How to Find a New Perspective on Your Relationships

 Photograph by Helgi Halldórsson


Our brains keep us from seeing reality objectively. In fact, they skew our reality toward the negative. Memories of unpleasant experiences stick in our minds while recollections of positive experiences slip out of our everyday working memories.  The neurologist Richard Mendius and the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson cleverly conceptualize this fact in their book The Buddha’s Brain when they write that our brains are like “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”

If you live in the same cognitive universe as most mortals, negative memories of what someone has done to you are more frequent and powerful than memories of what someone has done for you. The injury of one insult is rarely healed by one compliment.

The natural tendency of our brains to give more attention to the negative than the positive often results in us forming a warped perception of others and our relationships with them.

Our biased brains, however, need not condemn us to a life of negativity. There are meditative practices that can give us a more accurate view of our relationships and that are conducive to happiness. Among these one powerful practice is Naikan (pronounced NYE-khan).

Naikan involves reflecting on our lives using three questions: What have I received? What have I given back? What troubles and difficulties have I caused?  The first question focuses on the benefits we have received from others and the second on what we have done for others. These two questions allow us to take an inventory of our relationships.

For the third Naikan question, we examine how we, intentionally or not, have burdened others. Because it is much easier to see and remember how others have burdened us than we them, particular attention is given to this question so we can get a better sense of reality. While some fear this question because they think it might hurt their self-esteem, or because they think the remorse it might bring is incompatible with well being, the vast majority of people who have done Naikan report a very different response to this question. Done in conjunction with the other two Naikan questions, this question leads us to see better the extent of the kindness we have received from others. As a result, it often induces a sense of gratitude and of having been cared for. Seeing the kindness and compassion we have received from others when we have been less than perfect, stirs up a desire to be kind and generous to others. Remembering how I failed to live up to a promise I made, for example, makes it easier for me to forgive others who failed in their promises.

While the full effect of Naikan is best experienced in a one-week Naikan retreat, even small amounts of Naikan can provide some people important insights into their lives and relationships. To see if you are one of those people, you can try the following Naikan exercise. Find a quiet place to sit where you can concentrate without distraction for 15 minutes. Pick one person in your life. It may be your mother, your spouse, a brother, a best friend, a coach or someone else that you have been close to over the past year.  Ask yourself: What did I receive from that person over the past year? What have I given back to that person over the past year? What troubles and difficulties have I caused that person over the past year? You can write your answers down, but it is not necessary. What is more important is to answer the questions in your mind’s eye using concrete details rather than abstractions. For example, rather than saying I received emotional support from the person, it is more effective to answer with what the person specifically did that gave you emotional support. For example, “My husband listened to me on the phone about a problem at work.” Or, “My sister sat with me in the doctor’s office while I waited for blood test results.”  If you cannot visualize the answer, it is probably too abstract.

Fifteen minutes is not enough time for any meditative practice to change the innate circuitry of our brains. But this 15-minute Naikan exercise can help you remember something in your life or in a relationship that gives you joy. Repeating the practice daily for two weeks might lead you to realize that despite human imperfections you have relationships filled with goodness and compassion.

by Clark Chilson