What is Nagomi? (And How it Can Help You Live a Happier, Healthier, More Balanced Life)

 

Excerpted from The Way of Nagomi: The Japanese Philosophy of Finding Balance and Peace in Everything You Do © Ken Mogi, 2022. Reprinted by permission of The Experiment. Available everywhere books are sold. theexperimentpublishing.com

 

What is Nagomi? “Nagomi is characterized by a sense of ease, emotional balance, well-being, and calmness.”

Japanese people are said to have the longest and healthiest lives of anyone in the world. The idea that there is something special about Japan that promotes a long and healthy life has been around since ancient times.

Nagomi is characterized by a sense of ease, emotional balance, well-being, and calmness. — @kenmogi Share on X

In a Chinese legend, the alchemist and explorer Xu Fu was sent by the emperor Qin Shi Huang to the east sea in search of the elixir of life. Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of unified China, founding the Qin dynasty. Although Qin Shi Huang was very powerful, without a parallel on this Earth, his only fear was the inevitability of death. Qin Shi Huang therefore sent the famed Xu Fu to the legendary Mount Penglai, where the elixir of life, which would give the drinker eternal life, would be found.

Unfortunately for Qin Shi Huang, Xu Fu never returned from his trip to the east sea. Legend has it that Xu Fu did reach a place called Mount Penglai, and having found a paradise, chose to live there by him­self, rather than to report back to the anxiously waiting emperor.

While I’m yet to discover the elixir of life for myself, it’s true to say that Japan is a country where the secret recipe for longevity seems to reside. This secret does not depend on one magic potion, but rather is the result of a holistic attitude toward life; and at the center of it all, you will find nagomi.

This secret does not depend on one magic potion, but rather is the result of a holistic attitude toward life; and at the center of it all, you will find nagomi. —@kenmogi Share on X

Nagomi is at the heart of the health of Japanese peo­ple. Of course, improvements in living conditions and advancements brought about by science and technol­ogy have increased life expectancy in many countries. In addition to these advantages is the nagomi of health, which is a realization that well-being depends on many different elements and that striking a balance between these elements is crucial for the maintenance of good health.

In general, when there is a problem in life we tend to focus on a single factor, because it is conceptually easy to do so. For example, we might take vitamin D pills instead of walking outside, an activity the Japanese call shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), and basking in the natural light, even though the latter approach would work in better and more sustainable ways.

I mentioned the difference between the silver bullet and the magic carpet approaches earlier, and the nagomi of health should be based on the magic car­pet approach, rather than the silver bullet approach. Besides balancing different factors in your life, another important element of nagomi of health is to face your own desires. I wrote about ikigai (finding joy in every­thing you do) in my last book, and this concept is closely related to the nagomi of health.

In practical terms, there are many different aspects of ikigai. Even small things such as, for example, taking your dog for a walk or brewing a cup of tea in the morn­ing could be your ikigai. On a more conceptual level, the essence of ikigai is to do with flexibility and inclusion in relation to the people around you and within yourself.

[Related: The Japanese Concept of Ikigai: Why Purpose Might Be a Better Goal Than Happiness]

In order to appreciate and apply ikigai in your life, it is crucial to understand what ikigai is not. It is not an ideology with a specific list of what to do and what not to do. There is a widely circulated Venn diagram of iki­gai, with four overlapping circles representing “what you love,” “what the world needs,” “what you can be paid for,” and “what you are good at.” The diagram states that the intersection between “what you love” and “what the world needs” is mission, that between “what the world needs” and “what you can be paid for” is vocation, that between “what you can be paid for” and “what you are good at” is profession, and that between “what you are good at” and “what you love” is passion.

 

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There are ambiguities and differences of opinion as to the origin of this diagram, but it is certainly not Japanese. Seen from a Japanese perspective, there is something counterintuitive about how ikigai is represented in that diagram. It is too narrow and restricted. Ikigai is defined as something that satisfies all four requirements, which is a really stringent condition. It would indeed be nice to possess all these values, but that is too good to be true. Needless to say, if you can have an ikigai that satisfies all these conditions, then great; but striving to fulfill all these requirements could become an obsession and deprive you of the freedom to live a flexible life and to have an ikigai in the first place.

...but striving to fulfill all these requirements could become an obsession and deprive you of the freedom to live a flexible life and to have an ikigai in the first place. — @kenmogi Share on X

Ikigai actually has nothing to do with a Venn dia­gram; it is more flexible and tolerant than that. You may love to make music, but you may not be good at it at all. That is perfectly fine, and you can still make it your iki­gai. You may enjoy drawing as an unpaid hobby and that would be great, as long as you have fun. You may want to study something even if the world does not need it, and that would still be your perfect ikigai. You certainly need to love something in order to have an ikigai. All the other aspects are unessential details.

[Related: Three Questions to Help You Unlock Your Inner Purpose]

The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmi­halyi studied “flow,” a state of mind in which you are absorbed in something. When you are in the flow, you exhibit your maximum performance, enjoying what you are doing to the utmost. You forget the passage of time and become oblivious of your own self. When you are in the flow, you become one with what you are doing, which is an essential element of ikigai and the nagomi of health.

More practically speaking, our diet is one of the most important aspects of the nagomi-based life. One of the things that you notice when walking around the streets of Tokyo is that there are fewer overweight people than you might encounter in other countries—unless, of course, you go to the Ryogoku area in the eastern part of Tokyo, where many sumo stables are located. The sumo wrestlers put on weight for profes­sional purposes, and the traditional way of preparing food for the sumo wrestlers—known as chanko—makes it possible for them to gain weight while still maintain­ing good health. The chanko way of cooking, centered around tasty soup made from vegetables, fish, and meat and flavored with soy or miso, is one of the unsung delights of Japanese cuisine. The surprising agility of the overweight sumo wrestlers is a testimony to the excellence of the Japanese way of cooking and eating.

Aside from sumo wrestlers, in Japan, there is a more general ethos that one does not eat or drink excessively. The Japanese have a concept called hara hachi bu, which literally means “stomach 80 percent.” It is the idea that you should stop eating before you are really full; that is, when you are only 80 percent full. This is a sensible strategy to avoid overeating, as there is a delay between the time when the food passes your lips to when it reaches your stomach and intestine and then finally circulates in your blood to give you the feeling that you have eaten enough. Eating with the ethos of haraha­chibu is, in a nutshell, establishing nagomi with your appetite, and it could be one of the most effective health habits that you can acquire in your life.

[Related: Wear Blue as a Reminder to Hara Hachi Bu]

A truly wonderful example of hara hachi bu can be learned from Zen priests. Eiheiji temple in Fukui pre­fecture in the Chūbu region of Honshū is one of the most venerable places in Japan to train as a Buddhist priest. I once had a series of very interesting conversa­tions with Jikisai Minami, a Zen priest who trained there for more than ten years. He told me about the very rudi­mentary diet that a disciple enjoys (or endures, depend­ing on your perspective) in the temple. It is based on the system of ichiju issai, which literally means “one soup, one okazu (dish),” plus rice. Although the portions are small and the ingredients are limited, these meals are the culmination of wisdom accumulated over many centuries, mostly passed on as unwritten customs, and support the mind and body of young priests going through arduous training schedules (typically rising at 3 am in summer and at 4 am in winter in order to med­itate as the sun rises).

Eating is considered an important and essential part of Buddhist training. Indeed, consumption of food is a form of meditation for these young priests. They eat in silence, giving thanks for the food they receive. The priests eat everything, leaving no trace of food behind, so that when they finish, the tableware is so clean it can all be put away, as it is, into a cloth and used again for the next meal.

After graduating from Waseda University in Tokyo, Jikisai Minami spent more than a decade at Eiheiji tem­ple, during which time he transformed from an intellec­tual at one of Japan’s most prestigious universities into a practicing Buddhist priest. Jikisai told me that these traditional meals are so balanced in terms of nutrients and portions that once the young priests arrive at the temple to take up their training, they are very healthy. Their skin becomes youthful and glowing and their bodies are slim and agile. Indeed, the Eiheiji priests carry an air of elegance befitting the models on a cat­walk in a Paris fashion show. Jikisai told me that once he started to train in Eiheiji, he became more popular with women (yes, in modern Japan, Buddhist priests do get married).

Not everyone can adapt to this very arduous approach to food and life at the Zen temple, however. One time, when I visited Eiheiji temple in a taxi, the driver told me that sometimes he would take young priests back to the nearest station. These are the ones who could not take it anymore and were escaping from the temple, going back into a world where they could eat whatever they liked and as much as they wanted. It is only human, the taxi driver told me, laughing in a pleasant manner.

It’s true that we can’t all be Zen priests, but those of us in the secular world should still try to pay atten­tion to our diet and make it balanced. The nagomi of health means it is important to have variety in what you eat. Indeed, it is interesting to observe that even a typical Japanese person who is not particularly health-conscious still tries to strike a balance in their diet; nowadays in Japan there is an increasing awareness of the need to eat a wide variety of food, to get to know the ingredients, nutrients, and cooking methods involved, as well as the environmental impact of food produc­tion. The word shokuiku (food education) is becoming popular among Japanese people.

Dr. Teiji Nakamura, a soft-spoken medical doctor who has dedicated his career to nutrition as a field of preventive medicine, celebrates the sophistication of the Japanese diet and believes it could serve as a model for people around the world who want to improve their diet. He has campaigned enthusiastically for the improvement of nutrition among the general public in order to maintain good health. Thanks to Dr. Nakamura and others like him, the school lunch menus provided in Japanese elementary schools are models of how to achieve a nagomi in diet.

Another benefit of the Japanese diet is its focus on nurturing good gut microbiomes. Fermented food, such as miso and shoyu, plays a significant role in Jap­anese cuisine. Originally, the fermentation technique was developed as a way to preserve food and drink before the technology of refrigeration was invented, and it is now understood to produce food that is very good for our digestive health and immunity. The pro­cess of fermentation produces microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, and fungi, which convert the sugar and starch in the food into alcohols or acids that function as a natural preservative. Indeed, in most Japanese house­holds, not a day goes by without miso and shoyu being eaten, and it is good news that the West is embracing fermented foods such as kombucha, kimchi, and kefir.

The consumption of foods and drinks that have undergone fermentation contains benefits to health that stretch beyond food preservation. The transfor­mation of sugars and starches enhances the natural, beneficial bacteria in food. These bacteria, known as probiotics or good bacteria, are thought to help a multi­tude of health issues, specifically digestive health.

Eating is a huge part of the nagomi of health, as is being active. The physical activities that the Buddhist monks engage themselves in are wide-ranging. The sweeping of the gardens and the cleaning of the tem­ple floors are basic elements of the training. In extreme cases, a few elite monks would go on nightly marathons in the mountains—for as long as a thousand days—in an effort to attain enlightenment. From the mod­ern perspective, these activities could be regarded as sports and games in the Buddhist tradition, nurturing the nagomi of health, which would eventually lead to enlightenment.

As well as obvious and formal ways of keeping fit and healthy, like sports and games as discussed above, shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, can be regarded as one of the pinnacles of the nagomi of health.

The concept and practice of shinrin-yoku is becom­ing increasingly popular all over the world, and it is interesting to look at how it came into existence in the first place. Shinrin-yoku is a relatively new word, coined in 1982 by Tomohide Akiyama, the chief of the Ministry of Forestry at that time. Shinrin means forest, and yoku is a generic Japanese word used to describe bathing. As well as being used for talking about bathing in an onsen hot spring (onsenyoku) or ocean (kaisuiyoku), there is nikkoyoku (sunbeam bath­ing) and getsukoyoku (moonlight bathing). Akiyama is originally from the area of Nagano. Nagano, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998, is located at the center of Japan, and is famous for beautiful mountain ranges and deep, pristine forests. Undoubtedly, Aki­yama had an intimate experience of the forest as a child and a young man.

Immersing yourself in the environment of the forest is not unique to Japan. What is unique in the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku is the idea that you bathe in the forest atmosphere. The Japanese ideal of bathing is to establish nagomi with the medium you are in, whether it is an onsen, the ocean, or the forest. If you are bathing in an onsen hot spring, you would try to establish nagomi with the hot, mineral-rich water by letting the heat activate several physiological reactions within your body, as well as absorbing the minerals through your skin. If you are forest bathing, you would try to establish nagomi with what surrounds you by immersing yourself through the five senses in the murmur of leaves, singing of the birds, and blowing of the wind. The beauty of nagomi obtained through bathing is that you can let yourself go, and allow your body and unconscious processes to do all the necessary work to achieve nagomi.

The essence of the concept of yoku is being one with something. Yoku can refer to immersing yourself in any ambient atmosphere. If you succeed at being one with the environment, that would be yoku. The concept of bathing, or becoming one with the environment and therefore achieving nagomi with oneself and the sur­roundings, is a very important part of Japanese values and ethos, perhaps at the very foundation of everything that is important in Japanese culture.

The fact that the concept of shinrin-yoku was origi­nally proposed by the Ministry of Forestry chief suggests that Akiyama was seeking ways other than logging to sup­port and justify the existence of Japan’s forests. In order to keep the forest beautiful and thriving, human interven­tion is needed. The forest needs continuous human care and preservation. In an era when we increasingly need to seek a balance between human activities and the preserva­tion of the environment, the direction that shinrin-yoku is pointing is an important and inspirational one.

Taking good care of your body and your mind is indispensable if you are going to achieve a nagomi of health. No single factor is enough to support us through the complexity of life. Exercise and rest, work and play, challenge and comfort, and success and fail­ure all lead to a balanced and harmonious life. In the way we approach our health, we tend to focus on one element rather than the more complex whole; perhaps we should avoid oversimplifying the explanations for good health. Statements such as: “I go for a run every day and that’s why I stay so healthy,” “I eat a yogurt in the morning and that keeps me young,” and “I smile whenever I meet someone, and that makes me happy” might sound reasonable enough but are likely to be misrepresentations of what is actually happening in terms of the nagomi of health. These may be good hab­its, but nagomi encompasses a whole spectrum of ele­ments that contribute to our well-being.

You don’t have to train as a Buddhist monk, but you can eat mindfully, be aware of how full you’re getting, be thankful for the food you have received, and take advantage of fresh, seasonal, flavorful, and nutritious food. Trying to keep your room clean and neat can be a great exercise of nagomi, because it requires your full spectrum of attention and execution in a good bal­ance. Spending time outdoors and really appreciating—bathing in—the atmosphere is important, whether you are actually forest bathing or appreciating the atmo­sphere of whichever place you choose.

You don’t have to train as a Buddhist monk, but you can eat mindfully, be aware of how full you’re getting, be thankful for the food you have received, and take advantage of fresh, seasonal, flavorful, and nutritious food. — @kenmogi Share on X

By practicing all of these together and being mind­ful of the fact that there is no single silver bullet that will serve as the answer, you are well on your way to achieving the nagomi of health.

 

 


Ken Mogi is a neuroscientist, writer, and broadcaster based in Tokyo. He has published more than thirty papers on cognitive science and neuroscience, and over one hundred books in Japan covering popular science, essay, criticism, and self-help. His books have sold close to one million copies. He is also the author of Awakening Your Ikigai.

Excerpted from The Way of Nagomi: The Japanese Philosophy of Finding Balance and Peace in Everything You Do © Ken Mogi, 2022. Reprinted by permission of The Experiment. Available everywhere books are sold. theexperimentpublishing.com

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