“In Naikan, understanding ourselves and empathizing with others are actually considered as one. In order to really empathize with others, we must reflect on and observe our own behavior.” – Norimasa Nishida
Empathy is the ability to understand the experience and feelings of another person. This is an essential skill in human relationships and because our attention naturally gravitates toward our own experience, it provides a challenge.
Right now I am thirsty. Now I am hot. Now I am very worried about this particular financial situation. Now I am disappointed because my friend cancelled our dinner date. I don’t know what to do about my job situation. I feel overwhelmed. I’m tired of always cleaning up after others.
In order to have empathy we need to get past this self-centered focus and really enter the world of another person. Things that bother them don’t bother us. Things that give them pleasure don’t necessarily make us happy. Things that make them anxious are easy for us to accept. Each person in this world has a unique karmic history. So it is a challenge to be able to enter their unique world and understand their experience.
Yet this is the foundation of intimacy.
In Naikan self-reflection, our reflection on our own behavior toward the other person is a practical method of developing empathy. We reflect on the question,
“What troubles and difficulties did I cause to the other person?”
This means we try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes to understand their experience. Specifically, to understand their experience dealing with us. What is it like for my daughter when I restrict her time watching television? What is it like for my long-distance friend when she doesn’t hear from me for six months? What is it like for my wife to hear me complain about doing the taxes?
Last night I was driving home on a two-lane highway after dark. There’s no lighting on that stretch of road and I had my headlights on bright. I noticed a car approaching me from the distance. Suddenly I realized my “brights” were on and I switched them back to the normal beam. About one-half second later the other driver flashed his brights at me, presumably asking me to turn off my bright headlights. So even though I never met this person, and he was several hundred yards away, I was able to understand his experience. I was able to see how my behavior was causing him trouble.
There have been many occasions where I didn’t notice I had my brights on until after the other driver flashed his brights at me. Usually this was because I was lost in my own thoughts or listening to the radio. Empathy requires a shift of attention. A shift away from our own experience and towards the experience of the other person.
“What is it like for me to be married to my wife?”
The question is,
“What is it like for my wife to be married to me?”
It seems very simple. But to do it well requires a great deal of skill, a bit of genuine curiosity and even some courage. We need courage because we may not like the answer to this question. It threatens our self-image.
Many people associate Naikan self-reflection with gratitude and it can be a wonderful practice to cultivate an authentic sense of appreciation for other people and what we’ve been given just to keep us alive.
But Naikan also offers the opportunity to cultivate genuine empathy, and that makes it a doorway to connection and intimacy.
Gregg Krech has been teaching and studying Japanese Psychology for 30 years. He is the author of five books and his newest book, Question Your Life: Naikan Self-Reflection and the Transformation of our Stories, will be available in August, 2017.