What The Japanese Saying Of 'Sho Ga Nai' Can Teach Us About Living In The Now

Very few unpleasant experiences come close to those agonizing 3 a.m. moments when you lay completely awake in bed ruminating over a failed relationship of your past. Even years later, the pain can feel real in the present. The regret can overwhelm you. 

What about the time spent worrying over an important work presentation due to happen later this week? Your mind keeps circling back to it regardless of what you're doing right now. You can't seem to enjoy a Netflix show or read a book. As New York-based licensed clinical psychologist, Samantha Gambino explained to PureWow, "Humans like to be in control. Your brain does not like unknowns and tries to predict what will happen in the future." While some amount of worrying is natural (and even necessary), excessive regret over your past and concern for your future can cause crippling anxiety. 

Living in the modern world — with its demands on your time, relationships, and finances — can become sources of worry. This is why it's useful to sometimes look beyond your own culture and learn from those around you. Japanese culture has a lot to offer in this regard. Their principles are centered around simple truths — like the Japanese concept of Ma or negative space. If you've ever spent time in Japan or learned about its people, a common saying you might've heard is, "Sho ga nai." Here's how this statement can help you let go of what you can't control.

'Sho ga nai' means, 'It cannot be helped'

While some might think of the Japanese saying, "Sho ga nai" (which means, "it cannot be helped") as defeatist or complacent, in Japanese culture, there's power in its words. No matter how much we try to control our circumstances, life has a way of surprising us. "Sho ga nai," which is alternatively written as, "Shikata ga nai," is the Western equivalent of, "It is what it is." It helps put things into perspective when life doesn't always work out the way we'd hoped it would. 

As Japan-born, U.S.-educated blogger and educator Yumi Nakata noted in GaijinPot, she works for a company where she has to pay for parking, but if she doesn't arrive at work by 8:30 a.m., she runs the risk of losing her spot. The alternative? To park on top of a hill a few blocks away. The predicament caused a lot of frustration for Nakata in the beginning, but instead of continuing to resist circumstances she cannot change, she eventually learned to let it go.

What 'Sho ga nai' can teach us about living in the present

Living in the now has a lot to do with letting go of the past and trying not to control the future. Regret can be useful, but only if we use our mistakes to learn from them. As author Mark Manson puts it, "If who you are today is a culmination of all of the acts that have led up to this moment, then the rejection of some past act is therefore a rejection of some part of you in this moment." No matter how painful the memories are, you can't go back and change them. What you do have control over is how you use the lessons to live now. 

Similarly, the future can look scary sometimes, but it doesn't have to be a source of constant worry. Sure, you can plan and do whatever is within your control now to mitigate some of the risks, but there comes a point when you simply have to let go. So the next time you catch yourself worrying about a flight you've not gotten on yet or a possible work disaster you've construed in your mind, simply repeat the saying, "Sho ga nai" a few times. If too many responsibilities are the cause of your worries, it might even be useful to get on the slow-living trend.