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Find Your Ikigai : What Okinawa Can Teach Us About Longevity

Ikigai (生き甲斐, pronounced “ee-kee-guy”) is an Okinawan concept meaning “a reason for being”. Everyone, according to the Okinawans, has an ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. Such a search is regarded as being very important, since it is believed that discovery of one’s ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life. Examples include work, hobbies and raising children. -Wikipedia

Okinawan culture is a culture that is rich in tradition, purpose, physical activity, and social connectedness. Long known for its connection to Zen, karate do, and tea ceremonies, it Toyamakatahas recently been studied in depth because of the longevity of its inhabitants. Okinawans live longer than any culture on earth, with the average being 82 years old. Per capita, they have more centenarians than any other country, and their centenarians are known for their health, vigor, lean builds, freedom from heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and arthritis. Clearly there is a lot that the Western world can learn from the culture of Okinawans.

Okinawa is the land where karate was invented, and many of these centenarians practice the art on a daily basis. The rhythmic exercise, lifelong practice, and mind-body effects of this activity are well known, but they are not the whole picture. Okinawans who do not practice karate do also have longevity as well. There are a multitude of factors that lead to the long lifespans of the inhabitants of Okinawa. (For more on the health benefits of karate do see also http://mindbodycoach.org/karate/ , http://mindbodycoach.org/best-kept-mind-body-secret/, http://mindbodycoach.org/mind-body-mr-miyagi/ )

One immeasurable factor in why the Okinawan lifespan tends to be so long and rich is something that is called ikigai. Ikigai has a number of translations, but the one that is most relevant roughly means, “the reason that I get up in the morning.” According to Okinawans, everyone should have an ikigai . Disharmony in life results from a imbalance between the mind, body, and spirit. Knowing your ikigai is a way to keep your spiritual life and your life’s purpose in balance with your position in the universe. People who have an ikigai don’t lie in bed in the morning dreading that moment when their feet hit the floor, they are energized, looking forward to the day, and except their life as a challenge. They have a purpose and this purpose is not only spiritually energizing, but physically and emotionally energizing as well.

Here is an Okinawan story that illustrates the concept:
In a small village outside of Osaka, a woman in a coma was dying. She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the Voice of her ancestors.

“Who are you?” the Voice said to her.

“I am the wife of the mayor,” she replied. “I did not ask whose wife you are but who you are.” “I am the mother of four children.” “I did not ask whose mother you are, but who you are.” “I am a school teacher.” “I did not ask what your profession is but who you are.”

And so it went. No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who are you?”

“I am a Shinto.” “I did not ask what your religion is but who you are.” “I am the one who wakes up each day to care for my family, and nurture the young minds of the children at my school.”

She passed the examination, and was sent back to earth. The next morning she woke at sunrise, feeling a deep sense of meaning and purpose. She tended to her children’s lunches, and planned fun lessons for her students that day. The woman had discovered her ikigai.

In Western civilization many people are living in a rat race, where life feels like running on a treadmill every day. You work, go home, sleep, rinse and repeat – over and over and over again. Like the song from the 80s says, everyone’s working for the weekend. Dread those five days, recharge for two and then repeat the cycle. Most people look forward to retirement, but when retirement comes there is no purpose attached to it because for the previous 40 years there has been no ikigai. People tend to struggle to find an ikigai in retirement. Some do, but most don’t. The main purpose of most retired people in developed nations is to try to regain the health, life satisfaction, and wellness that they were robbed of from those 40 years of living a life that had no ikigai. Hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

Everyone, regardless of age, should try to identify their ikigai. If one waits to retirement to find their purpose it’s far too late. There are some key factors to reflect upon if you are trying to define what your ikigai is:

An ikigai is not something that drains you. It is something that you look forward to doing and that you find emotionally and spiritually energizing.
An ikigai is not something that you are working towards. It is something that you do, a journey rather than a destination. It may even be striving for perfection, an impossible task. Many Okinawans practice karate do, a martial art in which one strives for perfection of form and function, all the while knowing that it is unattainable. Yoga, golf, art, gardening, caring for pets, and cooking are all good examples of behaviors that could form your ikigai.
An ikigai is not invisible, internal, or something that you think about. It is something that you do, a behavior that you engage in that you find fulfilling.
An ikigai is something that can be summed up briefly, perhaps even in a single sentence. “I cook for my children and grandchildren,” is an example. “I meet with my buddies daily for coffee,” as simple as it is, could be an ikigai.

IkigaiFinding your ikigai need not be complicated, it can be an extension of something that you currently do regularly. It is probably something that you look forward to, really enjoy, find purpose in, and don’t think much about because it is something simple. A review of potential things that could be your ikigai may reveal many potential ikigais. That’s okay, this is not rocket science. You may have multiple ikigai and as long as they are simple and meaningful that’s great. Ikigai may change over time, and that’s okay too.

“I was eight when I moved to Florida, and I thought, “Oh great, the retirement capital of the world. I’ll be dead within a decade.” – Jarod Kintz,

When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935 it established the retirement age is 65, which at that time was the average life expectancy. Today the average retiree has between 15 and 30 years of retirement, a long time to go without a purpose in life. Depression and addiction are a seldom talked about epidemic among senior citizens in situpsthe United States. We’ve all heard anecdotal stories about that person who retired and died shortly thereafter. Perhaps if more people could find their ikigai they could live as long as seniors on Okinawa. The combination of an Okinawan mindset combined with modern medical technology should extend the life span as well as our quality of life.

Now that you know what an ikigai is, find it,

“Refire—an attitude of embracing the years ahead with enthusiasm rather than apathy.” – Morton Shaevitz, Refire! Don’t Retire: Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life


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