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What traditional Japanese culture can teach us about patience and acceptance

In our American culture we want immediacy, but patience is the understanding that this is a long journey and you can’t rush the process.
Drinking tea
We're busier than ever and there's a spike of interest in ancient wisdom and practices that originated in Japan, one of the ancestral homes of Zen Buddhism.Flavia Morlachetti / Getty Images

We’ve all heard that “patience is a virtue” and that “good things come to those who wait,” but our increasingly fast-paced world seems to always be telling us otherwise.

“We’re living in the busiest time of history of humanity and we often do not have enough time to get everything done that we need to,” Daniel Levine, trends expert, tells NBC News BETTER. “The promise of technology was that it would handle our work for us and let us hang out more and relax, but the opposite has happened. Rather than helping us slow down, technology is forcing us to move even faster.”

Consequently, many of us (myself included) are eager to practice and learn patience — a trait that, as any infant or toddler will show you — we are not born with.

To break from the chaos, tune into traditional Japanese wisdom

Levine has noted that in a response to the rapidly changing and demanding environment we’re living in, there’s been “a counter-trend against the barrage of tasks and technology that we are inundated with everyday. Patience is the other side of the coin of speed and we’re looking more to [integrate] that into our lives.”

Levine notes a spike of interest in ancient wisdom and practices that originated in Japan, one of the ancestral homes of Zen Buddhism. We’ve compiled a roundup of some of these teachings and explored how they can help us exercise patience — and ultimately, restore our connection with the fleeting nature of life.

Wabi-Sabi: Embrace the perfectly imperfect

Accepting and embracing transience and imperfection is key to wabi-sabi. Often we see this view applied to aesthetics, and one that can be found in some Japanese pottery, particularly the cups used in the Japanese tea ceremony, notes Sayaka Fujii, director of Japan National Tourism Organization.

“We take the object as it is — the cracks, the age, the rot,” says Fujii. “We accept it and try to see it as beautiful and as a reminder that nothing lasts. This philosophy reminds us that our bodies and all materials are transient.”

The term, which Fujii notes is quite difficult to translate into English, embodies two separate philosophies: Wabi “meaning loneliness (internally)” and sabi, meaning “withered, rustic (externally),” she says. “I think wabi is the heart/sense to feel the beauty of sabi, and when they are integrated, wabi-sabi is to feel the beauty in imperfection. Everything is transformable, impermanent, getting old and never lasts forever.”

Patience plays strongly into this merged viewpoint notes Kino MacGregor, an international yoga teacher and author who is half-Japanese and spent much of her childhood in Japan, because “it takes a while to reach this point of acceptance in ourselves.”

This is especially true when applying wabi-sabi to our bodies, which we may be constantly judging for perceived aesthetic flaws. “Wabi-sabi is about embracing the perfectly imperfect whole,” says McGregor. “So, if you have a misshapen nose but it works perfectly, wabi-sabi would be embracing that and saying, ‘I am perfectly imperfect. This isn’t a one-and-done deal, but a daily process where you have to see the beauty in your crooked nose. [Visualizing] yourself from that paradigm takes a lot of patience as the world around you may be telling you a different story.”

Kintsugi: Fill the cracks with gold. Your scars are beautiful.

Closely tied to wabi-sabi, Kintsugi is, as Tiffany Ayuda explained in her piece on the subject, “the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold — built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.”

Kintsugi means “golden joinery”, says MacGregor, and it’s a concept that we can apply not only to our broken dishes, but to any healing process or imperfection in our bodies.

“This concept is so important to take to heart when we look at our bodies,” says MacGregor. “We have scars, wounds and other body parts that might be considered ‘cracked’ or ‘broken” by the standards of big brands and mainstream beauty. But if we can fill those cracks with the golden embrace of love, then we can learn to celebrate ourselves in totality. Rather than our flaws being something to hide and disguise, how amazing would it be if we learned to truly love everything about ourselves?”

This practice is one that cultivates patience because it defies our reliance on instant gratification and quick fixes.

“Our bodies are broken pieces of pottery that need to be embraced rather than say, put a mask on and lose 10 years in 5 minutes,” says MacGregor. “Embrace the patience required for the healing process in any cracked or broken body part, community part or physical object. The pot gets filled in with gold and is then more valuable. Be patient with all the places you are cracked and find the material that will fill it. That message of patience and healing is one that we really need right now both as individuals and as a country.”

Shankankan: The beauty in taking your time

The Japanese philosophy, Shankankan, is perhaps the one on this list that most emphatically speaks to the virtue of patience, meaning loosely, “there’s beauty in taking your time.”

“Shankankan originates from an old Zen story about a young pupil who wanted to learn so fast, and asked the master monk over and over how to get enlightened,” says MacGregor. “ The master monk said to him, basically, ‘be calm, don’t hurry, take your time.’ That is perfect patience.”

Most everyone can, on some level, identify with this eager young pupil, especially in our fast-paced society and wants answers and solutions immediately.

“In our American culture we want immediacy,” says MacGregor. “Patience is the understanding that this is a long journey and you can’t rush the process, particularly in the Zen meditation tradition of spiritual ripening.”

Meditation is a great way to practice Shankankan, but you may also want to integrate this philosophy into your beauty regimen.

“Taking time, instead of rushing, is very important for skincare,” says Koko Hayashi, an anti-aging expert from Japan who teaches facial yoga. “The Japanese believe that quick results don't last, but slow results last for a long time. Botox gives you instant results, but if we can control our facial muscles to cause less wrinkles and sagging, it's much better, as it's natural and long lasting. Waking up sleeping facial muscles, relaxing over-working facial muscles and fixing bad facial expressions habits fix the root cause of aging symptoms in the face. To the Japanese, [getting to] the fundamental problem is more important than just covering up with quick fixes.”

Ikigai: Find your true purpose (beyond your career)

What is my true purpose? This is probably one of the toughest questions we can ask ourselves, at least, it is if you’re taking the way of Ikigai, which serves as an intersection between your values, cares and strengths and what the world needs.

“I think the western idea of purpose tends to be very focused on what your profession and livelihood are and how to make money,” says MacGregor. “Ikigai is quite different. It’s about finding what you love and what the world needs. That requires patience in the sense that it won’t be revealed to you in one moment. You’ll need space and time for those answers.”

Consistent meditation is integral to discovering or connecting with one’s Ikigai.

“This purpose has to organically arise in moments of deep reflection,” MacGregor adds. “We need to be rooted in emptiness to find [Ikigai]. A classic Zen story [that speaks to Ikigai] tells of a student who goes to a Zen master and says, ‘tell me exactly what my purpose is, where I should go, and how I can find peace.’ The Zen master says, ‘You’ve come to me with a cup full of mud. Go empty your cup and then come back so I can pour fresh water in.’”

We all have to empty our cups — our fears, opinions and conditioning — to find our true purpose, a process that requires extensive meditation and possibly, quite a lot of hardship.

“At what point do we find the wisdom? Only after we have suffered a lot and return to that state of emptiness,” says MacGregor.

We all need a refresher on these aged pearls of wisdom

MacGregor underscores that while all these wisdoms stem from Japan, one shouldn’t assume that modern Japanese populations are practicing them to a tee.

“A lot of these Japanese philosophies that get fetishized in the western world are those that everyday Japanese people need reminding of, too,” says MacGregor. “I think it’s important to recognize that there are certain cultural elements that being in a Japanese family will put in your consciousness, but that still, these principles are ancient Zen philosophies and that not everyone in Japan follows them. That would be like the Japanese believing that because many Americans worship Jesus, they’re all mirroring his wisdoms exactly. That’s far from the case. These are ancient philosophies that everyone can [benefit] from, no matter where you are, and I think many people in Japan could use the reminder, too.”


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