An icky guy explains ikigai.

racism Feb 09, 2020

As is the case with all of us who have had employment in this country, I’ve had the pleasure of working with an arrogant, unqualified, insecure, middle aged-white-guy manager. And today, I’d love to share with you an encounter that I had with this manager that really fuelled my desire to start something like Shapes and Sounds.

So the story starts with me typing away at my desk on a regular work day when this particular manager snuck up on me and asked me,

“Have you heard of icky guy?”

I was like “I’m looking at one” (I thought about this great come back a few days too late...)

Instead, I said, “hm no I haven’t.”

He flicked my hand away to show me what “icky guy” was and after a few misspelt Google searches, he said “aha! This is icky guy. This is a Japanese philosophy that helps people to reach their optimum wellbeing.”

I looked at the screen and he’d brought up something that said “ikigai”.

Ikigai = inadequately translated to “a reason for being” or the embodiment of happiness.

I sat through a good 10 minutes of him explaining this concept to me and all the while I thought;

  • You’re the last person in the world to embody any kind of “ikigai”

  • Are you telling me this because I’m Japanese?

  • Do you know that you’re mispronouncing the word?

  • Do you know that you’re trying to explain an Eastern philosophy through a very Western lens?

  • Don’t you feel stupid trying to man-splain an esoteric Japanese concept to a Japanese person?

The conversation ended with him telling me that he thought “ikigai” would create better performance outcomes in our staff and that I should incorporate this framework in my work. To me, that sounds like someone saying “just skim through the bible and pick the bits that fit our organisational goals and make sure everyone reads it so that they’re more productive at work.”

It’s reductive and simplistic and I was left thinking, why do some white people, especially those who have no understanding of spirit, energy, embodiment, have the audacity to reintroduce Eastern concepts back to Asians?

But I understand where this comes from…

I myself have been a cliche example of a Westernised person seeking healing and meaning by looking East. When I was 19, I dropped out of uni, shaved my head and moved to an Ashram in South India to study yoga for six months. When I really began to learn about yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism, I was deeply enticed by the esoteric wisdom of the East and wanted all of this knowledge for my own growth and wellbeing. I didn’t care for the locals in Pondicherry, I actively turned my gaze away from poverty and I took those teachings (thinking, “well I paid for this!”) and white-washed them so I could make a living as a yoga teacher in Tokyo and Melbourne.

Not once did I stop and think about the discord between my lack of interest in the country that is India at that time, and the fact that my primary income came from something intrinsically Indian.

So, embarrassingly I understand how people want to take the good bits out of the East and turn away from the bits that they don’t want to see. But what I also know now is that this doesn’t work. I’ll never understand the practice of Yoga because I don’t understand India. I don’t understand the language(s), the food, the family structures, the role of teachers, the musical scale, and this means that I will never understand the full scope of the practice of Yoga.

Despite this, I have a daily yoga asana practice. But when I approach my practice with this humility, I no longer feel intrigued and excited by the esoteric nature of the practice and instead I just do the practice and it helps me to notice and understand myself.

It’s natural to be drawn to Eastern philosophies like ikigai, shinrin yoku, wabisabi etc but if you’re not of that culture, the first step is acknowledging that you have no idea what you are talking about. You have no context for the concept and you do not have the words nor the frameworks to understand such concepts.

The second step is acknowledging that people of that culture have a profound understanding of such concepts whether or not they know it, voice it or explain it to others. I, like many modern day Japanese people, have minimal understanding of Shintoism but, I know that I know. My ancestry, body and spirit tell me that I live and breathe Shintoism despite my Westernised ways.

The third step is to stop reintroducing Eastern concepts to Asians. Yes, you may come across as more articulate but if you want to draw from the East, the first step is to be quiet and listen. You will never be the expert here.

And lastly, don’t try to pull little bits and pieces of Eastern philosophy to improve the performance of your team. Health promoting activities exist to promote health, not work performance. Instead, stick to work related resources like “the infinite mindset” and “courageous leadership” or things from your own culture that are meaningful to you.

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