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  • Writer's pictureLarissa Velasco

Beyond Western Ikigai: A Journey to Purposeful Living

Updated: Feb 16

In the bustling world where the pursuit of happiness seems to be an endless chase, there lies a quiet, deeply rooted philosophy originating from Japan – Ikigai. It's a notion that encapsulates far more than the Western ideal of "passion" or "purpose." Instead, it harmoniously blends several key elements to form a fulfilling life. This post is not just another theory on leading a more meaningful existence; it delves into a centuries-old wisdom that has guided generations and is poised to inspire a new wave of modern thinkers, as it embodies the essence of a fulfilling life—a harmony of purpose, meaning, and contentment. In this exploration, we delve into the heart of ikigai, unraveling its profound wisdom.

Discovering the True Meaning of Ikigai:

According to the Japanologist, Nicholas Kemp, the word "Iki" is derived from the Japanese verb "ikiru" which means "to live". It refers to the art of daily living. The word "Gai", on the other hand, means worth or value and is related to the Japanese word "kai", which means shell. During the Heian period (794–1185), shells were considered extremely valuable in Japan because they were adorned and used in a game called Kaiawase, which means "shell matching". This game was played by Japanese nobles, hence the association of value with the word "shell".

At its core, ikigai is more than a mere philosophy; it is a way of life—a guiding principle that imbues each moment with purpose and vitality. Rooted in centuries-old traditions and Japanese culture, ikigai encompasses the intrinsic value of everyday experiences—simple joys, meaningful connections, and profound moments that enrich our lives.

Understanding ikigai begins with a deep appreciation for its cultural context and historical significance. From the tranquil landscapes of ancient Japan to the bustling streets of modern Tokyo, ikigai has been a guiding light for generations, offering solace in times of uncertainty and inspiration in moments of clarity.

The Origin of Misconceptions:

Despite its profound cultural significance, ikigai has often been misunderstood and misrepresented in the Western world. The popularization of the four-circle Venn diagram, attributed to Western thinkers and astrologers, further perpetuated these misconceptions, distilling a complex philosophy into a simplistic framework for success. (You can read more about this HERE.)

And you can find everywhere how Ikigai is described as the intersection of one's passion, mission, vocation, and profession. For example:

Passion refers to the things that bring you joy and fulfillment, such as hobbies or creative pursuits. For example, painting, playing music, or cooking could be passions.

Mission relates to a sense of purpose or calling. It involves activities that contribute to a greater cause or make a positive impact on others' lives.

Vocation refers to the activities or work that you are naturally skilled or talented in. It could be a profession or a field where you excel and find satisfaction.

Profession refers to the work that provides you with financial stability and supports your livelihood. It may not necessarily align perfectly with your passions or mission, but it is an important aspect of ikigai that helps sustain your life. Examples could be working as an accountant, engineer, or doctor.

This idea of ikigai encourages individuals to find a harmonious balance between these four elements, ultimately leading to a sense of fulfillment and purpose in life. And it is in fact a important reflection to have, however, this definition is oversimplified and fails to capture the complexity of this concept.

In reality, ikigai is much more than a simple formula, checklist, or diagram. It is a holistic approach to living that takes into account one's personal values, priorities, and unique circumstances. It is a reflection of the dynamic nature of life and the constant evolution of our aspirations, goals, and identity. As such, ikigai is not a destination but a journey, a process of self-discovery and self-transformation that requires patience, curiosity, and openness to change.

The concept of ikigai is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and is often seen as a key to living a long, healthy, and fulfilling life. At its core, ikigai is about finding and pursuing one's purpose or reason for being. However, it goes beyond mere self-interest and includes a sense of responsibility towards others and society as a whole.

For the Japanese, ikigai is not just a personal goal to be pursued but a collective journey that involves the entire community. It is a reminder that everyone has a role to play in creating a harmonious and fulfilling society. This sense of shared responsibility is reflected in many aspects of Japanese culture, such as the emphasis on teamwork and cooperation, the importance placed on social connections, and the value placed on contributing to the greater good.

Moreover, ikigai is not limited to one's professional life or career aspirations, but encompasses all aspects of life. From personal relationships to leisure activities and communal rituals, everything is seen as an opportunity to cultivate one's sense of purpose and meaning. This holistic approach to life is reflected in the Japanese concept of "work-life balance," which emphasizes the importance of taking time for oneself and pursuing hobbies and interests outside of work.

In essence, ikigai is a way of being that celebrates the beauty and richness of life. It reminds us that our existence is not just about achieving personal success or accumulating wealth but about finding joy and meaning in the everyday moments that make life worth living.

Going Beyond the Westernized Interpretation:

Contrary to popular belief, ikigai is not a one-size-fits-all formula but a dynamic and evolving concept that adapts to the unique circumstances and aspirations of each individual. While Western interpretations may emphasize the convergence of passion, profession, vocation, and mission, that reflection might be very insightful for one's life, but the true essence of ikigai extends far beyond these arbitrary boundaries.

In its authentic form, ikigai is a celebration of diversity and complexity—a recognition that purpose and meaning can be found in the most unexpected places and experiences. It encourages us to embrace the ebb and flow of life, acknowledging that our passions and priorities may shift over time. And most importantly, it reminds us that there is no one right way to live a fulfilling life.

Exploring Ikigai's possibilities:

Delving deeper into the philosophy of ikigai, we uncover a wealth of wisdom and insight that transcends cultural boundaries and resonates with the universal human experience. At its core, ikigai is a celebration of the human spirit—a testament to our innate capacity for growth, resilience, and self-discovery. It reminds us that true fulfillment is not found in external achievements or accolades but in the journey of self-realization and personal and collective growth. It is not just about finding a job or career that we love but also about identifying the things that bring us joy and fulfillment in our personal lives. It is about nurturing relationships, pursuing hobbies and passions, and contributing to our communities in meaningful ways. By embracing the principles of ikigai—harmony, gratitude, and presence—we can unlock the full potential of our existence and cultivate a deeper sense of purpose and meaning in our lives.

"Each person's ikigai is unique because we all find joy in different aspects of life. There is no right or wrong answer." - Yukari Mitsuhashi

Your Ikigai can be simple since it's not about impressing other people. You don't need to shout it at everyone you meet. It's what is important to you rather than who other people would like you to be. Yukari Mishuhashi, suggests that you can discover your ikigai by asking yourself simple questions such as: What brings happiness to my everyday life? What brings a smile to my face when I think about it? What would I continue to do even if I had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of my life?

Interestingly, one of the instructors in Okinawa found his ikigai as a postman. Although many people wouldn't consider being a postman as their dream job, he loved his life. As a postman, he was active and got to explore the city every day. He would stop for a chat whenever he delivered to his friends' houses or passed by someone he knew. So many of us chase career success in the hopes of finding happiness, but we could learn a thing from this postman and find happiness in the simple things.

The concept of ikigai is a way of finding purpose or meaning in life, and for the Japanese, it is also a practice of gratitude. Sometimes, we tend to focus on what we lack rather than what we already have. However, we can all find our ikigai by simply appreciating the existing value in our lives without feeling ashamed about it.

It's important not to compare ourselves with others while trying to identify what motivates us in the morning. Instead, we should be grateful for the little things in life. This way, we are less likely to become distracted by unrealistic expectations. This purpose might change in the course of your life, and since this is not a recipe for you to follow, embracing the novelty of being present and attentive to what makes you happy and how the community might grow might lead people to experience a deeper sense of belonging and fulfillment.

It is important not to compare ourselves with others when trying to identify what motivates us in the morning. Instead, we should focus on being grateful for the little things in life so we are less likely to become distracted by unrealistic expectations. Additionally, it's vital to understand that our purpose might change throughout our lives, as nothing is truly permanent. We should embrace the novelty of being present and attentive to what makes us happy. By doing so, we can help our communities grow and experience a deeper sense of belonging and fulfillment.

In conclusion, ikigai is not merely a concept but a way of life—a philosophy that invites us to embrace the fullness and richness of our existence. By understanding its cultural origins and embracing its diversity, we can bring the power of ikigai to our daily living and embark on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment. Let us redefine ikigai beyond the simplified version of it and embrace its true essence as a guiding principle for living a purposeful and meaningful life.

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