How to face life’s challenges without letting stress and worry age you









IX
     

RESILIENCE AND WABI-SABI

How to face life’s challenges without letting stress and worry age you




What is resilience?
One thing that everyone with a clearly defined ikigai has in common is that they pursue their passion no matter what. They never give up, even when the cards seem stacked against them or they face one hurdle after another.

We’re talking about resilience, a concept that has become influential among psychologists.
But resilience isn’t just the ability to persevere. As we’ll see in this chapter, it is also an outlook we can cultivate to stay focused on the important things in life rather than what is most urgent, and to keep ourselves from being carried away by negative emotions.

In the final section of the chapter, we’ll explore techniques that go beyond resilience to cultivate antifragility.

Sooner or later, we all have to face difficult moments, and the way we do this can make a huge difference to our quality of life. Proper training for our mind, body, and emotional resilience is essential for confronting life’s ups and downs.
Nana korobi ya oki 七転び八起き
Fall seven times, rise eight.
—Japanese proverb

Resilience is our ability to deal with setbacks. The more resilient we are, the easier it will be to pick ourselves up and get back to what gives meaning to our lives.

Resilient people know how to stay focused on their objectives, on what matters, without giving in to discouragement. Their flexibility is the source of their strength: They know how to adapt to change and to reversals of fortune. They concentrate on the things they can control and don’t worry about those they can’t.

In the words of the famous Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Emotional resilience through Buddhism and Stoicism

Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha) was born a prince of Kapilavastu, Nepal, and grew up in a palace, surrounded by riches. At sixteen he married and had a child.

Not satisfied by his family’s wealth, at twenty-nine he decided to try a different lifestyle and ran away from the palace to live as an ascetic. But it wasn’t asceticism that he was looking for; it didn’t offer the happiness and well-being he sought. Neither wealth nor extreme asceticism worked for him. He realized that a wise person should not ignore life’s pleasures. A wise person can live with these pleasures but should always remain conscious of how easy it is to be enslaved by them.

Zeno of Citium began his studies with the Cynics. The Cynics also led ascetic lives, leaving behind all earthly pleasures. They lived in the street, and the only thing they owned was the clothing on their backs.

Seeing that Cynicism did not give him a sense of well-being, Zeno abandoned its teachings to found the school of Stoicism, which centers on the idea that there is nothing wrong with enjoying life’s pleasures as long as they do not take control of your life as you enjoy them. You have to be prepared for those pleasures to disappear.

The goal is not to eliminate all feelings and pleasures from our lives, as in Cynicism, but to eliminate negative emotions.

Since their inception, one of the objectives of both Buddhism and Stoicism has been to control pleasure, emotions, and desires. Though the philosophies are very different, both aim to curb our ego and control our negative emotions.

Both Stoicism and Buddhism are, at their roots, methods for practicing well-being.

According to Stoicism, our pleasures and desires are not the problem. We can enjoy them as long as they don’t take control of us. The Stoics viewed those who were able to control their emotions as virtuous.

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

We finally land our dream job, but after a little while we are already hunting for a better one. We win the lottery and buy a nice car but then decide we can’t live without a sailboat. We finally win the heart of the man or woman we’ve been pining for and suddenly find we have a wandering eye.

People can be insatiable.

The Stoics believed that these kinds of desires and ambitions are not worth pursuing. The objective of the virtuous person is to reach a state of tranquility (apatheia): the absence of negative feelings such as anxiety, fear, shame, vanity, and anger, and the presence of positive feelings such as happiness, love, serenity, and gratitude.

In order to keep their minds virtuous, the Stoics practiced something like negative visualization: They imagined the worst thing that could happen in order to be prepared if certain privileges and pleasures were taken from them.

To practice negative visualization, we have to reflect on negative events, but without worrying about them.

Seneca, one of the richest men in ancient Rome, lived a life of luxury but was, nonetheless, an active Stoic. He recommended practicing negative visualization every night before falling asleep. In fact, he not only imagined these negative situations, he actually put them into practice—for example, by living for a week without servants, or the food and drink he was used to as a wealthy man. As a result, he was able to answer the question “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

Meditating for healthier emotions

In addition to negative visualization and not giving in to negative emotions, another central tenet of Stoicism is knowing what we can control and what we can’t, as we see in the Serenity Prayer.

Worrying about things that are beyond our control accomplishes nothing. We should have a clear sense of what we can change and what we can’t, which in turn will allow us to resist giving in to negative emotions.

In the words of Epictetus, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.”

In Zen Buddhism, meditation is a way to become aware of our desires and emotions and thereby free ourselves from them. It is not simply a question of keeping the mind free of thoughts but instead involves observing our thoughts and emotions as they appear, without getting carried away by them. In this way, we train our minds not to get swept up in anger, jealousy, or resentment.

One of the most commonly used mantras in Buddhism focuses on controlling negative emotions: “Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ ,” in which oṃ is the generosity that purifies the ego, ma is the ethics that purifies jealousy, ṇi is the patience that purifies passion and desire, pad is the precision that purifies bias, me is the surrender that purifies greed, and hūṃ is the wisdom that purifies hatred.

The here and now, and the impermanence of things

Another key to cultivating resilience is knowing in which time to live. Both Buddhism and Stoicism remind us that the present is all that exists, and it is the only thing we can control. Instead of worrying about the past or the future, we should appreciate things just as they are in the moment, in the now.

“The only moment in which you can be truly alive is the present moment,” observes the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

In addition to living in the here and now, the Stoics recommend reflecting on the impermanence of the things around us.

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius said that the things we love are like the leaves of a tree: They can fall at any moment with a gust of wind. He also said that changes in the world around us are not accidental but rather form part of the essence of the universe—a rather Buddhist notion, in fact.

We should never forget that everything we have and all the people we love will disappear at some point. This is something we should keep in mind, but without giving in to pessimism. Being aware of the impermanence of things does not have to make us sad; it should help us love the present moment and those who surround us.

“All things human are short-lived and perishable,” Seneca tells us.

The temporary, ephemeral, and impermanent nature of the world is central to every Buddhist discipline. Keeping this always in mind helps us avoid excessive pain in times of loss.

Wabi-sabi and ichi-go ichi-e

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese concept that shows us the beauty of the fleeting, changeable, and imperfect nature of the world around us. Instead of searching for beauty in perfection, we should look for it in things that are flawed, incomplete.

This is why the Japanese place such value, for example, on an irregular or cracked teacup. Only things that are imperfect, incomplete, and ephemeral can truly be beautiful, because only those things resemble the natural world.

A complementary Japanese concept is that of ichi-go ichi-e, which could be translated as “This moment exists only now and won’t come again.” It is heard most often in social gatherings as a reminder that each encounter—whether with friends, family, or strangers—is unique and will never be repeated, meaning that we should enjoy the moment and not lose ourselves in worries about the past or the future.

The concept is commonly used in tea ceremonies, Zen meditation, and Japanese martial arts, all of which place emphasis on being present in the moment.

In the West, we’ve grown accustomed to the permanence of the stone buildings and cathedrals of Europe, which sometimes gives us the sense that nothing changes, making us forget about the passage of time. Greco-Roman architecture adores symmetry, sharp lines, imposing facades, and buildings and statues of the gods that outlast the centuries.

Japanese architecture, on the other hand, doesn’t try to be imposing or perfect, because it is built in the spirit of wabi-sabi. The tradition of making structures out of wood presupposes their impermanence and the need for future generations to rebuild them. Japanese culture accepts the fleeting nature of the human being and everything we create.

The Grand Shrine of Ise, for example, has been rebuilt every twenty years for centuries. The most important thing is not to keep the building standing for generations, but to preserve customs and traditions—things that can withstand the passage of time better than structures made by human hands.

The key is to accept that there are certain things over which we have no control, like the passage of time and the ephemeral nature of the world around us.

Ichi-go ichi-e teaches us to focus on the present and enjoy each moment that life brings us. This is why it is so important to find and pursue our ikigai.

Wabi-sabi teaches us to appreciate the beauty of imperfection as an opportunity for growth.

Beyond resilience: Antifragility

As the legend goes, the first time Hercules faced the Hydra, he despaired when he discovered that cutting off one of its heads meant that two would grow back in its place. He would never be able to kill the beast if it got stronger with every wound.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, we use the word fragile to describe people, things, and organizations that are weakened when harmed, and the words robust and resilient for things that are able to withstand harm without weakening, but we don’t have a word for things that get stronger when harmed (up to a point).

To refer to the kind of power possessed by the Hydra of Lerna, to talk about things that get stronger when they are harmed, Taleb proposes the term antifragile: “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

Catastrophes and exceptional circumstances offer good models for explaining antifragility. In 2011 a tsunami hit the Tōhoku region of Japan, doing tremendous damage to dozens of cities and towns along the coast, most famously Fukushima.

When we visited the affected coast two years after the catastrophe, having driven for hours along cracked highways and past one empty gas station after another, we passed through several ghost towns whose streets had been taken over by the remnants of houses, piles of cars, and empty train stations. These towns were fragile spaces that had been forgotten by the government and could not recover on their own.

Other places, such as Ishinomaki and Kesennuma, suffered extensive damage but were rebuilt within a few years, thanks to the efforts of many. Ishinomaki and Kesennuma showed how resilient they were in their ability to return to normal after the catastrophe.

The earthquake that caused the tsunami also affected the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The Tokyo Electric Power Company engineers working at the plant were not prepared to recover from that kind of damage. The Fukushima nuclear facility is still in a state of emergency and will be for decades to come. It demonstrated its fragility in the face of an unprecedented catastrophe.

The Japanese financial markets closed minutes after the earthquake. Which businesses did the best in the aftermath? Stock in big construction companies has been steadily on the rise since 2011; the need to rebuild the entire coast of Tōhoku is a boon for construction. In this case, Japanese construction companies are antifragile, since they benefited enormously from the catastrophe.

Now let’s take a look at how we can apply this concept to our daily lives. How can we be more antifragile?

Step 1: Create redundancies

Instead of having a single salary, try to find a way to make money from your hobbies, at other jobs, or by starting your own business. If you have only one salary, you might be left with nothing should your employer run into trouble, leaving you in a position of fragility. On the other hand, if you have several options and you lose your primary job, it might just happen that you end up dedicating more time to your secondary job, and maybe even make more money at it. You would have beaten that stroke of bad luck and would be, in that case, antifragile.

One hundred percent of the seniors we interviewed in Ogimi had a primary and a secondary occupation. Most of them kept a vegetable garden as a secondary job, and sold their produce at the local market.

The same idea goes for friendships and personal interests. It’s just a matter, as the saying goes, of not putting all your eggs in one basket.

In the sphere of romantic relationships, there are those who focus all their energy on their partner and make him or her their whole world. Those people lose everything if the relationship doesn’t work out, whereas if they’ve cultivated strong friendships and a full life along the way, they’ll be in a better position to move on at the end of a relationship. They’ll be antifragile.

Right now you might be thinking, “I don’t need more than one salary, and I’m happy with the friends I’ve always had. Why should I add anything new?” It might seem like a waste of time to add variation to our lives, because extraordinary things don’t ordinarily happen. We slip into a comfort zone. But the unexpected always happens, sooner or later.

Step 2: Bet conservatively in certain areas and take many small risks in others

The world of finance turns out to be very useful in explaining this concept. If you have $10,000 saved up, you might put $9,000 of that into an index fund or fixed-term deposit, and invest the remaining $1,000 in ten start-ups with huge growth potential—say, $100 in each.

One possible scenario is that three of the companies fail (you lose $300), the value of three other companies goes down (you lose another $100 or $200), the value of three goes up (you make $100 or $200), and the value of one of the start-ups increases twenty-fold (you make nearly $2,000, or maybe even more).

You still make money, even if three of the businesses go completely belly-up. You’ve benefited from the damage, just like the Hydra.

The key to becoming antifragile is taking on small risks that might lead to great reward, without exposing ourselves to dangers that might sink us, such as investing $10,000 in a fund of questionable reputation that we saw advertised in the newspaper.

Step 3: Get rid of the things that make you fragile

We’re taking the negative route for this exercise. Ask yourself: What makes me fragile? Certain people, things, and habits generate losses for us and make us vulnerable. Who and what are they?

When we make our New Year’s resolutions, we tend to emphasize adding new challenges to our lives. It’s great to have this kind of objective, but setting “good riddance” goals can have an even bigger impact. For example:
  • Stop snacking between meals
  • Eat sweets only once a week
  • Gradually pay off all debt
  • Avoid spending time with toxic people
  • Avoid spending time doing things we don’t enjoy, simply because we feel obligated to do them
  • Spend no more than twenty minutes on Facebook per day
To build resilience into our lives, we shouldn’t fear adversity, because each setback is an opportunity for growth. If we adopt an antifragile attitude, we’ll find a way to get stronger with every blow, refining our lifestyle and staying focused on our ikigai.

Taking a hit or two can be viewed as either a misfortune or an experience that we can apply to all areas of our lives, as we continually make corrections and set new and better goals. As Taleb writes in Antifragile, “We need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, hear traumatic episodes, all these things that make life worth living.” We encourage those interested in the concept of antifragility to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile.

Life is pure imperfection, as the philosophy of wabi-sabiteaches us, and the passage of time shows us that everything is fleeting, but if you have a clear sense of your ikigai, each moment will hold so many possibilities that it will seem almost like an eternity.



EPILOGUE

Ikigai: The art of living

Mitsuo Aida was one of the most important calligraphers and haikuists of the twentieth century. He is yet another example of a Japanese person who dedicated his life to a very specific ikigai: communicating emotions with seventeen-syllable poems, using a shodo calligraphy brush.
Many of Aida’s haikus philosophize about the importance of the present moment, and the passage of time. The poem reproduced below could be translated as “In the here and now, the only thing in my life is your life.”
In another poem, Aida writes simply, “Here, now.” It is an artwork that seeks to evoke feelings of mono no aware (a melancholy appreciation of the ephemeral).
The following poem touches on one of the secrets of bringing ikigai into our lives: “Happiness is always determined by your heart.”
This last one, also by Aida, means “Keep going; don’t change your path.”
Once you discover your ikigai, pursuing it and nurturing it every day will bring meaning to your life. The moment your life has this purpose, you will achieve a happy state of flow in all you do, like the calligrapher at his canvas or the chef who, after half a century, still prepares sushi for his patrons with love.

Conclusion

Our ikigai is different for all of us, but one thing we have in common is that we are all searching for meaning. When we spend our days feeling connected to what is meaningful to us, we live more fully; when we lose the connection, we feel despair.
Modern life estranges us more and more from our true nature, making it very easy for us to lead lives lacking in meaning. Powerful forces and incentives (money, power, attention, success) distract us on a daily basis; don’t let them take over your life.
Our intuition and curiosity are very powerful internal compasses to help us connect with our ikigai. Follow those things you enjoy, and get away from or change those you dislike. Be led by your curiosity, and keep busy by doing things that fill you with meaning and happiness. It doesn’t need to be a big thing: we might find meaning in being good parents or in helping our neighbors.
There is no perfect strategy to connecting with our ikigai. But what we learned from the Okinawans is that we should not worry too much about finding it.
Life is not a problem to be solved. Just remember to have something that keeps you busy doing what you love while being surrounded by the people who love you.

The ten rules of ikigai

We’ll conclude this journey with ten rules we’ve distilled from the wisdom of the long-living residents of Ogimi:
  1. Stay active; don’t retire. Those who give up the things they love doing and do well lose their purpose in life. That’s why it’s so important to keep doing things of value, making progress, bringing beauty or utility to others, helping out, and shaping the world around you, even after your “official” professional activity has ended.
  2. Take it slow. Being in a hurry is inversely proportional to quality of life. As the old saying goes, “Walk slowly and you’ll go far.” When we leave urgency behind, life and time take on new meaning.
  3. Don’t fill your stomach. Less is more when it comes to eating for long life, too. According to the 80 percent rule, in order to stay healthier longer, we should eat a little less than our hunger demands instead of stuffing ourselves.
  4. Surround yourself with good friends. Friends are the best medicine, there for confiding worries over a good chat, sharing stories that brighten your day, getting advice, having fun, dreaming . . . in other words, living.
  5. Get in shape for your next birthday. Water moves; it is at its best when it flows fresh and doesn’t stagnate. The body you move through life in needs a bit of daily maintenance to keep it running for a long time. Plus, exercise releases hormones that make us feel happy.
  6. Smile. A cheerful attitude is not only relaxing—it also helps make friends. It’s good to recognize the things that aren’t so great, but we should never forget what a privilege it is to be in the here and now in a world so full of possibilities.
  7. Reconnect with nature. Though most people live in cities these days, human beings are made to be part of the natural world. We should return to it often to recharge our batteries.
  8. Give thanks. To your ancestors, to nature, which provides you with the air you breathe and the food you eat, to your friends and family, to everything that brightens your days and makes you feel lucky to be alive. Spend a moment every day giving thanks, and you’ll watch your stockpile of happiness grow.
  9. Live in the moment. Stop regretting the past and fearing the future. Today is all you have. Make the most of it. Make it worth remembering.
  10. Follow your ikigai. There is a passion inside you, a unique talent that gives meaning to your days and drives you to share the best of yourself until the very end. If you don’t know what your ikigai is yet, as Viktor Frankl says, your mission is to discover it.
    The authors of this book wish you a long, happy, and purposeful life.
    Thank you for joining us,
    HÉCTOR GARCÍA AND FRANCESC MIRALLES










ABOUT  THE  AUTHORS
Héctor García is a citizen of Japan, where he has lived for over a decade, and of Spain, where he was born. A former software engineer, he worked at CERN in Switzerland before moving to Japan, where he developed voice recognition software and the technology needed for Silicon Valley start-ups to enter the Japanese market. He is the creator of the popular blog kirainet.com and the author of A Geek in Japan, a #1 bestseller in Japan.
Francesc Miralles is an award-winning author who has written a number of bestselling self-help and inspirational books. Born in Barcelona, he studied journalism, English literature, and German, and has worked as an editor, a translator, a ghostwriter, and a musician. His novel Love in Lowercase has been translated into twenty languages.







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