Lessons from a florist : 4 Ikebana principles to guide a happy life

By on November 10, 2014
I studied ikebana – Japanese flower arranging – for some time while I was in Japan. (At one point, I was even on a student visa and was meant to be studying 20 hours per week!) Unfortunately, I was not the best student at the time, but I have continued to practice over the years and find that the practice has brought me not only great joy and beauty, but wisdom as I have internalized some of its principles and applied them to both my life and work.

Less is more. Despite my sensei’s wonderful instruction, the one key principle of ikebana that I was always challenged with was the idea that “less is more”. Each lesson she would give me a bunch of flowers, give me some instruction, and then let me have at it and create my own arrangement. She would sit there quietly as I started out, nodding her head in approval or making minor adjustments. Then, as I progressed, I would see her start to frown. To her credit she kept quiet and didn’t stop me as, despite her teaching on the importance of simplicity, I could not resist using all of the flowers she had given me. To me, they were all so beautiful that it seemed wasteful not to try to fit as many as possible into my arrangement.

Now, many years later, I think that my sensei would be happy to know that I have finally embraced this principle in my life and my flower arrangements (well, most of them). The moment I knew I had arrived occurred just a few months ago when our good friends, 20 year veterans of living in Japan, came to stay at our place while we were away on holidays. On our return they couldn’t stop raving about how much they had loved staying in our apartment because it was so “zen”, uncluttered, and peaceful. While I didn’t at the time have an answer to their questions about how I kept it that way, I later realized that my previous need to keep everything of beauty in my space – the same need that made me need to use ALL the flowers – had disappeared. Somewhere along the way, I have learned to let go of even those beautiful things (and people) that might distract me from enjoying the beauty that is present in space, silence, and time to be alone. I have learned to understand, and love, “enoughness”.

I realized that this principle has also become an integral part of my coaching practice as I guide my clients to explore their state of enoughness as well. Consider how much of the stuff you have that you really need or use. Ask yourself which bring you joy in the moment and which are symbols of clinging to past experiences that distract you from creating new experiences of joy in the moment. Give gratitude for the value they added to your life and then let them go. (Hint: I find it much easier to let both things and people go when I remind myself that clinging to something just because it is a good thing does me more harm than good if it is not my good thing.

balancingYou don’t need symmetry for balance. Like nature, ikebana is asymmetric but balanced. Life is like this too. When I coach my clients around their desire for more balance in their lives, I challenge them to consider whether they need more balance or more passion, more relaxation or more meaningful challenges, and more vacations or more time for deep introspection. Ikebana, like life, is not all perfect and symmetrical. The beauty, and the balance, comes from understanding that in nature there will always be strong and weak, yin and yang, dark and light. The more we strive for perfection and try to eliminate what we perceive as the negative side, the more likely we are to cheat ourselves of the opportunities for greater harmony that are present in any conflict situation.

When you understand this you might begin to question whether bringing balance to your life might involve working more, but on the right things, instead of working less. My retired clients come to me because they have grown bored with their new “balanced” lifestyle where they have time for a bit of everything. What they are experiencing is this profound principle of nature that everything in equal parts is not always a good thing. Each individual needs to find their own asymmetry that creates balance for them.

Let nature be your guide. In creating an ikebana arrangement, there is a component of connecting with both with the nature of the elements you are arranging and your own nature to determine what is already there and bring it out, rather than deciding what you want to create in advance and then executing that plan. I encourage my clients to ask themselves “What is wanting to happen (or not happen) in my life?” and then to adjust their path accordingly. Western sensibilities tend to favor making plans and sticking to them as essential to a life well-lived. Ikebana teaches us that the path to a beautiful life is more easily found when we flow with what is – both inside and outside of ourselves – rather than trying to sculpt something out of sheer will. This doesn’t mean giving up on your goals. It means understanding that, just as every year has its seasons, every life, relationship, and goal has its seasons as well. When you do this, you can give yourself permission to lean in to the phase that you are in, embrace its beauty, and do the work that season is calling you to do.

The container is an element of the creation. In ikebana, the container dictates the type of arrangement. While there are general trends that tall thin containers have different arrangements than long flat ones, the unique colors, shapes and sizes of each container are meant to serve as inspiration and foundation for the creation. Each of us is born with our own unique container. You must design your life and work to suit the nature of your container. This is not just about the way you look on the outside and the physical capabilities you have, it is also the “shape” and nature of your insides. Don’t waste energy wishing that your container was different. Embrace what you have been given and begin to create, knowing that, with mindfulness, awareness, and patience, a beautiful life can be built from any foundation.

About Andrea Jacques

Andrea Jacques is the founder of Kyosei Consulting and the author of Wabi-Sabi Wisdom: Inspiration for an Authentic Life (available on Amazon.com). She has spent more than 20 years developing the potential of people and businesses worldwide, five of which were in Japan. A dynamic speaker, coach, and facilitator, her work integrates spiritual insight with top-tier leadership, wellness and sustainability consulting to help individuals and organizations build thriving, purpose-driven cultures where employees know their work truly matters. She can be contacted through her website at www.kyoseiconsulting.com