How I found the meaning of life in a Japanese garden

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Wherever you are, you are on the right track.

My wife and I are not fans of Chicago’s weather. But, we don’t complain. We’ve been living here for over six years now. When the winter finally goes away, we love to celebrate.

That’s precisely what we did this morning — we went for a long walk at the Chicago Botanic Garden. We wanted to kiss winter goodbye.


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The Japanese garden is one of our favorites parts. It’s full of life metaphors. A reminder that nothing is an accident.

Japanese garden designs are very deliberate — every element has purpose and meaning.

Wandering around those trails is an invitation to reflect on the path of life.

“Traveler, your footprints are the road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path you will never travel again.”
— Antonio Machado

Experiencing a Japanese garden requires all your senses — just like life. You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate its meaning.

You Can’t Hurry Life

Gardens map our minds — the way we see the world is how we treat nature.

In the 18th Century, European gardens design followed the premise that things planted should reflect the shape of things built. Symmetrical and geometrical forms characterized the gardens of the French Renaissance — they became an extension of the châteaux.

Unlike their European counterparts, Japanese gardens adapt to the changing nature of life — they don’t want to control it.

As Japanese landscape designer Shiro Nakane told Architectural Digest, “the goal is not to make a new nature but to make a copy of existing, desirable nature.”

The design principles of a Japanese garden are asymmetry, enclosure, borrowed scenery, balance, and symbolism. The more natural and harmonious the design, the more conducive is to contemplation.

Japanese gardens remind us to stay on the most natural path — they capture the essence of life.

1. Find Your Path

The more we try to find life’s meaning, the more lost we feel.

We cannot force our path — it must come naturally.

When building a public park, the walkway is the last thing Japanese design. Rather than having someone decide which is the right path, they let people walk freely. After some time, by looking at where the grass is worn away, they realized where people walked — and then pave those paths.

The path is your friend — if you can’t find it, it will find you.

As Osho said, “Don’t seek, don’t search, don’t ask, don’t knock, don’t demand — relax.”

We were raised to anticipate events. But, our existence is not predictable. We cannot write our life script in advance. Japanese gardens are intended to be viewed while walking along. Instead of trying to anticipate the journey, enjoy it.

Don’t force your path, grow with the flow.

2. Change Your Pace, Change Your Perspective

Designing a Japanese garden is a mindful exercise — it helps travelers increase their focus.

A narrow path made of uneven stones makes us slow down. We become more aware of our surroundings. Large, open pathways encourage us to look up and around the garden while walking.

Sansho-En is a stroll-style garden. It’s designed in a way that makes us walk around. It provides a full experience rather than viewing it from one single place.

Confucius said, “Don’t curse the darkness, light a candle.”

As you stroll along, you move from one scene to another. The views are designed and composed carefully. As you travel through the garden, you can appreciate a new scene.

3. Happiness Is a Distant Illusion

Life always feels happier on the other side.

The Chicago Botanic Garden has an island that looks at the Japanese park. It’s called Horaijima — the Island of Everlasting Happiness.

Horaijima represents paradise — a place inaccessible to mortals. Just like happiness, it’s both beautiful and unattainable. It has no bridges or pathways. We must contemplate it and enjoy it only at a distance.

Eric Hoffer said, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”

Life is about appreciating our grass rather than thinking that someone else’s is greener. We enjoy observing the island even if we cannot visit it.

4. Life Is Not Linear — Zig Zag

The shortest path is not always the smartest route. Getting faster to the wrong destination is pointless. Finding your life’s purpose requires time and appreciation. You don’t need to rush.

Japanese zigzag bridges force people to slow down. They make us appreciate the garden from different angles — linear paths constraint our perspectives.

Life is not a straight line. Sometimes we must pivot, take a turn, or zigzag. When we change our perspective, we get a more positive outlook. Instead of getting stuck, we uncover new possibilities.

As Pema Chödrön said, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”

Japanese design avoids straight lines — it softens the edges by emphasizing free forms and organic shapes. Instead of providing shortcuts, it encourages us to find our way around.

5. Wisdom Is Beauty

In Japan, age is strongly revered, unlike Western cultures.

Often, Japanese landscapers prune young pine trees to give the illusion of age. Their branches are tied down, so they grow as if time has turned them that way. Foliage is also pruned to slow growth.

Aging makes things grow and develop in better shapes.

As I like to say, people are like wines — the good ones get better as they age; the bad ones turn into vinegar.

We are born innocent. Kids are driven by curiosity — that drives them to learn and discover the world. As we grow up, we become more competitive. We want to be smarter, faster, richer, younger than others — we see others as beat competitors.

Wisdom is realizing that our role in life is not to defeat others. We are here to grow with the help of others and help others grow.

Peter Thiel said, “Competition is for losers.”

When you want to beat other people, you set yourself up for failure. Wisdom is about improving yourself — you accept your flaws and imperfections.

Japanese gardens unleash the beauty in aging and imperfection — that’s the essence of human nature.

6. Appreciate Impermance

The seasons represent a change in our life.

Nothing is permanent. The flowering trees of spring symbolize youth. The color of autumn leaves reminds us of the sadness of passing time. In winter, snow accentuates and complements the shapes, textures, and shadows of trees and rocks.

Change is inevitable. The seasons remind us that we cannot control time.

Meister Eckhart wrote, “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.”
Each season provides a unique experience. We must learn to adapt and enjoy instead of resisting nature.

Japanese gardens usually have bridges that have no paint, no varnish. They are allowed to weather and age naturally. This exemplifies the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi: beauty in aging and imperfection.

7. Make Room for Contemplation

Most Japanese gardens are enclosed to further the notion of their being smaller worlds of their own. Either by having fences or being surrounded by water, they are connected yet isolated from the world.

We all need to create a tranquil environment for contemplation.

Japanese gardens remind us to slow down, to take distance. Stillness is a crucial element in Zen gardens. When we are fully present, we can contemplate what everyone else is missing. We start appreciating things, people, and experiences.

Protect your personal time. Go for a walk. Meditate. Read. Keep a journal. Choose whatever activity helps you reflect and gain peace of mind.

Lao Tzu said, “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear”

Time provides an extra dimension. It creates a space for contemplation. When the mud settles, we can see our life more clearly. Protect your private space — make room for reflection.

Your Life Is a Metaphor

You won’t find the meaning of life in a dictionary. It cannot be defined. You won’t find it in a motivational quote either.

The more you try to rationalize your existence, the more you’ll get lost. Rational thinking won’t help you discover your path. Life is a metaphor — you won’t understand it with a black and white approach.

What we see is not what we get. We must learn to observe beyond.

Zen Buddhists design dry gardens to represent our fluid nature.

Garden rocks symbolize mountains. White gravel and sand represent water. While circles are a metaphor for enlightenment. Trees symbolize perseverance — they remind us of endurance and strength.

Understanding life requires to observe beyond what you see — find the metaphor.

Life is not just what we see. Instead of getting stuck when something goes wrong, find its meaning. What is that particular event trying to tell you? What can you learn from that experience?

Design your life as if it was a Japanese garden. Discover it — don’t force it. The more natural and harmonious the path, the more meaningful it will become.

Please stay on your path. Enjoy your walk.

I’m a change instigator helping people and organizations create positive change. I advise, write, and speak on team development and culture transformation. Receive my weekly insights or follow me on LinkedIn.

This article first appeared on Medium


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