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In my twenties I was lucky to spend a year living in Japan – a defining time in which I greedily consumed every experience I could. I thought I learned a lot in those 12 months, but the years since have taught me the real lessons. As, I believe, with all truly formative periods of life, the full value of that year in Nihon only revealed itself later, like a tiny deviation in direction that grows into a great distance from your original course if you travel far enough. As anyone who has tasted Japan will tell you, it is a country of wild contradictions, making it almost cliched to point out the harmonious confluence of the old and the new, futuristic and traditional, east and west, digital and tactile, meaningful and frivolous, material and transcendent. Despite these opposites there is always a sense continuity and cohesion, like something is holding it all together. Perhaps it is the ubiquity of the Japanese aesthetics – what we in the west would call philosophies, except in Japan they are far more tangible, applied to daily life as guiding principles for everything from home decor to dealing with death. Most well-known of these is wabi sabi – the beauty of transience and imperfection – represented by the breathtaking yet brief blooming of the cherry blossom. This is also the source of the now famous art of kintsugi, the practice of repairing broken ceramics with gold lacquer to highlight and celebrate their cracks and imperfections.

The recognition of life’s transience is also at the root of ikigai– a Japanese expression approximately referring to your reason for living. We might call it your purpose, but ikigai means more than that – it is also the feeling of a life lived with a sense of purpose, the life lived in alignment with your reason for being. It is awareness and action. No two people share the sameikigai. Yours is unique, and finding it invites contacting your inner self, using that part of yourself as a compass as you navigate the often difficult waters of life. This may or may not be connected to your financial success, but it has a significant impact on your longevity and quality of life. Dan Buettner, for example, posits in his TED talk How to Live to Be 100+that ikigaiis the foundation of the extraordinarily long and happy lives of the people of Okinawa.

Finding one’s ikigai is not a single event; it is a lifelong process that honors the shifts in your values and worldview as you change and evolve. But beginning the new year with a strong sense of your purpose on this earth could turn out to be one of the best investments of your time this year.

This practice will ask 60-90 minutes of your time and has two parts.

Part 1

Put aside an hour to reflect on this exercise.

If you have completed the practice, Ending Your Year in Presence, read through your answers before starting.

Begin to tune into what you feel your ‘why’ may be. There is no right or wrong answer and there is often more than one possibility. In teasing apart your Why from your How or What, draw inspiration from Simon Sinek – incidentally also a fan of wabi sabi– and his excellent work on Finding Your Why.

Some more questions to help you get started:

  • What are you willing to struggle for?
  • What did your 8-year-old self love doing?
  • What makes you forget to eat?
  • How are you going to save the world?
  • What is your Death Bed Perspective? That is, if you imagine reaching the end of your time on earth and reflect back on the life you have lived, what was most important? What do you wish you had done more of? What do you wish you hadn’t?

After this reflection, choose a direction – a Why – that feels right for you and focus on that for the next step in the practice, knowing that you can amend or redo this practice at any time.

Part 2

Time to move from your Why to your ikigaiAs Marc Winn suggests, if you want your life to have maximum impact, your ikigaishould have structure as well as meaning. In this sense it is more than purpose, it is the sustainable intersection of that which you love, that which you’re good at, that which the world needs and that which you can be paid for (see Winn’s diagram here).

Now, begin to phrase your ikigai. Use the format:

“To _________________ so that ______________.”

The first blank might represent the contribution you make to yourself, the world and the lives of others through your ikigai. And the second blank represents the impact of your contribution.

Some examples:

To understand and develop my unique skills so that I can take care of the people I love.”

To inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that, together, we can change our world.”

To find solutions to problems that seem impossible to solve so that more people can live lives of joy, prosperity and peace.”

This is not an idea. You will know when you find something that resonates because you will feel it. When you do, write it out and paste it somewhere visible: a compass by which to steer your year.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash