[ Photo by Vamps – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 ee, https://commons.wikimedia.
There is a good chance that at some point earlier today you looked in a mirror. Maybe you were brushing your hair, putting on makeup or trimming your beard. Maybe you were about to leave your house and you just wanted to make sure that you were presentable. A mirror is a wonderful technology. It lets us see things that we would otherwise be unable to see.
The activity of self-reflection is also a kind of mirror. But we don’t simply get an idea of how we look to others. We have the potential to see much more deeply into our character and conduct.
We also have an opportunity to compare what we discover to the story we have authored about our lives and who we are. The stories we carry around with us, and there are many, don’t always hold up to realistic examination. In fact, I will argue that they almost never hold up. Our stories, which may portray us as victims of neglect, bad luck, meanness, and even abuse, rarely hold up to a sincere self-examination. I’m not saying they aren’t true — just that they aren’t complete. For our stories to be more complete, more accurate, they have to include the details and experiences we have left out. Why did we leave them out? Perhaps we simply forgot. Or perhaps they just didn’t fit the plot we created. Our mirror of self-reflection allows us to see what we have missed.
The poet and doctor William Carlos Williams used to carry a notepad around with him in which he listed “Things I noticed today that I’ve missed until today.” He recognized the limitations of what he noticed and was always striving for a more complete understanding of the world. That is what self-reflection offers us. And more.
There are many methods of self-reflection, but this website is dedicated to a specific method which originated in Japan called Naikan (pronounced Neye-con). I first encountered this method 30 years ago when I was studying with an American anthropologist named David K Reynolds (The Quiet Therapies). I was asked to take one hour and reflect on my relationship with my Mother. I had a very tense and conflicted relationship with my Mother as far back as I could remember. I saw her as selfish and unstable and blamed her for much of the suffering that I experienced in my life, even after I left home for college. It was a shock to reflect on her and realize that my story about her only reflected a small portion of what transpired between us. In fact, I had received a great deal of care and support from her in the form of cooked meals, washed clothes and transportation. She had also been instrumental in bringing music into my life – making it possible for me to take piano lessons and persuading my father to buy a piano for our home. As a result, music has been a part of my life for more than 50 years and I have passed on that love of music to my own daughters.
There was another part of the story which I had left out – my own culpability in causing suffering and problems for my mother. In 1989 I traveled to Japan and spent two weeks in a Naikan center facing a blank wall and reflecting on my entire life. I saw the details of my childhood and what a difficult child I had truly been – a theme which had been absent from my story, a missing page in the book of my life.
That retreat was the turning point in my relationship with my Mother. It made it possible for me to have a more loving and conscious relationship with her until her death in 2015. We didn’t always get along. But I was able to accept her for who she was and appreciate what she had given me, rather than mourn for how she fell short of my expectations.
Naikan, as a profound method of self-reflection, has the potential to transform our relationships and how we understand ourself and the world around us. But it’s not easy, for we continually come up against the walls or our own ego and self-importance. The Buddhist meditation teacher, Pema Chodron, said:
“The essence of bravery is being without self-deception. However, it’s not so easy to take a straight look at what we do. Seeing ourselves clearly is initially uncomfortable and embarrassing. As we train in clarity and steadfastness, we see things we’d prefer to deny – judgmentalness, pettiness, arrogance. These are not sins but temporary and workable habits of mind.”
Self-reflection can be an antidote to self-deception. It can be an elixir to help us cultivate gratitude for our lives. It can be a doorway to reconciliation for our most difficult relationships. And, finally, it can be a foundation for faith in something beyond ourselves.
That is an ambitious list of expectations. But it comes at a high price. The price of opening our heart and mind. The price of questioning our stories. And the price of looking honestly and sincerely at what we see in the mirror.