Japanese people are enthusiastic learners, with many committing themselves to lifelong pursuits such as;
- judō, the gentle way
- kendō, the way of the sword
- shodō, calligraphy
- sadō, the way of tea
- and kadō, flower arrangement
Each of these practices includes the suffix dō, the kanji for which is also read as michi; it literally translates to ‘road’, ‘path’, ‘passage’. It is never a destination or end goal. Instead, dō indicates a ‘way’ or a ‘set of practises’ – rules for conducting oneself.
What makes dō valuable as a concept of learning is the emphasis that is placed on practice and discipline, rather than on success-focused outcomes. Through the arts listed above, Japanese people (and, increasingly, non-Japanese practitioners, as well) understand that nothing can ever be mastered and that one can always continue to learn and improve through disciplined practice. Few other cultures have sports or arts that go to these extremes of diligent practice, where mastery becomes a spiritual process.
On my podcast, calligrapher Rie Takeda described the meaning of shodō from an artist’s perspective:
‘The meaning is very deep, and this is one of the oldest and most profound art forms in Japan developed since the fifth century. The depth of beauty in shodō is the result of diverse techniques and complex brush movements, accompanied with a flow of brush and sumi ink. I have to say, most essentially, it needs to be escorted with an inner silence, calmness, and the body and mind connection – so it's not only an art form, but it's also like a spiritual connection as well.’
I think what Takeda is touching on is that the practice of dō, be it an art, craft, or sport, can become a spiritual experience, where profound moments of personal transcendence, connection, and wonder can be felt.
Dō - brushed by Rie Takeda
Dr Jesse L. Preston of the University of Warwick, an expert of the psychology of belief, has explored this sort of spiritual experience Takeda speaks of in her work, in both religious and non-religious contexts. Preston reported that for religious people, their spiritual experiences tended to be explicit religious events as well as life and death events. For non-religious people, their spiritual experiences were found in nature, peak experiences, science, and through practices like yoga and meditation.
The Small Self
I imagine she would include the practice of dō, calligraphy, flower arrangement, and so on, as part of these non-religious spiritual experiences. She concluded that for both religious and non-religious people, spiritual experiences induce awe through the feeling of the small self. As you can probably tell from context, ‘small self’ indicates a humble awareness that, while our everyday subjective experiences generally lead us to position ourselves as the hero of our story, each of us is in fact just one thread in the complex tapestry of life.
When we learn something deeply, as if it is a spiritual experience, it changes how you see and navigate through the world. You can see the world more clearly. Living in Japan, learning Japanese, and adopting Japanese cultural practices changed my life. I can recall many experiences in Japan that induced feelings of awe, where my worldview got a lot larger through a sense of small self.
You can embrace dō and pursue arts, crafts or sports that you care about and concern yourself less about outcomes and performance and focus on the way and appreciate the value you discover in the pursuit of learning.