Caroline and her editor Laura celebrating at the Ottawa book launch of The Accidental Chef. Photo courtesy: Caroline Ishii.
OTTAWA — There are obvious weapons of destruction used in the wars we see on our screens every day. I believe the words we use every day can cause harm too. How do we speak with others? And to ourselves?
A book that has significantly impacted my life is The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The book is based on ancient Toltec wisdom, advocating for freedom from self-limiting beliefs that rob us of our joy and create needless suffering. The Toltec culture was a pre-Colombian culture that dominated what today is central Mexico from the 10th to the 12th centuries AD.
One of the first Toltec agreements is “be impeccable with your word.
“The word is the most important tool you have as a human; it is the tool of magic,” writes Ruiz. “The word is force; it is a power you have to express and communicate, to think, and thereby to create events in your life.”
However, he warns that “like a sword with two edges, your word can create the most beautiful dream, or your word can destroy everything around you.”
Ruiz says the word is so powerful that it can change a life or destroy the lives of millions of people.
“The human mind is like a fertile ground where seeds are continually being planted,” says Ruiz. “The seeds are opinions, ideas, and concepts.”
He warns that words can plant seeds of fear that can grow very strong and achieve massive destruction.
During the Second World War, words like “enemy aliens,” “the yellow peril,” and worse were commonly used by people in power and the media to refer to Japanese Canadians. These words came from fear and hate and activated more fear and hate in the population. They were like seeds planted into people fertile with news of the war and growing anti-Japanese sentiment. These words led to restrictions on the freedoms and rights of Japanese Canadians, property confiscated, and forced confinement in internment camps.
Experiencing racism and hateful words was nothing new for Japanese Canadians. However, how could they not feel hurt, ashamed, and inferior by negative words flung carelessly at them, which Ruiz calls “seeds of destruction.”
What if words of truth were used instead to describe Japanese Canadians? About them being hardworking, dedicated, loyal, and kind? What difference would these “seeds of love,” as Ruiz calls positive words, have made?
Ruiz says, “every human is a magician, and we can cast a spell on someone with our word.”
A popular children’s rhyme by Alexander William Kinglake, published in 1844, says, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
But this isn’t true. If you have ever been bullied, taunted, or called derogatory names when you were younger, you know the scars run deep. On the other hand, what if someone says you look great and vibrant or asks what you are doing to look so great. How do you feel?
Ruiz says that our parents and siblings gave their opinions about us growing up without thinking. We believed these opinions, and we lived in fear because of these opinions, perhaps even carrying them with us today. Opinions like not being good at sports or math, you are too fat and ugly, or, as was the case with my mother, you will be poor if you become a writer or artist.
My mother often said I shouldn’t become a writer because I would be poor, which I carried my entire life. I felt that I couldn’t do what I loved because I would fail and be poor, and I kept hearing her voice, whether I realized it or not, even after she passed away. She had fears common to most parents for their children, wanting the best for them and having financial stability and security. She assumed that I couldn’t get there through a creative life. It may have been realistic in part, but what is the truth for me? It has taken me a long time to find out. The belief that I couldn’t be a writer followed me throughout my life, or rather, haunted me because I wanted it but felt I couldn’t touch it. I kept it hidden with my other dreams and hopes.
I didn’t realize until later that I was always a writer and creative. My mother couldn’t take away from me what I already am. Growing up, I wrote to make sense of my world and ease my suffering. I continue to do this today. I also have realized it’s not an either/or for what you love to do.
According to the mental health website Verywell Mind, “all-or-nothing thinking is one of many negative thought processes, known as cognitive distortions. This [thinking] leaves room for little, if any, grey areas. As a result, people who fall victim to all-or-nothing thinking believe they’re either successful or a complete failure.”
What about the sheer enjoyment of doing something you love? You don’t need to make what you love into a career or make money from it. You can keep your passion as a hobby on the side for now. However, it might grow into something more significant when the time is right. The more I focused on writing, the more it grew. It was like I was planting seeds of love where my mother had initially planted fear and doubt.
NY Times bestselling author Austin Kleon shares his creative journey with simple, doable tips for being creative. In his book Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered, he says, “You can’t count on success; you can only leave open the possibility for it and be ready to jump on and take the ride when it comes.”
I have been reviewing the beliefs, opinions, and assumptions that I took on from my parents and other well-meaning people. They were permanent fixtures in my mind. Many started with seeds of fear and doubt, and I placed them in folders of things “I can’t do” or “I’m not good at.”
As I encounter each one, and often with much resistance and suffering, I ask where they are coming from? Fear or love? In this way, I take a Marie Kondo—the Japanese organizing consultant—approach to clearing my mind. What sparks joy? What do I love and want to keep? What do I want to thank for the lessons learned and discard?
We can decide what beliefs and opinions to keep or not. And we can always change the story around them. What is our past but stories formed from our perceptions of what happened? What would have happened if my mother had planted seeds of love for writing?
In a new narrative, I imagine my mom saying to me, “Kaya-chan (she used to call me this), you are a good writer, and I hope you share your beautiful words with people because they need to read them. I have my fears and insecurities about being a writer. They are not yours. You are strong, and I know you’ll find your way. You always have. I’m proud of you. I want you to be happy. I love you.”
Happy spring cleaning and planting seeds of love! May your garden grow!