Ikigai – A Hero’s Journey

My quest for existential JOY began early. First memory: probably one or two, lying on my back on the lawn, in summer, gazing into the clear San Diego sky and feeling amazed that I exist. The beginnings of a profound sense of gratitude, which I later learned is foundational to a sense of existential Joy – the joy of being.

Existential joy, as I define it is independent of outside stimuli. It therefore can exist even in times of stress or pain. It simply exists. It is the ultimate form of self-reliance.

A bit later in life (1971) at the age of nineteen, I volunteered to serve a two-year mission for my church. I was sent to Japan, a place I knew absolutely nothing about. My mission to the Japanese revolved around a central message, “Man’s Search for Happiness” which was the theme of the church’s pavilion at the Osaka World’s Fair of 1970. During my two years in Japan I experienced existential Joy at a level most never experience in a lifetime. I learned infinitely more than I taught, as teachers always do. Others experienced it too.

That 2-year period was anything but easy. I struggled to learn the Japanese language like nothing I had ever done, often crying myself to sleep, discouraged and mentally exhausted. Yet in the depths of despair, I found purpose and meaning, something the Japanese language has a unique and wonderful word for. It is “ikigai” and before I learned that word, I experienced it.

Ikigai (生き甲斐, pronounced [ikiɡai]) is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being.” The word “ikigai” is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile.[1] The word translated to English roughly means “thing that you live for” or “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.”[2] Each individual’s ikigai is personal to them and specific to their lives, values and beliefs. It reflects the inner self of an individual and expresses that faithfully, while simultaneously creating a mental state in which the individual feels at ease. Activities that allow one to feel ikigai are never forced on an individual; they are often spontaneous, and always undertaken willingly, giving the individual satisfaction and a sense of meaning to life. Wikipedia

The loving, passionate energy I put into those two years paid back incredible dividends throughout my life. Because I had achieved a level of mastery of Japanese, I was given more opportunities to serve in senior level business positions, developing big American retail brands all over the world, starting with Japan. Today, there are tens of thousands of stores (ihop, 7-eleven, Baskin-Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts, Papa John’s to name a few) that I was instrumental in establishing. Those stores provided jobs and income and customer convenience to millions of people. My heart is filled to overflowing with gratitude for the opportunity to serve and impact the lives of so many. IKIGAI.

But, along my journey, I became disillusioned with some of the selfishness, greed and politics that go along with functioning in large corporate environments.

Hero’s JourneySo, about thirteen years ago, I left to develop an intentional community with lofty goals that involved my ikigai based on self-reliance, integrity and mutual love, service and an abundant lifestyle within a closely bonded community. In October 2006, I purchased about 750 beautiful, remote acres on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, the Grand Canyon of the Southeast. It was just three months before the sub-prime mortgage Real Estate bust. It was my personal version of the “hero’s journey”. It was filled with all the elements of such a quest – challenge, failure, loss, disappointment, betrayal, fear, forgiveness, redemption and more. My life came into question as did my quest for existential joy. I fell into a state of depression as we teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for years, living in a state of lack. We now live simple, debt-free, peaceful, abundant and happy lives, but it was a rough road getting here.

There is a place in the iconic hero’s journey where the would-be hero falls to a low state. Then, through another mighty struggle with his own demons, overcomes. In the next stage of the quest, he returns home to teach what he has learned. This stage solidifies his learning and sets the stage for his next adventure. This is every brave man or woman’s journey.

And so was my struggle to recover existential joy. I have always been a deep-thinking introvert. My mentor boss at Dunkin/Baskin, upon his departure to head up Red Lobster, which he turned around and then took private, gave me a memento that still reminds me of my strongest talent. It is a brass giraffe because he said I always had my head in the clouds. It’s true. I am a big-picture visionary. I see trends and opportunities coming long before my peers and I develop detailed plans in my head to take advantage of those opportunities. One of the guys on my team once told me that I was exceptionally self-aware. I wasn’t sure how to take that at the time, but I have come to appreciate what a wonderful gift that is as well.

Over the past two years, I began an earnest quest to understand and recover existential joy – to define all of the principles that contribute to it and to develop self-mastery in applying those principles. Because of earlier life successes, I wasn’t in unexplored foreign territory, but I was beginning from the bottom of a pit that, in my hero’s journey, I had fallen into. Thankfully, my gifts of self-awareness, introspection and vision enabled that quest. I am now prepared to share the results of a lifetime of seeking existential joy.

My previous post speaks of some of those principles – productive creativity, meditation and gratitude. As described in the above Wikipedia link that defines Ikigai, the path to finding it is unique for each person and cannot be dictated or forced. It requires a great deal of self-awareness to discover one’s unique talents, gifts, passions and so forth. But, I believe there are solid principles beneath all that messy uniqueness. These are universal. They apply to everyone. My daily discipline involves testing these principles against the rigors of life to see if they hold up – always – and figuring out where and how the unique pieces fit into the universal principles. To date, I have identified and tested over a dozen discrete yet inter-related principles.

In coming posts I intend to share my discoveries. I hope to find a larger audience who will seek, test, find, validate and share joy that leads to wholeness of their life and then share it with others. If you are interested in the discipline that brings ikigai, or what I call existential joy, please subscribe and share my posts. Then share your experiences by commenting.

For those serious about accelerating your path to joy, come to my place in the Village. I will teach you my personally proven methods of practical, applied meditation. In peaceful, private natural places for deep meditation, like our waterfall,

the Beech Treehouse,

huckleberry point lookout

Overlook #17

or several ancient Indian rock houses on the property.

Discover who you are, your talents, passions, demons and opportunities to thrive. I will personally coach you how to practice the discipline necessary to change your life against your will, habits and addictions, to become your best, most joyful and prosperous self.

Call or text for an appointment or a stay-over. (931) 450-2426.

Finding Joy with Practical Meditation

Finding Joy with Practical Meditation

Most everyone wants to be happy.

My journey has been all about seeking a higher level of JOY.   Retiring early from a lucrative business career, founding an intentional community, participating actively in my religious faith and, most recently, building the Village 2.0 around serving and enjoying guests in our vacation cabins.

I make a distinction between happiness and joy.  For me, joy connotes a higher level that transcends external stimuli.  It is a quality  of being that exists despite the frustrations, disappointments or even malicious attacks from the outside world.  I work every day to attain that elusive place of sustainable joy.

Morning Meditation
 Morning Meditation

I have found it useful / NO, essential in the pursuit of joy, to maintain a daily routine, even a ritual of deep personal meditation.  There are many forms of meditation.  Mine has evolved, sampling many of them over the years long before founding the Village in 2006.  I respect eastern meditation traditions born out of Buddhism and Hinduism, having received instruction in Transcendental Meditation and the Japanese arts of Zen.  Cultivating stillness of mind and body to synchronize and bring both into harmony is the essence, or at least the starting point for these powerful methods.

Over years of trial and practice, I found other elements in my meditation that brought additional richness to my daily routine. Going on two years now, I have made a practice of meditating each morning on a single verse from scripture.  Perhaps too long to be called a mantra, it still quiets my mind and connects me with truth as experienced in the realities of the prior day.  It is simply this:

“Adam fell that men might BE; 

and men are, that they might have JOY.”

Distilled into this short verse is a purpose of life statement from God’s perspective.  The why of creation is made explicit.  Adam, like all his family, is no villain upon whom we can blame our sins.  He is no scapegoat.  He is our good father.  He is part of God’s great plan to bring us all into BEing that we might find JOY. Like Adam, all of his children are fallen that we might BE. This is the existential statement that transcends Niche, Sartre, Thoreau and all the rest.  If that isn’t deep enough to occupy one’s mind alone, the scripture relates the PURPOSE of BEING.  It is to become Joyful, not in fleeting moments, but in permanent, existential, eternal being.  It is a long journey of BECOMING . . . . joyful.

Much of contemporary Christianity focuses on overcoming, or at least being forgiven of the darker side of our human existence.  I believe my scriptural “mantra” expresses Jesus’ purpose and intent better. Subsequent verses lay that out. The core of my daily meditation practice for some time now has rested on those two entrained thoughts of the how and why of man’s being.

It isn’t enough only to still the mind, although that is an excellent, even essential beginning. Having done so, I reflect deeply on my purpose, to achieve joy, while reflecting deeply on my prior day’s experiences. I observe what experiences enhanced or detracted from sustainable joy.  I ask basic questions like why and how, under what circumstances and through what relationships.  Then, through God’s promptings, I attempt to distill observations into universal principles that I can practice every day.

For example, I have found that many of the activities that consistently bring me deep feelings of joy relate to building things and then sharing my delight with others.  The specific activities are far from universal.  They are personal, even unique to me. I think most people would not derive joy from building the things I do, even finding that work frustrating or anger-provoking.

 “The Beech”. Treehouse

The treehouse I have been building for the past year and a half, the unique bar stools that go in it, the rocket stove, finding creative ways to repurpose discarded items like the live dome roof from a satellite dish or the deck made from plastic pallets.

Unicycle Barstool

One could call it art or simply the creative impulse that many experience as soul satisfying.  The substance of my meditation is in parsing out what is universally joyful about these activities, distilling that into principles and practicing every day.

Reflecting on these feelings from real experiences every day as I contemplate joy grounds me in truth that I can test and prove from my own experience.  Hence, I can conclude that it is true.  I believe that one of many eternal principles of joy is the experience of creation.  That truth is further validated as I read iconic stories from scripture like the biblical story of creation that ends with God standing back on the seventh day to admire His work and pronouncing it good.  In doing so, He recognizes and celebrates His own goodness and His Godness.  This is existential joy.    The great religions all have their creation stories.  That consistency across cultures and prophets further testifies to me that God derives Joy from creation. Like God, Adam and all of his children, we must fulfill that and other core needs in order to become a being of light and joy.

As I meditate daily on my purpose of being, I have discovered many other principles of joy. The objective is to become more like God, who is the consummate being of Joy.  It’s a long, even eternal journey and I am getting better.  Becoming better because I try every day to take my thought-s about joy out of the garden of Eden (meditation) into the challenges of real life. Then, the following morning, back to the garden where I try to synchronize my thoughts of joy with the experiences of the flesh from the prior day.

When I was a child, my parents sacrificed to give me private music lessons.  I hated to practice my scales and arpeggios.  But my mother disciplined me to do so daily.  It was hard work.  But, as with all good things, the hard work of practice is what enables positive change.  Practice paid joyful dividends.  I find joy in improvisational creativity on my saxophone regardless of the level of skill or perfection I have yet to attain.

In Christianity, the word for practice is called repentance, or in other words, positive change or growth.  Repentance is the culminating step of practical meditation that completes the circle of finding joy.

Be Water; Be like God

This morning I have been meditating on Lao Tsu’s verse #8 of the Tao Te Ching.

It gently invites us to be like water.

I considered two translations. Each is quite different. Without consulting the original Chinese, I did my own translation. I drew inspiration from the two translations, adding my own insights about life and the nature of God and water. Truths I learned from my own life’s path, my Tao

I hope to become more like water and God. Wrestling with my own poetic version of Lao Tsu’s wisdom helped me think more deeply, clarifying my water. I recommend the exercise and, should you give it a try, would love to see your version. Post it as a comment for the enjoyment of all. Share your living water. In a time of division, contention and darkness, this is something we can all do. Perhaps the best thing.

“Be Water, my friends. Be Water.” Bruce Lee

I include the two translations, from which I drew inspiration, below.

I hope this brightens your day in some small way.

With love, Grant

———————————————————————————
“True goodness is like water, 
it benefits everything and harms nothing. 
Like water it ever seeks the lowest place, the place that all others avoid. 
It is closely kin to the Tao.

For a dwelling it chooses the quiet meadow; 
for a heart the circling eddy.
In generosity it is kind; 
in speech it is sincere;
in authority it is order;
in affairs it is ability; 
in movement it is rhythm.

Inasmuch as it is always peaceable it is never rebuked.”

———————————————————————————
“The supreme goodness is like water.
It benefits all things without contention.

In dwelling, it stays grounded.
In being, it flows to depths.
In expression, it is honest.

In confrontation, it stays gentle.
In governance it does not control.
In action, it aligns to timing.It is content with its nature,
And therefore cannot be faulted.”

Stay in our Amazing CONEX Tiny Home

Back in 2011, I finished my tiny guest house, built out of two forty-foot CONEX shipping containers.  It’s a comfortable, fully functional house with one-bedroom + sleeping loft, a large kitchen, living area, full bath, laundry and extra storage.  I was pleased with the results.  You can read my original post, including my floor plan design and original photos at Build a Great House for under $10,000.

We used it mostly for convenience and for family and friends that would visit from time to time.  Over the years, I couldn’t resist making lots of improvements.  That, of course added cost, but it has been so worth it.

 

My latest improvements included:

  • A generous covered deck with deck chairs and a large gas barbecue that overlooks our little pond, filled with catfish, bass and croaking bullfrogs.
  • Covered parking for one vehicle in addition to the carport that handles four of ours.
  • French doors opening onto the covered deck
  • Newly Steel Framed Massive windows looking out into the woods and creek behind the house.  The house is so much more bright and cheery.
  • Fresh, natural re-sawn pine wood paneling in the living / dining area.  Wood is so much more cozy than corrugated steel.
  • New Kitchen Cabinet faces
  • A kitchen bar, re-purposed from a big oak conference room table salvaged from my days at Baskin-Robbins corporate.
  • A new heat pump that cools and removes humidity in the summer and makes the place toasty warm in winter.  The original low cost insulation, added to the exterior under the wood siding, has been great.
  • A gas fireplace for some extra cozy when “the weather outside is frightful”.

A few months ago, we began offering the space for short-term rental on Airbnb.   The response has been amazing.  You can see the listing at Mountain Waterfall Cabin in Eco-Village

We also listed another one bedroom log cabin at Log Cabin on Miller’s Falls

The experience hosting and getting to know lots of great people has been fabulous.  Many of the improvements were prompted by suggestions from guests.  It’s still a work in progress.  Between guest visits, I can usually be found either making improvements to one of these two houses or making plans for the Village 2.0.  that I’m calling the “Enchanted” Village on Sewanee Creek, or Enchanted Village for short.  I’ll write more about that later.

So, if you are interested in seeing what it might be like to live in a tiny home or a container house built from Conex shipping containers, come stay with us in one of our comfortably small houses.  While here, I’ll be happy to give you a tour of the Village on Sewanee Creek.  You can meet some of our self-reliant Villagers and learn about rainwater catchment systems, off-grid solar, bee-keeping, gardening, the benefits of chickens (even harvest some fresh eggs for breakfast), Ham radio communications, raising mushrooms or foraging for edible woodland foods, the slower, more satisfying life-style we enjoy here and much more.

Wander over to the amphitheater and enjoy a cookout in the fire pit under the satellite dish gazebo.   If you are a singer/song-writer or musician, this is the perfect place for a songwriter’s retreat.  How about an awesome place in nature to perform for a few appreciative music-lovers.  Our amphitheater offers a great outdoor stage with a covered backstage.  You can book it for free (as long as Villagers are invited to enjoy your music).  I’ll take you on a tour of the surrounding area where you will meet the rangers at the Visitor’s center and arrange for a guided hike through one of our eight nearby state parks.

Take a short walk along the creek to the top of fifty-foot Miller’s falls.  Then follow the gentle trail to the bottom of the falls.  Go behind the falls and enjoy contemplating God’s wonders on the natural stone bench in the grotto.

If you enjoy the unique satisfaction of being creative and building things, I can always use an extra pair of hands in the wood and welding shop.  By the way, I’m looking forward to many more years building tree houses in the enchanted village and love to share creative ideas with others who are similarly motivated by the urge to create magical things.

The Growth Mindset

One of the characteristics I look for in people for the Village is drive for continuous personal growth. People who are continuously growing are good neighbors. They are interesting to be around. Their example is uplifting and inspiring. People who struggle, persevere and overcome challenging things are confident, usually happy people. Accomplishment is fulfilling. I feel happy when I accomplish something. Unhappy when I give up.

A growth mindset, value or habit can be manifest in many ways, My focus tends toward improvement in basic creative skills and spiritual or character growth. Like a lot of people, though, I am less interested in some areas of growth, feeling that I’m just not very good at or natively talented in certain areas. Math isn’t my strong suit. I have avoided it all my life. But I believe in expanding my personal horizons, so my procrastination bothers my conscience. Recently, I started a basic online math course with Kahn Academy that can take me as far as I want to persevere – for free.

Every day, I get encouraging emails, reminding me to enjoy learning and growing. Today’s is titled, “The learning myth: Why I’ll never tell my son he’s smart” by the founder, Sal Kahn. I enjoyed reading it and watching the attached video. I hope you do too.
After reading it, I encourage you to embrace this mindset. Enroll in a Kahn Academy course. Then tell us about your experience. Let’s encourage each other to grow.
Here’s a link:

https://www.khanacademy.org/talks-and-interviews/conversations-with-sal/a/the-learning-myth-why-ill-never-tell-my-son-hes-smart

the Impact of Distance on Entitlement & Gratitude

Villagers hold, as a personal value, that we should not be dependent on government for our welfare. Dependence on distant entities breeds a sense of entitlement, which is the opposite of gratitude. There is broad agreement among clergy, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, scientists and thinkers that gratitude is the foundation of happiness.

We should be “self-reliant”. That requires faith and work. But it does not mean that we want to be alone. In the Village, we strongly value the giving and receiving of service within a tightly knit community.

An inspiring talk by Dale G. Renlund starts with the premise that “the greater the distance between the giver and receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement.” Here is a link. The opposite is also true.  A generous and direct exchange (both receiving and giving between close associates) is an essential element of community. It strengthens ties, builds individuals, social resiliency and enhances gratitude and happiness.

By institutionalizing the giving and receiving of service through our weekly Village Projects, we remind ourselves of these values and create good habits.

Neighbors helping build a new shed

But ritual service is not intended to fulfill all of these needs. It only serves as a catalyst for regular sharing between community members, thereby enhancing a general sense of gratitude, self-reliance and happiness.

Another value of Villagers is a deep commitment to living our religious convictions, whatever they may be. The speaker in this talk goes on to illustrate the principle of distance as it relates to entitlement vs. gratitude in our relationships with God.

We believe that social relationships are important, whether with family, neighbors or deity. In healthy relationships, there is no room for entitlement, only gratitude that brings us closer together.

New Email: grant51miller@gmail.com

The Low Road to Freedom – How Buildings Learn

This BBC-produced video showcases low cost construction and its relationship to freedom.  As a lifelong follower of Thoreau’s philosophies, this resonates with me. Freedom to build “what you need” is a principle upon which the Village on Sewanee Creek rests. 

So, we have a roughly 5,500 square foot mansion currently under construction here. It is anything but low cost. But it is what the owners decided they need. From my point of view, that’s wonderful. If you have the resources so that the building does not become a lead weight on your life, it can become such a blessing, not only to the owners, but to those they chose to share it with. In the Village, where we are collectively all about voluntary sharing, what a blessing that can be!   It’s what’s inside that counts.  I’m confident that the owners who will become the heart of this magnificent home when it is completed, will bless all of us with their generous spirit and wise hearts.

On the other extreme, we have three “Tiny Homes” that are “finished” and occupied with capacity for future expansion and creative expression as need dictates. Large or small, expensive or low cost, or somewhere in between, the range of homes in the Village expresses our core values.  One of the most important among our values is the individual freedom to build according to needs as each of us defines them. 

Out of that freedom, comes a natural diversity of expression. That diversity, or lack of sameness can be viewed in different ways.  Differences can be viewed either as low-end eyesores that depress property values or as egotistical displays of wealth on the other extreme.  As we elevate our consciousness and supress lower ego-driven impulses, these differences can be perceived as beautiful, artistic expressions of freedom.  Again, where the building is only an expression of the builder, it’s what’s inside that counts.

When our personal artistic senses are challenged by diversity, it is an opportunity to reevaluate the depth of our spirituality and the quality of our values – to dig a little deeper and discover more enlightened ways of perceiving and interacting with the world around us. 

Monday, we celebrate the 4th of July. For me, it’s a celebration of the liberated human spirit, not just freedom from political tyranny. My fondest hope is that the Village will continue to evolve and improve as a society that values freedom in its deepest, spiritual sense, thereby securing not only freedom for ourselves but fostering it for others.

Keep reading to my previous post.  You are invited to celebrate the 4th with us tomorrow, or for the rest of forever.