Who among us hasn’t searched for solutions on how to live a happier and healthier life? Little do we realize that in order to discover the answers, we must first learn how to ask the proper questions. Naikan (pronounced NI-KON) is a Japanese word that means “inside looking” or “introspection.” It’s also a structured method of self-questioning and self-reflection that helps stimulate a renewed sense of appreciation and insight about our circumstances.
“A person who is unhappy is so not because of the objective situation they are in, but because of their attitude and how they look at the world and perceive relationships with other people,” says Gregg Krech, author of Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection. “People who practice Naikan often develop a healthier view about themselves and the world around them – one which is grounded in a profound sense of awareness of how they are supported by others.”
Yoshimoto Ishin, a devout Buddhist of the Jodo Shinshu sect in Japan, developed Naikan in the 1940s. His strong religious spirit led him to practice mishirabe, an arduous and difficult method of meditation. Wishing to make such introspection available to others, he developed Naikan as a method that could be more widely experienced.
Three Easy Pieces
Naikan is quite simple. The entire practice revolves around three questions that engage strategically with your attention. Similar to logs that make up a raft, each is strong on its own but provides even more support when tied together with the others. The three questions are:
- What have I received from ______?
- What have I given to ______?
- What troubles and difficulties have I caused ______?
What’s special about these questions is that they provide a foundation for reflecting on our relationships with others. Whether it’s a parent, friend, teacher, sibling, work associate, child or partner, focusing on someone else enables you to develop a more holistic, realistic view of your conduct. It helps you appreciate the give-and-take that occurs in daily life.
Let’s take a closer look at each individual question and how they function within the practice as a whole.
What have I received from _______?
This question requires you to look beyond your troubles and perceive the ways you are supported. “People who are very self-focused and self-centered have greater difficulty answering this question because they are typically not paying much attention to what is going on around them,” says Krech, who serves as executive director of the ToDo Institute (www.todoinstitute.com), an education and retreat center near Middlebury, Vt., that hosts Naikan retreats.
If, for example, you go out for dinner with a friend and you constantly talk about how bad you feel or how terrible your life is, you’re probably not going to notice that someone cooked your dinner, served it, and provided water when your glass was empty. All these actions support you, yet you are oblivious because you are primarily focused on your own inner experiences.
What have I given to ______?
The second question grew out of Yoshimoto Ishin’s business practice. Each month he sent out statements to his customers that indicated what products his company had provided and what payments had been received. Yoshimoto believed it was useful to conduct a similar examination of one’s life in terms of debts and credits. “Question two gets you to check out whether, in fact, the world owes you,” says Krech. You may find that the world owes you because you’ve given more to the world than you have received in a concrete way. Or you may come out exactly even. Perhaps you realize that you owe the world and are in debt to other people and the world itself. Most people relate to the latter and that tends to trigger a sense of gratitude. And guilt.
While gratitude is often viewed as a healthy emotion, guilt tends to be seen as something that should be eliminated. But Krech insists that guilt can be a positive tool for promoting one’s overall well-being. “This kind of guilt is healthy,” he says. “It’s an awareness that you have received a great deal from certain sources and given little in comparison. That spurs you on to want to give something back – often to the planet, the community, and your family.”
What troubles and difficulties have I caused ______?
The third question requires you to look at the impact you have on the world and the people with whom you interact. “It is considered the hardest one because it’s not something we do naturally,” says Krech. To illustrate, he offers this example: Someone cuts you off in traffic and you have to swerve to avoid an accident. For the rest of the day, you tell people about how some jerk almost killed you. However, when the roles are reversed and you cut someone off, you usually just shrug it off. You tell yourself that you weren’t paying attention or mouth “sorry” as you speed by. In other words, you rationalize your action and don’t give a second thought to how you may have affected that person.
“People put so much energy into how much trouble other people have caused them,” says Krech. “And almost no energy into how they impact others. This question makes you turn your attention completely around. That’s not an attractive thing to do – but on a spiritual level it is very profound.”
What a person learns from this question is how to recognize the need to funnel one’s energy toward situations that can be better managed. “If someone lies to me, I can’t keep him or her from lying or require that they tell the truth,” says Krech. “That’s their responsibility. But if I lie to someone else, that’s my responsibility. At a common-sense level it is more important to focus on what you might be able to control and change. It will only cause you suffering to focus on that which you have little or no control over. You can almost define poor mental health in that way.”
Finding Higher Ground
People usually approach Naikan for specific reasons. Some seek spiritual sustenance; they may not be religious in a traditional manner, but they believe it’s important to have some kind of foundation that provides an opening to understanding things on a higher plain. Others turn to Naikan for help they are not receiving from standard therapy, such as mental health counseling or addiction treatment.
Naikan is also an ideal way to improve relationships. The practice can inspire couples to do more for each other, or enlighten them about ways they could each offer more to the relationship. On a similar level, Krech has successfully used Naikan in business environments to strengthen team-building among employees.
Perhaps Naikan’s greatest asset is the fact that it doesn’t offer a quick-fix solution. Instead, Naikan asks you to look honestly and sincerely at the reality of how you are living. The next step is yours. “Naikan doesn’t tell you whether to stay in a relationship or get divorced, or change jobs or stay where you are,” says Krech. “However, it will give valuable perspective and information that often helps people find clarity about what they should do.”
Gregg Krech encourages those new to Naikan to begin with “Daily Naikan.” It is the simplest method of reflection and requires 20 to 30 minutes before bedtime.
Here’s how it works: Sit in a quiet place, without distraction, and write down the answer to the three questions in relation to the day’s events: What did you receive from others today? What did you give to others today? What troubles and difficulties did you cause others today? It is important to be specific. For example, rather than write that you received food, specify the actual food you ate. Don’t leave items off because they seem trivial or because you receive them every day. Use a single journal to keep your thoughts organized.
Try this daily practice for a week. Once you are comfortable with this format, take it to the next level by choosing someone in particular – a partner, a coworker, a friend – to reflect upon using the three questions. Krech suggests increasing your time to at least 50 minutes, and to focus on a specific period of the relationship. “You don’t want to do it for the entire relationship, because there is too much there to cram into one sitting,” he says. “Instead, you might choose the past three months or just the past month, a week, or even a day – especially if you are going through a troubling time.”
Eventually, you will develop the presence of mind and wisdom to step back from your anger and look at a conflict in the broader context of the entire relationship. “It doesn’t mean you forgive the person or resolve that what he or she did is okay,” says Krech. “Rather, you see a particular incident in the context of everything else that’s happened; in the context of the love and support you’ve received from this person. Naikan reflection has a tremendous ability to help people soften their hearts and melt the anger and aggression that can ignite during fights among people who love each other.”
This article has been updated. It was originally published in the May/June 2003 issue of Experience Life.