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Kokoro, a Japanese word we can all use

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Many of us are familiar with the Japanese word Umami. It essentially means a “pleasant savoury taste” and has become a common lexicon of chefs and food creatives around the world. Now, Japan is giving us a new word; Kokoro and even scientists are on board with it.

Essentially, kokoro brings together the concept of uniting the notions of heart, mind and spirit. So if you said of someone that “she has good kokoro”, you would be saying that she has her heart, mind and spirit together. How wonderful a description is that? In Western culture, we tend to separate these three concepts, but this is not the case in Eastern beliefs, that see the three intertwined, as all interconnected.

Artists, musicians, writers and dreamers of all cultures have always long seen these three as intertwined, but in Western cultures, we never quite had a word for it. Now we do. And researchers are putting more effort into understanding this concept and its benefits to people. For example, engineers and scientists developing robots and Artificial Intelligence, which is allowing them to explore in a way not previously possible in academic terms.

As Paul Swanson, a professor of humanities at Nanzan University in Japan says ““Are the familiar Western (and some distinctively English) concepts of mind, heart, spirit, will, consciousness, soul…the best way to describe and divide human experience?” and thus questions, “Or is a broader and more inclusive concept useful for understanding how humans think and feel?”

One entry in a Japanese dictionary of essential words describes kokoro as:

Originally, kokoro referred to the beat of the heart, which was considered to be the essential organ of life and the source of all activities. By extension, kokoro refers to all human activities affecting the outside world through intention, emotion, and intellect.

So we can say that kokoro has three essential functions;

  1. The heart and its functions
  2. The mind and its functions
  3. Ones centre or essence

So what does this mean in terms of developing oneself in terms of mental health and wellbeing? In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, the Dalai Lama had asked of an American neuroscientist Richard Davidson, in 1992, about instead of just studying issues such as depression and anxiety, why not look at the minds of those who are mentally well, such as Buddhist monks? So he did. What they discovered was that these monks, who practiced generosity and bringing the heart, mind and body together, suffered less depression, had greater mental resilience as they aged and were overall physically healthier.

Davidosn says, “The systems in the brain that support our well-being are intimately connected to different organ systems in our body, and also connected to the immune and endocrine systems in ways that matter for our health,” he said. The brain scans showed that “compassion is a kind of state that involves the body in a major way.”

So as we think about developing our “self” and practicing awareness, mindfulness and even yoga, perhaps think of the concept of Kokoro. The more scientists are researching it, the more it is proving to have significant positive effects on our overall well being in life.

More Insight: Check out this insightful article on the art of letting go.


  • Alex Hurst is a writer for HUM@Nmedia covering Optimyz and Silver magazines in print and digital editions and is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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