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Naikan: Look Inside, A Daring Way To Find Gratitude and The Good Life

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

The idea is that if you practice the Naikan part of Constructive Living, life becomes a series of small miracles, and you may start to notice everything that goes right in a typical life and not the few things that go wrong. Will Schwalbe, author, editor, publisher

“Do you think I am a less negative, more positive person than when we first married?” I asked John. To my chagrin, he didn’t answer quickly.

“What do you mean by less negative, more positive?”

“Well do I whine less, criticize less, affirm more, care more, help more; am I more grateful, for example?”

I thought this would be an easy “yes” on his part. It seemed obvious to me that I had improved over our almost fifty years together. But...

After consideration, he said, “definitely.” I let my breath out.

We started briefly discussing how it was that we seemed to have made some progress toward being better as people and partners over the years. We agreed that it came down to intention. We hadn’t really given much thought to being good partners and good people when we first dated and married.

Three things nudged my reflections today. First, the 50th anniversary coming up in November. Second, reading an article on what to do if you have a “negative partner.” (Developing empathy, forgiveness, setting boundaries, self-care, and tapping into other supportive networks was the advice by the way). Third, John and I had been talking about gratitude this morning. Wondering about how we had come to switch it up over the years, so that we had become better at expressing our gratitude. Fourth, and most impactfully, I had been reading about something I had never heard about before. Naikan.

Naikan, itself, is about reflecting. Naikan is a Japanese word which means looking inside. It's a process through which we gain distance from ourselves and compassionately, but factually examine ourselves in certain areas. The process is prompted by 3 questions. The aim is to become a better person through one’s own intentions and efforts.

The three questions (or areas to examine) which can be done intensively in retreats or on one’s own through a journalling process are:

  • What have I received from _____ ?

  • What have I given to _____ ?

  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused ____ ?

When I first read those questions, the first two seemed helpful, but I wasn’t so sure if the last one was helpful. It could be risky. However, it seems that this sort of work has been very useful for people at certain times in their lives (milestones, after experiencing setbacks, goal-setting periods, periods of transition. The process has also been used successfully with prisoners desiring rehabilitation). Not only does it help us see the trajectory of our lives and perhaps make adjustments, but evidently it also gives us a profound sense of the blessings we have received over the course of our lives. It helps us become more mindful and better at expressing our gratitude.

Naikan can help us get over some of the bumps that keep us from expressing gratitude like:

  • Lack of awareness

  • Lack of reflection

  • Lack of knowledge about who gives me what I have (who has labored on my behalf so that I have what I have?)

  • Assumption that others know I am grateful

  • Procrastination (If not immediate, our gratefulness may decrease with time.)

  • Forgetfulness

  • Laziness

  • Entitlement (I have a right to what I receive.)

  • Dismissing what others have done…thinking they were just doing their duty or their job (I've heard this one a lot from employers).

  • Minimizing the effort of others…thinking it wasn’t much effort for them.

To help us understand how to work with the first question. What have I received from others. Here was an example I saw in a positive psychology article about Naikan.

You visit a café. Practicing Naikan you notice:

  • The barista gave a smile along with the coffee.

  • The person behind the counter washed my cup.

  • The owner of the café established the business so I can come here and enjoy this coffee.

  • The builder, carpenter, plumber, and electrician created the pleasant environment in which I sit.

  • An artisan designed my coffee cup.

  • Pickers, processors, and transporters brought the coffee beans.

Each person plays a crucial part in the long chain of events that gave you your morning jolt.

The second question is about zeroing in on what I have given/contributed; how I have helped: (The idea is to be specific.)

  • I picked up litter.

  • I held the door open.

  • I helped a mother with a stroller.

  • I paid that invoice on time.

In the third area – where have I caused difficulties, upset, or suffering for others, the aim is to take responsibility for the impact of our actions. And this is the daring part. Most of us have garnered a lot of defense mechanisms to protect our ego. It may feel psychologically naked to take a factual look at the small and large ways we have caused difficulties for others. We let ourselves off the hook a lot. Maybe something so “simple” as littering – thinking to ourselves…who does it hurt...or taking a handicapped parking spot when we are not handicapped... or taking more than our share of limited resource.

When we do this we can see that we have been given a lot of grace in our lives. We can empathize with those we have harmed and make amends.

It’s interesting to contrast the Naikan aims and processes to Western traditional methods of self-improvement and therapy (these ideas are primarily from the positive psych folks with a few modifications for length. I am not sure I totally agree with their assessment, but here it is. This may be a bit jumbled up if you are viewing it on a phone)

Western approaches Naikan

Focuses on feelings. Focuses on facts.

Revisits your hurts from the past. Revisits how you have been supported

in the past.

The client’s experience is validated by the therapist. The person is helped

through self-reflection to understand

the experience of others.

Your problems are blamed on others. You take responsibility for your

problems and those you cause others.

Therapist analyzes and interprets the client’s Therapist or workbook offers a experience framework for self-reflection.

The purpose is to increase the client’s self-esteem. The purpose is to take intentional

steps toward personal growth,

relationship strength, increasing

appreciation for life

The two approaches differ in perspective but share some overlap: notably, the wellbeing of the individual. I think I’d rather increase my appreciation for life, become a better person, and have a stronger relationship rather than increase my self-esteem at this life juncture. I think I’ll also have more respect for myself. That’s me. I think it’s perfect prep for our 50th.

I have ordered a few recommended books for the journey:

Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection by Gregg Krech. Supposedly it guides us through developing a profound gratitude for all the goods and people in our lives who often go ignored or unrecognized.

Question Your Life: Naikan Self-Reflection and the Transformation of our Stories, also by Krech. Supposedly this helps us let go of unhelpful personal baggage and re-think the stories we tell about our past.

Stay tuned. How might we grow as people and partners and lovers of life by compassionately and factually reviewing what we receive, what we give, and the difficulties we may cause others and intentionally journey to the Good Life?


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