How Japanese concepts of IKIGAI, mindfulness can make our lives wholesome and rewarding

The island of Okinawa in Japan, where Ikigai has its origins, is said to be home to the largest population of centenarians in the world.


Editor's Note: This story is the second in a series on mindfulness, its concepts and variations, in partnership with the 2nd Mindfulness India Summit, due to take place on 30-31 October 2019. You can find the full list of stories under the series here

A long time ago, I visited a small restaurant near Carrera, a small town in Italy. It was about 12.30 pm in the afternoon, time for lunch, and there wasn’t an empty seat in sight. The place abuzz with people, talking over the animated chatter of the chef, who was about 80 years old and the owner of the restaurant.

The menu was curated and brought to life by the aging chef, who was rich with age-old recipes and inventions. We ordered pizzas, risotto, and some homemade red wine. The food smelled outstanding. The bread was freshly baked, pizza and risotto were outstanding and till today I still remember that meal as the best Italian food I ever ate.

After lunch, I met with the chef for a chat and asked him about his time running the restaurant. He spoke about the joy he and his family find in creating one-off recipes and serving their customers. Perhaps that was the very reason for his success and happiness in his personal life. I understood the importance of “purpose” to be successful, and the vital role it plays in happiness.

 How Japanese concepts of IKIGAI, mindfulness can make our lives wholesome and rewarding

Ikigai is a Japanese practice of mindfulness.

Ask anyone that can claim they lived a long, healthy, enjoyable life how they did it. There’s a chance you’ll be bombarded with a range of solutions: diet plans, exercise, running marathons, doing yoga, going vegan. Some may work, and many won’t. So how do you live a long and enjoyable life? No one really knows this very well.

A common notion is that sickness and disease are part of the larger “ageing” package, and you can’t opt-out. It’s true that ageing is fundamentally linked to deteriorating health, and longevity, the ability to live a long healthy life isn’t a given. If there’s one thing we have been searching for since time immemorial, it’s the elixir of life: immortality.

Japan, with one of the largest octogenarian populations of any race, are definitely in the know on this secret. In a small island town south of Japan, called Okinawa, which also goes by “the land of immortals”, the average life span is 90 years and 66 percent of residents live till they’re 100. What’s fascinating is that even the oldest Okinawans are healthy, with the necessary physical, cognitive and emotional fitness to live and function independently. In what can only be described as a luxury these days, they also have a negligible incidence of some of today’s biggest medical killers like diabetes, cancer and heart ailments.


"Asato ma sad-gamaya; tamaso ma jyotir-gamaya; mrtyor-ma amrutam gamaya"

Lead me from unreal to real; lead me from darkness to light; lead me from death to immortality


What’s their secret?

In recent years, Japanese have received a lot of attention from researchers for healthier and longer lifespans, joyful spirit and social bonding. Héctor García, author of the internationally-acclaimed book 'Ikigai – The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life' explains some of these aspects in his book.

“It’s a natural thing—they have a strong sense of purpose. Dedication and perseverance is everywhere in Japan,” Hector Garcia explains of his 15 years of learning Japanese culture and concepts. A former software engineer, he has done extensive research on concept of Ikigai and shared his insights with me.

Ikigai is a Japanese word that describes the many pleasures and meanings of life. A combination of two words, ‘Iki’ meaning "to live" and ‘gai’ meaning "reason or purpose", collectively mean “Purpose or Reason for life”. If we go a little deeper, we can interpret this as "making life worth living" – a raison d'etre. Ikigai means one’s reason to get up in the morning and the reason to enjoy one’s life and possibly this hypothesis of Ikigai is greatly evident among the residents of Okinawa.

Ikigai in a Venn diagram, the meeting of many powerful motivators in the middle.

Ikigai in a Venn diagram, the meeting of many powerful motivators in the middle. Image courtesy: Toronto Star

In today’s times, our lives are controlled by the pervasiveness of money, our enjoyment, and happiness measured through the barometer of money, sense of security through big bank balances, happy life through lavish comfortable life for which we have to win large goals in our life. Our value as an individual and our own feelings of self-worth and self-respect is evaluated by our achievements.

On the other hand, Ikigai is about living with purpose and not money, happiness and not materialism, community and not individualism for a healthy and successful life. It can safely be said that Ikigai can lead to success, and one can achieve Ikigai without being professionally successful.

“Scientific studies suggest that only about 25 percent of how long we live is dictated by genes... The other 75 percent is determined by our lifestyles and the everyday choices we make. It follows that if we optimize our lifestyles, we can maximize our life expectancies within our biological limits,” Dan Buettner, an American researcher and author of the book “The Blue Zones” about Ikigai, says.

How do I find my Ikigai?

The good news is that you don’t have to go to Japan to do it. All of us have our Ikigai and it is hidden deep inside us. All we need is patience – patience to connect with our own selves. Ikigai dwells on small experiences that sometimes feel trivial or insignificant in the moment – enjoying fresh air in the early morning, the rising sun, a fresh cup of tea or coffee, listening to birds chirping, spending time with your pets and kids.

If you can see and experience the wealth of this living spectrum, you can achieve and enjoy Ikigai.

“Okinawans focus on Ikigai gives them a sense of purpose every day and plays an important role in their health longevity,” suggests Hector Garcia over the course of his book and research. There are 4 pillars, each in the form of answer, to find your “Ikigai”, in the view of Garcia and other Ikigai experts.
- What is your Passion?
- What is you Mission?
- What is your Vocation?
- What is your Profession?

When you can identify the following pillars, you enter your Ikigai.
- What are you doing that you LOVE?
- What does the world need from you?
- What do you get paid to do?
- What are you good at?

The key motivation in discovering one’s Ikigai is seeking activities that make your heartbeat and leave you happy. Then, to identify one thing the world needs from you, and knowing what can you be paid for (a certain training, skill or knowledge) and finally, knowing what you are really good at.

Finding a ‘flow’ in everything you do

Looking closely, Ikigai is "mindfulness". I strongly believe that Ikigai and mindfulness (being in the moment) are closely associated in their approach and share a lot of principles. Both outline the need to find flow in everything you do.

“Do what you like more and more, and slow down when you do what you like —don’t do it in a hurry. Your Ikigai is in all those small things which you like to do everyday,” advises Yuta Toga, a Tokyo-based artist.

Japan's population of centenarians continues to grow

Japan's population of centenarians continues to grow. Image: Japan Times

Garcia also talks about an interesting concept of “Microflow, enjoying mundane tasks.” We’ve heard of some of the most successful people in the world practicing microflow. Bill Gates has been said to wash dishes every night. He claims to enjoy it thoroughly since it helps him relax and clear his mind. He even tries to do it a little better each day – following an established order of his own making, like plates go first, forks come second, glasses last. These are his daily moments of ‘microflow’. This is similar to “being in the moment”, wherein even mundane tasks like washing dishes, laundry, cutting flower or desk work seem enjoyable.

Neuroscientists are delving into “what happens to brain when we are in that state of flow?”. So far, they’ve discovered that when we are mindful, we are highly observant, with single-minded focus and no distractions. As a result, creativity, productivity and happiness emerge. The opposite occurs when you find yourself losing focus while working on something you consider important.

Seven strategies to boost your chances of achieving flow

1. Knowing what to do
2. Knowing how to do it
3. Knowing how well you are doing
4. Knowing where to go
5. Perceiving significant challenges
6. Perceiving significant skills
7. Being free of distraction

Much like muscles and the brain, “the more you train, the more you get into flow” and the closer you get to your Ikigai.

Ikigai: The perfect balance between purpose and passion

Finding your own Ikigai is about “paying attention” to what makes your inner conscious self dance.

“An interesting factor to achieve this perfect balance is how to turn work and free time into spaces for growth,” Garcia says. If you want to live a long and happy life there has to be an Ikigai on your horizon, a purpose that guides you throughout your life, pushing you to create things of beauty and utility for the community and for yourself.

The ten rules of Ikigai, conceived through years of research by Hector Garcia:

1. Always Stay active: Purpose is extremely important for staying active in life. People who lose interest in things also lose purpose in life. So don’t give up on things you love to do both in personal or professional life.

2. Go slow: Last year in an interview with RadioCity Mumbai I spoke about a 'hurried sickness' that our world is facing. Most of us don’t have time, we eat fast, talk fast, need results fast, our attention span has become so little and we need information fast. This is the exact reason for our stress and early burnout. To achieve Ikigai – go slow.

3. Don’t Fill your stomach: When we eat food, stretch receptors in the stomach are activated. Vagus nerve connects our stomach and the brain sends these signs as our stomach fills. It takes about 10 to 20 minutes for brain to receive a sequence of communication from digestive hormones secreted by the gastrointestinal tract (our gut). When you realise that your stomach is 80 percent full while eating, it is roughly the acceptable limit of your stomach. Also when you eat slow you allow time for this communication.

4. Surround yourself with good friends: Connect with your old friends, find new friendships. Spend at least some part of your day with your good friends. Friends keep your energies alive and also support you during your downtime.

5. Get in shape: When you are in shape, your confidence improves. Although looks are certainly not everything, a good shape improves self-confidence and thus help you look and feel much better. From glow on your skin, shine in your hair to whole body shape, just about every aspect of your body can improve when you're in shape

6. Smile: A genuine smile make you seem more attractive, likable and even trustworthy. Science has also proven that smiling makes you healthier and you tend to live longer. There are uncountable benefits like improves mood, lowers your blood pressure, releases stress, betters your immune system are some few to count on.

7. Reconnect with nature: Keep your phone in your pocket and enjoy the sights, sounds, fragrances, and experiences of your surroundings and especially nature around you.

8. Give thanks: Yes you read it right. Giving thanks improves your health and happiness. Gratitude is the real fountain of youth, health, liveliness, and longevity . Give thanks to your body, life, loved ones, family, friends and million other things to be thankful for.

9. Live in the moment, creating mindfulness: Living in the moment allow you to create awareness of the present experience rather than relating or identifying it with your past experiences, thoughts, feelings and hence you get more focused perform better in whatever work you have in hand.

10. Follow your Ikigai: Once you identify your Ikigai, learn to stay on course and keep following your IKIGAI.

People always ask to be given “the one key thing” they need to cultivate mindfulness. Like mindfulness, “Ikigai” also does not come from a single practice or value system. It comes from undergoing a spectrum of micro experiences, none of which serves an elaborate purpose in life by itself. In my journey towards knowing more about mindfulness and other similar sciences, I have realized that there is no out-and-out single recipe for happiness. Each distinctive condition of life can serve as the foundation for happiness and success in its own perfect way.

Are you ready to find your Ikigai?

Now, for the best news: Hector Garcia, author of “Ikigai – A Japanese Secret” is an expert speaker at the Mindfulness India Summit, to be held in Mumbai on 30 -31, Oct 2019 for his maiden trip to India. Over the two days, he will share his wisdom in a keynote session and exclusive IKIGAI experiential workshops where attendees can learn and experience ways to discover your IKIGAI.

I invite everyone to come and join Mindfulness India Summit to discover your own Ikigai from Hector Garcia.

The author is the founder of Mindfulness India Summit, Mindful Science Centre and Beyond Mind Learning. 

The second edition of Mindfulness India Summit will be held on 30-31 Oct 2019 at The Westin, Mumbai with speakers from across the world including Harvard Medical School, Oxford Mindfulness Centre, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, UNESCO-MGEIP, Daniel Goleman among others. The Mindfulness India Summit is an initiative of Beyond Mind and Mindful Science Centre, and the largest forum in Asia to discuss science and benefits of mindfulness, share case studies and research on mindfulness and emotional intelligence and pave the way forward for organisations and society as a whole. The Summit highlights contemplative Indian yogic and Buddhist meditation, international cognitive and emotional intelligence development tools and practices. 


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