Hard work, determination, productivity – these are all concepts that have been culturally ingrained in our minds as positives, as ideals we should strive towards. For Japanese-Okinawan-American interdisciplinary artist and author, Yumi Sakugawa, resisting these ideals and making space for self-care is crucial to ensure our well-being and cultivate our creativity. Sakugawa’s latest project, a colouring book filled with meditative patterns and affirmations, is just one of her many efforts to encourage people to take time for themselves and focus on simple, calming practices. Sakugawa spoke with us about work, creativity, and how we can rethink our relationship to these culturally ingrained ideals.
For readers who may not be familiar with your work, can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a second-generation Japanese-Okinawan-American interdisciplinary artist and published author based in Los Angeles. I have also self-published a bunch of zines and make a lot of art, and sometimes teach mindfulness classes around meditation and creativity. Much of my work deals with self-care, destigmatising mental illness, Asian American women and femmes, self-love, challenging toxic productivity, and embracing the multidimensional totality of your being instead of the very limited binary thinking created by societal pressures that divides you into good and bad. I also think a lot about ancestral trauma, but also ancestral joy, all the recurring patterns that get passed down through lineage and family, and then the conscious decision of the current generation, both individually and collectively, what to hold onto and what to let go of. For all the astrology nerds out there, I am a Sagittarius sun, Virgo moon, Aquarius rising, midheaven in Scorpio. My daily vice is a very bougie iced matcha oat milk latte, I am hopelessly addicted to buying candles (especially the ones with the wood wick that sound like a mini fireplace when you burn them), and my favourite flowers are peonies.
One of your recents Instagram posts reframes people’s relationship to hardship – it questions the idea that challenge is something that we (supposedly) overcome. Would you say that the current way of coping and moving beyond challenges is potentially harmful? How can we stay motivated to move through difficult moments in life without placing added labour on ourselves to overcome them?
I just don't like the idea that the one quote unquote right way to get through a challenge is to treat it as a mountain you need to climb or an obstacle you need to conquer. Sure, maybe sometimes that is exactly that the situation requires. But there is such an excess of yang energy in the global patriarchal culture that we are all a part of, and there is not enough space given to the undervalued yin approach of inviting stillness and flow and surrendering to forces that are beyond your control, which is mistakenly labeled as being weak or being too passive. I also think especially in the United States, the cult of individuality puts excess emphasis on fighting problems alone instead of inviting in a more collective approach where you are part of an interconnected system of care. I think we can stay motivated to move through difficult moments in life by reminding ourselves that we do not have to go through difficult things alone and suffer in isolation. It is okay to lean onto systems of support. It is okay to ask for help. It is okay to see a therapist. It is okay to acknowledge the truth of your feelings, which can sometimes look like admitting to yourself- wow, this situation really sucks and I really don't know how to get through this and I think I need help.
You talk and post a lot about guilt – guilt surrounding asking for help, guilt from not working enough, and more. What would you say is your personal relationship to the concept of guilt right now? How do you practice self-care when those guilt feelings return?
I definitely have a lot less guilt than I did before! But it took a lot of practice to unlearn unnecessary guilt, which honestly I think is very infused into the Japanese culture I grew up in. It is normalised in Japanese culture for people to be apologetic all the time and I think people, especially women, are more socially rewarded for not taking up space, not desiring too much, and inconveniencing people as little as possible. One way I practice self-care when feelings of guilt come up is to turn the tables and ask myself how I would feel if a friend was requesting something of me that I was requesting of the friend, such as rain-checking on a hang-out because I feel tired or asking to postpone something. If I can totally accept a friend requesting help from me without feeling like it is some dire imposition on my time and energy, then I should be able to accept myself requesting help from others while also respecting other people's boundaries if they are unable to fulfil that request.
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You advocate for unmitigated selfishness, self-love and pleasure, traits that have long since held negative connotations. In order to accept this way of living for yourself, as well as encourage it for others, have you had to reevaluate your relationship with these traits? Do you believe others should do the same?
I absolutely had to reevaluate my ingrained relationship to those traits and challenge my old ways of thinking and question why I had certain attitudes about self-love, selfishness, and pleasure. Of course family upbringing has a great deal to do with it, which then is informed by the greater culture and societal values, which then leads to the question: who benefits from these collective biases and attitudes? I think everyone would benefit from periodically questioning their long held opinions and emotional patterns, especially around self-love and pleasure and being quote unquote selfish, especially people who belong to marginalised communities and identities who are oftentimes taught to play small and take up less space and internalise being undervalued in the greater oppressive structures that marginalised them in the first place. Who benefits from you playing small and having less desires and experiencing less pleasure? What are the possibilities of you expanding in the areas of self-love and pleasure?
During Mental Health Awareness Month, you gave a seminar titled Our Creative Energy is an Erotic Spell: How to Harness Pleasure, Power, and Ritual in Manifesting Your Ideas Into Reality, the focus of which is how to rethink our relationship to creative practice, and make it pleasurable, not onerous. But sometimes the desire to create is not there, even if your relationship to creativity is healthy. How do you make time for stillness or nothingness?
I meditate every morning for 10 to 20 minutes and I consciously carve out chunks of time throughout my week when I am not pushing so hard on my creative projects and doing nothing. I like to remind myself that before a tree bears fruit, there is so much that needs to happen that looks like nothing is happening, and a lot of it is allowing things to happen: planting a seed, waiting for the seed to take root in the soil, waiting for the plant to grow into a tree, and so on. Doing nothing is just as important as being productive. Also, self-care is very important. As the cliche goes, it is important to fill your own well before filling the well of others. When you are satiated, nourished, taken care of and well rested, it is far easier to create than when you are depleted, drained, exhausted and burnt out.
You have published an e-book Notes on Self-Care for Creative Humans, providing tips and guiding practices for self-care for creative individuals. Many creatives, including yourself, channel their creative energy into a career. How do you understand the relationship between creativity and work? Do you have self-care tips for creative professionals who are struggling or simply wanted to create for themselves.
While I think there is definitely overlap between my creativity and my work, my creativity is not just about my work. It also encompasses many other aspects of my life that have nothing to do with making a living. I am also channeling creative energy when I am putting together an amazing outfit, cooking a meal, deciding how to spend the hours of my day, journaling, healing, hanging out with friends, traveling, and so on. People are exercising creativity when they are raising a family, teaching a classroom, community organising, informing the culture of their work spaces, home spaces, relationships, and dreaming of a better collective future for this earth. These days, I define creativity for myself as any time you consciously disrupt existing old patterns with new ones as a co-creation with the forces of the universe. As for self-care tips for creative professionals and any creative human, I cannot recommend enough a daily meditation practice and doing morning pages, a practice coined by artist Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way, which is writing three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing in a notebook every day to clear your mind. Also, nurture your ecosystem of support and take good care of your body.
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You talk about the importance of not placing pressure on oneself to be productive and that doing nothing, is valid and good. At the same time, you seem like a very productive individual, writing multiple books and posting on social media frequently. How do you make space for yourself?
First of all, I want to acknowledge that I have an awesome part-time assistant that makes posting on social media a million times easier than when I was doing it on my own! Also, I really don't believe in being productive all the time. I mean, fuck that! I don't want to be a productive superhuman, I want to be a well-rested human who has time to nap, hang out with friends, go on adventures, and do fun indulgent things. And maybe paradoxically that makes me more productive than if I were to consciously try to be more productive.  I will say this over and over again, but having a daily meditation practice really, really helps me stay grounded and centred. I really recommend the book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity by David Lynch as an inspiration for artists to take up a daily meditation practice. I also think over the years through experience and habit, I've learnt to embrace my own style of creating art that works great for me. I like to make art in short, messy spurts, and then I let the works accumulate into bigger and longer pieces and collections. I am definitely not a perfectionist who mulls over fine-tuning everything too much. In some ways, my inherent laziness works in my favour. I have a loose, simple style that is not too excessively detailed and has a lot of empty spaces. Also, maybe it's the Virgo moon in me. As much as I like doing nothing and slacking off, I also find a lot of deep satisfaction in getting work done.
Part of your work focuses on disrupting binaries – for example the binary between success and failure. And most of your art is in black and white. Could you speak more about this and what the black and white scheme means to you in relation to your message?
Art and literature teaches us again and again that everything: human nature, emotions, sexuality, gender, desires, relationships, the whole spectrum of the human experience is far more nuanced, complicated, multilayered and contradictory than what society would like for us to believe. Binaries are what lead people to feel divided against themselves. What I desire for myself and for all humans is a sense of wholeness that already exists within us but gets distorted and constricted by the binary worldview of things that is imposed on our thoughts and our bodies.
As for the black and white thing, sometimes colouring things is too time-consuming and I just very impatiently want to get my thoughts and ideas down and share them before I get too bogged down by the decision of colour schemes. Again, maybe it's the inherent laziness in me that happens to work in my favour. Maybe it has something to do with growing up reading Japanese manga that is mostly printed in black and white.
What do you do when you are having a bad mental health day? What do you do when you experience any blocks to your creativity?
If I have flexibility in my schedule, I love to schedule a do nothing day. I also love taking epsom salt baths and walking in nature or just doing something very indulgent like watching a trashy reality TV show. When I have blocks in my creativity, it is helpful for me to step away from the project that I am blocked on and work on something else or take myself out on an artist date (another practice I learned from Julia Cameron's The Artist’s Way) and experience art outside of myself as a way to get inspired. I also get very inspired when I hang out with my friends, who never fail to cheer me up. It feels like giving my energetic body a sparkly infusion of new energy and new inspiration.
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What would you say to followers of your work who want to practice your message – selfishness, self-care, stillness, etc. – but find themselves constrained by life’s many obstacles?
First of all, I want to say that so much of life's obstacles are not your fault. We are all doing the best we can to survive under capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, and a myriad of many other oppressive structures that were created long before you were born, not to mention the ongoing stigma of mental illness that makes it difficult for many people to have access to mental health professionals and resources. Also, not to mention the ongoing global pandemic that has taken a huge toll on our collective physical and mental wellbeing. I have come to a privileged place in my life as a full-time artist who has experienced some level of success and financial stability, so I am very fortunate that I have much more space in my life than I did before to really take care of my mental health, creative practice and overall wellbeing. I will say for myself that when I was going through a dark place in my life, daily meditation, antidepressants, and therapy really, really helped me and continue to help me to this day. I also did not have the mental capacity to create work when I was feeling depressed, so sometimes it is okay to not be creative for a while if you are really struggling to get through the day. Also, I will say again: we are not meant to go through life's obstacles alone. Unlearn the unrealistic expectations of individualism. It is okay to call in your support systems. It is okay to ask for help. It is okay to lean into your relationships.
You’ve spoken before about how the self-help world is very white and thus very limiting; you have made space for Asian femmes in your work. What would you say is the relationship between a person’s cultural background or identity and their concept of work and self-care?
I think in taking care of yourself, it is important to acknowledge the specific aspects of your identity and identities (and the societal oppressions that may come with those different identities) that may have played a role in the attitudes, thought patterns, assumptions, and relationship patterns that you have today; which is why it is so important for diverse voices to exist in conversations around mental health and self-care and collective wellbeing. It is important to unlearn the thought patterns that harm and shrink your being, and it is important to call in the thought patterns that heal and expand your being.
What are your thoughts on practicing self-care in moments of global crises? How can we take care of ourselves while also being there for those who have been harmed or are most vulnerable?
Meditate. Nurture your relationships. Nurture your relationship with yourself. Take long breaks. Challenge the unrealistic expectations of toxic productivity. It is okay to set boundaries. It is okay to rest and do nothing. Nourish yourself. It is okay to take a break from the news. Remind yourself that self-care does not end with the self, but extends beyond the self and into the care of collective wellbeing. I truly believe with all my heart that we are the happiest when our self-love overflows beyond ourselves and out into the world to benefit others. When you fill your own well, it is far more easy to fill the well of those who are in a far more vulnerable place than you are.
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