That is why love simultaneously fills us with melancholy. So that’s why sometimes I feel nostalgic over something I haven’t lost yet, because I see its transience. 

And so, how does one respond to this?  Do we love harder? Do we squeeze tighter? Or do we embrace the Buddhist creed of no attachment? Do we pretend not to care that everything and everyone we know is going to be taken away from us?  I don’t know if I can accept that.  I think I side with the Dylan Thomas quote, “I will not go quietly into that good night but instead rage against the dying of the light.”  I think that we defy entropy and impermanence with our films and our poems.  I think we hold onto each other a little harder and say I will not let go.  I do not accept the ephemeral nature of this moment.  I’m going to extend it forever.  Or at least I’m going to try.”

Jason Silva – philosopher

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