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

Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection
Published: 2002
ISBN: 1-880656-63-9
Format: Paperback

School/perspective: Naikan (influenced by Pure Land Buddhism)

Chapter headings:

  • What Is Naikan?
  • Gratitude and the Practice of Attention and Reflection in Everyday Life
  • Giving to Others
  • A Moral Self-Examination
  • Mysteries and the Myths of Separation
  • Intimate Attention
  • The Practice of Naikan
  • Self-Reflection and Service

Selected excerpts:

“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. Naikan was developed in Japan in the 1940s by Ishin Yoshimoto, a devout Buddhist of the Pure Land sect (Jodo Shinshu). His strong religious spirit led him to practice mishirabe, an arduous and difficult method of meditation and self-reflection. Wishing to make such introspection available to others, he developed Naikan as a method that could be more widely practiced.”
“Naikan’s profound impact resulted in its use in other areas of Japanese society. Today, there are about forty Naikan centers in Japan, and Naikan is used in mental health counseling, addiction treatment, rehabilitation of prisoners, schools and business. It has also taken root in Europe, with Naikan centers now established in Austria and Germany……”
“Naikan reflection is based on three questions: “What have I received from______?”, “What have I given to______” and “What troubles and difficulties have I caused ______?” These questions provide a foundation for reflecting on all relationships, including those with parents, friends, teachers, siblings, work associates, children, and partners…….Our challenge is just to see reality as it is.” (pp. 25-27)

“Those who entered the retreat with specific problems like alcoholism, criminal behavior, drug addiction, violence, or delinquency (in children) often find the experience of the retreat alleviates or improves their situations significantly. One consistent result of the Naikan experience is a heightened desire to repay others for the many things received from them. The actions by which we give to others, to serve and care for the world around us, transform our real feelings of love and gratitude into real behavior, simultaneously changing us and changing the world around us.” (p. 160)

© 2002 Gregg Krech

The following table summarises a contrast that is drawn at the conclusion of the book between ‘traditional Western therapy’ and Naikan therapy (pp. 198-203 – the book features an expanded discussion):

‘Traditional’ Naikan
Focus on feelings Focus on facts
Revisit how you’ve been hurt and mistreated in the past Revisit how you’ve been cared for and supported in the past
The therapist validates the client’s experience The therapist helps the client understand the experience of others
Blame others for your problems Take responsibility for your own conduct and the problems you cause others
The therapist provides analysis and interpretation of the client’s experience The therapist provides a structured framework for the client’s self-reflection
Therapy helps the client increase self-esteem Therapy helps the client increase appreciation for life

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Reviews posted:

Paul –

“If you can be grateful, you can be sober.” This saying from an AA ‘old timer’ has stuck with me over the years, and returned when I was reading this book on Naikan. Naikan is a structured approach to self-reflection that is particularly good at cultivating gratitude. The practice was developed by a Japanese Buddhist in the 1940s and is now used in the treatment of addiction. We naturally tend to concentrate on the negatives and problems in our life and become habituated to (ie ignore) the positives. This is great for survival, but not much good for happiness. Through egocentricity we also tend to overestimate the generosity of our own actions relative to what we receive. This process results in a distorted perception of life. Naikan helps to correct this distortion. The first excerpt from the book reproduced above succinctly summarises the nature of Naikan and its genesis, so I won’t repeat it here. A few of the book’s examples and exercises may lend themselves to ridicule by the less sympathetic, but I have no doubt that the overall approach is transformative. Naikan also contains an aspect of moral self-examination that has clear parallels to AA’s fourth step. I was initially surprised that its focus on actions is not that concerned with motive, yet this is also a strength. When it comes to our own actions in Naikan, we should act generous even if we don’t feel generous – feeling will follow. This is a great remedy to feeling immense compassion for the universe but doing absolutely nothing to help anyone. One of the additional benefits that result from Naikan practice is an added appreciation of interconnectedness. Like most other Buddhist practices, Naikan is very simple to understand, but difficult to practice conscientiously.

Michael –

“The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates. Naikan is a Japanese word that literally means “looking inside”. With a blend of Eastern spiritual traditions and western psychology, it provides a structured and very practical method to intensely meditate and reflect on one’s life. This is done by reflecting on three basic questions. What have I received from _______ (persons name)? What have I given to _______ (persons name)? What troubles and difficulties have I caused ________ (persons name)? These then provide a direct means of opening our eyes to the countless ways in which we are constantly supported by others and the world around us, and by allowing us to focus our attention on purely the part that we have played in our own direct interaction with others, we are able to cultivate and develop a deep sense of interconnectedness and gratitude. And by teaching us to focus directly on our actions and the actual facts, Naikan also allows us to better see reality as it really is without being clouded or preoccupied by emotions, as often happens. Whilst the influence of Eastern and Buddhist thought and psychology is obvious throughout, what also struck me most is both what a profound resonance and relevance this book has with not only those of us in recovery from addiction, but indeed even with the 12-step program itself. Although by no means limited purely to the application of the Fourth Step, I believe that Naikan could provide an effective spiritual tool for use in conjunction with this step, or as a means to re-visit it. Likewise, it could easily be applied in the same way in regards to the Tenth Step. But even if you are not interested in these possible applications, the book clearly touches on many aspects of recovery that would be of interest to any sincere seeker. If gratitude is something that eludes you, and you constantly find that others don’t seem to live up to your expectations, then this book is most definitely for you. Simply written with plenty of practical exercises and inspiring quotes, this book provides a nonetheless profound and direct means to transform one’s life. I heartily recommend this book in the strongest possible terms.