A few months ago, on my birthday, a dear friend gifted me a book I had wanted to read for the sheer simplicity of it–Ikigai. As someone generally averse to the ‘bestseller’ tag, I was curious about what could possibly make it so special–until that revealed itself. Ikigai is perhaps as obvious as what grandpa’s been saying all along, and yet, it is far from a collection of sermons and age-old wisdom: it is an attempt at articulating a life of purpose, happiness and simplicity while effortlessly embracing nature away from any schmaltzy reference to fashionable sustainability. I had to speak to Hector Garcia, who has co-authored the life guide along with Francesc Miralles, about his Okinawa expeditions and the secret behind finding the all-important secret.
When did your ikigai begin to shape your identity? When did the written word first feel like home?
I just naturally tended to write since I was a kid. But I never realized it made me feel good. It was only in my thirties that I came to the realization of how important is writing for me. I need to write every day to feel happy. To feel connected with my ikigai.
Take me back to the moment in which this book was conceived.
I was walking with my friend Francesc Miralles in a Japanese garden in Tokyo. I was explaining him about my struggles fighting with a chronic illness that was debilitating me. At some point in the conversation I explained Francesc the meaning of the word ‘ikigai’ and he immediately said: I love this! We have to write a book together about ikigai.
Do you know that people in India sometimes live as long as the Japanese – have you thought about exploring this side of the world? Ironically, the mortality rate is also one of the highest in India. How do you think a country manages these two extremes?
Interesting, I didn’t know. Yes, Japan is the country where I’ve been living for the last 15 years. But India and its culture are my new interest since the beginning of this year. I think you have a fascinating and rich culture. This month I will travel to India for the first time in my life! Maybe this is the beginning of a future book.
“This month I will travel to India for the first time in my life! Maybe this is the beginning of a future book.”
Is one’s ikigai always guiding us, whether or not we are aware of it?
Yes and no, the more aware we are of it the better it will guide us. It all comes back to awareness. If you are living a mindless life you might be headed in a direction far away from your ikigai. The more you know about yourself, about what you are good at, what you love, the people-family-friends who need your help, the more connected and the better you will be guided by your ikigai.
I am confused – you write that fish is great for health, but one of the oldest living examples in your book was a vegetarian. To eat or not to eat fish – what would you, rather?
That was just one person from many. The lesson from the book was that diet is important but not the most important factor. Just choose the diet that feels better to you, all humans are different, and we have to listen to our bodies (not to what others tell us). If you eat in ways that feel harmful to your body you will notice in the long term.
The west lives bigger, the east lives longer. In the end, what matters more?
Wellbeing is what matters the most. Did you have a great day today? Did your family and friends also have a great day today?
The book says being busy – easy busy – is the trick to a contented yet active long life. However, many of the schools of thought you quote also believe in long periods of stillness and meditation. Yoga, or the Taoist principle of Wu Wei, for instance, talk of non-doing or inaction as well. Are you suggesting that mindful and slow action is better than pure contemplation at times?
I understand the contradiction. As you say, it is active, or “easy busy”, we don’t want to be stressed! The point is not that stillness is bad per se, what is bad is to spend days at home just watching your TV mindlessly and doing nothing with purpose…. It is better to find hobbies, tasks, activities to keep you “easy busy”.
Non-action, stillness is also needed, but done properly. As with the diet in my previous answer, finding what feels better to you is key. Combine times of mindfulness with action. Depending on your personality you will need more action or less, fine tune what feels good for you.
Is simplicity a great way to longevity, then?
Interesting question….you might be into something. Yes, elders in Japan usually lead very simple lives.
Something struck me after I finished the book – I was left wondering if genes had something to do with it. Also, if a genetic memory of war-inflicted trauma leads instead to a generation consciously or unconsciously working towards preserving life better. Have you thought about it?
Yes, I have thought about genetics but we did not consider it in our book since it is not our expertise. I think genetics just puts some boundaries on your destiny but it is in your hands to do your best to stretch those boundaries!
“Combine times of mindfulness with action. Depending on your personality you will need more action or less, fine tune what feels good for you.”
How many times is it okay to begin again to be in touch with one’s evolving self–perhaps an evolving ikigai–without worrying about what you are leaving behind?
All the times that you need. Life is all about change. If you are not feeling comfortable with what was your passion, work, ikigai for the last years start making decisions to change it!
An artist almost always works in alignment with their ikigai–but as opposed to a consistent flow, their inspiration occurs in spurts and longevity and happiness is mostly of little relevance for them : it is their art that in turn becomes immortal – or assumes longevity. Could ikigai and longevity have little relation in some cases, then?
It depends on the artist. Of course if they put too much obsession on something (remember to keep it busy but easy), it could affect their health. Another of our messages in the book is “everything in moderation, even moderation”.
I’m curious to know if you ever encountered aggression among the citizens of Okinawa – and since it kills faster than most things – your suggestion for a society that is largely aggressive even if it keeps close some of the wisest ancient life secrets.
Okinawa and Japan are one of the safest places in the world. One of the keep points of ikigai is helping the world, with violence we are not helping each other. If we want ikigai and happiness we have to start with loving each other and helping each other like the Japanese do.
For those who have likely found their ikigai – what is beyond? Will there be another book to it? On that note, what are you next working on?
If you have found your ikigai you have to help others find it too.
My next book will be Ichigo Ichie, a book about living in the moment and making the best of our moments with our family and friends.
Text Soumya Mukerji