How does one begin to self-actualise?
Self-actualization starts with acceptance: acceptance of yourself, of others, and of the world you live in. This is articulated by the Japanese word arugamama, which literally translates to ‘as it is’. Arugamama means the acceptance of the true nature of things.
This is the foundation of Morita therapy, a psychotherapy developed by the Japanese psychiatrist, researcher, and philosopher Shoma Morita (1874–1938), who wanted to help people suffering from social anxiety and depression.
Morita felt that nothing is either positive or negative; rather, any external stimulus simply creates pleasant or unpleasant emotions that we can learn to live with. The emphasis in this approach is simply on acceptance, and focusing on the one thing you can control: your own actions.
This is very different from the standard approach in Western psychology, which involves deep explorations of our emotions and their origins. Morita stressed that, pleasant or unpleasant, emotions do pass, and if you can focus on your actions, you can move forward with your life.
Although the Morita approach originated in Japan, it can also be effective in Western populations – as discovered by Dr Holly Sugg of the University of Exeter (UK). She elaborated on the meaning of arugamama:
‘Arugamama goes beyond what we might think of as acceptance. It means more to obey nature, to actually even be one with nature. And this enables people then to just leave symptoms or emotions as they are and live life as it is. Understanding the difference between what we can and can't control is key to that.’
Arugamama vs Acceptance
The difference between arugamama and acceptance is highlighted by the fact that the latter is not a word Japanese therapists use in relation to Morita therapy. This is because ‘acceptance’ suggests intellectual choice, implying that we can choose to accept our feelings – which is an idea not supported in Morita therapy.
Dr Sugg elaborated on Morita’s philosophy and approach:
‘I think this has been referred to by my Japanese colleagues as living in a state of nature, in the here and now. That's the kind of key to that. And I think many of us have experienced it to an extent. So when we are so engrossed in an activity that we're focused solely on that, we're not thinking about how we feel or how we look to other people, or about the past or the future.
This is really what Morita therapy means by an “embodied experiential acceptance of the self”. It's an acceptance that comes from truly allowing ourselves to just be as we are in the background, without us really giving it any attention because all our attention is on the external environment. And the idea is that this kind of true acceptance of the self can only come through these experiences of being one with action, one with nature, it can't come from your own mind.
You can't tell yourself to accept your feelings or will yourself to do so. According to Morita, that doesn't work. That keeps us fixated on them. So to me, this form of acceptance makes me think of very young children who are just as they are. Yes, they cry, when they're sad, they smile, when they're happy. They have the whole range of emotions, but they completely allow the naturalness of that.’
Dr Sugg’s explanation shows how arugamama connects you to your true nature and allows you to move with the natural ebb and flow of your thoughts and emotions, allowing you to maintain focus on the things in your life that are important to you.
The alternative is to get stuck in a mental conflict, thinking of what should have been or what you should have done. This can cause you to waste both mental and emotional energy in prolonged states of anger, resentment, regret, and fear. Being in states like these is extremely unhealthy – both mentally and physically.
Accepting Being Singled Out as a Foreigner
I experienced this when I lived in Japan and felt incredible frustration over permanently being singled out as a foreigner. Almost every time I met someone for the first time, I was asked where I was from and felt compelled to recount the story of how I’d come to be in Japan. After living in Japan for several years, I found the repetition frustrating and the resulting discussions mind-numbing.
Before social gatherings where I was going to meet new people, I found myself anticipating these questions with resentment, then feeling justifiably annoyed when they were inevitably asked. It took me a long time to simply accept this social routine and learn to appreciate that even though the conversations were redundant for me, they were new to the other person – who, in asking where I was from, was politely making a genuine attempt to get to know me.
It was only once I accepted that I was, in fact, a foreigner – and that the inquiries were therefore totally valid – that I was able to accept other people's kindness. This ended my self-imposed frustration and allowed me to engage in these social interactions with a sense of fun and pride about where I was from.
The Art of Taking Action
In his book The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology, author Gregg Krech describes how feelings can prevent us from enjoying life if we don’t learn how to manage them properly:
‘Feelings are internal sensations. The ability to tolerate sensations we’d rather not have is supremely important. Without such tolerance, our lives remain needlessly vulnerable to our wild and fickle feelings, and our plans get needlessly derailed. Without such tolerance, we can become preoccupied, to an unhealthy degree, with our private internal experience, and thereby become distracted from the world around us, the needs of others, and the tasks at hand.’
The global COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect example of what Krech describes above and was, almost inevitably, something we discussed when I interviewed him during the lockdown. We considered the diversity of experiences during, and reactions to, the pandemic.
Across the board, it has certainly highlighted what we each view as being important: family, friends, work, leisure pursuits – our sources of ikigai. It has also shown that some people are better equipped to respond to situations like these when so many things are beyond our control.
Krech shared an exercise that can help anyone improve their ability to cope with such stressful, unpredictable conditions:
‘I was talking with a colleague of mine, who's also trained in Japanese psychology, and she was suggesting this idea that if we imagine that it is 5 or 10 years down the road, and we were looking back over this period right now, and we were looking at our life and how we lived during this time, how we conducted ourselves. How would we want to remember that? How would we want to be able to remember how we acted during this challenging and difficult time? When I thought about that it immediately stimulated this idea of integrity – that I would hope that I could look back at this time and think that I had lived with integrity, whatever that means to me in terms of my day-to-day existence.
I think it's an interesting way to look at it, to think that the time has passed and now we're looking back and most of us want to see ourselves as having coped well, as having lived with some integrity, as having treated other people well, as having been compassionate and not just self-centred under challenging circumstances. So this issue of what's controllable comes down to how we are going to handle it on a day-to-day, on a moment-to-moment basis. How are we going to conduct ourselves in the context of a very challenging situation?’
Krech’s question is worth contemplating, since it implicitly speaks to the connection between arugamama, challenges, and self-actualisation.
When I was in Japan, I observed that self-actualisation manifested as going beyond your own selfish concerns and instead considering the needs of others and taking action for the greater good. This is the approach described by Krech above, and it is facilitated by the challenging circumstances; in other words, challenging times can give you the opportunity to self-actualize.
Going Beyound the Self to Self-actualise
During the COVID-19 pandemic some people responded to disruption with anger, a narrow focus on their own needs, and a lack of concern for how their actions impacted others; these people were consumed by self-importance, feeling that they mattered more than everyone else.
On the other hand, some people responded by accepting what they couldn’t control, focusing on what they could do for others, and dedicating themselves to taking action for the community; these are the people who self-actualized.
Krech also shared with me that in any challenging situation you have the opportunity to lift the spirits of the people around you or pull them down. In essence, you have an opportunity where you can go beyond yourself and actualize to benefit others.
This highlights how self-actualizing is not only about the development of one’s self, but includes having the consciousness to take action that will benefit others regardless of our circumstances. He considered how challenging the pandemic lockdowns were for people who had to spend a lot of time cooped up with roommates and family members:
‘I have two people from my family, my wife and my daughter, and…we see each other 24 hours, which is very challenging for many families. But they're counting on me to be able to maintain my composure and equanimity and also good spirits under challenging circumstances, and I'm counting on them as well. They're my cheerleaders, and I'm their cheerleader. So it's not just for ourselves that we're trying to keep our attention balanced between things that are in the category of suffering and things that are in the category of blessings, but it's also for the people that you're living with. Most people know that living with somebody who is constantly negative or constantly depressed, really takes its toll on you. Again, when we look back at this period, we don't want to be that person. I want to be the person at least that helps to lift the spirits of the people around me rather than pull them down. I think it's a challenge, but I think seeing life from this perspective gives us a better chance of doing that for ourselves, but also for the people that we come in contact with.’This can be a challenging mindset for Westerners to understand and adopt, because it is so different from our usual emphasis on independence and individuality. I understand how big a mental transition this can be, since I had to grapple with this myself when I was living in Japan.
It was powerful to learn the lesson that I don’t matter more than others – and achieving that required me to regularly practice behaviour I would later come to understand as omoiyari: thoughtful consideration of others.