A recent article about the key behind the longevity of Japanese people found that, amongst the usual reasons of healthy diet and a non-sedentary lifestyle, a ‘sense of meaning’ was a key contributor the high proportion of centenarians in this country. The Japanese term (“Ikigai”) translates roughly to “Why I wake up every morning.” Now you may respond: “Of course, my purpose in life is my work and my family.” So, what happens when you retire or lose your job, or your partner dies, or your children grow up and leave home? Has your life suddenly become meaningless? For many of us, the answer may be ‘yes’ and this is why there are often phases of depressions associated with those life transitions. But the Japanese interpretation of ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ goes beyond what we may synonymously associate with our duty or householder responsibility. It includes daily meditation and prayer as well as mindful-based forms of exercise such as Tai-Chi, Yoga or other mindful Martial Arts. Your Ikigai may change over a life-time and particularly during those low periods of your life, your sole Ikigai practice could be as simple as “Getting yourself out of bed”.
In fact, one of the most effective ways to prevent falling into a downward spiral is to find meaning in helping other people (in yoga this is called Seva), whether it be through volunteer work, coaching or teaching or simply helping a stranger across the street. There is a beautiful Buddhist parable about the woman Kitami, whose daughter had just died. She was beside herself with grief and went to Buddha to seek help. Buddha listened to her story and then told her to bring a handful of mustard seeds from a house that has never learned sorrow. Kitami went from house to house but wherever she went, there were stories of loss and suffering. She then recognized that suffering is a part of life and it is our common goal to move beyond pain – through finding meaning in our lives.
On the topic of ‘prayer’: We usually associate ‘prayer’ with religious faiths and a specific deity or God; however, reciting something as simple as a non-denominational mantra can be a form of prayer. A 2001 study by Luciano Bernardi, Associate professor of Internal Medicine, found that prayer or mantras “enhance and synchronise inherent cardiovascular rhythms because it slows respiration to almost exactly six respirations per minute, which is essentially the same timing as that of endogenous circulatory rhythms, adding to a sense of wellbeing.”
What it comes down to, everybody’s base Ikigai in life should be to consistently strive to become a better person and in turn contribute to the betterment of all human kind. It can be as simple as reminding yourself and applying the Yogic Yamas and Niyamas every day 🙂