Shikata Ga Nai Is the Japanese Art of Letting Go—and It’s Glorious
March 27, 2018
The women of Okinawa, Japan, are expected to live close to 90 years—an astonishing feat. One of the main reasons my Okinawan friend Hiromi-san says Okinawan women live so long? A little concept known as shikata ga nai, which means, “it cannot be helped.”
At its essence, shikata ga nai (or shō ga nai) really means letting go. It means accepting what you cannot change and doing your best to let it roll off your back. It encourages you to take a step back from the drama in your life and remind yourself, “This won’t matter in five years, or five months (or in some cases, even five weeks), so I’m not going to give it more than five minutes.” And then wash your hands of it.
It’s easier said than done. When you’re in a situation that’s out of your control—maybe a job you didn’t get, a date that didn’t go well, or a cancelled flight—it’s tempting to torture yourself, wondering what went wrong, blaming yourself, or trying to fix something or make something work. But more often than not, when something cannot be helped, it is a sign that it was truly not meant to be.
When you let go of something not meant for you, you will find relief. You will feel peace. When you’re in the midst of a tough situation, it can feel like you’re in the middle of the forest, and all you can see is the trees. But by walking away, you’re taking yourself out of the situation and putting yourself in a new setting. Sometimes you see the value by just stepping away, and sometimes it takes longer to gain perspective. But before you know it, you’ll have a new vantage point and be able to see the entire landscape.
Shikata ga nai became my mantra after the 2016 election. When the results came in, my sister and I were devastated. My dad wrote a very thoughtful letter to us in which he said not to sweat the small stuff. He told us that a politician did not need to infiltrate our everyday lives. He said that others will be president—including a woman—and that we can continue to do good things for others and to enjoy ourselves. My dad is not a man of many words, so when he speaks, you really listen. His words of shikata ga nai meant a lot to me.
Roll With the Punches
Shikata ga nai is all about rolling with the punches, allowing your sails to go in the direction of the wind. It’s not always the strongest and smartest who go the furthest; it is often those who can adapt. Adaptation is a Japanese art—we get through not-so-great situations by staying calm, staying resilient, breathing, and adapting to our new course.
Taking a page from Okinawan women, when you encounter something that cannot be changed (like a disagreement with a stubborn person, or even inclement weather), don’t dwell on it. “Shō ga nai,” let it go, it cannot be helped. What you can change is the power and direction of your whole life, just by changing your mindset. Take a deep breath. Ease up. Let it go.
Here are 7 ways you can practice shikata ga nai:
1. Breathe Deeply
Deep breathing—especially through the nose—can help you feel grounded and take you back to reality. As you breathe deeply, scan your body and notice whether you are holding on to any tension. Are you clenching your jaw or furrowing your eyebrows? Recognize your tense spots, and try to breathe specifically into those areas.
2. Stop Comparing
Comparing your life to the lives of others is always a self-defeating practice. The only person you should ever compare yourself to is . . . you. If you find yourself playing the comparison game, look away from the news or social media, and engage more in real life. Take some alone time. Make a note of all the things you love and the things you do well. Grant yourself that serenity.
3. Tend to Your Own Garden
This means, get in touch with your place in the natural world, and care for yourself as you would a seedling. Nourish, hydrate, get sun. If you’re busy with life’s demands, this doesn’t have to mean you take a whole day or night in your PJs. But do find a pocket of me-time. Prioritize yourself as number one.
4. Find Your Healing Object
It helps to have some symbolic reminders to stay the course. I love my healing stones and crystals, especially my rose quartz, to help bring love into my life. I also like my mala beads (a traditional meditation necklace with 108 beads), which I used to help myself feel grounded while I was going through a difficult time. I would hold them before bed and they would make me feel better.
Maybe crystals aren’t your thing, and that’s okay. Find something—a quote, an image, a symbolic item from your family—that resonates with you. Let it bring you a sense of comfort as you adapt.
5. Change Your Perspective
Getting a change of scenery can do wonders for taking yourself out of an unfixable situation and seeing it from a new perspective. This doesn’t have to mean a trip or vacation—although it could. You can get a new perspective by walking to a part of town you don’t normally go to, driving a different route, visiting someone you haven’t seen in a while, or watching a documentary.
6. Go Hiking or Forest Bathing
While we’re on the topic of taking in the scenery, spending time in nature is a fresh way to practice shikata ga nai. In Japan, the practice of walking slowly through the woods, taking time to contemplate, is known as forest bathing (shinrin yoku). Breathing fresh oxygen into your body, inhaling the natural oils released from the trees, and being able to touch, smell, and see something outside of your situation will help open up a lot of channels that may have been closed off to you. It will open your mind to looking at things from a different vantage point. Take yourself out of your element.
7. Hang With Supportive Friends
Everybody needs friends who uplift them. Assess who makes you feel good, and look to those people for support when you’re grappling with a situation that cannot be helped.
Remember, shikata ga nai is not an easy practice, and it’s something that you will need to work on continuously. There will always be new problems, and everyone deals with them on a daily basis. But you can learn how to roll with the punches. If you do the work, I promise it will start to feel easier over time.
From the book KINTSUGI WELLNESS: The Japanese Art of Nourishing Mind, Body, and Spirit by Candice Kumai. Copyright © 2018 by Candice Kumai. Published on April 1, 2018 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Now available for pre-order. Reprinted by permission.