Ikigai: A Reason for Being

by Christopher Lovejoy on November 19, 2017

In my previous two posts, The Depths of Hikikomori and Hikikomori Interventions, I introduced myself to a quiet phenomenon in Japan that has been giving me considerable pause for reflection.

Certainly, the tendency of certain individuals to retreat and confine themselves to a relatively small space in time, either as a choice or as a compulsion, is not peculiar to Japanese culture, but I think it safe to say that Japanese society is primed to realize this tendency en masse.

Social expectations in Japan around success in school and at work are high. The pressures that ensue can be too much for some, especially for certain children and adolescents, whether or not they suffer any one or more conditions that compromise emotional well-being or mental health.

My own sensitive, contemplative nature is drawn to seeking privacy and solitude, sometimes for days on end, as a way to replenish my vital energies, and I know all too well from this soothing experience just how comfortable it can get, and subsequently, how hard it can be sometimes to “go back”.

Going back means going back into a world that has grown increasingly and insidiously inhospitable to the charms of interacting with strangers and acquaintances who can barely speak your language (literally and figuratively) with relative grace and ease beyond the everpresent lure of constantly engaging online “social” media with a staring, tapping, scrolling bubble reality mentality.

In Japan, the ongoing decline in population numbers, in tandem with an increasingly aging and aged population, in tandem with the rise of an underclass of lifelike human robots, are wholly consistent with a covert agenda that would keep improving the genetic stock of those who live and work in Japan beyond the mere pressure to compete. In the meantime, how best to navigate the fallout?

By way of response, I will dive deep into a Japanese notion known as ikigai (pr. icky guy ee-key-gah-ee).

Ikigai: Your Reason for Being

In Okinawa, Japan, where more people live past the age of 100 than most (if not all) other places in the world, ikigai is your reason for getting up in the morning ~ your reason to enjoy life to the fullest.

The Japanese people, to their credit, know that bearing fruit with your ikigai sometimes requires a deep and prolonged engagement with self, where such an engagement is of vital importance to the cultural belief that realizing one’s ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life. This requirement might explain, at least a little, why there is public tolerance in Japan around Hikikomori.

In Japan, within the bubbling, babbling cauldrons of school and work, the pull towards social conformity remains quite strong, and because the Japanese people dedicate so much of their time to learning and working, not so much time can be given to searching and finding their reasons for being.

Speaking from a cosmic viewpoint for a moment, if you are going to incarnate as a Japanese person, you better have a strong sense of your ikigai at birth so that you can hit the ground running, so to speak.

Why do I say this?

I say this simply because the acts of conforming to the expectations of others, day in and day out, can have the effect of causing you to lose sight of your own needs, values, goals, interests, and ideals.

In losing sight of yourself, your true self, one of two things can happen: you start acting like a buffoon, seeking constant attention or … you start withdrawing into yourself, seeking cozy confinements.

In the West, we see ample evidence of the first, and in the East, ample evidence of the second.

Others around you, being the super sensitive creatures that they are, will instinctively or intuitively pick up on these tendencies and find their effects on them to be rather … okashii ~ strange, peculiar, improper ~ especially those with unusually dominant and influential personalities who also happen to already have fairly strong senses of their own reasons for being, even if they are superficially conceived and projected.

The Complexities of Bringing Your Ikigai to Life

Even if you already have a strong sense of your ikigai, the complexities of bringing it to fruition, in harmony with who you know yourself to be, can be formidable, given the challenges that this world presently faces and given the wholesale retreat into all manner of digital worlds.

A mediated life by digital means is a poor substitute for the presence and promise of human warmth. All virtual creations in digital form are, by implication, dead memories belonging to someone else, deceased in the sense that they cease to inform and inspire after they have been consumed and digested.

Which is not to say that digital products and processes have no place in human life ~ they do, very much so ~ but, unfortunately, this question often goes begging: am I a virtual being or an actual being?

Am I a digital armadillo or a warm, squishy creature of love?

I invite you to keep this question in mind as I probe deeper.

* * *

Ikigai is like a wagashi made of four ingredients:

  1. passion: what I love to do with what I do well
  2. mission: to serve a need with what I love to do
  3. vocation: what I get paid to do to meet a need
  4. profession: what I am paid to do to do it well

Let us illustrate this complex amalgam with a superficial example that pokes more than a little good fun at people’s obsessive, compulsive, regressive, addictive preoccupation with digital media.

Let us say that you are an accomplished digital app developer. Your passion is creating apps that help people feel better about themselves. Your mission in life is to help people relieve their stress in these times of great change. Your vocation in life responds to this need with a little app that you call Bubble Burpers (not to be confused with Popping Bubbles), and because app stores are delighted to feature it online, you have the money to turn your passion and your mission into a profession. You even have a branding byline: “in a world of bubble burpers, everyone can feel good about themselves.”

The bigger the bubble, the louder the burp; the louder the burp, the bigger the laugh.

Getting paid to do what you love to do with something that you’re good at doing will bring some satisfaction, but also a feeling of uselessness (e.g., someone who works in advertising without a sense of mission); serving a need with compassion and competence will bring no wealth, save the wealth of your delight and fulfillment (a missionary without means); getting paid to meet a need with passion offers some excitement, but also the uncertainty born of complacency (a dog groomer with great unmet potential for breeding and showing dogs); and getting paid well to meet a strong need with competence will bring cozy comfort but also a feeling of emptiness (seasoned professionals without passion).

Whether you like it or not, and whether you care to realize it or not, this is what the world expects from you: a reason for being that can bear fruit for you, your loved ones, and your beneficiaries in life, one that combines a passion, a mission, a vocation, and a profession.

This mandorla complex is a tool of guidance that can help you cope with the sheer complexity of ikigai:

I now invite you to take some time to puzzle over the ingredients that make up your ikigai, so that, eventually, when you feel ready, willing, and able to shape the circumstances of your life, you are also ready, willing, and able to shape and share your very own creative genius.

Moving clockwise from the green bubble on the left, …

Take your time: consider tapping into what you do well before sipping the juice of your passion; consider drinking the juice of your passion before seeking out a worthy mission; consider pursuing your mission before consolidating it into a vocation; and finally, consider realizing the value of your vocation before seeking and finding and having a professional status that is worthy of your juicy passions.

by replacing fear of the unknown
with curiosity, we open ourselves up
to an infinite stream of possibility

we can let fear rule our lives, or …

we can become childlike with curiosity,
pushing our boundaries, leaping out of our comfort zones,
and accepting what life puts before us

~ Alan Watts

Fortunately, if your ikigai does not fit inside a neatly packaged, ready-made form or formula, you can then challenge yourself to find the means by which to keep bringing your ikigai to fruition.

In my own experience, every day of my life is an invitation to renew my own means of support and sustenance by which to wholly realize my ikigai through others, with others, so that, eventually, I can rest in the assurance that it all came together with uncommon grace and ease.

It is not always easy finding and keeping balance with the happinesses of Securitas (calm from security), Eros (pleasure with restraint), and Areté (a passion for excellence) with Gratia (grace through gratitude), and so it behooves us to ask, not “how intelligent am I?”, but “how am I intelligent?”

How are you intelligent? In a world of bubbles, are you a bubble burper or a bubble maker?

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