About Living Well with Illness and the Concept of Ikigai

Trudy - TAB

Trudy Boyle

This perspective is steeped in Morita Therapy guidance, and the work of Dr. Jinroh Itami. His mantra “even though I am ill, I will not live as a sick person,” reminds us to not be defined by our illness. Thirty years ago Dr. Itami developed a unique method of addressing the non-medical needs of his patients.  He identified Five Guidelines and a variety of learning elements.  A few of these elements are noteworthy to me such as: humour; physical and mental challenges; creativity; preparing constructively for death; being an active agent in one’s own illness; developing skills to co-exist with uncertainty and fear and paying attention to our spirit of ikigai.

Ikigai, a Japanese word, means something like: a reason to get up in the morning or a reason for living. What sparks joy or brings a smile to your face? What do you love? What lights up your day and gives you a sense of purpose and meaning?  I also consider ikigai to be an attribute of living well in the present, along with things to look forward to.

These ideas do not look at serious illness through rose-coloured glasses. Rather, they look directly at the harsh reality of the situation. It is an active acceptance – something like “Yes, I do have cancer, heart disease, diabetes …”And now, with things as they are, what can I do here?”

Yet, and it is an important yet, we come to experience that serious illness doesn’t have to dominate our entire life.  Yes, there is fear, anxiety and inconvenience around treatment, side effects and mortality. However, it is possible to carve out moments to live fully, while frightened and uncertain about the future. This practical approach encourages us to pay attention to the many ways we can take action now, to enjoy a meaningful and full life, while living with illness and beyond. 

As for me, I have been fortunate for the many opportunities I have received to learn about this work from American anthropologist Dr. David K Reynolds; Dr. Ishu Ishiyama at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Itami.  Most of all, I benefited firsthand from Dr. Itami’s evidence-based vision and guidelines, while I underwent cancer treatment. Especially important is that I continue to benefit, every single day since.

John Stephure and Dr. Itami

This past 11 years, thanks to Wellspring Calgary, a cancer resource centre in Canada, I was provided the opportunity for offering these programs. It was there, where I learned from the hundreds of people affected by cancer how to apply and adapt this material for day to day living. It was and still is a privilege to work with those who were so often caught unawares by challenging and frightening life circumstances. I am inspired every single day by the courage and wholeheartedness of everyone I have met.

As the Program Director for the first few years of Wellspring’s operation, I worked together with my colleague and friend John Stephure, co-founder of Wellspring Calgary. We offered weekly Living Well workshops, and since his death, I am honoured to continue the work in different formats to make it more widely available.

I am currently based in Ottawa where I have the good fortune of participating daily in the care of my youngest grandchildren –  meal planning and cooking; math and music; adventures with Sophie and Rowan; annual cycling trips; photography, poetry and scribbling from time to time on the small joys of everyday living. It is with gratitude for being alive that I greet each new day.

This work is equally suitable for most people dealing with any serious illness as well as for caregivers.