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Photo by David Wirzba

Naikan is a Japanese word that means “looking inside,” though a more poetic translation might be “seeing oneself with the mind’s eye.” It is a structured method of self-reflection that helps us to understand ourselves, our relationships, and the fundamental nature of human existence.
—Gregg Krech

Many of us understand that we live in a relational world and can see the effects. The coronavirus is a perfect example of this. The impact was felt at every level, economic, social, personal, political. Graduations were canceled, weddings postponed, jobs lost, priorities reassessed. Nature seemed to thrive during the lockdown. We were humbled to see emboldened animals roam the quiet city streets. Deer raccoons, turkeys made their way into urban settings. It caused us to reflect on our lives and impact on the world in a new way.

There is a Japanese practice that involves intentional reflection. It’s called Naikan. “Naikan was developed in Japan in the 1940s by Ishin Yoshimoto, a devout Buddhist of the Pure Land sect (Jodo Shinshu).” writes Greg Krech in an insightful essay on Naikan therapy. “Today there are about 30 Naikan centers in Japan, and Naikan is used in mental health counseling, addiction treatment, rehabilitation of prisoners, schools, and business. It is also found in Europe, with many Naikan centers now established in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.”1

So what is involved in Naikan? It seems very simple at first. Naikan practice is like holding a mirror to your life and reflecting on the answers to three questions:

What did I receive from others today? (This could be perfect strangers or people you know.)

What did I give to others today?

What difficulties did I cause others today?

But if you really go deep into these questions, it's not a simple practice, and can change your worldview. That is because “Naikan broadens our view of reality.” It’s as if we are standing on top of a mountain where we can see a panorama view; “our former perspective is still included, but it is now accompanied by much that had been hidden.” And what was hidden makes the view phenomenal.1

From a process perspective, we see that the relational part becomes apparent as we answer the three questions that tell us how the world affects us, how we affect the world, and the repercussions.

Here is a practice you can try: take a few minutes now and begin making a list of what you have received during the past 8 hours in detail. This type of daily reflection is called daily Naikan or nichijo naikan. As you make the list, you are not creating a gratitude journal, you are just listing facts.

Let’s look at the questions in detail in order to help you with your list

First question: What have I received from (person, earth, unknown)?

The answers should be objective, reality based, matter of fact. Here are some examples:

  1. My car started in the morning.
  2. My husband made me dinner this evening.
  3. A colleague sent me a card.
  4. A receptionist at the doctor’s office made an appointment for my next visit.
  5. There are ripe lemons on the lemon tree
  6. The city is repairing the road and it will make the drive nicer.

This first question helps us see the reality of the objective fact of my existence. It is reality whether I feel grateful or not. We hurry through our day giving little attention to all the “trivial” things we receive. But are these things really “trivial?” It only seems so because everything is moving forward, and our attention is elsewhere. But when we run out of gas or lose our keys, these trivial things grab our attention and suddenly we realize their true importance. We can certainly reflect on sad occasions as well, such as my dog died yesterday. This would require us to apply process thought about perpetual perishing, and right after your dog dies is not the best time to be philosophical about the gifts to be found in creative transformation. We often live a complaint-based life. How often do you arrive at work after a long drive and instead of complaining about the traffic, you talk about the sunrise? Or the scenery along the way? It’s socially awkward. But if you complain, you fit right in. I’m going for awkwardness! This is how I live a life in process.

Second question: What have I given to (person, earth)?

The second question grew out of Yoshimoto Ishin’s business practice. Each month he sent out statements to his customers that listed the products his company had provided and the payments he had collected. Yoshimoto believed it was useful to conduct a similar examination of one’s life in terms of debts and credits.1 When we see the good in what we have done without making a conscious effort, we can see the good we are capable of in the future.

Third question: What troubles and difficulties have I caused (person, people, earth)?

This is the most difficult question, because it causes us to reflect on our impact on the world and see the reality of this life. What is it like to live with me? To be my mother, husband, child? Whether you see it or not, it's part of the world, or in Whiteheadian terms, it has become of the consequent nature of God. Whatever I do, affects others and becomes part of the world.

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Photo by Jon Tyson

“These questions provide a foundation for reflecting on all relationships, including those with parents, friends, teachers, siblings, work associates, children, and partners. You can reflect on yourself in relation to pets, or even objects such as cars,” stoves, and trees. “You can reflect on a specific period of time, one day or a holiday visit to your family. In each case, you acquire a more realistic view of your conduct and the give-and-take that has occurred in the relationship.”1

Although nichijo naikan is not a gratitude journal, gratitude is a byproduct. We become aware of how much other people are doing for us, the level of support and care, which we often miss. We become aware of how what we do affects others. We often think about how others affect us before we reflect on how we affect others. Naikan asks us to look in the mirror and be honest. It asks us to reflect with a clear sense of what’s going on with an authentic appreciation for life. Not change our thinking, but change our seeing. Change where we put attention. Usually, our experience of life is not based on our own life, but on what we pay attention to.

Process thought and Whiteheadian vocabulary are complex and difficult to understand. I have dived into the ocean of Whitehead, and I can’t breaststroke, sidestroke, or even butterfly, but I can dog-paddle. I can’t always articulate process concepts, but I understand them when I see them. When I learned about Naikan reflection, I recognized a way to become more aware of a process relational cosmos.

What did I receive from others today?

What did I give to others today?

What difficulties did I cause others today?

Kat.prayer

I will try to notice my world and the wholeness of it rather than the negative aspects of it. I will try to contribute something beautiful and novel to the world. I know I can't avoid adding difficulties because we live in a relational world where I don't know the extent of my impact. But as I become more aware, I can do better. I will continually try to do better.

In gratitude

Kat Reeves

“A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depends on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving.”
—Albert Einstein

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Photo by Florin Enache

NOTES

[1] Gregg Krech, "Naikan Therapy," Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, The Tricycle Foundation, Winter 2015. https://tricycle.org/magazine/naikan-therapy/.

  • Kathleen Reeves is a member of the Board of Directors at the Cobb Institute, and leads the Institute’s group for Spiritual Integration and the Arts. She also serves on the communications team and oversees the Institute's social media messaging.