Shifting the Trajectory by Five Degrees: My Personal Naikan Story

This post was written  by Chikako Ozawa-de Silva

 I would like to share my personal journey of Naikan.

My first encounter with Naikan was when I sat for one week at the Meiso no Mori Naikan Center in Tochigi, Japan, under Shimizu-sensei’s guidance. My primary purpose in experiencing Naikan was my academic research, even though I was personally interested in this unique practice. Naikan appeared both strict and free. I would have to sit in a corner of a room behind a screen for fifteen hours a day for a full week, unable to talk to anyone, and would have to reflect on my past deeds by strictly following Naikan’s three themes. At the same time, I would be left alone most of the time behind the screen and I did not need to narrate anything that was not comfortable for me. I was excited about experiencing Naikan, but I was not sure whether I would gain any significant insights the way other Naikan clients seemed to. This was because I felt I did not have any particular problems or issues that needed to be dealt with. I was young and life was good.

I started Naikan by reflecting on my past deeds in relation to my mother first, then my father, my sister, my brother, and so on. It took a while for me to start remembering things vividly. The first five days ended and nothing remarkable happened. I was beginning to think that was how my first Naikan experience was going to end—with some small insights here and there, but nothing so dramatic or eye-opening. It was after I started reflecting in relation to my mother for the second time, toward the end of my week, that I started remembering how rebellious I had been toward her for most of my teenage life. Prior to Naikan, I used to think I had a good positive relationship with my family. Even though that was true to a large extent, I realized that I had been having a low-level rebelliousness toward my mother. It took forms such as not appreciating what my mother was good at, such as cooking, traditional flower arrangement, the neatness of her handwriting, and so on. Instead I was a person who took pride in being a bad cook, not knowing the names of flowers, and having terrible handwriting. If anything, I detected a sense of looking down upon her instead of respecting her.

I started to wonder why and how I had been behaving this way. Eventually I remembered how I used to feel rejected by my mother whenever I tried to engage with some conversation with her after dinner. She used to say things like “It’s time for you to do some schoolwork before it gets too late. Go upstairs.” What I did not realize as an adolescent was that this was some time after she had started running an afterschool tutoring business to financially support the education fees of her three children, including myself. For the first time, something clicked in me at a very deep level.  She must have been so tired, having worked for so many hours already, and she would still have needed to grade her students’ assignments and prepare for the next day’s tutoring. She never complained about anything, about anyone, and never even raised her voice.

I was not appreciating all the positive and rare qualities my mother had, but took all of them for granted. Instead of offering my hands to wash the dishes or help her cook, I just waited for my dinner and left the dinner table without helping her. On top of that, she must have genuinely wanted me to study hard so that I would be accepted by a competitive high school and then a good college. When I gained this realization, it made me sob, and I regretted my behavior. I was so ashamed of my immaturity and childish reaction toward what I had mistakenly perceived as rejection. Even though something like this would not be considered a remarkable insight compared with many other Naikan experiences, it deeply shook me, and my genuine love, appreciation and respect for her grew.

It was more than fifteen years after I experienced Naikan for the first time that my younger sister said to me “Sis, you’ve kind of changed. Maybe it was Naikan. Maybe Naikan is good, huh. I should try it.” Right after Naikan, I personally felt that my perception toward people close to me changed in a positive way. I felt I started appreciating them more and became less critical of them. But it took fifteen years for someone who has known me so well to notice a small change in me. This shows that Naikan is a long process. For many such as myself, it probably takes ten years for Naikan to deeply sink in and change one just a bit! At the same time, I wonder how I would be now if I had not encountered Naikan. When I talk about Naikan nowadays, I often joke that it will take ten years for other people to notice some changes in you. Naikan changes our perception, maybe just a little bit, but this small change in the long-term is shifting our trajectory by five degrees. Five degrees after ten years will lead you to a whole different place than if you had never changed your trajectory at all.

Chikako Ozawa-de Silva is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and a Naikan researcher.