Having a Source of Life Energy

Ki is used in many Japanese expressions. It represents the idea of a universal source of energy and life, which exists both in the universe and within us. It flows through our bodies. With this thought, Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu contemplates what can give us vitality.

How do we get in touch with a source of vitality

Nick: I thought I'd start with a question about a presentation you recently gave at the Zen 2.0 event that was held last month, both live and online. You gave a presentation on how can we live and die like water?

So I thought I would start there. At the beginning of your presentation, you ask the question, how do we connect to a source of life energy? So I'd like to ask what do you mean by a source of life energy?

Stephen: I was thinking of the word ki which is in so many Japanese expressions from Genki… Yet it seems to have lost its meaning, in a sense that people don't know what it means anymore. I think they just use it all the time.

But certainly it's something that others have gotten very interested in like when Star Wars was made, George Lucas was called ‘the force’ right? ‘May the force be with you.’ ‘Trust in the force.’ And in the later films even explain what is the force and it was very much, completely what ki is.

It's the whole sense that there is a source of energy and life that is in the universe and also in us. So it runs through our bodies and it can be blocked. So one of the things I was very interested in is Chinese medicine when I was younger, and I studied Chinese medicine in Japan for a year.

Part of the theory is that there is this ki that runs through our bodies and that ki can become blocked at certain places in our body or the whole philosophy and medicine about how to release that and let the energy flow is all very much a part of philosophy and medicine.

So the whole area of health and well-being which was part of the topic of that particular conference. I was really asking, how did we get in touch with a source of vitality, what can give us vitality? And I was also thinking of something that I've focused on a lot more in my life recently—awareness of death, which is something that is deep in Bushido and the samurai way of living.

To contemplate death every day, and to even begin your day with the awareness that you are alive, but you are dying, and you will die, and to use that as a way to live better, and to be more present in your life.

I've also have roots in Catholicism. When our family came from Japan to the United States, we met our Irish family, they were one generation removed from Ireland, and a condition for our acceptance was that we become Catholic.

So I grew up in a Catholic Church, in a Catholic school. And there's an expression from Catholicism, ‘memento mori.’ Memento means remember, and mori means die. This has become a game in Japan recently, of a group of young women. There are women who live in this way and defy fear and danger with this awareness that, remember that you’ll die.

This is to me a very cross-cultural thing, you see many different cultures, and I think the contemporary culture is the one that is getting the furthest away from this kind of awareness. And we've become really cultures of denial and trying to keep death away from us as much as possible by numbing ourselves with entertainment and different kinds of pleasures or drugs or ways of keeping ourselves away from that reality.

And I wanted to focus on source as a way of saying that if we can connect to the real sense of what keeps us alive, and what makes us want to live or what we're willing to live for, in the face of all the other things that may be happening in our lives that make life so difficult.

Whatever that is, we need to connect to that, and we need to find our own way to connect to that, and that has often been through religion, but that can be through, I think, many people find that in nature now.

So to see that the feeling connected to something in Japanese, I like the expression something beyond—you don't have to call it Kamisama, you don't have to call it God, but think beyond the human connecting to that.

And maybe just by experiencing the majesty and the wonder and the awe of nature. So that was the original idea of that. The people who made the conference, they developed the way of thinking about the way of water as force and then flow and alignment.

So I've made it a talk that was in line with that trying to connect to what does it mean to connect to a source? What does it mean to go with the flow of life? What does it mean to align ourselves with some kind of a purpose in life?