Oriental culture accepted for centuries that life is change, that change is inherent in life and its only constant. Western culture, on the contrary, prefers to focus on the fixed, static and immutable because it gives it a handle, the sense of security it needs to face a world that seems too uncertain and chaotic. Thus we become obsessed with security and, therefore, we cling to everything that seems stable, even if it is not.
Perhaps there is no better example of the differences between the two ways of understanding change than contracts. Boye Lafayette, an American journalist expert of Eastern cultures, said that while in Western contracts we try to tie all loose ends because we assume that, once signed, they are absolute, until relatively recently in Japanese culture the contracts were open, subject to change as circumstances changed. And any of the parties involved could introduce these changes without implying an automatic termination of the contract.
Our western and fixed mentality has a hard time understanding such contracts, they even cause us fear. However, when Westerners introduced their contract model in Japan, the Japanese believed that we, the Westerners, had so little ethics that couldn’t trust anyone, and that’s why we needed to sign those contracts. They also thought that Western contracts were ridiculous and irrational because it is impossible for the conditions of both parties to remain unchanged for long periods of time.
Therefore, in their agreements they usually include a clause that is governed by the “jijo henko” principle, which would indicate the “changing circumstances” and imply that it is possible to renegotiate the contract if conditions change. Letting the concept of henko into our lives will allow us to make a qualitative leap in our personal development.
Henko: Psychological Meaning
In Japanese, the word henkō is composed of the Kanji 変 Hen, which means “change” and 光 Kō, which means “variable or with an unusual light”. In fact, more than a word, henkō is a concept that refers to changes in perception, in our way of seeing things. It may be small changes, but also deeper inner transformations, revealing and developing.
The concept of henko not only tells us that everything is constantly changing, but shows us that our perceptions also change. And sometimes an inner change is all we need for everything to change.
From rigid identity to constantly changing identity
Having a fixed vision of our identity does not help us to evolve, rather it condemns us to a vicious circle in which we constantly repeat the same mistakes. The more we stick to ideas such as “I am like that, I can’t change”, “Taht’s my character” or “I’m born that way”, the less space we will leave to development.
It is obvious that we are all marked by a type of nervous system and a vital story that contributed to shaping the person we are, but letting ourselves be conditioned by those factors assuming they are immutable is denying us an opportunity to embrace a liberating change. Clinging to a fixed mindset that underpins an even more immutable identity only damages one person: ourselves.
We do not have a fixed image of our physical identity because we are aware of the changes that occur in our body over the years, but our psychic identity does not have the same fate. Western rigid thinking has helped us build a “hard core” of our personal identity that, according to a study conducted at the universities of Arizona and Duke, is made up of our moral values and emotional autobiographical memories.
The problem begins when we assume those values as immutable truths on which we rely to differentiate the “good” and the “bad”, as if they were absolute terms, because that vision prevents us from understanding and dealing with the complexity of life. The problem begins when we assume those autobiographical memories as a gravestone or an excuse to stick to the “ego” we know.
That attitude leads us to cling to an immutable “ego” that looks more to the past than to the future. An “ego” like that evolves little and is less willing to change because it is not able to change the way it looks at things and himself. Such an “ego” remains anchored in the past while the world around it continues to change and the gap between its perception and reality widens. And the result of this combination of forces is not immobility but involution.
The necessary change
Sometimes we feel authentic vertigo before the unknown, before everything that we cannot predict and escapes our control. Faced with this sensation, we retract in the known, take a step back to look for handles. Then we shield ourselves in resistance to change and deny the necessary transformation. That reaction is understandable, but not beneficial.
The henko, on the contrary, encourages us to constantly change our perspective, to assume that the “ego” that we were is not necessarily the “ego” that we will be. And all this without feeling anxiety because that evolution is an intrinsic part of life.
These changes in the internal perspective tend to generate such a radical transformation that we cease to be the same, we evolve and it is almost impossible for us to go back. They are turning points in our vital history in which we mature suddenly or reach a higher level of wisdom.
It is essential to be able to embrace such changes if we want to transform, evolve and expand our level of consciousness. A henko is, therefore, an exercise of courage through which we face ourselves to change the way we see and understand things, being able to overcome the mental schemes we have built over the years.
Molouki, S. & Bartels, D. M. (2017) Personal change and the continuity of the self. Cognitive Psychology; 93: 1–17.
Strohminger, N. & Nichols, S. (2014) The essential moral self. Cognition; 131(1): 159-171.
Lafayette, B. (2004) Japan’s Cultural Code Words. Singapur: Tuttle Publishing.