What is my "purpose" ? What gives meaning to my life? What is my ikigai?
Though not necessarily new, these thoughts have recently been cropping up in my mind with a level of intensity that is now fast becoming obtrusive. I tried to shake it off and go about my day with a sense of normalcy, but in vain. The existentialism doubts loom large.
In a recent airport trip, I stopped at a book stall to browse. Always guilty of impulsive purchases when it comes to the written word, I picked up three books that caught my eye for various reasons. One of them, was a small book called Japonisme by Erin Niimi Longhurst. (I confess, one of the reasons of picking up this book was the aesthetically pleasing, minimalist hard cover design)
A British Japanese author, Erin Niimi Longhurst dedicates the first section of her book to writing about Kokoro - heart and mind. A big part of nourishing your Kokoro is finding "what drives us to do what we do (ikigai) and what brings us joy..."
What is the thing that keeps you interested, gives you focus, and instills a deep sense of satisfaction? When you have an answer to that question, you know what your ikigai is.
A Japanese word, ikigai is a combination of “iki” (生き), which translates to “life,” and “gai” (甲斐) which translates to "value" or "worth".
Books, Resources and Information abound on the concept. According to the book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, ikigai roughly translates to “the happiness of always being busy”, and goes beyond a person’s pursuit of the meaning of life. In a way it means the opposite of the Hindu concept of Nirvana which is a state of material detachment and liberation. Ikigai celebrates the state of being and finding joy through purpose.
Best selling writer, neuroscientist and broadcaster Ken Mogi states in his 2017 book, The Little Book of Ikigai: The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life, that it doesn’t matter whether “you are a cleaner of the famous Shinkansen bullet train, the mother of a newborn child or a Michelin-starred sushi chef’ – if you can find pleasure and satisfaction in what you do and you’re good at it, congratulations you have found your ikigai.”
Which begs the question - what gives my life meaning?
My ikigai quest
I begin my quest to find my "reason to get up in the morning". Ken Mogi identifies 5 pillars to ikigai:
Pillar 1: Starting small
Focus on the details, and doing each task with meaning and commitment.
Now when you're setting yourself on the path of transforming your life and finding its purpose, the mere thought may make you feel overwhelmed. After all, one of the reasons for inertia setting in is the false sense of comfort in maintaining the "status quo".
Start small - the scale of the task doesn't matter, what matters is that you do it with commitment and thoughtfulness. Every task you take up today, holds some meaning so dedicate yourself to it. As I creased out the folds on my bedcover, hung washed clothes to dry, and arranged flowers in a vase for my bedroom, I felt the freshness seep into my very being imbibing a sense of calm and order. On a side note, a clean room really does do wonders for your mental peace.
But I also stumbled along the way. A task I set myself today was to read a chapter of a new book. I struggled a lot with it - my brain felt rusty and I was continuously distracted by my phone. But the idea is to persevere. The Japanese believe in kodawari (relentless pursuit of perfection). So I don't give up, but go on with each small step
Pillar 2: Releasing yourself
Accept yourself, and give yourself permission to change your mind.
Ken Mogi gives an example of Japanese porcelain wares to illustrate this. Amongst many connoisseurs of Japanese porcelain, it is a common belief that the wares of yesteryears have a purity of art that is missing in the wares of modern artists. It is said, this is because the modern artist is to concerned about ensuring their art best represents their self, their signature style and identity. They see their art as an extension to their self. In contrast, the ancient artists concerned themselves in making art for the sake of art. They took joy in the process and the work, leading to art that was devoid of any "ego".
So leaving behind my concerns of self preservation and self promotion, I am practicing writing for the sake of enjoying it. Not to scrutinize, judge, or compare (an extremely difficult task) but just do. One of the things that I missed most in life was my inquisitiveness to learn, my appetite to read, and the satisfaction I got from journaling. Et voilà, I forced myself to make this blog. Will this blog help me find my ikigai? I don't know yet. But it's a start.
Pillar 3:Harmony and sustainability
Rely and engage with others around you, form your community.
Sustainability as a way of life, is not just about the harmonious relation between humans and the environment but also between other humans in a social context.
Japanologist, Ikigai coach and author of IKIGAI - KAN, Nicholas Kemp quotes, "Everytime we meet with someone, rather than thinking of our own selfish immediate needs, if we can think beyond that, it would create harmony and sustainability".
The trick is to balance your actions and words out with thoughtfulness. I confess, this is a tough one for me. I'm prone to blurting out my thoughts and my facial expressions are a very transparent reflection of my inner most feelings (these days, its irritation more often than not, though I'm hoping my ikigai journey can rectify this) . Luckily, an offshoot of trying to figure my life's purpose is the realisation of the type of person I want to be. A more graceful, poised and considerate version of myself that thinks before she speaks. As Thumper the rabbit says in Disney's Bambi "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." Let's start there.
Pillar 4:The joy of little things
Appreciate the sensory pleasures and fill yourself with gratitude.
I decided to make a list of the small changes I can bring about to my life that will help my day be more meaningful (incidentally, "making lists" topped my list because it helped me feel organize my thoughts and give me a "mission" to fulfill). As I went through the list I started noticing that there was a common denominator - and I feel a detour to another cultural term is required here. Hygge.
The words' etymology can be traced to a sixteenth century Norwegian word, hugga, which similar to it's English sonic counterpart "hug" denotes "to comfort" or "to console". Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and author of the bestseller, The Little Book of Hygge : The Danish Way To Live Well says "Hygge has been translated as everything from the art of creating intimacy to cosiness of the soul to taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things. My personal favourite is cocoa by candlelight..."
My morning cup of rose tea, arranging fresh flowers in my room, a cold morning shower and a hot shower before sleep, my skincare routine, video calling my dog, reading a good book without distractions and cuddling with my partner. These are my hygge - it relaxes me, is a way of indulging myself, and fills me with gratitude for the happiness and health I usually take for granted.
Pillar 5:Being in the here and now
Be mindful and find your flow
This is a natural extension of Pillar 4. In order to appreciate the small things in life, its important to be present and mindful. In the rush of modern life and multitasking, its the easiest to neglect being present. Practicing meditation and yoga is another way to reset yourself in the morning. The simple act of concentrating on your breathing for 10 min, gives much needed calmness and clarity, making your next steps that much grounded and organic.
Putting my phone on silent at the end of a work day, paying attention to the conversation with the person in front of me, and just dedicating myself to finish one task at a time, are some of the methods I use to centre myself in the here and now.
Learning about ikigai was the simple bit. Now comes the stressful, application bit. Some people go through their entire lives without realising their ikigai. Others take a lifetime to just practice and achieve a semblance of their potential ikigai. And just like life, your ikigai can change and evolve over time.
So have I found my ikigai? Nope. I've only just begun my journey with a mindfulness that was clearly lacking before. The aim is to be sustainable and consistent with my efforts, and enjoy the process. Afterall, ikigai is as much about finding contentment within the journey as it is about deriving contentment from the end result.