Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Reflections on Mental Health from New Year’s in Japan

My family ushered in the year of the Rabbit with taiko drumming and fireworks on the beach in Okinawa, Japan. Three generations of family members, ranging in age from barely six weeks to more than six decades, gathered for the holiday. For some of us, it was the first time back in a long time to the place that we used to call home. For others, everything was new.

Why do we choose to visit certain places? Why do we return? Why do we experience particular feelings when we do? I frequently found myself conjuring up mental health messages for the new year from the sites and experiences in my midst.

1. Mt. Fuji. Japan’s tallest peak, at 3778 meters, is reverently called Fuji San. Only 100 kilometers from Tokyo, I often caught glimpses of Fuji San camouflaged by steel structures and electrical wires while doing expat errands. I am among the millions who have climbed Fuji San in a sort of pilgrimage. I have been startled by Fuji San’s iconic cone shape emerging from the clouds on my way to school. I have seen snow-capped Fuji San from the sky. During this trip, I woke up to the sight of Fuji San from my hotel in the center of Tokyo. No matter how many times, it never gets old. Just the opposite. Sighting Fuji San is like receiving an embrace from a beloved friend. A calm settles in me, and I hear a whisper, “it’s going to be okay.” A stalwart companion, Fuji San has stood by Tokyo for over 100,000 years. When we struggle with mental health concerns – anxiety, depression, panic, mania, and so on – knowing we can count on someone, having their unflinching and unfailing support, makes a world of difference in braving what may be and charting a course of recovery.

2. Ryoanji. In art history, the Italian Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi is credited with perfecting single-point perspective, giving two-dimensional art the appearance of three-dimensional depth. Ryoanji tells an altogether different story about perspective. A World Heritage site, Ryōan-ji is a Zen temple located in northwest Kyoto, Japan. It is most famous for its rock garden comprised of 15 stones of various shapes and sizes, each set on its own patch of moss. Ryoanji’s riddle is that the stones are arranged so that it is impossible to see all 15 stones from any single position. I think of this truth as I engage in therapy – both as a patient and a clinician. We live our lives and weave our narratives with a point of view. If we want to understand our stories more fully, we need to be willing to walk around and gather information from multiple other vantage points. Only then can we gain a more complete understanding, but even then, we can never, in the same instance, see it all.

3. Team Lab Planets Tokyo. I had no idea what to expect except that we would wade through water a foot deep. Team Lab Planets Tokyo is an experiential museum with massive art installations. After removing shoes and rolling up pants legs, the shared experience begins with a barefoot walk down a pitch-black corridor dotted with minimal lighting. The immersive experiences were like nothing I had ever experienced before, and either I was going to wait outside on the bench or take that leap of faith into the unknown. Team Labs invited us to play and explore in ways that made us laugh as we discovered things we didn’t know about ourselves, others, and the world around us. As we put on our shoes and squinted in the bright light coming from the exit, the mental health benefits of beautiful, safe spaces designed for play and discovery were apparent in the pervasive laughter, lightness of spirit, and banter shared by all.

4. Tea Ceremony.  Traditional tea ceremony is called sadō or chadō in Japanese, which literally means “the way of tea.” Characterized by distinct rituals and customs, it is primarily about the process – the journey – of preparing a special green tea and only secondarily about arriving at the destination of actually drinking the tea. Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) advocated for rustic simplicity and developed “the modern way of tea” which is followed to the present day. Steeped in Japanese history and tradition, tea ceremony typically takes place in a tatami-mat room, often with a garden view. The host creates an atmosphere of time slowed-down so that guests can enjoy the refined and quiet preparation of tea and experience of place that is distinct from the fast pace of everyday life. It is an antidote to being online and on-call 24/7. It is a centuries-old practice of meditation that evolved based on wisdom only to be corroborated by modern science for its mental health benefits.

5. Noborigama. Also called an ascending kiln, a noborigama has multiple chambers for firing large quantities of ceramics. Built on a slope, the lowest chamber is the firebox, followed by baking chambers where the ceramic pieces are placed. A noborigama looks like a caterpillar making its way uphill. We spent a day wandering a rural pottery village while on vacation and came upon the village noborigama that called to mind the years when my son and I studied with Nimori Sensei, a master ceramicist. There were so many lessons. The clay matters. Different types of clay are best suited for different pieces of art. But the clay only takes form in the hands of the artist. Like mental health and illness, nature and nurture matter. In the throes of parenting school-aged children, I can still hear Nimori Sensei telling me that if I bring the clay up on the wheel too fast, it will get all twisted. Pieces will spin off or the whole thing will simply collapse. But if I fuss and take too long, the clay will dry out, and I will not be able to bring it up at all. I swear he was talking about raising mentally healthy kids. And then there is the firing. Hours of toil go into creating that beautiful piece before it is ready for the kiln. Once it is placed in the kiln, and the fire starts, the artist surrenders to a whole new set of factors – the position of the piece in the chamber, the adjacent works, the intensity of the heat, a hidden air bubble – that weigh in on what happens next. If there is a better metaphor for adolescence and mental health, I do not know it.

Wishing you a new year filled with stalwart companions, a sense of perspective, joyful play and discovery, calming meditation, opportunities for growth that are not too fast, nor too slow, and good fortune when it comes to what is not in your control!

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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