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Today, many people are feeling that the world is becoming complex and that it is difficult to find the right path in one’s life. From career choices to the agony of selecting from streamed videos, there are increasingly more possibilities to choose from, and yet so little time to make a decision. Worse, our society seems to be divided into echo chambers, and it is sometimes difficult to come to a natural and relaxed agreement, even with your loved ones and close friends.
It is no wonder then that people are feeling stressed, pressured, and even burned out. A typical modern life is a far cry from what you would expect from the idyllic ending of a fairy tale in which you live happily ever after. In this zeitgeist, peace of mind seems hard to achieve—unless you come to know the Japanese concept of nagomi.
My new book, The Way of Nagomi, explains how this venerable Japanese concept can be of great help in enhancing your wellness in this increasingly difficult world. The word nagomi means balance, comfort, and calm in the heart and mind. Nagomi could be about one’s relationship with the environment or the quality of one’s communication with people around you. Nagomi may be about a well-mixed and balanced blending of materials, as in the case of cooking.
Nagomi, as a word representing all these detailed, subtle, and rich nuances, defies a simple equivalent English translation. In kanji (the Japanese version of Chinese characters), nagomi shares the same character as wa, meaning harmony. Because of its positive connotations, nagomi is a popular term in Japan. Restaurants, nursing homes, green tea brands, ice cream flavors, hot springs, wedding planning companies, shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) services, a spa in a luxury hotel, an orchestra, and a computer font all boast the name nagomi. Nagomi is also the name of a special train reserved for the emperor only, one made and maintained with the meticulous care characteristic of the Japanese people.
Nagomi assumes that there are different elements to begin with, not just a unified and coherent whole. That is precisely why nagomi is so relevant to many people in contemporary society, where it is difficult to seek harmony and coherence in life no matter how hard you may try. The beauty of nagomi is that you can achieve balance even when the elements in your life are far apart, like in matcha ice cream, where matcha (powdered green tea, a pristine Japanese flavor) and ice cream (a Western favorite) are mixed into a heavenly nagomi. If you understand the way of nagomi (nagomido), then every day of your life would taste like matcha ice cream.
I am a neuroscientist, writer, and broadcaster. My ultimate goal in life is to understand how consciousness arises in the brain. Although the neuroscientific basis for nagomi is not adequately studied yet, there are certain brain functions that are likely to be related. For example, brain areas involved in meditation and that support mind states popularly called mindfulness have a lot to do with nagomi. Control of emotion through a process called reappraisal, facilitated by the prefrontal cortex, is an integral part of nagomi. Recently discovered brain circuits called the default mode networks (DMNs), activated when the brain is in an idling mode, are a candidate for a mechanism of nagomi in the brain. DMNs are involved in sorting out memories and emotions in the brain, precisely the functions expected for nagomi.
The brain has great capacities to accommodate new ideas and adapt to new situations in creative ways. In order to do so, one needs to connect the dots, think outside the box, and make proactive compromises. Thus, achieving nagomi leads not only to health and happiness, but also to a creative and productive life.
My life in Tokyo is a complicated one. I am a senior researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratories, a fundamental research lab funded by Sony. I teach and research at the University of Tokyo as a visiting faculty. I write books and work in the media, hosting radio and TV shows. Thus, I am an industry, academic, and media person, and I need to make nagomi between different elements in life. The Way of Nagomi was born out of my expertise in neuroscience, observations of culture in my home country, and my own personal journey to achieve a balance between often-conflicting requirements of modern life. In order to muddle through, I had to become a master in nagomi. I suspect that the need to incorporate nagomi is felt by many people in the world today.
The way of nagomi is rooted in a deep understanding of life. When considering one’s health, we tend to look for a silver bullet solution. We are apt to expect that there is a pill, a particular life habit, or even a self-help book that could solve all the problems. However, given the complexity of life, such a silver bullet does not exist. All we can hope to do is to float on a carpet of nagomi, supported by the balance of many things. Nagomi is the best magic that we can hope to achieve in this complicated world.
Although the way of nagomi might appear to be difficult, you can start simply by being in the here and now, achieving mindfulness, and paying attention to the various things that make up your life. Indeed, relaxing and accepting are the best methods to achieve nagomi, no matter where you live, regardless of what kind of person you are.
As the Carpenters once famously sang, you might sometimes ask perfection of a quite imperfect world. Even if you cannot get perfection, you can certainly achieve nagomi. May the nagomi be with you.
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