Road to Literary Zen

Or that time I read four Japanese-inspired self-help books in a row.

There was an idea

It was early October when I picked up more than just a cup of coffee from my latest favorite indie cafe. I also picked up an idea.

Sitting on their free-for-all bookshelf was the eye-catching baby blue spine of IKIGAI, the bestselling self-help guide inspired by the Japanese concept. The book itself has been on my reading list for years; I first became conscious of the idea when we went through our ‘find your purpose’ leadership course (or whatever that was) back in our MBA days. Then my sister had recommended it —obliquely, and not as much as she recommended Atomic Habits (which I still haven’t gotten around to reading).

Coffeeshop picks. Support your local coffeeshop. My latest favorite is KUMA KOHI near Remedios Circle along Adriatico Street.
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Read Here: From womb to tomb (and the before, during, and after of compassionate care)

Recommended reading order

As these four books aren’t actually written by the same person/s, there is no authorative call on how and when to read them. I went through them by order of acquisition: Kaizen, then The Book of Ichigo Ichie, finally Ikigai, and lastly Wabi Sabi.

If I could redo this very lightly paced marathon, I would recommend these four books in this order:

  • Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor Garcia and Francesc Miralles — start with your purpose and end in mind
  • The Book of Ichigo Ichie: The Art of Making the Most of Every Moment, the Japanese Way by Héctor Garcia and Francesc Miralles — easy and quick read as a spiritual sequel to Ikigai, with a similar writing style, but still introduces some more important concepts in the journey of realizing one’s ikigai
  • Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life by Beth Kempton — reiterates and overalps plenty with the two books above, but provides a lot of breathing space that works well for a filler
  • Kaizen: The Japanese Method for Transforming Habits, One Small Step at a Time by Sarah Harvey — the least philosophical or anecdotal book, this reads more like a guide to practicing the principles you learned from the other three books plus some bonus multiplier perspectives

Google Play Books, Amazon Kindle or physical copies –whatever floats your boat. I do most of my reading digitally nowadays.

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On Ikigai by Héctor Garcia and Francesc Miralles

IKIGAI begins with the end in mind, painting stories of centenerians continuing on with vitality and complexity even in their later years. The book frames this as the inevitable consequence of finding purpose. Ikigai refers to that thing which intersects passion, mission, profession and vocation. It can be anything.

“The happiness of always being busy —what the French might call ‘raison d’être’”

RATING: ★★★★☆ 4.5 out of 5

What I like: Ikigai is oft-recommended and well-reviewed, which raised a high bar in terms of expectations. The book includes personable anecdotes and relates them to deeper Japanese concepts, which are then discussed in practical terms. It also goes through several technical and evidence-based pieces of advice, which are always much appreciated.

The content of the book is simple, and appears to condense or summarize many of the valuable insights contained in most other self-help books. Midway through the book, I wrote in my notes —“EVERYTHING REMINDS ME OF HAIKYUU”. (Yes, in all caps. And yes, consider that the highest compliment I might give a work of literature). For its holistic approach, mostly simple language, and practical attitude, I think it’s a good starter to Japanese philosophy and living well in general.

This book also introduced me to the term ANTIFRAGILITY, which goes beyond resilience and promotes strength instead of stagnation or weakness after crisis. This has inspired a whole other project I’ll try to see through; it may or may not have anything to do with the song “Antifragile” by Le Sserafim.

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”

Viktor Frankl

What I dislike: Less of a “dislike” and more of a subversion of expectations. I thought this book would spend more time on guiding readers how to find or develop their ikigai, maybe present ways to explore the many possible answers to “what keeps you going in the morning?”. That was my expectation from our handful of management classes dedicated to personal mission and vision.

Instead, the book keeps it a little vague and focuses more on the benefits of ikigai as well as how to hone it. Maybe it’s in the doing that you find purpose?

Key practice points:

  • A lite version of “technological fasting” — don’t look at your phone screen for the first hour awake, and the last house before sleeping. I’ll try it in 15-minute increments to start.
  • “Hara hachi bu” or fill your belly up to 80%, a piece of traditional Japanese advice that would recur in later books.
  • Many of the supercentenerians claim diet as the key to longevity; specifically a diet high in variety, low in salt, a bit restricted in calories, with green tea and so on. For now, I’ll try to eat fish at least 3x a week. The book also goes into anti-goals, or habits you’d like to get rid off —someday I might try eating sweets only 1x a week.
  • Practice to improve the mind and body, such as regular sun salutations in hatha yoga.

On Ichigo Ichie by Héctor Garcia and Francesc Miralles

ICHIGO ICHIE puts a spotlight on the indescribable value of every moment. Literally, “Once, a meeting” or “In this moment, an opportunity”, this slice of Japanese philosophy refers to the way moments and present experiences can never happen again (in the same way).

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”

Heraclitus

RATING: ★★★★☆ 4 out of 5

What I like: Ichigo ichie is an easy and smooth read. The authors are able to effectively communicate in simple terms what is in reality a deep perspective on life. I particularly enjoyed the way lessons are bolstered by other intersecting principles, such as the idea of kintsugi, an excellent Indian parable on a leaky bucket, and ikigai.

This book is also a great peek into several aspects of Japanese culture, especially those related to spring. Flowers are the ultimate metaphor for the fleeting yet beautiful nature of life.

This is encapsulated as mono no aware, or pathos of things, which is the “nostalgia and sadness caused by the impermanence of life and all things that exist.”

“Someday we will all die, Snoopy!”
”True, but on all other days, we will not.”

Charles M. Schulz, Peanuts Cartoon

What I dislike: Because of its complexity —and the way it’s really just a framework of viewing life, instead of an actual series of self-help exercises— Ichigo ichie is a lot harder to apply than it looks. The authors helpfully put practical points of advice in each section, but listing “Ten Rules” near the end feels less helpful than it could be. How well this book will influence your life depends entirely on how invested you are as a reader.

Key practice points:

  • A version of chanoyu, or call to attention in a tea ceremony. Setting a ritual to have a regular “tea with yourself” can ground the five senses in a given moment.
  • Consider the meta-emotion —what we feel about what we have felt, to avoid distractions and to focus on the present. Ichigo ichie dwells heavily on the relationship between emotions and time. Only happiness belongs to the present; anger and sadness rule the past, and fear comes from the future.
  • Like wabi sabi, the concept of ichigo ichie also puts a heavy emphasis on celebrating imperfection. Moments need not be perfect. “The most beautiful things in life are fleeting and can’t be postponed.”

On Wabi Sabi by Beth Kempton

WABI SABI is a meandering work on a Japanese concept that can be defined almost by its resistance to definition. Less of a formal concept in academic or philosophical terms and more of a subtextual, implicit cultural framework, wabi sabi is “an acceptance and appreciation of the impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete nature of everything”.

The book explores several aspects of life where wabi sabi can be found and applied. From work, relationships to personal health, Kempton advocates listening to the intuitive and unmanufactured response of the heart to beauty, which emerges with time and opportunity.

“A small bowl sitting in one’s hand contains the whole of the universe.”

Raku Kichizaemon XV

RATING: ★★★☆☆ 3 out of 5

What I like: Wabi Sabi introduces almost obscure concepts and ideas that can only be translated by someone as well-immersed in Japanese culture as Kempton seems to be. (Apparently there truly is such a thing as a Japanologist). Though the book also touches on common concepts like shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, hara hachi bu, ichigo ichie and mono no aware —all of which were also discussed in the other books— Wabi Sabi goes into more minute and almost intimate detail. This includes the four principles of a tea ceremony —wa, kei, sei and jaku (harmony, respect, purity and tranquility, respectively)– concepts on Japanese style, and snippets of conversations with local experts.

The book also introduced me to the concept of aesthetic arrest, that “luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure”. It is a term used by James Joyce and popularized by Joseph Campbell to describe the disarming nature of an encounter with profound beauty.

Finally, in the latter (more practical) parts, Wabi Sabi also mentioned kakeibo, a style of personal financial management popular in Japan, which I tried (and failed) to sustain early this year. Maybe this is my sign to get back on track.

“The true beauty is not in the achievement of some kind of perfection, but rather in the sharing of the creation itself.”

What I dislike: It’s a tough read. The book itself felt longer than it should be. Filled to the brim with personal anecdotes and what feels like filler stories, Wabi Sabi struggles to squeeze out meaning and at the same time redundantly hashes out the definition of wabi sabi without adding any further depth or development. It reads more like a collection of essays centering around Wabi Sabi; that is, it could do with some editing, because there’s only so many times you can read through the same introduction and conclusion.

Key practice points:

  • Beauty in longing. It’s time to finally write down my shopping list to control my materialistic impulses. This will help me ask then answer the questions: Will I still want it 24 hours from now? A year from now? If yes, then maybe it’s worth the wait and certainty.
  • Boost physical and mental vitality with different strategies. For physical wellness, that includes exercise, nourishment (again, “hara hachi bu”) and rest. For mental wellness, that includes inevsting in quiet time, adequate sleep, and time in nature (again, shinrin-yoku).
  • Identify a maximum of 5 projects to bring to life in the next 12 months. Plan everything else around them. This reminds me of the The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People —identify your big rocks first, before filling your time with the little things.

On Kaizen by Sarah Harvey

KAIZEN is a Japanese philosophy that stands for “improvement”. It shifts away from big, sweeping changes and instead promotes a lifelong commitment of incremental steps towards a particular goal.

The book goes through some of the historical basis of kaizen as a corporate then personal growth management philosophy, with some time taken to contrast it with Western lifestyle approaches and the more modern Marie Kondo method.

As with most formal management concepts (i.e., brings me back to that quality assurance workshop I attended this year), Kaizen begins with evaluating your habits as they are today, and then identifying a goal which can then be reached through small steps. Plan, implement, monitor, repeat.

“With many little strikes a large tree is felled”

Japanese proverb

RATING: ★★★☆☆ 3.5 out of 5

What I like: Kaizen’s strength, both as a book and as a philosophy, is in its practicality and simplicity. Unlike Wabi Sabi, it is direct and to the point. The book is frugal with its use of historical anecdotes and personal language. The small steps for transforming habits are also neatly laid out into five sections: health, work, money, home and relationships. These sections overlap but are rarely redundant.

In sum, an excellent collection of transformative concepts. This will likely benefit people who tend to commit to big changes fast in search of flashy results. And people like me, who sometimes struggle with the inertia of the past.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

Lao Tzu

What I dislike: On the flip side, its no-nonsense tone and more practical approach sometimes bleed into boredom —the examples eventually read like an endless to-do list. And the more it reads away from philosophical meanderings, the more it loses its Japanese-inspired mystique. It’s the close cousin of any basic management textbook.

Key practice points:

  • The tone of the Kaizen is reminiscent of our motivational counselling training in family and community medicine. When inertia is too strong, think of: what can be improved, what can you do, how will it make you feel? Imagine the outcomes of the now vs the possible you.
  • In terms of the quality assurance cycle, it’s important to sit down on the following: assessment (status) and planning (long-term, medium-term and short-term goals)
  • Easy and doable ways to improve your physical and mental health include mindful eating, immediately changing into lounge clothes to delineate the outside world and the home, organizing things for the next day, bedtime yoga, sun salutations, and meditation.
  • To stave off the impulses, leave the item in the (virtual) cart for at least 24 hours, similar to the concept of beauty in longing, and have a coin jar
  • Cultivate a relationship with yourself, and set 1 act a week to benefit somebody you don’t know
  • Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing is also mentioned in this book,

One of the Japanese concepts I’ll use to frame any of my minor victories is yokoten. As the book explains, yokoten or horizontal development asserts that change is infectious. Positive change in one sphere of your life will amplify your motivation to change in other spheres as well.

Let successes feed into more success!

And so —me reading these four books have inspired me to write a blog, plan out my 2023 life (I got a new planner!) and also maybe learn a new K-Pop dance. It will all make sense in hindsight.


My Bookshelf this 2022

I barely read any non-fiction non-work related publications this 2022, aside from the occasional short story (and the literal millions of words I’ve consumed from fanfiction over at AO3). I do heartily recommend Ninotchka Rosca’s short story Epidemic (1985).

Instead, for book recommendations, I humbly direct you to my sister’s Goodreads account. She’s read an astonishing 31 books this year!

Time to plot these practice points out into my daily schedule and weekly planner :)

Until next time! ❤️

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