Newsletter - March 2023
Ikigai and the Tao Te Ching
What is Ikigai, and what does it have to do with the Tao Te Ching? Good questions. This newsletter will explore them, and hopefully show their common focus on how to live our lives in harmony with the world around us.
Ikigai is an ancient Japanese concept meaning “your reason for being.” The first part “iki” means “life” or “spirit” and the second part “gai” refers to value or worth. Together they can be taken to mean your life purpose. The concept has been interpreted and used in many ways over the years, and I won’t examine and compare them. Instead, I’ll just pick one interpretation which I find useful.
However, before I do that, we can likely see an issue emerging in trying to connect Ikigai to the Tao Te Ching because “purpose” is not a concept promoted anywhere in Lao Tzu’s writing. Purpose suggests using thought to direct one’s actions towards fulfilling some kind of desire. And much of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is spent gently pointing out how desire is typically where the trouble starts. But, for the moment, let’s leave this issue aside and start exploring.
Here’s the interpretation of Ikigai I want to use. Imagine four same-sized circles arranged so as to overlap a bit in the middle. These are the circles:
1. What you love to do. Doing this brings you joy. You feel completely at home in yourself.
2. What you are good at. These are your natural skills and talents. Much of your early life is typically spent discovering and developing them.
3. What the world needs. This is value you can create which fulfills a need in the world.
4. What you can get paid for. This is value you can create which today’s world recognizes and is willing to pay for.
The intersection of these four circles is the concept of Ikigai. The idea is simple. If you can do what you love to do, and you have the natural skills and talent to do it well, and it fulfills a need in the world which the world recognizes and is willing to pay you for, then you can live a happy life in harmony with this world. The point is to show that you need all four circles to overlap. Three, or two, circles are not enough. It doesn’t matter which ones you pick; none of them work (unless you happen to be independently wealthy and can ignore the fourth one).
Chapter 8 of the Tao Te Ching says “In work, do what you enjoy.” To which we might say: that’s fine as long as your work also lies somewhere inside the other three circles. Fair enough. However, Lao Tzu also gives us some pointers in the next sentences. “In family life, be completely present. When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” I think the pointers are to do with being “completely present” and with being “content to be simply yourself.” Let’s look at each in turn.
The moment we do anything we do not enjoy, we are doing it for some other purpose. This means we are not “completely present.” In the context of Ikigai, this other purpose is one (or a combination of) the other three circles, i.e., you have the skills to do it, the world needs it, you can get paid for doing it. For example, if you’re only doing it for the money, then there’s no reward in the present moment—it lies only in the future when you get paid. And if you’re not particularly good at doing it, then your present moments will also be a struggle. Not a good combination.
“Content to be simply yourself” refers to having taken the time to discover, and be content with, the person you are. This can be a challenge in today’s world where the marketing industry bombards us with images of, and messages about, the person we think we’re supposed to be. This, of course, is to keep us in a state of discontent and continually striving to be something we’re not. Why? Because this makes us more likely to buy things we think will close the gap between where we are and where we want to be. But it doesn’t need to be this way. (My November, 2022 newsletter “What Is Enough?” explored how we can call the bluff on these messages.)
Chapter 65 says “Content with an ordinary life, you can show all people the way back to their own true nature.” The “ordinary life” (if you’re content with it) is the enemy of the marketing industry because it suggests no desire to buy. But I think the key phrase in the quote is people’s “own true nature.” Here’s this same idea in connection with what the Master does “He simply reminds people of who they have always been” (chapter 64). Your own true nature is who you have always been. You don’t need a marketing industry to tell you who you have always been—you already know. Although, in fairness, it may well take a lifetime to discover (or rediscover) it.
So what does all this have to do with Ikigai? At the start of this newsletter, I talked about living our lives in harmony with the world around us. I think this happens when we succeed in “moving in the world while dwelling in the Tao,” as the saying goes. Ikigai is about “moving in the world” and the Tao Te Ching is about “dwelling in the Tao.” The two go together at the intersection of the four Ikigai circles where you succeed in moving in the world while being true to “your own true nature.”
Earlier, I commented that the concept of “purpose” might become an issue. The issue is that it tempts us to think the “purpose” of life is to live at the intersection of the four Ikigai circles. This suggests that if we’re not already there, then we should strive to get there—and the root of all striving is always desire. This is an issue because the moment we do anything for a purpose, the doing of it can easily become no more than a means to an end.
In contrast, when we dwell in the Tao, every moment is an end in itself. Nothing is done for a “purpose.” What you do is what it is and nothing else; it is complete in itself. These are the moments when moving in the world becomes the same thing as dwelling in the Tao. I think the concept of Ikigai can help us discover and dwell in these moments.
Do most people live their lives this way? Probably not. Will you blend right in with most of humanity if you do so? Unlikely. Lao Tzu’s Master says “Other people have a purpose; I alone don’t know. I drift like a wave on the ocean, I blow as aimless as the wind. I am different from ordinary people” (chapter 20). But does this matter? No, not really. “When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you” (chapter 8). Differences disappear when your purpose is not to compare and compete. The message is simple: don’t compare and compete. It’s beside the point.
The point, by the way, is not (I think) so that “everybody will respect you.” You don’t care about respect for its own sake; the point is simply to be who you are. And when you are who you are, “purpose” disappears. After all, how can you want to be anything else? In this you can be like the Master “He cares about nothing but the Tao. Thus he can care for all things” (chapter 64).
So far in my life, I’ve explored many areas where the four Ikigai circles do not overlap for me. I know a lot about what I don’t love to do, what I’m not particularly good at (and some things I’m quite bad at), what the world doesn’t need, and what I can’t get paid for. But without doing the exploring, how do we find out? Is finding out easy? No. But is “moving in the world while dwelling in the Tao” the way to live our lives in harmony with the world around us? I think the answer is yes. But enough about me, what do you think?
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
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