Balancing Ikigai and Nagomi

Roadside Musings

Balancing Ikigai and Nagomi


The Japanese language and Japanese philosophy offer us numerous terms that help us rethink our life—explore Rabbi Rami's thoughts.

I’m a sucker for all things Japanese, from Zen Buddhism to Marie Kondo, which is why I was excited to interview Japanese scientist and bestselling author Ken Mogi about his books The Way of Nagomi and Awakening Your Ikigai. Dr. Mogi is a neuroscientist with a knack for explaining Japanese culture to Westerners. Our conversation touched on a variety of topics from the nature of consciousness to the subjects of his books: nagomi (life-balance) and ikigai (life-purpose).

I will admit to you, though I did not admit this to Dr. Mogi, that what I love about Japanese self-help is less the self-help and more the Japanese language. After all, there are many English language books dealing with life-balance and life-purpose, but it is way cooler to use the terms ikigai and nagomi. Yes, I admit to being that superficial. That said, however, it isn’t a waste of time to ponder the question, “What is your ikigai?”

When I put that question to myself, however, I’m stymied. My sense is that my life doesn’t have a purpose but is intrinsically purposeful. And because this is so, there is no need for me to add purpose to it, but only to discover the purpose it presents me with moment to moment. In a sense, if life is intrinsically purposeful and has no need for me to add purpose to it, then whatever happens happens, and all I need to do is yield to whatever life presents—and yielding is the key to balance. It may be that imposing ikigai works against nagomi.

I’m not saying this is true, only wondering if it is true. And as I write this, I can’t help but wonder if I’m simply expressing an old-man attitude.

Fifty years ago, if you had asked me what my ikigai was, I would have said it was to become a famous writer. Today, having achieved whatever modicum of writerly fame I will achieve in life, I can put that particular life-purpose aside. If you ask me today what my ikigai is I would say I have none, unless you consider a daily bowel movement an expression of ikigai, which it might be.

This reminds me of another cool Japanese term: the Mariko Aoki phenomenon. The Mariko Aoki phenomenon refers to the sudden urge to move one’s bowels upon entering a bookstore, and is named after the woman who coined the term in 1985. I experienced this phenomenon a decade before Mariko Aoki wrote about it.

Every Tuesday evening an Italian restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts offered a Two Dollar All-You-Can-Eat Pasta night to students. My wife and I would take the Metro from Kendall Square to Central Square, eat mountains of cheese ravioli, and then walk twenty minutes to the Harvard Coop bookstore. This proved to be the exact amount of time for my as-yet-undiagnosed celiac disease to send me racing to the restroom. Today, given my diagnosis and gluten-free diet, I no longer experience the Mariko Aoki phenomenon, but I still value a daily bowel movement, and consider it a vital part of my nagomi (but not really my ikigai).

My bowels aside, this is a good time of year to assess your ikigai to see if your purpose is still one worth pursuing and to assess the quality of your nagomi to see if your life needs some adjusting. And if you are experiencing the Mariko Aoki phenomenon, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist.

Listen to the podcast that inspired this essay here.

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Balancing Ikigai and Nagomi

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