Occasionally, ikigai has been described as the “reason you get out of bed every morning.” More directly, it can also be translated as the reason (gai) to live (iki), or the reason for being.
Over the remaining weeks of this semester, I am sharing what I have learned (and am currently learning) on the notion of ikigai, a Japanese concept which aims to encompass multiple aspects of our daily lives into a fundamental core of contended existence. If you’d like to read Pt. I of this “mini-series,” you can find it here: Thinking About the Next Chapter: Part I.
For some, the reason for being may already have manifested itself. Simply, it could be the love and care for one’s children, or family. Rather, perhaps it is a dream career that was decided early in life and is now in the process of being realized. For others, even if these examples represent significant achievements and are arguably irremovable from daily life, perhaps there is still an inner absence which is felt, a need to continue searching for that “reason.”
Although I can only speak for myself, I would be willing to wager that we have all experienced a longing to find our “reason” at least a time or two. Granted, given the wealth of literature, resources, and workshops aimed at resolving the search for a meaningful existence, it appears that this is not unfamiliar territory for the greater majority of us. Could it be that the practice of discovering and maintaining one’s own ikigai is the answer? If so, what steps must be taken to achieve ikigai?
Japanese neuroscientist and author Dr. Ken Mogi has proposed five fundamental pillars of ikigai which act to guide and support the journey toward inner discovery. These pillars are described in terms of equal importance, and are therefore non-hierarchical. Likewise, they are not mutually-exclusive. Below I have provided my best attempt to summarize these pillars, which include (1) starting small, (2) releasing yourself, (3) harmony and sustainability, (4) the joy of small things, and (5) being in the here and now.
Here, the objective of starting small could perhaps be likened to the objective of starting somewhere. Indeed, building momentum toward any particular goal can be challenging; however, no momentum can
be gained if there is no movement to begin with. Therefore, it is important to accept that even the smallest steps still represent forward motion.
Like the first pillar, the practice of releasing yourself has likely been encountered through other, seemingly unrelated philosophies (e.g., yoga). Well, the goal for releasing oneself in the context of ikigai is not so different – ultimately the hope is to simply accept yourself for who you are, including all of the “not-so-desirable” traits, such that moving forward in life is no longer impaired by the mountain of self-criticism and judgment that many of us tend to carry around.
As I understand it currently, the pillar of harmony and sustainability refers to the practices of “going with the flow” and maintaining balanced relationships with your inner self was well as those around you. In particular, it is important to consider both the natural and social environments that we commonly find ourselves in. In regard to harmony, are you at peace with yourself (i.e., have you released) and those around you (i.e., practicing non-judgment)? In regard to sustainability, do your words and actions perpetuate the harmony that you have worked hard to create?
As far as joy for the small things goes, I have come across no better explanation than the practice of encouraging pure gratitude and appreciation for that cup of morning coffee (or tea, or whatever equivalent beverage you prefer). Not only is it important to take a moment to recognize your current reasons for feeling joy, but taking the opportunity to experience the joy for all of those reasons, no matter how small, could very well be the missing link to fostering sustained happiness.
Being in the here and now (also referred to as being present) is likewise a crucial component to may philosophies beyond ikigai. Nevertheless, it has been integrated as one of the five pillars given the necessity of this practice on the road to self-fulfillment. Yet, one particular “tweak” to the practice in regard to ikigai is the recommendation that one always take the opportunity to recognize and participate in any and all activities that may otherwise appear daunting. In The Little Book of Ikigai, another of Dr. Mogi’s books, he suggests the following:
"So make music, even when nobody is listening. Draw a picture, when nobody is watching. Write a short story that no one will read. The inner joys and satisfaction will be more than enough to make you carry on with your life. If you have succeeded in doing so, then you have made yourself a master of being in the here and now."
To be certain, the five pillars aren’t an all-inclusive set of instructions to achieve ikigai. Still, I believe they represent an important set of practices that one can consider on a daily basis, during times of trial as well as time of victory. As always, the message is to find your own reason for being – how you get there may look different for everybody. But, with patient and effort, you can get there.
Ph.D., Biological Education
Yoga Instructor, Campus Rec Center