The beauty in being broken
Ever since I was a young I have had a fascination with Japan. And while I’m pretty sure it started because I wanted to be a samurai or ninja at about age 5, it grew into a genuine love of the history and culture of Japan. I constantly read and researched, and at the age of 16 I even won a national historians’ prize for a paper I presented about 19th century Japan society. True story.
My point is that as I have grown older, and experienced a bit (a lot) more, I have realised that some of the tenants of traditional Japanese culture are more profoundly important to me than I ever imagined they would be, and have become principles I try and incorporate into my everyday life. There has always been a sense of calm and intention in the way eastern cultures approach life, that really connect with my belief that faster is definitely not better. This has helped me immeasurably over the last several years as I have worked to create a fulfilling and purpose-driven life. I really hope my take on some of these help you too.
It was during my days of taking Karate lessons that I first really tried meditation. I was 9. Trying to ‘clear my mind’ was like trying to sit still on hot coals. It was agony…and kinda futile. But there was something about the concept that really connected with me, and so I kept trying. It took a while, but the time I was about 12 I was the only teenager I knew who meditated regularly. Even then I was an over-thinker, and it helped me find some calm, and also helped manage some of the confusion I already struggled with internally about who I was and where I fit in. (Aside: Meditation as a practice didn’t originate in Japan, but it was as part of my study of Japan that I first became familiar with it, only discovering other meditation practices from India and China later on in my life.)
Meditation became something that has travelled with me my whole life, and has helped me really connect with, and learn about, myself. It has not always been easy, and there have been months where I have not so much as ‘OHM’d’ once. But when I was recovering from my first major encounter with severe depression and anxiety, I was encouraged to meditate again, and found that it really helped me - and surprisingly quickly. Possibly because I stopped worrying about what I thought meditation ‘should’ be, stopped trying to sit a certain way, or think certain things...I just started trying to sit (or lie) comfortably...and, well, BE. And that’s how my practice continues. I acknowledge the nine million thoughts that pop up as soon as I try NOT thinking them...and I just tell myself to set them aside for the next few seconds. And then for a few seconds more. And a few more. Sometimes I fidget, sometimes I fail at the whole thing. But when it works, it really, really helps me.
The health benefits of meditation extend way beyond just helping calm a racing mind, and have now been well studied and documented.
Studies have shown that meditation actually changes the brain and how it works, as well as having a quantifiable effect on the body. In the short term, meditation has been shown to lower the production of cortisol in our bodies. Cortisol is knows as the ‘stress hormone’, and can be released due to psychological, emotional and physical stressors. Too much cortisol in the body causes pain and inflammation. So it’s easy to understand why emotional/psychological stress manifests in so many physical symptoms! So even on a purely physical level, meditation alleviates one of the main causes of unnecessary stress in the body. Now that, combined with the calming effect it has on our thought processes and emotional responses, means that meditation can have incredibly real, noticeable effects on our mental *and* physical wellbeing. Of course there are other short-term benefits that have been recorded too - including reduced blood pressure, improved attention span, better resilience, and even greater compassion & empathy.
Looking at the long-term extracts, a Harvard study showed that by helping our bodies learn to relax instead of reacting with a ‘stress response’, meditation can actually even change our genetic makeup with continued practice. How insane is that - meditation can change our DNA. Now THAT blows my mind.
Sadly despite all the meditation, I still can’t levitate. But it continues to help me on a daily basis. I even do the occasional bit of actual ‘OHM’ing’ these days.
If you’d like a little help in starting a meditation practice, just pop your info inn below and you can download my simple and free beginner’s Meditation Kickstart Guide. I give a really simple 5 step process to get started, and also offer some tips as well as links to my favourite meditation apps.
In 2003 Journalist and explorer Dan Buettner started researching locations around the world that lead the way in longevity and happiness, and found some incredible similarities. Of course many factors (like genetics, climate, food) play a part, but the thing he found particularly interesting was that in all of those places, people had a very strong sense of purpose. In Japanese culture this is know as Ikigai, which translates roughly as ‘reason for living’.
Unlike the concept of ‘following your passion’ or ‘finding your calling’ which we hear so much about these days, Ikigai (pronounced ee-kee-guy) is more like an ever-evolving, broader sense of purpose driven by your values. Your Ikigai does not dictate what job you should do, but should rather be something that is present no matter what career path you take, or how often you change it. Think of it as the platform or foundation upon which any number of careers or paths could be based. Knowing what *really* motivates you, allows you to keep challenging yourself. In fact, if you take the time to figure out you ‘reason for living’, it could provide you with the confidence to try anything, as long as it is in harmony with your Ikigai.
As with many philosophical concepts, Ikigai has many elements to it. Because in Japan it is considered to evolve as your understanding of yourself does, it is something that people are happy to give time, attention and intention to. Contemplative pastimes, an appreciation of a balance life, and attitudes of gratitude and contentment are all connected to this concept - as well as reminding yourself of what REALLY matters when things get on top of you!
As blogger and author Erin Niimi Longhust writes:
In today’s world, the idea of a job for life, or even a single career path is just not working anymore. People are becoming more entrepreneurial and are also starting to consider the possibilities of making money in ways we didn’t even consider 10 years ago. And it’s amazing. And THIS is why I think Ikigai is SUCH an important idea. If you become aware of what your real values are - and have a solid understanding of what REALLY matters to you, then you could try a hundred jobs or career paths, and still find them satisfying, exciting and best of all, not feel like you’ve sold your soul for a pay check! The possibilities are endless and could really lead us to a much happier life!
One of the things that drove me into entrepreneurialism, was the terrifying realisation that there are people who spend 40 or 50 years of their life at a job they don’t like, dreading getting up every Monday because they have to go back to a place that doesn’t motivate, satisfy or excite them. To me, that is a TERRIFYING thought. Understanding your Ikigai can help you not just avoid that, but actually help you shape a life and career that is varied, exciting, and rewarding!
So how do you find your Ikigai? Well as I mentioned, it is seen as something that evolves, and the best way to start the process is to give yourself the time and space to really think about what drives and motivates you - and what doesn’t. There have been a number of worksheets or diagrams used in the last few years to help in this process, but I have created one for you based on a simplification of all of those. Remember this is a starting point…the most important thing is not to just fill this in, but to take time thinking, being with and considering these questions. Really take time out just to figure out what matters.
Keep an eye out for further articles from me where I go deeper into understanding your Ikigai in the world today.
In Japan, the concept of Wabi-Sabi has long been a part of design, art and life. In recent years I have noticed it has become quite widely used as a description of an interior design style. Derived from Buddhist teachings, the original concept basically encourages finding beauty in the impermanence and messiness of life. To quote wikipedia:
As a world view or philosophy, there is SO much to consider when talking about wabi-sabi. But the thing about it that really struck home when I first heard about it and started studying it, was just how it challenges SO MANY of what I believe are undesirable elements of the western society I now live in.
As a general rule in Western society today, the older you get the less you are seen to be of value. Now don’t get me wrong, every age group has its issues to face - for example, look at how often millennials are vilified - and unjustly so. (That’s a rant for another day). But ageing is seen as, well, fading away. If you pay attention you will notice the small but constant reinforcements of that idea: the public surprise that someone over 50 is fit and running a marathon; the constant reminder to women that they look amazing ‘for their age’…and many more examples. Wabi-sabi challenges this idea totally. In fact it encourage the idea that ageing is BEAUTIFUL - time brings experience; weathered items bring a unique aesthetic; and that anything (or anyone) that has been an important part of your life only grows MORE valuable as it becomes an integral part of your own ageing.
When it comes to material possessions this can be seen in the way wabi-sabi celebrates the way a beloved tea cup slowly becomes patinated with years of use, or how a comfortable sofa shows the faint stain that reminds us of our happy family gatherings, or how a favourite old sweater instantly makes us feel safe and calm when we put it on.
This is closely tied into the idea of physical beauty too. We all know how damaging the idea of ‘perfect’ has been to us in terms of self-image and confidence. Wabi-sabi suggests that wrinkles and lines and ageing are a natural - and beautiful - process. And asks us to see each line and wrinkle as a symbol of wisdom gained and knowledge earned. It also presents our imperfections as parts of what make us who we are, and why we are valuable - and that is perfect…for us.
As mentioned in reference to ageing, wabi-sabi places great value on the natural seasons of life. In interior design it means we use natural elements of the season to bring some of that into the home, to connect with rather than just ‘weather’ the season. Philosophically it means we become aware of natural cycles - instead of constantly feeling like time is flying, we become aware of the value of each season…and how it brings with it a beauty of it’s own, and represents a different phase of the year - seeding, growth, harvest and rest.
This over-riding idea that wabi-sabi brings of gratitude for whever we are in life has always seemed to me as a great way to help introduce more gratitude and contentment in my life. Instead of feeling I should be ‘getting somewhere’ or have already achieved something, it reminds me to appreciate where I am right now, find value in the journey, and take the time to truly be present in each moment and season.
You may have heard of the Japanese term kintsugi - which is the traditional art of repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer. In Japan this practice is considered to make the object more beautiful *because* of it’s imperfection.
Kintsugi (pronounced pretty much as you imagine with a hard ‘g’) dates back to fifteenth century Japan, and is still practiced today. When I first encountered this concept, it was like I had been slapped. I know that sounds dramatic, but it is true. The idea that something broken, something now inherently flawed - could be considered more beautiful not in spite of, but because of that flaw, really challenged something that I firmly believed at that point: that I was beyond repair. I genuinely felt that after going through family deaths, depression, anxiety and other traumatic events - all within a few years I might add - I was never going to be the same person, because there was always going to be that crack, that weakness, that massive flaw....I was just...broken.
And I guess I was right....I will never be the person I was before those events. But the concept of Kintsugi - which the Japanese consider a philosophical as well as artisanal concept - made me consider the possibility that I could put myself back together and be...well...better. Not in spite of the shit I’d been through, but because of it. I could re-assemble myself, and choose to make those cracks in my psyche a beautiful part of me.
I love this concept so much, because it means that we are better because of our struggles. It doesn’t negate them, doesn’t try remove them...it doesn’t pretend that we are just the same as we were. But it teaches us that we can still be beautiful, different AND still valuable. Maybe even more so. It also encourages us to let the flaws shine, and not be ashamed of them.
Like a few of the other concepts I have mentioned Kintsugi has a lot of other elements to it - things that talk to a life based on valuing what we have; rejecting the idea of mindless consumerism; repairing what is precious to use with intention; taking time and care to undertake much needed repairs; and valuing things for all that they have been through...which really hits home in a world that increasingly feels focussed on speed, disposability, superficial beauty and convenience.
Occasionally reminding myself of the concept of Kintsugi is really one of the things that gets me thru some rough weeks - in fact it is even the name of my newsletter. (Which you should totally subscribe to by the way) :P
THE KINTSUGI JOURNAL
Kintsugi: The Japanese art of repairing what is broken or damaged with pure gold resin. A philosophical approach that teaches us to treat our flaws and experience as precious parts of us which make us more beautiful and unique, rather than striving for some perceived perfection.
Every Monday I will drop into your inbox to share new writing, links and resources from my own experience. I believe in sharing honest, helpful content that will help you build a more intentional business & life.