Here is a quote – Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.
If you have ever seen an artist at work or a child doing what he or she really likes, you might have observed one thing. They get completely absorbed in whatever they are doing. When their work is done, they don’t know how much time has elapsed, which activities were taking place around them, and sometimes, not even how they finished their work. It just happened, they say. This is the highest form of work, that which is done with the deepest concentration. While working in this way, you are one with what you are doing and completely involved in the present moment. You find your work deeply fulfilling, and are assured that this was the best you could do. Similarly, if you find a sense of purpose in your life, you will be involved in your work in such a way that you will never feel that you have worked or exerted yourself. While working in such a way, you can say that you were in the ‘flow state’, or that you were performing ‘ikigai’.
The Flow State
In 1975, M Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, came up with a term to describe this state of immense concentration. When you are in such a state, you literally flow with what you are doing, so Csikszentmihalyi called this state a ‘flow’3. However, it later turned out that what he had discovered wasn’t new. People practising Eastern religions not only knew about this concept already, but they had also discovered numerous techniques of harnessing its potential, particularly in Japan, where it is known as ‘ikigai’ and has been a part of their tradition for thousands of years.
What is ikigai?
In Japanese, ‘iki’ means ‘being alive’ or ‘life’, and ‘gai’ means ‘value’, ‘worth’ or ‘usefulness’. When combined, the whole term means something like ‘a reason for being alive’. However, the concept itself can be translated into something like ‘finding happiness in being busy’. Last year, a Japanese rail company issued an apology when one of its trains left just 20 seconds early from the platform. This is the typical Japanese attitude. Japan is one of the few countries that follow collectivism, which means the Japanese always look at the bigger picture, and they prefer collective achievements over personal achievements.
Working together leads to greater success
According to the Nash Equilibrium, the economic theory posited by American mathematician Professor John Forbes Nash, in a society, the achievement of an individual is intrinsically linked with the achievement of the society4. For example, let’s take the case of a person who works hard for the greater good so sincerely that he doesn’t even take care of his health, and dies an early death. This loss isn’t just a personal loss, it is also a loss for his group, his society, and his country. Instead of working too hard, if the person had taken good care of his health and lived a long life, he would certainly have served his purpose better.
In Japan, people truly understand this. It is evident in their healthy lifestyle and high life expectancy. They know that their own good is linked to the good of the universe, and by immersing themselves completely in the flow state, they very tangibly experience the true joy of being.
How to discover your purpose
You have to consider many things before selecting your vocation. You should first find answers to these four questions – ‘Do you enjoy doing your work?’ , ‘Are you good at it?’, ‘Does it lead to any greater good?’, ‘Would it help you earn a decent living?’
Only those who introspect frequently are likely to find a direct answer to all these questions. The others will encounter just a haze or a lack of clarity. That is because years of bad habits have separated us from our purpose. When we were children, we would be immediately absorbed in everything we did. Then we were sent to school and had to surrender unwillingly to learning things we didn’t like, following rules we didn’t want to.
Doing what others want us to do is helpful in developing important qualities like self-discipline and morality. But, when carried to the extreme, it tears us away from individuality, making us suitable only for a boring 9-5 job in which we have to follow predefined instructions and are not expected to be innovative or original.
We should retain the good habits that we have learnt through discipline, but we should also find ways of discovering our true, unrestricted inner self. Balancing these two tendencies is what a sense of purpose is all about. To achieve this, we don’t have to learn something new. We just have to unlearn. Our purpose is always there, like a primordial impulse that has existed in us ever since our childhood. All we have to do is to unchain it again by finding and eliminating the bad habits that have obscured it.
Practising mindfulness meditation
According to Indian philosophy, our mind is not our true self. Our true self lies beyond it. It is untainted and pure. In meditation, our mind appears like a kaleidoscope of feelings and thoughts. However, rather than identifying with it, we see it as distant from ourselves. In short, we achieve a state in which we become aware of our mind. This state is known as mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation is often considered an esoteric craft practised only by a few who subscribe to a certain religious belief. Some people even consider those practising it stupid or silly. However, if you have ever practised mindfulness meditation, you will know that this is not the case. It is more like an intense introspection, which is just about closing your eyes and watching your thoughts. People practise it in groups just for the sake of motivation. You can do it by yourself at home, too.
In the initial stages of the meditation, the practise is particularly difficult, because, for the first time, you are becoming aware of the chaotic force of your thoughts. Restlessness might creep in, you might feel sleepy, or you might start getting the feeling that this isn’t your cup of tea. In these situations, it is important that you persist. Soon, your thoughts will start settling down, and these tendencies of your mind will begin dissolving. Your mind will no longer be like an unrestrained natural force. It will become like a tamed elephant, powerful yet gentle. You will be able to direct it wherever you want. The aimlessness and indecision that have plagued or you will disappear just as dewdrops disappear on a sunny day.
Make yourself a part of the bigger picture
After you have regularly practised the above two steps, you are done with the cake. Now, you just have to put the cherry on top. We must remember that the more self-centered our life is, the more prone we are to unhappiness and frustration. One of the important things that Christianity has taught us is to believe in the words ‘Thy will be done’. These words tell us to surrender our will to the will of the divine.
We keep on striking the world with our individuality, always forgetting that our small minds cannot comprehend the bigger picture. The world is much more complex and absurd than we think it is. The best way of becoming a part of it is by finding something that leads us to a greater good, and temporarily surrendering our will to it. In Indian mythology, it is called dharma, which can be translated into English literally as ‘duty’. In ancient India, each type of work or job had corresponding dharma associated with it – that is, there were a set of rules or duties that a person in a particular trade was expected to follow.
The same is required to discover a sense of purpose. Before deciding to do something, you should discover your true values, and then, you should search for opportunities to apply those values practically. If you keep feeling pricks of conscience during your work, you will always stay on its surface and will never be able to plunge deep inside it. You can give your 100 percent only when you know that what you are doing is for your own good and for the greater good of humanity. Only then will you be able to derive true joy from your work.