Principles To Re-Inspire How We Approach Modern Service

Originally published here for the Institute of Organizational Mindfulness.


Ichi-go Ichi-e is a Japanese parable translating to One Encounter, One Opportunity. It’s become the slogan of the practice of tea ceremony, which for many Asian cultures is the quintessential means of practicing mindfulness through action. It reveals how doing a simple daily ritual with a fullness of intention and heart can have a transformative effect on how you live your entire life.

You’re Always Serving Tea

That title is my Zen teacher’s version of “how you do anything is how you do everything.” The more you practice mindfulness through serving something as simple as tea, the more all of life becomes this same opportunity to connect more deeply with yourself and others through the quality of your action. Tea ceremony brings an important ingredient to mindfulness practice, taking us beyond simply awareness of the moment but into gratitude for everything in it – every tool you handle, every sip you enjoy, every smile you exchange, all done with total reverence.

For me, tea ceremony is the quintessential mindful service practice. Practicing mindfulness through serving tea to another person or people expands the power of this grateful state of presence, unifying the person serving with the person being served, regardless of social position.

What Helps Us Live More Presently? Imminent Death

The phrase Ichi-go Ichi-e is credited to Ii Naosuke, a high-ranking government official of Japan’s 19th century Tokugawa Shogunate. The heated politics of the time forced him to reconcile with the fact that his assassination was inevitable. His intimacy with his own mortality deepened his connection to and practice of tea ceremony. What’s a better way to appreciate this life than the understanding that it could all be taken away at any moment?

Ichi-go Ichi-e For Lockdown Living

A lot of people in a service role may have complained about its challenges and inconveniences, but now miss the opportunities it provided to connect with others and bring a lift to their day. And maybe we’re sitting in confinement, swearing that we’ll make the most of our service role when daily life restarts. And given the chance, surely we might appreciate it for a bit, but then could easily see our work lose its luster as we once again allow the daily grind of it shade our enthusiasm.

Well guess what, you don’t need samurais lurking outside to appreciate the opportunities for joyful connection all around. The life we know could always be taken from us in an instant. It doesn’t take any extra set of skills to transform your life and how you serve anything or anybody in it. All it takes is the willingness to discover the little features of the present moment we could have gratitude and reverence for. If it sounds too morbid to serve like you’re going to die, just serve with the appreciation that this moment will die and the only thing that makes sense is taking the one opportunity to embrace its uniqueness and share that experience with the people you serve.