Yūgen: Achieving a Deep Awareness of the Universe

Have you ever stared at a landscape and felt overwhelmed by its depth and mystery? It's a difficult sensation to explain. However, Eastern philosophy knows the feeling well and defines it as yūgen.
Yūgen: Achieving a Deep Awareness of the Universe
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 31 December, 2022

When was the last time you felt that something seemed rather deep to you? Sometimes, a saying, a poem, a story, or even a specific scenario can arouse this emotion in you. It’s transcendent and valuable and behind it lies certain interesting meanings. It’s a unique experience that’s difficult to put into words, but one that everyone understands.

We might even say that experiencing the sensation of depth removes the layers of egoism from our psychological inflexibility. It invites you to open up to an interesting reality that enriches you, excites you, and, in turn, enlightens you in some way. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend a lifetime looking for elements that make you feel this way?

It was the Eastern world that first explored this concept, more specifically the Japanese. Indeed, Japanese culture adopted a term of Chinese origin, yūgen, to describe the mystery caused by the phenomena that generate a sense of depth in the human being. It was given such relevance that it became one of the seven basic foundations of Zen philosophy.

The idea that the mysteries of our world are deep and can’t be explained in words is an idea deeply rooted in all forms of art.

Yūgen is a subtle combination between what generates inspiration and introspection at the same time. It connects us with beauty and also with ourselves and invites us to reflect.

girl before road thinking about the Yūgen
Yūgen is a concept that many Japanese poets have worked on.

Yūgen, the beauty of mystery that can’t be explained

The first time the term yūgen was heard in the West was thanks to the philosopher, D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966). In fact, he was one of the greatest promoters of Zen in the world. He described it as a feeling whereby the human mind identifies with the totality of a particular phenomenon. All of a sudden, something that was finite appears to become infinite.

However, it seems that, by trying to define the sensation of depth, we take away its magic. Perhaps it was for this reason that they assimilated the concept of yūgen in the  East, to transfer to art, as a suitable means for awakening this kind of experience. In the 12th century, figures such as the monk-poet Saigyo, a lover of the beauty of nature, attempted to convey feelings of pain, melancholy, and symbolic transcendence in his poems, and thus capture the essence of Zen.

Drops of dew
Strung on strands
of spider webs –
such are the trappings
that deck out this world

-Saigyo-

The art of knowing how to observe and feel

Alan Watts, the well-known British philosopher, was also really passionate about Zen philosophy and the concept of yūgen. He saw it daily in the skies where the wild geese often disappeared into the thick clouds. Also, when walking through areas furthest away from civilization, where nature triumphed over the advances of man.

An abandoned railway line, a lake at dawn, a castle in ruins after a stormy afternoon. Yūgen is an intoxicating experience that only arises in those who know how to calmly observe and allow themselves to feel the strangeness of nature, of the human being and art.

According to Watts, most of us live in survival mode and are obsessed with understanding reality. However, in order to experience yūgen, we need to escape from our ordinary mental patterns and just feel. Nothing more. Because not everything has an explanation in this life. Indeed, embracing mystery makes us wise and appeases our anxiety to give meaning to every aspect surrounding us.

“You must leave your subjective concern with yourself. Otherwise, you impose yourself on the object and you do not learn. Your poetry arises by itself when you and the object have become one, when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see. No matter how well expressed your poetry, if your feeling is not natural, if the object and yourself are separate, then your poetry is not true poetry, but simply your subjective falsification.”

-Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)-

The essence of yūgen is everywhere

Yūgen isn’t about imagining another world that allows you to escape from this one. Yūgen is an invitation for you to appreciate the mystery of the world in which you live. You can experience it in any setting that awakens an inspiring feeling of both depth and confusion.

Moreover, it can occur anywhere. For instance, when there’s a book or a person whose conversation makes you experience the feeling. In these instances, what you read and hear is transcendent, valid, wise, and enriching. These perceptions are fuel for your brain, which often becomes rusty due to your daily routines, your rushing around, and all the new technologies you’re surrounded by.

Alan Watts pointed out that it’s useful to pay attention to the thresholds. The doors, the windows, the holes in the trees, the hills, the clouds, the puddles… Places where you can submerge your mind. Later, when you return home, there’s nothing better than taking a pencil and paper and describing what you felt. In fact, there are mysterious corners in everyday life where the essence of yūgen is hidden.

man thinking about the Yūgen
Nature is an ideal setting to connect with the essence of yūgen.

The feeling of depth often resides in sad realities

The University of Geneva conducted a study in 2017 which suggested that we usually reflect on the depth of life by reading books that tell sad stories. The same happens with any story or anecdote that we hear that awakens our emotions.

Somehow, yūgen lies in your empathic capacity and in your emotional connection with the reality of others. There are certain facts that move you and make you discover the beauty and significance that lies in all of us. In fact, the concept of Zen philosophy is everywhere, including in your heart.

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  • Cova, Florian & Deonna, Julien & Sander, David. (2017). “That’s Deep!”: The Role of Being Moved and Feelings of Profundity in the Appreciation of Serious Narratives. 10.1007/978-3-319-63303-9_13.
  • Matsuo Basho: The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches; translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. London: Penguin, 1966. Additional references: R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku (2 vols.). Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1964; T. D. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.