The Mind Can Be Free

Naikan: A Method of Self-Reflection


Naikan is a Japanese word that means something like “looking inside,” but I prefer the more poetic translation, which is “seeing oneself with the mind’s eye.” It was developed by a Japanese Shin Buddhist named Yoshimoto Ishin. He was a very devout Buddhist and his efforts in terms of his own Buddhist practice led him to practice something called mishirabe, a very arduous form of meditation that involved meditating without food or water or sleep for many days. As a result of that practice he was able to conclude that some type of personal self-reflection should be part of one’s spiritual practice. That’s how Naikan was initially developed. Naikan is also a kind of technology. It allows us to see ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t normally. As we do Naikan reflection, we’re able to use this technology to see ourselves - for instance, the way that other people might see us. Instead of seeing ourselves from just our own self-centered perspective, we can see ourselves from the perspective of others.


Naikan involves three simple questions:


1) What have I received from this other person that I’m reflecting on?

2) What have I given?

3) What troubles and difficulties have I caused?


Let’s look at the first question: “What did I receive from this other person?” The simplest form of Naikan is called “daily Naikan,” where we reflect just on the past 24 hours of our life and our relationship to the world, to everything around us: people, objects, even forms of energy. For example, if I’m looking for something I received, I could say, “I received the use of my car in order to drive to the supermarket yesterday.” A car, of course, is an object, but there was gas and oil in that car that helped to make it run; there were forms of energy involved in it; and my older daughter actually put gas in the car a few days before so there was even a person involved. Just in looking at that one item, it turns out that there’s an object, there’s a person, and there’s forms of energy.


If I’m doing Naikan as a reflection on a person and I’m looking at what I received, I’m really looking at that one-on-one relationship. Let’s say I’m doing Naikan on my wife and I was saying, “Well, what did I receive from my wife in the past 24 hours?” Let me think. She made me some fresh orange juice this morning in our juicer and she washed my clothes so I’d have clean socks to wear. She gave me a shoulder massage when I came home from the gym the other day - so those are just a few of the things that I can remember that I received from her. When we look at this first question - “What have I received?”—we’re looking for anything in which we’ve had some type of benefit from a service or an effort that somebody else provided. It can even be a small thing. For example, it could even be as simple as somebody held a door open for me at a restaurant when I was coming in. That’s something I might put on my list.


Many of our encounters with the world are encounters that also involve our emotions. In other words, we have an interaction with someone, but there’s also something emotional going on at the time. We’re angry, we’re tired, we’re bored, we’re frustrated. One of the curious things about Naikan is that it asks us to set aside what I call the emotional colorings of those interactions, so that, for the moment at least, we’re looking objectively at the facts of the situation.


For example, let’s say that you have a conflict with your roommate the night before and there’s an argument and some tension; the next morning there’s still some tension in the air, but your roommate makes a pot of coffee and gives you a cup of coffee to drink. We’re only looking at the fact that you received a cup of coffee from your roommate. We’re not looking at issues of motivation or any of the other feelings that might be going on. The way we use our attention in Naikan helps us to cultivate a more authentic sense of gratitude and appreciation for our lives and for things around us.


Naikan really is simple, in a sense: It points us towards the grounded reality of how we’re living. On the other hand, there’s something mysterious about Naikan that seems to transcend our traditional, Western, logical minds. Let’s look at the second question: “What did I give to others?” In that question I’m just flipping the positions around. I’m looking at what I did for the world. What I gave to the world. The key to answering this question—and the first as well—is specific, concrete detail. We want to avoid generalities and abstract concepts like “I was supportive,” or “I was very generous,” or “I was very loving.” If you find yourself thinking, “Oh, I was really very supportive,” then you should try to go further and say, “Well, how was I supportive?” What did you actually do that was supportive? Maybe you stayed on the phone until two in the morning with your friend, because she was so upset, because she broke up with her boyfriend. That’s what you would actually capture in a film clip, whereas the idea of being supportive is just a concept. We’re trying to work with details, with concrete realities of your life, in the first and second questions.


Let’s look at the third question. If Naikan was a popularity contest, the third question - addressing how we’ve caused trouble and difficulty to others—would probably come in last place. People think, “Why do I want to think of how I caused trouble? That’s depressing,” or, “That makes me feel bad.” You may struggle even with that question just to find anything. Someone might say, “Well, the only thing I can think of is I drove to the store yesterday, so, I guess I polluted the air, but that’s about the only trouble I can think of.” But the third question is more like the prince who only appears to be a frog. It has incredible potential to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person: What is it like for them? What is their experience? That’s the question we’re really asking when we’re looking at the third question. It helps us understand what it’s like for the other person to deal with us. For instance, as I go through my normal day, I’m very aware of what it’s like for me to deal with my wife; I’m aware of the things that she does and doesn’t do that agitate me or perturb me; I’m aware of what it’s like to deal with my daughters or my colleagues. But when I do the third question it turns my mind upside down: What is it like for my wife to deal with me? What is it like for my daughter to have me as a father? What is it like for my colleagues to deal with me with my lack of responsiveness or inattention to emails that they’re sending me? As I turn that around, I’m starting to see what my life is like not from my own perspective, but from the perspective of others. When we do Naikan, we, maybe for the first time, begin to see what it’s like for other people and how they see us. That can be very different from how we see ourselves.


The third question is really important. It has an adventurous spirit, and I’d encourage you not to avoid it just because it feels uncomfortable. Yoshimoto, the founder of Naikan, actually considered this question very important. Even though he placed it third in line, he placed it first in time, because he suggested that we spend fifty to sixty percent of our reflective time exclusively on the third question. It’s an important question to give attention to. Pema Chodron, a well-known Buddhist teacher, said, “It’s painful to face how we harm others and it takes a while, yet it’s a journey that happens because of our commitment to gentleness and to honesty, our commitment to staying awake and to being mindful.” As hard as it is to look at this third question of how we cause suffering and how we cause problems, it’s extremely important.

Gregg Krech, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection

Gradual Path of Loving Energy