Iwa is a beautiful term that comes from the Yoruban culture of West Africa. It roughly translates to “all that informs your existence" and is how Yorubans speak of their character and their well-being. Iwa is also a single term for what in English translates to being and doing - two concepts North Americans generally consider distinct.
When I first learned about the term iwa in Mark Nepo’s book The Endless Practice, I had a physical reaction. A wave passed through my body, a wave holding memory and insight swirled together. How I adore this feeling - the joy of discovering a weighty new word, one that has the power to revise how I think about the world. Being, doing, character, and well-being all wrapped together in a single three-letter word? Ah, how language holds the power to shape us.
Allow me to take you back to the memory first. I was in grad school, earning my Master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction, with an emphasis in Experiential Education. The class that is seared into my memory (in fact the only class I still have my work from) was called Effective Instruction, and was taught as an intensive summer course where we met 3 hours a day for 3 weeks. We both explored and experienced the questions, “ What is effective instruction?" and "What drives my instruction?”
Our teacher, Charley Fisher, asked the intimate group of 20 or 25 of us to answer these guiding questions in the form of a paper we turned in at the end of every week, and we watched the evolution of our thinking deepen and unfold as we researched thought-provoking material, had wide-ranging discussions, pushed one another’s thinking during debates, taught lessons to one another, learned to give and receive quality feedback, and formed a tight community through our shared inquiry. Besides reworking our paper each week based on feedback and new learning, we also wrote daily reflections on 5x7 index cards, capturing our ideas, questions, and feelings, which Charley then used to guide the next day’s session.
On the final day of class, Charley handed all of our work back to us as a package. Unbeknownst to us, he had copied each version of our paper and each index card and assembled them into little portfolios–all of our thinking lovingly imbued with the attention of his highlights and comments and punctuated by his probing questions. He also presented each of us with a handmade certificate he had created, personalized by the inclusion of a quote he had pulled from one of our cards or papers which captured a central theme of our inquiry. For mine, he chose “Do Be Do Be Do.” I remember laughing out loud and feeling very seen by his spot-on choice. Reading about iwa transported me back to the lovely tumult of those three weeks and the infamous series of quotes:
“To be is to do”
“To do is to be”
“Do be do be do”
Now, all these years later, discovering the word iwa occurs as an elegant synthesis I had been seeking back then: a single term reminding me that we express our values in the world in every moment through every action and choice we make, and that the most "effective instruction" comes through our way of being in the world.
We don’t have to fall into the trap of DOING in the way that our Westernized American culture puts such emphasis on in order to be worthy and feel joy. Our way of being–how we approach and respond to each moment, each person–is the fiber of our character and the cornerstone of our well-being, and it is expressed in every tiny action and interaction: in what we choose to pay attention to, how we speak about our lives, what we put our energy toward in every minute of every day.
So, at the advent of this new year, my invitation to myself and to you is to not worry so much about goal-setting and achieving accomplishments. Instead, simply arrive more fully into every present moment. Let your being and doing become synonymous, more mindful. As you take time to consider what lies ahead in 2018, may the concept of iwa inspire you. It is never in some distant future that you will find happiness or become a good person, after you accomplish x. Let now, and now, and now be your opportunity for joy and well-being.