Empty Nest yet? Maybe it’s time for a vegetable garden – lessons from the Japanese

How many of us are gearing up for our kids to make the big move to college? The ‘empty nest’ is described as a syndrome characterized by feelings of grief and loneliness which parents may feel when their children leave home for the first time. The heart strings feel taut and as though they cannot stretch one more inch. But, we know they do.  We know the resilience of the human heart.  But, how do we really get to be present to all this change, to acknowledge our feelings and be willing and able to let go as well? Maybe the Japanese can give us some insight.

Recently, I read an article by Shelley Levitt who wrote about the Japanese people of Ogimi, a rural town on the island of Okinawa.  The people there are well known for their longevity and Levitt spoke about the concept of Ikigai as being the key to a long and happy life.  Ikigai literally means “a reason for being”, similar to the French phrase “raison d’etre”.  Here, everyone has their own ikigai. One’s ikigai is discovered by looking at what we value and what renders deep satisfaction and gives meaning to life.  So, perhaps, if we are experiencing the empty nest syndrome, or other Midlife transitions, we can begin to alleviate some of our suffering by finding our own ikigai.  To do so, we must first re-evaluate our values because they change and evolve during different stages of life.

If much of our ikigai has revolved around the daily activities of parenting, it’s time we assess our situation and look to other creative work, hobbies, and activities to bring us additional satisfaction. We must feel that our lives are valuable in mental and spiritual ways and seek out ways to express that. We must stay busy in ways that fulfill us and not succumb to a level of busyness just to fill the space or void. The way to start is to carve out some time to begin to list and talk about what we value now and what our aspirations are.  In addition to taking the time to state these values, when we’re ready to act, we must accompany our activities with a mindfulness and attentiveness that brings a certain level of sacredness or joy to the task at hand.  In her article, Levitt quotes one community member, “I plant my own vegetables and cook them myself. That’s my ikigai.”. This reminded me of a client recently who became very excited at the idea of teaching piano lessons in the evening and weekends this Fall as a way of being engaged with kids and fill in some of the time she used to be at soccer games with her daughter. She lit up talking about the space and how to make it happen and what was possible for her. For now, that will be part of her ikigai.

Levitt points to other components to living long and healthy lives which include moving daily, connecting with nature regularly, eating lightly and healthily and by generating a greater sense of community and connectedness. We all can benefit from these at any point in our lives but especially during a time of transition, and one that includes a sense of loss like the ‘empty nest’, we can also find our ikigai by cultivating a sense of belonging by getting more involved in the community.

While we loosen the heartstrings as our children grow, we get the opportunity to allow ourselves to create in new ways.  Perhaps this concept of ikigai will help guide us in this next phase. Levitt points out that the “residents of Ogimi are always doing something, and they do each activity attentively and slowly, whether preparing tea or crafting objects out of wicker.”. Every elder has a vegetable garden.

Maybe, as empty nesters, we should start on our vegetable garden now?

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