Mono No Aware: The Empathy of Things || By Lisa Martinez, Affordable Counseling Intern for People House, ERYT 200-RYT 500

‘To know mono no aware is to discern the power and essence, not just of the moon and the cherry blossoms, but of every single thing existing in this world, and to be stirred by each of them’. — Motoori Norinaga

One of my favorite metaphors for the beauty but brevity of life is the cherry blossom. During spring, the delicate flowers of the cherry blossom tree, or sakura, represent the aromatic and vibrant beauty of life. In a few weeks, though, their abundant blooms flutter to the ground creating a snow-like carpet for spring, whispering to us the truth that life is breathtaking and fleeting.

The Japanese tradition of viewing the sakura at full bloom, called hanami, was formerly a time of prayers and offerings but is currently a time of celebration and family picnics. When our family lived in Washington D.C., each spring we looked forward to visiting the grove of flowering cherry trees, donated by the Japanese government over a century ago, surrounding the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial. Our sons played under the fragrant blooms, and we had picnics and took gorgeous pictures. I did not know why I felt a deeper appreciation for this site until a few years later when I researched the meaning in the cherry blossoms.


The beauty yet brevity of the cherry blossoms illustrates a Japanese idiom, mono no aware, meaning “the empathy of things” or the wistfulness one feels when contemplating the passing of life and time. A scholar during Japan’s Edo Period (1730-1801), Motoori Norinaga, believed that Japanese literature should reflect this concept:

“To know mono no aware is to discern the power and essence, not just of the moon and the cherry blossoms, but of every single thing existing in this world, and to be stirred by each of them.”

Thus, the concept and the hanami, or viewing of the cherry blossoms, should awaken in us a powerful sense of the exquisite value of life because of its impermanence.

Upon hearing of this interpretation of the cherry blossoms, I understood why their ephemeral beauty spoke to me. In 2002, my 14-month-old son, Benjamin, passed away in a tragic accident. Everything I knew to be real and my sense of self imploded in one moment that day. The beauty that was my son disappeared from my tangible reality. I was shattered and took years to reassemble my life. Only now, nearly 20 years later, am I feeling like the gold-repaired kintsugi pottery, broken yet sealed back together in a new way, revealing a new kind of beauty. Benjamin’s life was so very brief, yet the lessons I have gained from his life reverberate down through mine.

The beauty of spring and the cherry blossoms can bring meaning to our lives, helping us learn from the impermanence of things yet inspiring us to cherish the beauty in each moment.

Through Benjamin’s death, I have endeavored to help others process the impact of loss and discover their own sense of meaning. Death, especially when it is sudden, unexpected, or traumatic, can interrupt the natural progression and expectations of life so much so that those left grieving struggle to pick up their shattered worlds and piece them back together in a functional way. Recent research in the field of bereavement has unearthed the concept that grief is a gradual process of meaning-making as the griever attempts to restructure their world after the loss. Making meaning of the loss is a necessary part of processing grief and various cultural practices around the world have developed around this human need.

Many rituals, practices and endeavors have supported me to recreate meaning in my life after the loss of my son: my path toward becoming a therapist being one of these endeavors. This does not mean my grief is “healed” or in some way gone. To the contrary, these practices help me to process my grief throughout my life as my grief grows with me.

In my upcoming series of posts, I will explore different rituals, practices and cultural concepts which support grievers across the world to formulate a sense of meaning within the impermanence of life. Come along with me as we contemplate mono no aware and discover our human family’s ability to create meaning and find beauty in the brevity of life.


  1. What Do Cherry Blossoms Represent?
  2. Mono No Aware in Japanese Literature:
  3. Doran, G., & Downing Hansen, N. (2006). Constructions of Mexican American family grief after the death of a child: An exploratory study. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12(2), 199–211.
  4. Pearlman, L. A., Wortman, C. B., Feuer, C. A., Farber, C. H., & Rando, T. A. (2014). Treating traumatic bereavement: A practitioner’s guide. The Guilford Press.

About the Author: As a mother of six sons, Lisa’s greatest joy in life is her family. Tragically, however, in 2002, she and her husband, Aaron, lost their fourth son Benjamin in an unexpected accident. From then on, Lisa experienced a long, painful struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and deep grief. She was introduced to yoga as a daily practice to help her rest and reset her mind. After over 18 years of her personal growth as a student and a teacher of yoga, she continues to explore the relationship between spirituality, somatics and mental health. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Messiah University and is privileged to work with People House as an Affordable Counseling Intern. Upon licensure, she intends to combine her in-depth knowledge of spiritual practices, yoga, and meditation with clinical counseling techniques to offer holistic therapy to clients, focusing on grief, trauma and bereavement issues for parents.