Written by Marvin Chapman on Feb. 6, 2019

What is your raison d’etre? Your reason for living? What do you desire?

Ikigai: Life’s worth

You can find these answers in the Japanese practice of ikigai. It can be thought of as the reason you get up in the morning, a reason to enjoy life. This practice is the source of value in one’s life or the things that make life worthwhile. It’s the energy of motion or change: E-motion. That’s right, all those new year resolutions, or that resolve you have to change, has an emotion at the core. The question is, can you tap into it?

Movement is Emotion

In my experience people typically jump into a mind-body and/or spiritual practice hoping to facilitate personal transformation. Mindfulness, meditation, and searching for a higher power can certainly be one path, but it’s not the only one. Rather than trying to cultivate an intellectual understanding of being, maybe the answer is to develop an awareness through movement [1]. In neuroscience, you eventually find out that everything is connected and the way in could easily be reversed, body-mind instead of mind-body

We are all connected inextricably through movement. Like everything else, we are made of atoms in constant motion. We only appear to be solid or whole. When this energy of motion, i.e. your emotional state, changes, the vibrational energy on an atomic level also changes, and you can feel this change. It could be in your head, neck, chest, gut, or dan t’ian. In martial arts the dan t’ian is your energy center, what we would call your center of mass. In Japanese, this energy is centered and concentrated in your hara, or belly, about an inch or so below the navel.

You may find it’s difficult to move if your energy is concentrated in your head, neck, shoulders, or chest. In my massage practice, I often get complaints of pain or tension in these restricted areas. In either case, I would encourage you to look inside yourself and ask, is this a musculoskeletal condition or could it be suppressed emotional energy?

Since energy follows attention, it’s best to put your awareness on the soles of your feet and on a point at your center. This practice is often referred to as grounding or centering yourself. It helps us tap into a deeper understanding. In The Way of Aikido, George Leonard, author and Sensei, suggests that to begin experiencing the self and the universe as one we must learn to sit, stand, move, speak, feel, think, create, and love as if the impetus for each of these activities arises in our center of mass; a point in the middle of the abdomen an inch or so beneath the navel. The practice of Aikido, a lesser known martial art, teaches us that to be centered is to say yes to life. The center, as this American Sensei describes, “joins the past and future, heavens and earth, the near and far, it is both the way in and the way out.”

Be Where Your Feet Are

Jessica, aka @neuromommyphd, came home one night and was recapping a conversation she had earlier that evening. She was having a difficult time living in the moment, being present in the now, not thinking about the past or future. “Be where your feet are,” was the advice she received. As much as it resonated with her, it really struck a chord with me. I’m the anatomy guy, and the visual image of two bare feet firmly planted in the earth brought up a sense of connectedness that was previously only an idea for me, an intellectual curiosity. Now it was tangible, I could feel the vibration.

I was taught how to center myself in massage school. It was part of our practice to learn how to be present for the clients. We practiced Tai Chi, Yoga, Meditation, Mindfulness, and Qi Gong, among other centering techniques. We were guided to let the energy of the Universe flow through us; we were to be a conduit for this energy, not the source. My scientific mind bucked against this notion, I couldn’t accept that I was powerless to something bigger than myself.

It turns out you can give too much of yourself and deplete your vital energy. You can also hold on to negative energy until your glass overflows and spills out on everyone and everything else. These are examples of extremes: Yin and Yang, excess and deficiency, internal and external, overuse and disuse. In philosophy, the Golden Mean (Greek, Judaism, Christianity, Islam), Doctrine of the Mean (Chinese), and Middle Way (Buddhist), are the constructs represented by the desirable mean between two extremes. A state of harmony, balance, or equilibrium is best achieved by being where your feet are and finding your center.

What’s Your Why

I’m sitting in a coffee shop, it’s open mic night, and I must be vibing with the energy of the room because everyone wants to talk to me. Meanwhile, I’m over here freakin’ out cause I’m just trying to tie-up some loose ends on this blog. I politely excused myself from conversation and returned to writing, only to be pulled back in a moment later. I was getting frustrated because I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. I was mad at the people across from me for interrupting my work. My neck and shoulders started to get tense, my jaw started to tighten as I grit my teeth, and I began to fidget in my chair.

And then, I put away my things and listened. I sank into the moment. I felt my two feet on the floor and I found my center through my breath. I connected with two strangers, a gentleman of 52 and a young woman all of 21, and all that tension immediately released. He was a self-proclaimed redneck cowboy: hat, flannel, boots, twang, belt buckle and all. This man gave up his career to pursue singing at the age of 49. He had been singing since age thirteen, but was unhappy in his life’s work and decided to make a change. Now, he plays music all over the southeastern United States. He takes music lessons and even enrolled into some college courses in music appreciation. He’s happy and is pursuing his heart’s desire; yet, he is in the middle of the most difficult personal work of his life. She, on the other hand, seems to have it all figured out. Her why, the reason she gets up in the morning, is spreading joy to others. It’s what makes her feel worthwhile. Although her face lit up when speaking, it’s just a dream, an idea, a thought. And while this may be noble, I can only think that her why is tied up in the emotional outcome of others – whom she cannot control. This is the difference between the hubris of youth and the wisdom that comes with age.

I tell this story to give some insight into the practice of Ikigai. On the surface, it seems like we can craft a personal mission statement to be happy and live out our why? The thing about emotions is, we experience many of them at the same time. You cannot just will yourself to be happy, nor can you just ignore the things that make you feel icky. And so it goes…until something changes.

What’s In the Way

As I continue to understand and appreciate the importance of the human body, I must also take into account the human condition. That is, what is our true nature? This revelation brings us full circle to the concept of Ikigai: What do you desire? What are your passions, your purpose, your values? What brings you fulfillment? What calls to you? Can you be your true self? Are you satisfied? Do you have a reason for being?

Answering these questions is a lifelong process. Your path to success doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s. The energy of motion, those pesky e-motions, are within us all. Sometimes they are buried so deep and so much other shit is piled on top of them, that we don’t even recognize them anymore; but they’re there, just waiting to be rediscovered. I assure you that bigger, stronger, faster, sexier, thinner, prettier, are not the answers you’re seeking from a movement practice. That’s why 50% of gym goers drop out within 3 months and 80% drop out over the course of the year. Their why, the reason they embarked on an exercise journey, did not align with their raison d’etre.

Ultimately, I had to discover my Ikigai before I became successful in my understanding of a movement practice. I had to let go of trying to be perfect and be content with being good enough. I had to value health over fitness and beauty. I had to recognize that my energy and my power is not controlled by me. I had to realize that this vital energy, this energy of motion, my emotions, were the key to unlocking my potential. My movement practice revealed an inability for me to move this energy; but as my movements became more fluid, so did my ability to tap into my emotions.

For me, the way in and the way out required me to center myself and be where my feet are. I had to find the stillness in movement to find stillness in my mind. I had to let go and let myself grow. I spent too long trapped inside a fitness box; but it wasn’t just fitness that I boxed in, I trapped everything there: fear, anxiety, shame, courage, bravery, self-worth, self-esteem, self-confidence. I trapped myself inside Pandora’s box. My energy was stuck, I was stuck. It wasn’t until I moved that things started to change.

“Nothing happens, until something moves” ~Albert Einstein