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Globe Magazine

The Japanese art of tidying up is nice. But what we need in a pandemic is the Japanese way of finding balance

Amid COVID’s great uncertainty, here’s how we can learn to embrace the unknown and find peace.

Illustration by Jasu Hu for The Boston Globe
This story was adapted from "Why Be Happy?" by Scott Haas. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Books.
This story was adapted from "Why Be Happy?" by Scott Haas. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Books.

In Japan, happiness isn’t a private experience. And happiness isn’t really a goal. Acceptance, called ukeireru, is the goal. What Japan does at its best, and what we can learn from its culture, is how to ward off the pain of being alone in the world. Now more than ever, as we navigate the anxiety and fear brought on by a global pandemic, acceptance can help us find peace amid uncertainty. Accepting reality, past and present, and embracing things that don’t last are fundamental to life in Japan.

No place has added greater balance to my life, as well as a sense of calm, patience, respect for silence and observation, and acceptance of how community and nature matter more than one’s needs. The individualism we prize in the West is supplemented by an awareness that life’s greatest pleasures come from satisfying others.

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But too much empathy can bring pain, too. When others suffer, and we are empathic, our well-being is diminished. By this I mean: When we exercise our empathy, it implies absorbing the pain of others. If my son or daughter or wife is suffering, I can’t think about being happy. And it’s not just the personal. When I hear, for example, terrifying narratives of loss, shame, and isolation as a clinician at the Department of Transitional Assistance in Roxbury, my well-being is diminished. This explains, in large part, why those suffering in ways evident to others are often shunned, blamed, or feared. The more we empathize with the pain of others, the more we recognize that their condition is part of our identity.

I found the help I needed, found what was missing, by integrating experiences in Japan with my life here. Observing, listening, being silent, taking things in, considering problems as challenges, being far less reactive, and, above all, practicing acceptance: These are at the pinnacle of how you relate to yourself and others in Japanese society. Incorporating habits from Japan has fundamentally changed how I see and experience stress, how I avoid it, and how I accept the world while simultaneously trying hard to change my position in it.

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Being part of family, school, company, and community is reinforced in Japan. In school, students must conform with uniforms and lunches. In public baths, naked among strangers or people recognizable from the community, privacy is no longer possible. The silence in crowds on sidewalks suggests that everyone is joined together (like it or not). All of these lead to a shared sense of responsibility evident in healthy behaviors, highly functional communities, a great public infrastructure, and long life.

In Japan, numerous words mean “acceptance.” Depending on who you are with and the situation in which you find yourself, finding the right words to express acceptance varies. I fell in love with this definition of ukeireru: “Used by a mother with a child to accept something gently, fun to imagine inside oneself, accepting reality.” Ukeireru means much more than self-acceptance. It means acceptance of our relationships in our families, in school, at work, and in our communities. It means accepting others. It means accepting reality and creating contexts that broaden the narrow, confining, and exhausting perspective of self. The goal is to create a mental state in which you feel at home with sufficient awareness and confidence. You accept and embrace loss. Ukeireru creates a kind of basic state of immediacy — of being present.

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There are practical ways in which ukeireru can be applied to our lives. Taking time out from each day to participate in nonproductive experiences can help us escape from ourselves and enable us to feel rejuvenated. By accepting our place in the scheme of things, we are better able to think and feel with focus and deep concentration. By doing that, it’s possible to accept how others might feel, think, fear, and desire, and how you might be of help to them. You may also have the requisite energy to change or address the sources of stress in your life.

Here are some small ways you can practice at home during the pandemic.

1. Drink beverages mindfully.

The silence and observation of everyday life, as simple as having coffee or tea or even cocktails, are very much part of what Japanese call aun no kokyu, which means breathing in harmony. The Japanese tea ceremony is well known. Most people don’t engage routinely at home in the use of the various cleaning cloths or ladle, the whisking of the powdery tea, the slow pouring, the repetitive bows — all of which are necessary parts of the ritual. However, people are still informed by the meditation of the tea ceremony when they enjoy a cup of ordinary green tea in Japan.

You can do this at home and at work. Not the ritual, but the tea itself. You need good green tea leaves, a teapot, a strainer, and hot (nearly boiling) water. The tea has a fresh aroma that can coax your olfactory senses into a kind of rapturous state as you picture or even feel nature in a cup. It is nature, past and present, enjoyed either individually or with another person who is having tea with you, that can bring about a sense of well-being, a forgetting of who you are and where you are, while at the same time reinforcing your grasp of the pleasure of feeling safe and alive.

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Coffee salons occupy an important place in the political culture and life in Japan. You start by picking out the freshly roasted beans with guidance from a barista. Then the beans are placed in a tiny grinder and ground up by hand. The barista heats the water to a temperature that he or she deems perfect and then slowly pours it over the ground beans, which are held in either a pour-over coffee brewer, or through a narrow drip sieve. The barista is the coffee master, the teacher, the person to whom you are granting omakase — the right to decide.

At home, you can re-create this. I bought a terrific Japanese hand grinder, and at night — not every night — I slowly grind the beans for the next morning. You can get yourself a Japanese glass vessel that brews the coffee, too, and stand back and pour until you have the desired cup. Even if you don’t indulge in this laborious process, it’s still possible to take it slow by sipping and mulling and doing the best you can to savor the taste rather than wait for that exquisite caffeine rush. Slowing things down means creating the space needed for observation. With observation, you have the opportunity to accept where you are and who you are — less reminiscing, less anxiety about the future, being more present with the simple taste of roasted beans come to life in boiled water.

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Illustration by Jasu Hu for The Boston Globe

2. Take a nap.

Sleeping in a room or place filled with strangers is common in Japan. From the exhausted workers bedraggled on the subway having stayed way too late at work (as their bosses demanded) to nap rooms on ferry boats, letting go is part of the culture. One time, while napping in Japan, I had feelings that reminded me of having been a child: asleep on the floor, on a mat, in a room of people who were not my family, but who were safe enough to slumber next to for a while. Life seemed richer with possibilities, and I felt a great sense of well-being.

In the United States, we could do more about solving our problems if only we had the energy. When we are overwhelmed, we are too exhausted to do enough about the conditions that create the stress. A tired human being is passive and resigned. To do what’s needed to change things that stress us out, we need strength and resilience. And one of the best ways to gain well-being is by checking out.

Dr. Rebecca Spencer, a neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whose research focuses on sleep, completed a study that, according to an October 2018 BBC article, “appears to be the first to show that naps, and not just overnight sleep, contribute to emotional memory processing in children... In essence, ‘kids are really emotional without naps, and they’re hypersensitive to emotional stimuli,’ she says — because they haven’t consolidated the emotional baggage from earlier that day.” Naps enable us to have greater self-control, to take things in, and to accept situations without feeling an impulse to respond to them as if they are emergencies.

Back home in the States, I take naps late in the afternoon, whenever possible, for 15 to 45 minutes, and wake up ready to be part of the world again. The idea of encouraging people to get more sleep as part of a therapeutic plan is a good place to start in diminishing stress.

3. Connect with nature.

Most Japanese people are not fortunate enough to spend time in a Zen temple retreat or take strolls each day through Shinto shrines. But the information associated with each of these is embedded in Japanese consciousness. I have taken these experiences and dwell in them as much as possible here in the States. Even in an urban parking lot, I see tall, wild grass with more clarity — the resilience of nature. Or on a walk with my Bernese mountain dog, Beau, early in the morning, way before the city neighborhood is roused, the blue jays and the swooping hawk and the rabbits hopping for cover all take up more time in my thoughts than before. I find it’s easier and paradoxically more relaxing to worry about the prey and to feel the sadness of the cardinal’s color changing seasonally than to think about myself.

Japanese excel at gardens, and if you are capable, start cultivating. The urban garden movement is growing day by day in the United States. With your hands dirty, your body close to the soil, you might begin to rethink your priorities. Japanese also make note of 24 very short seasons, known as sekki, some lasting only a few days. Because of the brevity, the observer has to pay close attention to avoid missing out. You’ve got periods known as keichitsu, when insects wake up from winter hibernation. Shosho, when summer heat is forgotten. Kokuu, when it’s the start of spring rain needed to begin planting.

Take the time to do something with nature — anything — that involves interacting with what you see and hear. It could be watching birds and learning their calls, or getting to know the types of trees in your neighborhood. I’ve also found a bunch of YouTube videos of thunderstorms and rain forests, and just 15 or 20 minutes of a downpour with headphones on, and the atmosphere at home or work seems cleansed.

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This story was adapted from the forthcoming book Why Be Happy? by Scott Haas. Copyright © 2020 by Scott Haas. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc. New York. All rights reserved. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.