The Magic Ingredient

‘Every body seems to have an opinion on what I must be doing – except me!’ said the young girl. She was good in Math as compared to Social and Physical Sciences. So she had opted for the ‘Commerce’ group in school. One thing led to another, she had to choose what to study at college – if choice was any where there it seemed predetermined. A degree seemed what was expected. She got placed in a good job right in campus selection. It was going to be a year now and finally there was clarity. Oh she still did not know what she wanted to do but she certainly knew without an iota of doubt what she did not! No more sitting in an office to pass purchase invoices and sales receipts. There was panic at home! She did not want to go for CA coaching nor continue her ‘job’ writing vouchers. Everybody seemed to have an opinion on what she must be doing – except her! I know she is not the only one. Most, perhaps everyone, at some point have come to ask this question ‘what am I doing with my life?’

How to find one’s purpose? Is it even necessary? I had written in an earlier article on how perhaps we should teach our children not to seek happiness but rather a purpose for life. But I wonder now, if I used the wrong term. You see, purpose has an inclination toward action. It is equivalent to saying my life’s purpose is to do something or achieve something. It certainly propels one towards becoming competent and successful, ensuring there is lasting impact. But it does not always include the ‘being’ domain. ‘My purpose in life is to do all this AND also to be this…’ is not always implicit with the defining of a purpose. I have come to believe that the Japanese word ‘ikigai’ is more appropriate to our search for meaning in life.

Ikigai means ‘a reason to live’. It is what wakes you up in the morning, makes you strive during the day, compels you to become better every moment, creates a need to live, inspires transformations and basically is more important than even oxygen to be alive to every one of our hundred trillion cells. The people of Okinawa in whose culture ikigai thrives, live longer for they not just have reasons that make their own lives worthwhile (as an external motivation), but also have spiritual credence to believe their lives are valuable to the universe and themselves (intrinsic meaning). In other words ikigai is not merely behavioural responses based on external happenings like wealth, fame, profession or even lofty aspirations but rather the ‘process of allowing the self’s possibilities to blossom.’ For instance the Okinawans do not even have a word to describe retirement! Because to them, ikigai is your very reason to live and you continue doing it without on one fine day saying ‘no more’. The idea that work is for earning and is separate from one’s purpose, provides a context for retirement. However, if the ‘work’ or I would rather call it as ‘self-expression’ is merely the process of allowing the self to blossom, at what point would any one say ‘Enough! No need to show me any more possibilities of who I am!’

Sounds pretty straight forward on a piece of paper – it looks like the easiest thing to do – find your ikigai and you will live a long, purposeful, productive life! But if it really were that simple, wouldn’t all of humanity have already embraced it! To be honest, if someone had asked me a few years ago, I might have responded just that way – it can’t be that easy. But gracefully and gratefully I stand corrected. It is indeed that simple!

The ancient formula for ikigai is a very simple drawing of four intersecting circles. You start with the circle on top that asks you to find ‘what you love’. Then it asks you to take the message from the circle on the left ‘what you are good at’. Now if you love something and become competent in it, it becomes your passion – which is the intersecting space between circles one & two.

When you are good at something (depicted in the left circle) and you get paid to do it (depicted in the bottom circle), it is called a profession (the intersection). But profession does not guarantee passion nor does being passionate about something mean you are successful. They are independent relationships – first between what you love and what you become proficient in; and second between what you are proficient in and get paid for.

Now the fourth circle on the right depicts ‘what the world needs’! Where it intersects with your earning money (bottom circle) it becomes a vocation. Where it intersects with your love for what you do (top circle) it becomes a mission. In other words when you identify what you love, become proficient in it, make it successful and also serve the larger good of the world it becomes your passion, profession, vocation, mission – your ikigai or reason to live. It could be anything from being the best grandmother to the most successful entrepreneur.

Unfortunately most have not yet crossed step one – what do you love doing? Everything is a part-time entertainment. Something to toy with for a few days / weeks / months or even years only to finally wake up one day to say I don’t like this any more. And suddenly you are left with an empty canvass – a feeling that all the time you spent loving that very thing was in vain. If at all some one identifies what they do love and become proficient in it, the sheer repetition of it becomes so tedious that it does not remain a ‘passion’ for life. So many people who were once a sports enthusiast, don’t even watch the sport anymore. So many who loved to sing, now don’t even hum a tune in the shower. The passion ebbs from the weight of repetition and lack of innovation. Even if you remain passionate, it most often ends up as a ‘hobby’ – a pass time after you finish your day’s work – that too only if and when you find time, energy and resources. Under such circumstances where you have an expression ground for your passion through hobbies, it is easy to find just the common ground for a vocation – the intersection between what the world needs and what you get paid for. Yes! Some even remain enslaved in a mission – a love for a particular role that the world needs, not making it successful enough to be a profession. Or there are those who become proficient and earn enough money, become one of the top professionals but yearn for the time and resource to do what they love. In other words, if even one of the circles are missing, it is not your ikigai.

Why do we find it so difficult, even with the formula readily available, to live that kind of a legendary life with our potential manifest? Why only a few seem to really ‘enjoy’ this process called life in all its depth and breadth – not limiting it to one facet or even to a simple habitual process but one of true invigorating vitality! Yet if it were really so elusive, we should not see an Albert Einstein, a Leonardo Da Vinci, a Michael Angelo, a Mozart or any of the other inspirations who have walked on this planet earth. Again, they have not hidden the truth from us. Just that in our limited capacity we have failed to understand their processes and perceptions.

Albert Einstein referred to his thinking process as “combinatory play.” Imagine a child with a box of Legos. Untutored by an adult intelligence, won’t he find new and novel ways to combine them to form different figurines? Give a child a piece of play dough and he will keep making unique shapes, exploring and inventing, till an adult makes him repeat – ‘what you did that day was really goody it looked so much like a dog!’ And lo! The kid gets stuck making dogs for the rest of his play dough days. Pretend play and creative play are such crucial forms of development that work to better cognitive skills in growing children. They literally create the neurons to perceive things from so many different ways. But we have divided our lives into segmental activities – this I do for money, this as a hobby for my passionate expression, something else because I am good at it, and finally, mostly out of a sense of guilt or some feeling of wanting to return (without truly believing in its full cause) an action to record social responsibility. Similarly, we believe we ought to give our children time to play, time to read, time to count, time to remember… But that is not how we can create those so important neurons!

Einstein confessed to have constantly combined and recombined ideas, images, and other various thoughts into millions of different combinations. They say he played violin to ‘take a break’ from his science and it is during that time he came up with his eureka moments. So again we make the mistake and say break away from your routine and you will get clarity. I am sure Einstein could never have been ‘devoid of science’ even when he played the violin, nor be unmusical even when he pondered the magnificence of science. It is more that the melody of science was ever prevalent, just as much as the science of music. That is perhaps the same way all those legends created. This combinatory play was the essential feature in their creative thinking processes. In Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, he did not invent the concepts of energy, mass, or speed of light. He simply found a connecting thread to combine these concepts in a novel way which restructured the way humanity looks at the universe.

In his book titled ‘The Act of Creation’, Arthur Koestler elaborates a similar concept on human creativity with the theory of bisociation – a blending of elements drawn from two previously unrelated matrices of thought into a new matrix of meaning. He believes this is applicable in all areas of humour, science and art. For instance, while narrating a joke, the audience is led to expect a certain outcome drawn from a particular matrix or storyline. But a punch line replaces the original with an alternative matrix to comic effect. Scientific discoveries are basically two previously disconnected matrices that are fused into a new larger synthesis. Finally, Arthur proposes, that in arts, the two matrices are held in juxtaposition – close in contrast to one another to observe and experience a connect.

In an attempt to trigger the inbuilt creativity in humans, once again many fail by introducing simplistic solutions – to pick unconnected things and try to find a combinatory field of application for them – ‘What similarity can you find between a pineapple and the ocean?’ But this kind of activity will remain a mental exercise in no way translated into truly creative genius. The idea of combinatory play is not to look for two areas that are unrelated and to find a common thread. Creativity does not come by ‘looking for similarities’ but from ‘negating the differences’. When you look for similarities you use your intelligence. When you negate the differences you rely on the experience. To me, I hate pineapple and love the sea… Intellectually I cannot find any similarities… Oh to feel the same exhilaration when I dance and lift weights… The wonder when I see the sunrise or starry night and the awe when I learn about wormholes and black holes… The kick I get when I make a sale and the pride I take when I design a program… When I dissolve into the melody even as my feet involuntarily taps to the rhythm… But pineapple and the sea! Not yet; may be never! But pineapple to my husband is the same as the sea is to me! Now intellectual similarities I find none. But emotional connect, hmm… Now we are talking… Simply negating the difference between pineapple and the sea, my husband and me… Basking in the experience of the ‘feel of the ocean / taste of the pineapple’…

Combinatory play is to identify apparently unconnected areas of passion, become proficient in each of them and allow them to flow into each other’s domains to find new creative avenues. It is not about being passionate about something learnt from the outside. It is the manifestation of something that has grown so much in you, that now a part of you is in it. The differences disappear; new expression grounds are revealed… When people now want to pay you for your services, it is not for a ‘product’ or system of ‘service’ you have designed but they are actually willing to pay for the ‘you’ in it – what you have brought to the table. Now, you don’t have to check if the world is in need of it. The world will be willing to buy what ever has a bit of ‘you’ in it for we need creative, innovative, different things. Repetition kills. The tedium of thought searching for similarities takes control to swiftly change your passions into your greatest liability – indifference with the differences intact.

A celebrated scholar recited passages from the Mahabharata, Upanishads, and the Bhasyas (commentaries) of Shankara to the great Guru Sri Yukteswar Giri. ‘I am waiting to hear you’, replied the revered saint. ‘Quotations there have been, in superabundance. But what original commentary can you supply, from the uniqueness of your particular life? What holy text have you absorbed and made your own? In what ways have these timeless truths renovated your nature?’ Ikigai is the process of allowing the self’s possibilities to blossom – the self being ‘you’. The secret ingredient of combinatory play or bisociation that makes ikigai a reality is the ‘you’ in you – not just the passions, profession, vocation or even mission. YOU.

Written by Gita Krishna Raj  |  Published in infinithoughts in October 2016

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