Finding Purpose: Ikigai, The Japanese Concept Of A Life Well Lived

Not too long ago I was speaking with a friend about her decision to make a career switch. She’s a baker, like me, but is thinking about getting into the user interface side of the tech industry. We’re the same personality type on the Myers-Briggs so I can see her doing that type of work well. While we were on the topic, she sent me a link to an article about finding your Ikigai, a Japanese term that translates to finding your life’s purpose. And what’s more, there’s a practical guide to finding out what this is for you! I was hooked. But first, let me tell you a little about why this was so exciting for me to read about.

The Drift

Drifting through life listlessly was something that I knew all too well. I had drifted through my teens, twenties and through most of my thirties before I got a sense of how I wanted to live my life and the direction I wanted to take it in. This article, for me, was just frosting on the cupcake (thanks Sarah). A logical way to organize your passions is just the type of thing I’m passionate about and partly what this blog is about for me. But it took a lot of drifting for me to get to this point of self discovery.

The drift first started for me when I was in childhood still. My family had broke apart in what felt like one fell swoop and from that point on I had lost the support and foundation I had previously felt from my family. I was on my own from a very early age and it seemed that I was failing every test that life was throwing my way. It was a strange journey.

I remember looking at pornography as early as eight-years old, drinking when I was thirteen. Skipping school and falling in with the “wrong crowd” when I was in middle school and later, moving from sketchy apartment to unstable living situation until my late twenties. This was something that I attribute to not having many, if any stable role models growing up, showing me how to live a sustainable life. Just me, floating from uncertain situation to uncertain situation.

Role Models Matter

I’ve said before on this blog, my role models were living life like Jim Morrison, so I lived like him. And we all know how that story ended. But I studied Jim none-the-less, to find a sense of belonging as well as trying to have a good time while doing it. But as Modest mouse so aptly put it, the good times were indeed killing me.

I was drinking too much and avoiding all the relationships in my life, including the one with myself. It was a lonely place to be. I continued down this path until my early thirties, when things began to shift for me. But before that, I had literally no healthy role models to speak of and nothing to aspire to.

I kept shifting career focus in my schooling and it took me almost sixteen years to get my bachelors degree from start to finish! I changed my major twice and racking up close to 100k in debt in student loans and credit cards. This was a terrifying place to be. And all the while, no one thought to step in and intervein on my behalf. I understand that I was an adult, but I was also left to raise myself from the age of eight. Any guidance would have been helpful.

But unfortunately I was also the type of person who would scoff at the idea that I needed guidance. Mostly because I was taught that it was a sign of weakness to need somebody else’s help. This was the opposite of a healthy, well adjusted way of moving through life. I go into this some in my post on “Isolation and Being a Man“, about the unhealthy lessons I was taught on having to do it all on my own. Which is impossible, but that part of the lesson was left out of my schooling.

The Outcome

The outcome wasn’t good. I was left almost completely on my own save for a handful of supports, who thank God for them or things could have been really terrible for me. But I was still very much on my own, without any idea on how to move forward in my life.

My career was stagnant and I had little direction on where to go to do what I wanted while changing my life’s trajectory. I had some ideas on what I liked to do, but no idea how to shape that into something that I could make money from doing. This is the point where I needed to come up with a plan to make things happen for myself.

The Plan

This is where and when I started to take control of my situation by looking at what my strengths are and finding out what I liked and disliked. Luckily for me, I love it when a plan comes together : ) My MBPT is INTJ, so I’m a big picture person. This fits in beautifully with the Japanese concept of Ikigai, which in its most fundamental elements is; what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs and something you can get paid for. Where all of these elements come together, this place is known as your Ikigai.

So my plan then became to look at my strengths and likes and then put them together to come up with a way to make them my focus and passion. And hopefully I’ll help some people along the way. So I began looking at the elements that come together that make me, me.

The Elements

I’ve always known that I like to organize things. Whether it’s a spice cabinet or my budget, I enjoy bringing different components together to be functional and coincide in harmony. I believe this is why bullet journaling is so appealing to me. It’s a place to organize thoughts and ideas while adding your own character to the process.

I also enjoy the different elements that come together that make a house, a home. I enjoy burning candles and the ambiance of a dimly lighted room. I enjoy engaging the senses through essential oil diffusers and softly playing music in the background. Being in the kitchen cooking meals is another source of enjoyment for me. The smells and heat from the range, smoker and oven, foods fermenting on the counter in colorful jars. The small things that come together to create a cozy environment.

Our shared green space is also something that’s been a resource for me. From some of my oldest memories of chanterelle picking with my uncle in the verdant mountains of Vermont, to hiking Killington on the Appalachian Trail a few years back, preserving these spaces is important to me. The fresh air and the scenery alone are well worth it, not to mention the environmental benefits keeping these spaces healthy brings.

And finally, bringing family and friends together in a sustainable way. A way where we can enjoy each others company in a non-judgmental, caring and kind way. Where we can enjoy and take comfort in the support and love we provide for one another. These are the things I love.

I also find refuge in writing. When I’m in the middle of putting a piece together, or come up with a fresh idea to write about, there’s a feeling of novelty, a sense of a new beginning. And being able to clearly communicate to others, be heard and hear others, is also something that’s very dear to me. Giving voice to the voiceless. Oh, and building things : )

Bringing It Together

Now that I have a good idea of what the elements of my personality are and most importantly, what brings me a sense of joy, I can use these as a jumping off point, into my Ikigai.

As an example of how my interests intersect my career path, I’m currently work in a family shelter. A sort of holding place for families experiencing homelessness. Although the circumstances are definitely sad, the attitudes are generally upbeat and surprisingly positive.

One of the ways I’ve been finding fulfillment at the shelter is by going through each area in the building, finding a new section of the shelter that needs a little TLC, and then organize and clean the crap out of these spaces.

A few weeks ago I started cleaning and organizing the pantry and kitchen storage in the shelter. If you’ve read my post on rotating your food stores, you’ll know I’ve already done a version of this in my own home. There’s a certain satisfying feeling I get when I look in my fridge and cabinets and see all my foods neatly organized as though they were shelves in a grocery. This probably hits me in a most primal place of food security, survival.

The Ikigai for me here is; I love to organize things, and especially food, the families needed a kitchen that was functional and well stocked with fresh foods, and I was getting paid for it. But watching the families gather in the kitchen and use the items I recently stocked was a rewarding feeling and the drive behind wanting to organize and clean. Watching them find joy in my work.

Living in a shelter, I can only imagine the amount of insecurity they are experiencing. So having enough food to fill this basic need must be a huge burden lifted from their day to day concerns. One more thing I’m able to help them with while also experiencing a sense of joy in the task.

And what’s more is, I was offered a full time position at the shelter helping to coordinate resources for the staff and families in helping find them permanent homes. So my love of organizing helped to show my dedication to the tasks that I take on, enough to be seen as indispensable. And all this by following where my interests lay.

Doing it For Yourself

When I was drifting, I didn’t have a focus, an anchor point. So I drifted from person to person, looking to be validated externally by what their expectations of me were. As a result, I wasn’t really living a life that was true to what I wanted, or what I even liked. This was no bueno, plain and simple. But that doesn’t mean that all of my previous experiences where negative ones, or something to be dismissed.

For example, I’m a baker by trade now and have worked in a variety of different capacities over the years. From bread baker to pastry chef, I’ve made a lot of baked goods. All of these past experiences have not only given me a great deal of appreciation for cooking and a zest for eating, it’s also given me the chance to work with some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. Such is the case with my current employer. Without their guidance and wisdom, I wouldn’t have made the choices and gained the experience to make me more of the best version of myself. And I will forever be grateful for their guidance.

What this means is, even if you’re not in your dream job right now, which I imagine is the case for most of us, find what you do like about the job you’re doing now. What are the aspects or tasks you have now that spark a little bit of creativity? What are the areas that bring you a sense of satisfaction when you complete them? Find these tasks and see where you can take them. Here is the starting point to finding your Ikigai.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. If you’ve found yourself in a place where you aren’t enjoying the different aspects of your job, maybe it’s time to dig a little deeper. Who knows what you’ll pull out. And maybe in the process, you just may find your calling. Peace, and thank for reading : )

Image Credits: “Ikigai- Japanese concept meaning ‘A reason for being’” by Mikel Agirregabiria Agirre is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Affirmations: More than Just Positive Self Talk

“Affirmations? Really?” That used to be what I thought about them. Of course my introduction to them was from the Saturday Night Live’s character, Stuart Smalley. His daily affirmation of, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.” This scathing introduction to the world of self-help was just the type of fuel an adolescent me needed, to show me that self-help was for the “weak”. It also give me the fuel to make fun of those willing to look for something that would help them. Making them stronger and more resilient. Of course I was thirteen and knew everything at the time. So I should probably cut my younger self some slack : )

Toxic Masculinity and Other Lesson On How Not to Be a Man

All joking aside, I’ve come to see affirmations in a much different light as when I was a teenager. I’ve been using them as a way to help create a stronger sense of self worth. To build confidence and help give myself the guidance I so desperately needed in my childhood. Of course I had to swallow a little bit of pride first. If you’ve read my post on toxic masculinity, you’ll know I was raised to believe that affirmations were for the ineffectual, the weak.

According to my family, I was a man at eight years old. Right after my parents divorced, I became “the Man of the house”. Or so I was told by almost every male role model I had at the time. It seemed a way of consoling me. As if to say “buck up son, no time to be upset, you have new responsibilities to get after”. Looking back now this all seems so ridiculous. But when I was eight, it felt like the weight of the world was just dropped on my shoulders.

Rigid Values Added to the Confusion

From my younger perspective, men took what they wanted and were the embodiment of confidence and strength. If there was a problem, the man would take care of it using sheer force. There was no need to account for feelings. Or even others points of view. So from this mindset, affirmations weren’t something a man needed. Because he already imbued strength and confidence by virtue of being a man. They were a given.

I even came to live life to my family’s standard of what it means to be a man in the ways that made them comfortable. Something I’ve created an affirmation around to combat the toxic masculinity that was handed down to me. Because that way of living left me feeling hollow. I pushed everyone away with cutting criticisms and needed to numb the feelings I had been ignoring in order to be who I thought needed to be. All based on how I saw those closest to me behave. It was anxiety producing. And most of the time it filled me with fear.

Consequences of Living the Toxically Masculine Life

And all this fear that was growing unchecked, was fueled by pride and bravado. I was perpetually putting down others to make myself seem more confident, more capable than I actually was. The nature of my thoughts were negative and born from insecurity. And I was practicing them constantly. The more I practiced them, the deeper I sunk into the hollowness I had creating. There’s a Modest Mouse album I used to listen to often and its name embodies this sentiment for me. “Building Nothing out of Something”. A chilling reminder of my past self.

And that’s what it felt like for sure. After I had burned all my bridges, I was left completely alone. With only my negative thoughts to keep me company. That was about six years ago. And since then I’ve been rebuilding well, just about every aspect of my life. From relationships to people, to food, and maybe most importantly, to myself. I had to find a way to replace that constant negative self talk. Also the doubt that had become my M.O. for so long. That’s when I began using positive affirmations.

Positive Affirmations and Self Talk

I think the idea took root while I was taking a psychology course at my local community college. My professor Gerry, was an upbeat woman in her early sixties. She spoke a lot about positive psychology which is branch of psychology that focuses on the individuals strengths. To help us live a fuller, happier life with more meaning. Affirmations for me, are a way to focus on these. The positive qualities of my life.

Checking the Baggage

But there was a lot of unchecked emotional baggage I needed to go through (that I’m still going through), in order to know what aspects of my life to focus on. Also, how I was relating to both my emotions and areas of my life. This was a way for me to give my life some direction using affirmations to help me stay focused.

I mostly narrow in on the ways that I’ve experienced trauma and how unsafe I feel around others. Also on the loneliness from the neglect and verbal abuse I experienced. I should also mention that I’ve been doing this work with the help of a therapist. They’ve been an invaluable resource for me on my journey. So if there’s one bit of advice I can give, it is do not go this alone.

There are many times where I needed the guidance of someone who knows about the path I’m on. And if you had caregivers like mine, you may not have many healthy lessons to draw from. This is exactly where outsourcing some healthier, new perspectives on how to handle your experiences in the present that may bring up old ways of reacting to emotions would come in handy. It also may help you to see them from a new, positive and strength based perspective. A therapist’s help may be the difference between establishing a healthy, lasting change, or opening an old wound that you may not be capable of processing alone.

Practice, Practice, Practice

And it’s after understanding how we react to our emotions and experiences, that we’re able to forge affirmations that help us to facilitate change. Mine are a work in process. They also alter slightly as I come to understand how I react to the maladaptive lessons I’ve learned.

Because I’m now just finding out that my emotions aren’t anything to be ashamed of. No matter how I was shamed for having them as a child. It took decades of repeated reinforcement of harmful lessons on how to be with my emotions that got me to where I am. So I’m not surprised to discover that it takes practice to reinforce the positive perspectives I wish to embody. Lots of practice. And sure, it’s little frustrating, but not surprising.

One way I’ve been frustrated and veered from the path is, when I’m caught in the grip of an irrational fear that I know stems from my abuse. When the fear sets in in the form of negative thinking, my mind wants to believe the thoughts that are running through my head. This usually leads to more fear and anxiety. It’s then that a part of my affirmations will come to mind. like a firm place to hold on to. Some stability. But it’s because of how persistently I practice positive self-talk that I’m able to create this. The space necessary to gain a clear, positive perspective when I’m in the thick of difficult thoughts and emotions.

And I cannot stress enough that it takes practice. The more often you say and focus on the positive, the more often your mind will default to it when thoughts and circumstances pop up. For example if you’re insecure about meeting new people or being judged, then the more often we say to ourselves, “it’s okay to be me just as I am”, the more likely we are to remember this sentiment when we are in a situation where we are being introduced to someone for the first time.

Context Matters

I say mine once a day. Though sometimes, if a part of them comes to mind, I scan my circumstances to see if it’s tied to an old belief. To see if I’m relating to it (the affirmation) and my current situation and am I using old negative beliefs to define my current experience. If so, I’ll remind myself of the positive ways I want to relate to my thoughts and emotions, in the here and now. Then sometimes I’ll repeat the whole of my affirmations for a little extra boost of confidence. This usually helps to subside any of whatever anxiety and fear may be present.

And it’s not always easy. To be completely honest, sometimes it just plain sucks. But it never lasts very long and it subsides much quicker now than it ever has. Also, the more often I practice them, the better and more confident I feel about myself. All while being able to endure the difficult emotions and finding my footing onto more positive and stable ground.

Sometimes Being Kind Means Going Against the Grain

Practicing affirmations probably isn’t in style. I’m not sure how people would react to me if I told them I regularly give myself pep talks to build confidence. As well as to generally feel better about myself. But maybe that’s part of what helps to build the courage we’re seeking. Doing something that isn’t in line with what others see as “tough” or “strong”. But striking out on our own and finding what helps to make us feel stronger and more courageous.

I know it seems cliché but it’s true. Finding the strength in ourselves first is how we come to feel stronger. It’s not out there, in someone or something else. It’s right here. All we’re really doing when we use affirmations is reminding ourselves of the strength that’s already right here.

The phrase namaste comes to mind when I think about finding strength in ourselves first. “The divine in me, recognizes the divine in you”. The “divine” is what we’re “recognizing” when we decide to reinforce the search for the strength in ourselves. We do this by focusing on the positive in us by using affirmations to help us reinforce how we want to feel, confident. It’s already right here, we just have to recognize that it’s here.

And Remember, Be Kind To Yourself

Using affirmations can be a good foundation to find the personal strength you need to build healthy self image. Or as it was in my case, rebuild the basics of healthy relationships with others. Also building a healthy self-image and how I care for myself. It takes work and it can be tough at times. But learning to use the tools of positive self-talk has the ability to strengthen every other aspect of our lives. From who we choose to surround ourselves with, to where we feel we deserve to live or work. And also how we care for ourselves. If you haven’t thought about it, or are on the fence about them, it may be worth your time to explore them some. Because the nature of your thoughts holds the power to shape your world. Thanks for reading, peace :]

Image Credits: “Ben Eine – The Strangest Week : Smiley Faces / Acid House Faces – Hackney Road / Diss Street, London E2” by bobaliciouslondon is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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