Ikigai: Have you found yours?

 Arun Sharma

The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he’s always doing both.” —James A. Michener

“Ikigai isn’t a destination; it’s a continuous journey of self-improvement and growth. It serves as a constant reminder to live with purpose, to savor every  day of life.”

Your ikigai is you’re your unique path to find a life with your purpose. It’s your existential fuel for life!

‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” Aristotle

Ikigai is the very reason we get up in the morning(reason d’etre). It’s search for and finding what you love to do: the mission, profession and vocation you choose in life. How your Ikigai fits with  your values and the need of the community around you matters. It includes the elements of health, happiness, body mind and spirit. Exploring and finding the purpose/goal in life is  your ikigai. Western concept of happiness and freedom post retirement does not exist in Japanese culture. You remain active throughout. Strong sense of community and clearly foreseen ikigai gives you  a direction (compass)and a purpose. You remain steadfast and active in life. It symbolizes exploring life’s worth and finding a mission and  practicing it is one’s ikigai.

Recently published data on longevity reports Japan has highest number of living over 65 years of age. It’s about 31% overall by population (female 32%, male 29%), Italy 25%, Finland 24%, USA 18%, China 15% India 8%. One can clearly lower life span in the USA, the wealthiest country and India too.

Dan Buettner in the book The Blue Zones identifies five regions where people live longest:

  1. Okinawa, Japan where the resident eats rich vegetables, fruits, tofu, have  active community life with social connections There is a village of Longevity.
  2. Sandina, Italy, they eat plenty of vegetables and two glasses of wine every day
  3. Loma Linda, California where a group of Seventh Day Adventists are the longest living residents in the USA
  4. The Nocoya Peninsula, Cosa Rica where people remain active over 90 years of age and go to fields to work at 5.30 in the morning every day.
  5. Ikaria, Greece where one in three is over 90 years old, compared to one out of 100 in the USA is known as Island of Long Life. Their modern life styles date back to 500 BC.

Most common factors to secret of longevity are: diet, exercise, sense of belonging to community, ikigai (a sense of purpose), strong social ties, community and helping each other.

A common saying in Japan  is: “Hara hachi bu” which means eat less  and stop eating once you are 80% full. Okinawa residents consume about 1800-1900 calories compared to 2200-3300 in the USA. Body Mass Index of Okinawa is between 18-22 as compared to 26-27 in the USA.

Okinawa diet is rich in tofu, sweet potatoes, fish (3 times/week) and vegetables 11 ounces per day and practice Moai; is  a community interconnected life the members lead.

Active mind, youthful life. Mental exercises keep the neurons active. Collins Hemmingway and Schomo Breznitz in their book Maximum Brainpower state: engaging in intellectual exercise, exploring new activities, engaging in sports, finding meaning in life, keep the body, brain healthy and active.

Key element of ikigai is: Positive attitude in life and high degree of emotional awareness is key to a healthy life.

University of California doctors  have found that stress promotes cellular aging by weakening cell structures as, higher the stress, greater the degeneration of cells. Stress increases cortisol release and escalates degenerative process over time. Stress alerts our system to state of emergency and  inhibits the release of  hormones, the lack of these causes depression, insomnia, irritability; anxiety, and high blood pressure. In short excessive stress is a killer! Stress free life helps minimize premature aging of  bodies.

Mindfulness improves focus, it can be improved by yoga, breathing exercises, nature walks etc. Prolonged physical inactivity will increase hypertension and obesity affecting lifespan. Sedentary life style will lead to cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and increases  cancer risk. Even fifteen twenty minutes of walking will do miracles for the body and mind.

Science has shown a good sleeping habit is an anti-aging tool. During sleep, we generate melatonin, a hormone that boost our immune system, improves insulin production and slows Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis and fights heart disease. Avoiding stress, alcohol, tobacco, excessive caffeine helps restful sleep vital to our bodies and mind’s health.

In the village of Ogimi, Japan that holds the Guinness record for longevity a woman about to turn 100 sang the following song on longevity:

“To keep healthy and have a long life
Eat just a little of everything with relish, go to bed early, get up early, and then go for a walk.
We love each day  with serenity and we enjoy the journey.
To keep a healthy and a long life,
We get on well with all our friends,
Spring, summer fall, winter,
We happily enjoy all, the seasons.
The secret is not to get distracted by how old the fingers are;
From the fingers to the head and back once again.
If you keep playing with your fingers working 100 years will come to you.”

Victor Frankl’s logo therapy “helps you find reasons to live.” Frankl’s experience at Auschwitz comes really close to Buddha’s teachings, as the last of human freedom  is “to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance is to choose one’s own way”. A meaningful life is: to choose the action he engages in and, the attitude he maintains. In Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl cites Nietzsche’s famous aphorism: “He who has a way to live for can bear with almost any how?” Man has to explore and choose what he likes to do versus WHAT he is told to do . Pursue life with passion, Steve Jobs suggested to students at Stanford. One’s reason to get out of his bed  and to love life is ikigai. Ikigai imparts not only reason but motivation, the energy to do  what one chooses to do every day of his life. And, each day to lives with that vigor. In Sartre’s words, “ WE don’t create meaning of our life, we discover it.” Shoma Morita, a Japanese Zen Buddhist therapist teaches his students to accept and let  emotions flow as they come rather than bottle it up as its release will results in a relief and then emotion will change for better.

While you are skiing down your favorite slope you MUST totally focus on the powdery snow and any obstacles in your path every single moment in your journey. There is no future and no past, just the moment. You become oblivious to everything as your move in that path. That is single mindedness, that is devotion  to the task. You cannot be distracted towards anything else but the moment and that very task.  In that moment you lose your existence. Ego dissolves!You become part of what you doing, you become the task and the doer of the task. That is what a musician feels while he is singing  that tune or composing that song, that’s what an artist feels while he is drawing that sketch, that’s how  a player feels whole he is hitting that ball towards the goal post. That is: FOCUS on MOMENT! Everything else  evaporates but that TASK. That’s your ikigai! That is your bliss, and that is your life! You have lost the sense of yourself you have lost the count of seconds, minutes and hours. Your focus is : your GOAL, your LIFE at that moment. That is your ikigai! The opposite is also true when you are doing you don’t like to do you yawn, you look at your watch and check time every few second. You daydream you were somewhere else doing something else. So, find yourself a task, a job where you FORGET yourself,  your existence and YOU become insignificant. And by losing your significance you become part of infinite cosmos! You LIVE by losing track of time and yourself! Your ego evaporates, you become the task the doer! That’s YOUR Ikigai!

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s calls being completely immersed in something  we like to do as a state of “flow” Being immersed in the task at that moment he calls it pleasure, happiness, creatively delightful, reaching that flow, that state of being he calls it an “optimal experience. That’s your ikigai! Flow is: : the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter: the experience itself is so enjoyable that people do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” That’s your ikigai!

The  seven conditions for FLOW are Knowing:

  1. What to do
  2. How to do
  3. How well you are doing
  4. Where to go; navigation
  5. What are the challenges
  6. Develop skills
  7. Free from distractions

One of the first lessons Japanese learn  is the word “ganbaru” which means to “persevere”  or “ to say firm by doing one’s best.” We observe them with obsession for doing their very best in the arts, crafts the way for achieving near perfection.

Toyota one of the  best automakers hire specialized artisans who male certain  fine parts including screws by hand. Japan specializes in making turn table needles by using very special and fine machineries, known to be the very best in the world often handmade or machineries. They are called “takumis” or specialists in their work. Japanese artisans, engineers and cuisines have in common : Simplicity and attention to details. These artisan fuse with the object they are building that the maker and the product become one. Such fusion is ikigai for the maker!

Focus on the journey, the task ahead and simple meditation practice of breathing in and out many Japanese believe helps their ikigai. Three religions in Japan: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism focus and value ritualism and consider it more important than the absolute rules. Doing business in Japan, the process, the manners and how you work becomes all important as a part of final results achieved. Rituals gives clarity in objectives to achieve results. Happiness is in doing  and the results follow if you stick to the rules and procedures! Practice, rituals are like muscles more you use/flex it stronger it gets. Musicians and artists know that for sure!

Ikigai is finding purpose and meaning in life and pursuing it relentlessly!

( Based upon the book Ikigai by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles)

(Arun Sharma is an author and engineer)