So here is the bad news first. There are no magic pills to take away life’s sorrows, confrontations, unwanted diagnosis and horrible outcomes. The fact that we are alive means that we will be faced many times with the “full catastrophe” of living our lives. Just as Zorba the Greek reminded us.
Taking this program will not prevent or cure anything either. Consequently, it also won’t make the difficult things more palatable. It isn’t about pretending that things are different than they are.
So why bother?
Because, there are practical skills that we can learn, which can be of help in times of trouble, to keep our boat afloat. We may have little forward motion during the storms, but we won’t sink.
The spirit of Wholehearted Living, is rooted in Dr. Itami’s Meaningful LifeTherapy, (Ikigai Ryhoko) which offers a perspective contained in the tiny Japanese word, Ikigai. The word is a combination of iki and gai, which means, respectively, to live and meaning/value/purpose. It essentially means something like, “a reason to get up in the morning.”
Here in the west, Ikigai is becoming more popular but it often comes with a distortion of the original meaning. It frequently implies finding your “life’s purpose.” You may also see the word associated in business, with a Venn diagram showing four sections and several sub-sections, labeled something like this:
- what do you love
- what are you good at
- what does the world need
- what are you paid for
There is nothing wrong with this adaptation but it is not the original meaning as explained by clinical psychologist, and associate professor Dr. Akihiro Hssegawa or the definitive expert, deceased psychiatrist, Mieko Kamiya.
The BBC commissioned Yukari Mitsuhashi, in 2017, to write an article on Ikigai. She clarified the traditional Japanese meaning as purpose of your everyday life. More importantly, it allows you to look forward to the future even if you’re miserable right now.
“Japanese people believe that the sum of small joys in everyday life results in a more fulfilling life as a whole.”
So, when we look at a reason to get up in the morning, it can be anything and many things that count for you.
- What lifts your spirits?
- What brings a smile to your face?
- What are small things that you cherish?
- What gives your life meaning?
- What might you want to contribute?
When you answer these questions, another one appears. How much of your precious time are you actually spending on your Ikigai?
Ikigai is a call to action:
Although Ikigai is a call to action, it is not about worldly success. (it isn’t opposed to worldly success) Small steps – everyday, towards everyday things that are important to you, is the key. These steps devoted to something or someone that we care about give our lives meaning, and help us to flourish even under challenging circumstances.
One example of my ikigai is taking my camera for a walk in nature. I love taking photos of beautiful flowers; light falling on an arbutus tree; the silhouette of my grandchildren standing on a sandstone beach at sunset. These are not meaningful to the world but they give me great and lasting joy.
Other examples are the work I do with you and others who are struggling with illness or other difficulties. Writing my blog, facilitating retreats, this online program, working one on one with people, all bring me joy. As does caring for my grandchildren, everyday, in a hands-on-way. So many ordinary things. These are all part of my ikigai.
Ikigai is not an antidote to suffering.
It isn’t about leading a life of pleasure. We all experience the tragedies, pain and grief that catch us off guard, no matter how well we have ordered our lives. No one gets out of this life alive and/or unscathed. But the spirit of ikigai can teach us skills on how to navigate rough terrain.
Skills to work on
Those skills include paying attention to small things. Expressing gratitude. Learning to stay present and not living in the past or the future. We can learn to make our way back to the thing that gives us joy and rest, over and over again.
In Japan, Ikigai is considered an attribute of longevity. I consider it an attribute of living well, including living well with illness. Ikigai is not about positive thinking, rather it is about purpose – those ordinary things YOU consider important to do. And then taking action. Keep facing the blank page and writing everyday. Grabbing your camera and heading for the garden. Devoting your time against all odds to something you believe in. Only you can determine your ikigai.
The reason Dr. Itami called his work Ikigai Ryoho was precisely because he saw his work as a therapy that focused on meaning in the daily lives of his patients. His purpose was to help provide his patients with tools that would help cultivate meaning so that everyday, no matter the circumstances, they could do things that truly meant something to them. And that meaning would help them to persevere in those activities they considered important.
It is a good way to start, I think, taking time to reflect on what you love and what is meaningful. What is your Ikigai? If you aren’t sure, notice what draws your attention. What catches your breath? What do you do when you lose track of time? What gives you satisfaction at the end of the day? There are no wrong answers. Write them down. Look at how much time you spend on these activities. Do you need to make adjustments? There is no time like the present to get started.
Have fun with this exercise. Keep in mind that this is about seeing what you can do today, and everyday, with things as they are. Live your life while you can.