How to Practice Naikan Reflection
The Three Questions
Naikan reflection is based on three questions:
- What have I received from __________ ?
- What have I given to __________ ?
- What troubles and difficulties have I caused __________ ?
These questions provide a foundation for reflecting on relationships with others such as parents, friends, teachers, siblings, work associates, children, and partners. We can reflect on ourselves in relation to pets, or even objects which serve us such as cars and pianos. In each case, we search for a more realistic view of our conduct and of the give and take which has occurred in the relationship.
In examining our relationship with another we begin by looking at what we have received from that person. My wife made me fresh squeezed orange juice this morning. A colleague sent me a calligraphy pen. A man at the motor vehicle office gave me an application for renewal of my driver’s license. These are all simple, clear descriptions of reality. The other person’s attitude or motivation does not change the fact that I benefitted from his or her effort. Often we take such things for granted. We hurry through our day giving little attention to all the “little” things we are receiving. But are these things really “little?” It only seems so because we are being supported and our attention is elsewhere. But when we run out of gas or lose our glasses, these little things grab our attention and suddenly we realize their true importance. As we list what we receive from another person we are grounded in the simple reality of how we have been supported and cared for. In many cases we may be surprised at the length or importance of such a list and a deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation may be naturally stimulated. Without a conscious shift of attention to the myriad ways in which the world supports us, we risk our attention being trapped by only problems and obstacles, leaving us to linger in suffering and self-pity.
Next we take a look at the other side of the equation. What have I given to the other person? Yoshimoto was a businessman. Each month he would send out statements to his customers and receive similar statements from suppliers. Here are products that were sent and the amount of money received. We receive a similar statement from the bank regarding our checking account. This tells us, to the penny, what our balance is. If we take the efforts of others for granted, we live as if we were “entitled” to such efforts.
“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.”
If we resent it when people do not fulfill our expectations, we live as if we deserve whatever we want. As we reflect on our relationships, one by one, we begin to see the reality of our life. What is more appropriate - to go through life with the mission of collecting what is owed us, or to go through life trying to repay our debt to others? Even if you think you know the answer, it is not the same as discovering the answer.
The third and final question is the most difficult of all. Mostly we are aware of how other people cause us inconvenience or difficulty. Perhaps somebody cuts us off in traffic, or maybe the person in front of us at the post office has a lot of packages and we are kept waiting. We notice such incidents with great proficiency. But when we are the source of the trouble or inconvenience, we often don’t notice it at all. Or if we do, we think, “it was an accident” or “I didn’t mean it”, or perhaps we simply dismiss it as “not such a big deal.” But this question is truly important. Yoshimoto suggested that when we reflect on ourselves, we spend at least 60% of the time considering how we have caused others trouble. His words are echoed by the lives of Franklin, Schweitzer and St. Augustine. If we are not willing to see and accept those events in which we have been the source of others’ suffering, than we cannot truly know ourselves or the grace by which we live.
The basic types of Naikan reflection are:
Daily Naikan (Nichijo Naikan)
This is the simplest method of Naikan reflection and requires 20-30 minutes before bedtime. Sitting in a quiet place, without distraction, 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 rather than general. For example, rather than state that you received food today, write down the actual food that you received and ate today. Don’t leave items off your list because they seem “trivial” or you receive them everyday; it is quite important to notice and list just such items.
Naikan Reflection on a Person
This is the basis of the traditional Naikan method in which we examine our lives by reflecting on our relationships with others. Generally, I suggest using periods of 50-60 minutes for reflection. For each hour or so of reflection, we examine our relationship during a specific period of time. Usually we proceed chronologically, beginning with the day we first met the person. The time period we examine may be as little as a week or as much as 3-4 years, depending on how long we have known the person.
For example, let’s say a man has been married for fifteen years and prior to marriage, dated his present wife for three years. In this case he might first reflect on the dating period prior to his wedding. Subsequently, he would examine his marriage in 2-3 year increments until he reached the present day. As an ongoing practice, he might reflect on his marriage at the end of each month. He would continue to use 50-60 minute time periods to reflect and apply the basic Naikan questions to his relationship regardless of whether he was examining the past month or the three years he and his wife dated. Relationships with parents, siblings, teachers, and friends can be examined in a similar fashion with three year periods being generally applied unless the person has been known for only a short time.
- 57 year old business woman reflects on the last 2 years of her father’s life
- A man reflects on his relationship to his wife of the past three months
It is also possible to identify a period of time - particularly one which was experienced as challenging or difficult -- and do Naikan on your experience during that time.
The Naikan Retreat (Shuchu Naikan)
Near Middlebury, Vermont
Suppose you could go away for one week to a small cottage in the mountains. It’s quiet and secluded. All your needs are provided for. Your meals are brought to your room. Your laundry and dishes are washed. You’re awakened early in the morning and a evening bell tells you it’s bedtime. There are no phone calls to answer or bills in the mail. There is no casual chatter and little noise. There is simply silence, a place to sit, and a screen to watch. And on that screen is the story of your life. It’s based on a script, but not the revised, edited script you brought with you. No, this is reality’s original draft - what really happened. There is nothing for you to do each day but watch this movie. What would you learn about yourself? What would you learn about your life? At the end of the week, when you return home, filled with an expanded knowledge of how you have lived, how will you then live?
This is the nature of the Naikan retreat. Such retreats are now regularly scheduled at several centers in the U.S. and are open to almost anyone with a sincere interest in self- reflection. The retreats are generally conducted in the same fashion as those in Japan - bowing, shoji screens and the use of cushions for sitting is common. As in the aforementioned methods, the same three Naikan questions are used as a basis for reflecting on one’s life. But unlike these other options, there is no writing of lists and one’s reflection, therefore, has a more meditative quality. For many participants, these retreats are profound experiences, but this depends very much on the effort and sincerity of the individual.
More about Naikan...
- What is Naikan?
- The Importance of Self-reflection
- How to Practice Naikan Reflection
- Examples of Naikan Reflection
For more information on the ToDo Institute’s Naikan Retreat call (802)453-4440 or send an e-mail request with your postal address.