When asked what is the single most powerful contributing factor to one’s health and vitality, integrative medical doctor Oscar Serrallach answered without hesitation: having a sense of purpose. Serrallach went on to describe that while some of his patients have developed great regimes of nutrition, lifestyle activities and movement to support their wellbeing; those without a clear sense of purpose in their life experience continuing struggle with physical health issues. The distinguishing quality of many of his healthiest patients – those who transcend common health challenges despite not having lived by the book, in terms of healthy lifestyle factors – is that they seem to be the most aligned or ‘called’ towards some primary focus of meaning in their life.
Japanese culture actually has a word which addresses this focus. The word is ikigai and translates simply as, ‘reason for being’.
What is Your ‘Reason for Being’?
According to the Japanese, everyone has an ikigai. To find it often requires deep enquiry and lengthy ‘search of self’ – a search which is highly regarded.
The term ikigai is composed of two Japanese words: iki referring to life, and kai, which roughly means “the realisation of what one expects and hopes for”. Unpacking the word and its associated symbol a bit further, ikigai is seen as the convergence of four primary elements:
- What you Love (your passion)
- What the World Needs (your mission)
- What you are Good at (your vocation)
- What you can get Paid for (your profession)
The word ikigai, that space in the middle of these four elements, is seen as the source of value or what make one’s life truly worthwhile. In Okinawa, Japan, ikigai is thought of as “a reason to get up in the morning”. Interestingly, while certainly incorporating the financial aspects of life, the word is more often used to refer to the mental and spiritual state behind our circumstance as opposed to our current economic status alone. Even if we are moving through a dark or challenging time, if we are moving with purpose, if we are feeling called toward something or have a clear goal in mind, we may still experience ikigai. Often the behaviors that make us feel ikigai are not the ones we are forced to take based on the expectations of the world around us, but rather they are the natural actions and spontaneous responses that emerge from a deep and direct connection to life.
The Question of Purpose
Many ancient indigenous cultures took time to honour the question of purpose through ceremony, vision quest and rites of passage in order to help reveal the essential role that each member was born to play in the greater tribe and story of life; though the space and reverence for this question does not always seem to exist today. For many, our decisions around life-focus unfold in a more reactionary way, propelling us into educational, professional and life-directional paths based less on deep inner calling or soul-inspired vision, and more on societal expectations, so-called ‘practical reality’ and what is required to survive in the systems we’ve created to live in.
The truth is, if there was ever a time on our planet where a sense of true purpose was needed, required, or desperately called for, now would be that time. But amidst the multi-layered pressures of our modern world, how do we peel back the layers and discover why we are here and what we are really supposed to be doing?
American mythologist and author Joseph Campbell shared his view on fulfilling our purpose when he said,
My general formula for my students is, ‘Follow your bliss.’ Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it.
Sacred Activism, encourages us on the other hand to find our purpose by ‘following our heartbreak’. Andrew Harvey calls us to discover that which is most deeply disturbing in our world and to use this as a catalyst to propel our actions and discover where we can make the biggest difference.
Meanwhile, philosopher and civil rights leader Howard W Thurman said:
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that… Because what the world really needs is people who have come alive.
While each of these viewpoints are powerfully compelling in their own right, whether we are following our bliss, following our heartbreak, or that which makes us come alive (or a combination of all three!), for many of us there is also an apparent need to follow that which pays the bills each month and allows us to cover the basic necessities of life. So how do we balance all of these factors in the creation of a life which is meaningful, purposeful and aligned with our true calling? Is it possible to have it all? The essence of ikigai gives us a framework to balance these elements into a cohesive whole.
Ask what makes you come alive and do that.
Passion as a Vehicle for Change and Contribution
As the world moves through massive change on many levels, more and more people are feeling called to align their skills and gifts with a higher cause or sense of contribution. Beautiful examples are emerging in many arenas of social change and activism where people are not abandoning their passion for the cause but rather channeling the thing they most love doing in the direction of positive change – and discovering inspired ways to support themselves along the way.
Sixteen year old rapper, dancer and global youth director of Earth Guardians Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is a living example of ikigai, blending his creative gifts and passion for the Earth in the rise of a world-wide youth-lead revolution in support of future generations. Poet/rapper/Facebook sensation Prince Ea has woven his love and concern for humanity and Earth with a gift for capturing profound messages into powerfully creative 3-5 minute videos – an expression of ikigai which galvanises the energy and support of millions of people online each week. Visionary art therapist and yoga teacher Atira Tan responded to her “heartbreak” witnessing child sex trafficking in Asia and has discovered incredible passion and aliveness through the sharing of her global foundation Art2Healing, bringing justice and transformational healing and movement arts to those who have suffered from this experience.
The truth is many of the challenges we face in today’s world are not simple, technical challenges. They are complex, multi-dimensional issues which will require expansive, multi-dimensional thinking and action. The type of thinking, action and energy that emerges naturally when we are in the throes of creative expression or connection with others. When we are immersed in any endeavor that brings us into our hearts, that makes us come alive – and we are bringing ourselves fully to it – instantly we become more generative, more magnetic and more dynamic in our ability to navigate challenges and discover pathways of breakthrough.
What is Your Ikigai?
Take a moment to draw your own version of the overlapping circles of the ikigai symbol and consider the following:
- What do you Love? What aspects of your life bring you into your heart and make you come alive?
- What are you Great at? What unique skills do you have that come most naturally to you? What talents have you cultivated and what do you excel at even when you aren’t trying?
- What Cause do you believe in? What breaks your heart or pulls at your gut? What change would you most love to create in the world? What would you give your life for?
- What do people Value and pay you for? What service, value or offering do you bring, or could you bring, that brings real value to others? Something people need and are happy to pay for or share some value in exchange?
Take a few minutes to write whatever key words, phrases, and ideas come up for you in each circle, then look for areas of natural overlap. Reflect on the sum total of these elements and how they may relate to each other. Bring yourself quietly to the centre of the circles and leave space in your mind for whatever impulse or calling may emerge naturally in the coming days… What is one simple thing you could do or be today that would be an expression of your ikigai?