Ikigai and the pursuit of purpose

Purpose, a word quite easy to define but difficult to explain when involving self-reflection – what is my purpose?

A few weeks ago, I came upon a Japanese word that pretty much explained why having a sense of purpose, and putting it into action can significantly lead to a better life. The word was Ikigai, and though it has no direct translation in English, it was derived from two Japanese words – ikiru, which means “to live,” and kai, meaning the realization of what one hopes for.

Together these two words form ikigai — a reason to live or having a purpose in life.

Slow process

ikigai is not something that reveals itself overnight, but actually a slow process that often has nothing to do with income or work

Boardwalks for visitors to find an array of flora and fauna at Jiuzhaiguo's forestIkigai is said to be the reason why you get up in the morning, the motivation behind the things you do, and is what allows you to look forward to the future even if you are miserable right now.

However, before you label ikigai as another one of those trendy words floating around the internet, hyped and then passed out of existence, it’s important to note that for the Japanese, ikigai is not something that reveals itself overnight, but actually a slow process that often has nothing to do with income or work. The discovery of your ikigai requires a deep, long search within yourself that can bring about value, meaning, and satisfaction to life.

This illumination inspired me to look at my own life, the decisions I made and the risks I took, as well as the work I do and the reason behind why I do them. What is my ikigai? I asked myself a number of times. Several answers came to mind, but I had to question myself whether those answers were superficial ones, or were they really the reason why I wake up every morning. I could not say that baking is my ikigai just because I love doing it at this moment in time.

An expert suggests making 3 lists – your values, things you like to do, and things you are good at. The cross section of the 3 is your ikigai.

The pursuit of purpose

the process of learning from within, amidst the challenges of external factors, is not only a challenging undertaking, but it can also be a painful one

The reason why I think ikigai requires a “deep and long search within oneself” is because purpose and the pursuit of it require learning and wisdom, and these don’t appear overnight. Learning something can mean going through mistakes, and acquiring wisdom can mean years of observing, studying, doing, knowing oneself, and being open to the ideas of life.

What’s more, upon the process of learning about yourself, life sometimes, if not many times, takes you on a different turn, a different road where you never imagined possible.

Yes, you are the author of your own story, but the external natures of life are beyond your control.

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In my years in China as university teacher and writer, never had I once thought that I would one day move to Denmark and marry a Dane. I never thought my career would go back to square one, and that the process of re-checking what I can do and what I love to do, require me days, months, years, before I finally woke up one day and felt a sense of clarity to what I would like to do here.

It took time to find that sense of clarity because there were rough times and they visit again and again, thrown in different parts of my life like sparkling confetti. Yet, it is in the constant learning from the many obstacles of life that I learn and gain wisdom.

This is why ikigai takes time, because the process of learning from within, amidst the challenges of external factors, is not only a challenging undertaking, but it can also be a painful one.

I would like to say that I have learned, that I am wiser, because I’ve experienced and overcame many trying times, but time and time again life proves me otherwise.

The celebration of purpose

Knowing what you are meant to do, whether just for today, or in the years to come, is not enough to fuel ikigai

Ogimi, a remote village in Okinawa, Japan, has remarkably high number of centenarians. They live by diets that are colourful and leafy, and by their great pride of their purpose, their ikigai. The elders in Ogimi are looked up to, celebrated, and their obligation to pass on to the younger generations their wisdom and knowledge are deeply expected and appreciated.

From these they know their sense of purpose, their value, and their meaning, even though from the standards of other cultures they are deemed weak and their time to do great work were behind them. Elders in the village love to talk about the things they do, and share whatever they know.

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This brings me to a very important aspect about this revered word. Knowing your ikigai alone does not guarantee meaning. Knowing what you are meant to do, whether just for today, or in the years to come, is not enough to fuel ikigai.

One has to deeply understand that ikigai is “purpose in action,” therefore, you need to DO.

Whether it be a simple act of sharing to someone what you have just learned, or the grand act of building your own startup, both require action. And if that action is born from the depths of who you are, then yes, that is your ikigai, your purpose.

If everything is created with a purpose, then one of the most divine acts you give yourself is to know your purpose. And if by some chance you have not found it yet, you owe it to yourself to continue pursuing it. And once you find it, act upon it. Always remember that ikigai is purpose in action.

Sense of clarity

may you and I pursue our purpose, celebrate it, and pass on our knowledge to others

 

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The purpose of life, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, is not to be happy. “It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Finding your ikigai does not mean you gain life’s deepest secrets or solve the world’s greatest needs. But it does mean you wake up each day with a sense of clarity in what your function is to your home, community, office, or to the world as a whole. You have something to do that matters to you, you are useful, you are glad that what you do makes a difference to others, your role is clear.

Like the elders of Ogimi, may you and I pursue our purpose, celebrate it, and pass on our knowledge to others.

May we live and live well, knowing our ikigai and putting it into action.

Written: 05 November 2017

Photography: Cathy Perez

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