I Lived Alone in Rural Japan for a Year, Here’s What I Learned
No, I Didn’t Train With Monks
Solitude seems like a complex subject.
On one hand, some people recommend avoiding it like the plague, saying that it causes anxiety, depression, and a boring life. There is much truth behind that too, because it’s hard to imagine having a meaningful life without being connected with other humans. There is little meaning in a life spent alone.
On the other hand, solitude is said to be an incredible tool for real leadership and peace of mind. Many famous leaders have stated the importance of solitude, that, without it, humans are unable to think for themselves. Again, there is much truth behind such a statement. I find it hard to believe that someone could think for themselves if they do not feel comfortable being alone with themselves.
Solitude seems complex, but it actually isn’t.
If we let ourselves be acted upon by solitude, then it can be painful. Whereas, if we use solitude as a tool, then it can bear some incredible fruits. The difference is in our intention, in the correct sense of self that allows us to deliberately practice a tool as powerful as solitude.
I spent the last year living deep in the mountains of Japan. I was situated in a small village of elderly Japanese. I was not completely alone but often felt alone as the only English speaker in the region.
It was during this time that I learned to deliberately practice solitude, but it was also the hardest year of my life. I regularly struggled with anxiety, loneliness, boredom, purposelessness, and guilt. Yet at the same time, the time I spent living there bore some really incredible fruits that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Here’s what I learned:
Existence is Inherently Meaningful
I’ve read enough books and Medium articles to know that an enjoyable life comes from serving a purpose greater than oneself. At this point, it seems like common sense, but I realized a startling fact about that statement while living in Japan.
Although it is true that a fulfilling life requires meaning, I have realized that the belief of that statement can be dangerous.
Believing that your fulfillment and enjoyment in life depend on finding or pursuing some grand meaning or purpose is dangerous.
Because it places your inherent right to happiness upon an outside factor. In other words, believing that you need to find a purpose in life will make you a slave to the pursuit of finding that purpose, and happiness will be elusive.
Even worse, when you do find a “purpose”, if you believe that it’s supposed to make you happy, then you will doubt it at the first unsatisfactory feeling.
It leads to floating like a butterfly, trying to find the perfect flower that doesn’t exist. It’s theosophy at it’s finest. Talk about vanity.
What I learned in Japan is quite different.
I learned that although a meaningful life does come from fulfilling a purpose, it is not our responsibility to create or find that purpose.
It is something that is not created, but something that unfolds.
In other words, meaning in life is not something that must be found, but life is inherently meaningful.
Humans are Imperfect
Living as the only English speaker in a foreign country presents a wealth of challenges throughout everyday life. For example, grocery shopping. It’s hard to purchase the right ingredients for home cooking when you cant read.
Everyday life is hard, that’s why I became increasingly dependent on my neighbors and Japanese colleagues for help with some basic tasks like starting the washing machine or using the ATM.
These everyday difficulties made me painfully aware of the fact that I am not humanly perfect. I need help, and it’s okay to ask for it, and when I did ask for it, I also became acutely aware of the imperfection of others!
Not only was I a messy goofball, but almost everyone I asked for help was also incurably imperfect.
The only thing left to do was a laugh and try our best.
My Presence is Powerful
Corporate culture in Japan is very different than almost any other country’s.
Instead of an employee’s worth being determined by the value they contribute to the company, in Japan, their worth is determined by their simple presence at work. This was really annoying to get used to.
Even if I had no function in an activity, it was still valuable for me to be present at it. It seemed like a great waste of time from my Western perspective, but to the Japanese, my simple presence was the value.
Over the year, I became used to it, and can actually see where they are coming from now.
The Japanese language is wholly based on understanding the context of the conversation. If you don’t understand the context, then you don’t understand the conversation. So in order to be a part of the conversation, you need to be a part of the context. That’s why my simple presence was valuable. It gave me the context and meant that I could be a part of the conversation, part of the community.
I now understand the importance of my presence, and hope to carry this understanding with me through the different stages of life. I understand that I am present because it allows me to be part of the community. Additionally, my presence may mean the world to those I am watching. Presence is powerful.
I Know Who I Am
Perhaps my greatest lesson from a year of solitude in Japan was the development of my sense of self.
I was regularly alone for a year. This solitude gave me a chance to know and understand myself in a way I had never before recognized.
How did solitude do that?
There was nobody around who I could be influenced by, so I couldn’t help but get to know myself.
Who am I?
My identity is in a perpetual state of unfoldment.
I gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of myself every day, and that’s exactly why it’s vanity to attempt to pursue a purpose. My purpose changes every time my identity unfolds, and that happens every day.
My human purpose and identity are not defined. They are renewed each and every day, and really all I can do is my best.
Hey, I’m Nate! I write about life, leadership, and travel. If you want to learn more, then I suggest joining my weekly Email Newsletter so you can directly interact with me and be notified when a new article is released!
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