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Ichigo Ichie and Shoshin: Cultivating Inspiration in Your Daily Life
These two Japanese concepts shed a new light on how inspiration and creative thinking work
Jun 12th, 2020 | 6 min read

To live life creatively, you need inspiration. But don’t let the name fool you. This isn’t the inspiration we’re used to hearing about. It’s not the gift of a muse. It’s not an elusive, temporary magic. Inspiration is everywhere. It’s not a matter of it coming to you, but rather your awareness that it is already here.

Inspiration is merely stimulation by a creative energy or urge. When you’re inspired, you feel the desire, combined with the feeling of power to make something happen. We often experience inspiration as though it came out of nowhere — from outside.

We train ourselves to think that inspiration somehow lives outside of us — that it resides in the world and not within us. This notion is a bit absurd when considered carefully. A simple thought experiment can illustrate that.

Where Does Inspiration Come From?

Think of a time you’ve been inspired from seemingly out of nowhere. It might have been while you were walking on a forest path, washing the dishes, or taking a shower. You were simply going about your business, and then (boom!) an idea came to you.

But if it came to you, where did it come from? From the trees in the forest? Was it hiding in the bark of the pines and firs, mixed in with sap and cellulose? Was the inspiration locked in the dishwater, when you finally scrubbed it loose? Did it waft up to your nose from the sink while you breathed it in? Perhaps there was a bit of inspiration clinging to your showerhead, and when you stepped under it, it ran down your hair and somehow got into your soul.

The point of this exercise is to illustrate how ridiculous it is to think that inspiration comes from anywhere but within you. Inspiration isn’t hiding out there waiting to be discovered. It resides inside us. We need only be receptive to it.

This receptivity is the key. When we are able to relax and be in the moment, we become receptive. We experience the world in a more robust way when we pay attention to the things stirring within us. We can also be more mindful of how things influence us, which is really how inspiration happens. Yes, objects in the world may affect us, but the inspiration is inside of us.

We cannot afford to live with the misguided notion that everything worthwhile comes from the world around us. We build the expectation that we will be entertained by others, exhilarated by stimulus or events external to us. And all it does is weaken our own potential to be inspired and create. Inspiration is here now, in every moment.

There is no moment that has more potential in it than any other, it’s just that we only see this potential when we are looking for it. This is why creativity needs to be understood in the right context. Part of being creative is toeing the line between having a pre-existing vision, but also allowing this vision to be shaped by what you experience.

Inspiration comes from allowing moments to work their magic on you. But these moments won’t leave any lasting marks on you if you’re not open, if you’re not receptive, or if your judgements blind you to the potential in each moment.

Ichigo Ichie: This Magic Moment

Sometimes translated as “for this time only,” the concept of ichigo ichie comes from the tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony and is attributed to tea master Lu Yu. The phrase is an invitation to approach each moment with reverence, aware of its undeniable value and fleeting nature.

This precise moment— wherever you are, whomever you’re with and whatever the circumstances, will never occur again. The experience you’re having right now is utterly unique. There is always the possibility of gaining something new, of learning, of growing — as a result of being fully present in this moment.

This isn’t a controversial idea, and it meshes with even a scientific understanding of the universe. After all, think of all the molecules, cells, thoughts, and feelings that make up each moment. It’s hard to argue that everything in this moment has been arranged in exactly this way once before.

Despite this, we spend a lot of energy behaving as if the opposite were true. We go about our lives in a blur of charging forward toward our plans, goals and bucket lists. We get tunnel vision. The time between plans and our desired future outcome becomes a blur. We stop acknowledging ichigo ichie.

We do this at our own peril. “Life happening” while we are making other plans, is the series of moments that make up a life–which greatly outnumber the plans we make and their desired outcomes. In his book Way of Tea: Reflections on a Life with Tea, Aaron Fisher invokes Master Lu Yu to point out the value of recognizing mere moments.

Lu Yu reminds us to “always sip tea as if it were life itself,” and I would go a step further and say it is life itself… We find in tea an ability to connect with the world and others. Tea changes our perception, simplifying and sanctifying moments we might have otherwise ignored.”

As any tea master will tell you, every cup of tea is different. What makes a good tea master is his or her ability to fully recognize and appreciate the uniqueness in each cup. When you leave behind the expectations we set for what cup initially was, and immersing ourselves in that unique sip of that unique cup, then we are adopting what Zen masters call shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” Shoshin asks that we do not carry the baggage of expectations to each moment. That we begin to gain insight when we savor even the craziest of circumstances.

Shoshin: The Beginner’s Mind

The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki is credited as one of the first people to bring Zen to America, having founded the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia. His book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is a short, accessible, yet enlightening book about how a better state of mind is well within our reach. In his book, Suzuki talks about the concept of “beginner’s mind” as a state that is clean, fresh — unmarked by assumptions, experience, and the weight of judgment. In the book, he writes; “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

The point Suzuki is trying to make is that we live our lives under the shadow of our accumulated beliefs and judgments. The more we think of ourselves as experts, the less room we leave ourselves to explore new ways of approaching ideas. We all have problems in our lives, and they all require some sort of solution. However, the more we think we know all the possibilities, the less likely we are to try something truly new. We’ll stick to our judgements and experiences, and we’ll likely get the same results.

Suzuki’s request is that we approach each moment without the baggage of the past or the future. If we can do that, we can realize the truth of ichigo ichie, and bask in the present moment. When we can ditch our experiential baggage, we can get rid of the influences that narrow our minds. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it is productive, attainable and lends itself to a fresh perspective. It’s about emptying your mind. Simply approach each situation as new and different. If possible, pay close attention, listen, feel. Sometimes, things become clear to you in those moments of stillness.

Adopting a beginner’s mind allows you to become more attuned to moments in a way that the expert mind can’t. In living this way, we collect handfuls of unique experiences. We allow ourselves to be shaped by them. We change. We grow. We become wiser. We maintain various imperfections, but we also have a path that we can appreciate having taken. We become wabi-sabi.

This piece is adapted from an excerpt of my book The Wabi-Sabi Way— available wherever books are sold. You can find more information about it here.

This article was written by Mike Sturm.
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