If you want to live a long, healthy, and productive life, find your passion. This personal “reason for being” will support you through good times and bad.
In the final part of this series, Coach Craig Weller explains the wisdom of Okinawans, and why we need a reason for being.
Ikigai and the Okinawans
In a 2009 TED talk, explorer, author, educator, and award-winning cyclist Dan Buettner described his research in the Blue Zones – areas of the world in which people live inordinately long, healthy lives.
The Blue Zone with the longest disability-free life expectancy is the archipelago of Okinawa, Japan. Here, men and women routinely exceed 100 years of age.
Still physically capable, fully alert, and involved in the world around them, they work in their gardens, play with their great-great-grandchildren, and when they die, it is generally quickly, and in their sleep, and sometimes after having sex. Their rates of disease are many times lower than throughout much of the world.
Interestingly, Okinawans don’t have a word for retirement. What they do have is ikigai. Roughly translated, this means “passion” or “reason for living.”
In the course of their research, Beuttner’s team asked Okinawans to identify their ikigai. Almost all the interview subjects answered – without hesitation.
The ikigai of one 102-year-old karate master was to teach his martial art. For a 100-year-old fisherman, it was bringing fish back to his family three days a week. A 102-year-old woman named spending time with her great-great-granddaughter as her reason for living.
Why did you get out of bed this morning?
The word passion comes from the Latin verb patior, meaning “to suffer and endure”. This is where stories like “The Passion of the Christ” get their name.
Eventually, the word came to mean not only suffering itself, but also that which sustains a sufferer – whatever drives a person to keep going, even in the face of pain or deprivation.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologist Viktor Frankl describes his life as a prisoner in two different concentration camps during the Holocaust. What he endured and learned in those settings later informed the important school of therapy he founded. He called it logotherapy – from the Greek logos, or meaning.
Logotherapy is based on three main principles:
- Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
- Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
- We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.
As a young candidate in Naval Special Warfare selection, I once asked a mentor to share his tips for success in the grueling program.
He thought for a minute, and then told me: “Whenever I thought about quitting, I imagined my family. I was going to have them when it was over. I could never face them, or live with myself, if I quit.”
Over the years, I discovered that nearly everyone who made it through the selection process felt much the same.
Those who quit seldom mentioned the way their families would feel. And somehow, they rationalized their decision.
But those who continued could not have left without imagining the disappointment of their wives, brothers, sisters, or parents.
It was as if their families were watching them, expecting them to succeed. And that sense of connection kept them focused on their goals.
Recently, I came across this passage in Frankl’s book:
” … We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm.
Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: ‘If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.’
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife.
Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.”
In the camps, Frankl’s passion, his meaning, and his reason to continue despite suffering – his ikigai – was his beloved wife. This meaning sustained him and gave him the courage to persevere.
What is your ikigai?
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