A Naikan Episode: The Friend in the Mirror

This post was written by Viveca Monahan


For years, standing before the mirror, I have lamented my reflection. I criticized the pores, the brows, the lopsided smile. I laughed at the imperfect tooth, the chins, the unruly lock of hair. I fantasized surgery for the drooping eye lids, and liposuction for the wiggly thighs and jiggly belly. And then there are the scars from accidents and surgeries, so unappealing. If only they would just disappear. I’ve even stood by the mirror with closed eyes, praying that when they open, another image would peer back at me.

One day I looked up from washing my hands and saw in the mirror that crooked smile. We locked eyes and I said hello. Then I said thank you. Thank you for being my face in the world, the face who is recognized and loved. Thank you for the eyes that see beauty through the tears that flow freely from them. Thank you for surviving wretched loneliness, sorrow, and shame and for wrapping your strong arms around me since birth. Thank you for being loyal and kind and courageous and forgiving. I see this face, this body, these scars, and I see, in a startling new light, my rich and gifted life.

The photograph is called Harmomy by Pai Shih (2017)https://www.flickr.com/photos/pslee999/35008639051/Attribution http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/



How to Find a New Perspective on Your Relationships

 Photograph by Helgi Halldórsson https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Relationship_of_friends_(603887704).jpg


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


On Naikan Reflection

This post was written  by Sue Cole


I had to reflect on my father several times before I could see more clearly, before I could put myself in his shoes and walk through my teen years.  Tears of regret prompted me to write this haiku:

Wish I could thank him,

Reflecting on my father.

Sadly it’s too late.

Now I frequently remind myself that the best chance to give thanks is now.  Even in difficult times, I can find at least one reason to give thanks and that changes my outlook.

Thanks, Naikan, and thanks to all who show the way!

Sue Cole



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.


When We’re Suffering the Most

Whether we are facing a life-threatening illness, a home that has burned to the ground or the disappointment of not getting a promotion, life continues to push us up against our edge.  In the film, Manchester by the Sea, we see a character, Lee Chandler, who is continuously pushed beyond his ability to cope with his circumstances.  Like many of us, he has moments when he rises to the occasion, and, moments when he lashes out in anger or retreats to the deceptive comfort of alcohol.

Regardless of our circumstances, when we are suffering, we are least inclined to step back and reflect on our lives.  Our mind and heart (kokoro in Japanese) is too preoccupied with its own suffering to consider any broader understanding of our situation.  We live with questions that arise from self-pity like steam rising from a hearty stew: Why me?  How could he do this to me? Why is life such a struggle?  Why is life so hard for me?  And we respond as if we were alone: I can’t do this.  I can’t cope anymore.  It’s too hard.  It’s too much.  Nobody understands.  Nobody cares.

In these moments, it’s difficult to notice the care which is being offered, and even more difficult to genuinely appreciate it. Self-reflection is a portal that makes this perspective more accessible.

In traditional Western mental health, there is frequently an underlying assumption that to be “cured” from our past suffering we have to express it, let it out.  It is a kind of exorcism in which the demon (past suffering) who possesses us can, through the proper ritual, be evicted from our mind and heart.  I would like to offer another perspective on what it means to be cured, to be healed:

We are incapable of evicting any of our karma, pleasant or painful, from what we have become.  If we have suffered, we have suffered.  That suffering becomes a part of us.  To be cured is a function of two essential ingredients: Acceptance of ourselves and our karma — not only the suffering we have had to bear, but also the suffering we have imposed on others.   And secondly, the recognition that, despite our transgressions, our selfish acts and the problems we have caused, we are loved.  Our suffering is understood in the context of love.  We are loved not because of how we have lived, but despite how we have lived.  This is nothing less than the recognition of grace in our lives.  And this awareness is, in itself, grace.

Excerpted from Question Your Life: Naikan Self-Reflection and the Transformation of Our Stories by Gregg Krech (editor), 2017.

A Way of Life

Many years ago I received a beautiful book from a friend. It is a manual of Epictetus with Calligraphy by Claude Mediavilla. I have always had an affinity to the stoics, especially Epictetus, so of course I have enjoyed perusing this small book.

One of the passages keeps leaping out at me, each time I pick-up the book.

Determine for yourself as of now
a way of life
a plan of conduct
that you will follow,
both when you are alone
and when you find yourself
with others.

Self-reflection is important all the time, but especially so when we are reminded that the length of our days don’t come with a guarantee. I think about this “way of life”, and variations on the theme and what it means to me. Some things are obvious and some are not. No matter our circumstances, conflicting purposes arise. Saying yes to this, means no to that. But one thing I know for sure is that heart, kindness, laughter, generosity and mending my fences, figure prominently in the plan. May I/we all choose wisely, and when we don’t, make amends and generously choose again.

Naikan is an exceptional practice for discerning and cultivating a “way of life,” that is meaningful to each of us, in our own ways.


A Poem For the Road

The photograph is by tciriello and can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/tciriellopix/14559075443

The poem below was written by Morikawa Riu, the mother-in-law of Yoshimoto Ishin, the founder of Naikan.  Yoshimoto regarded Riu as a profound practitioner of self-reflection.  The poem is commonly displayed at Naikan Centers in Japan so those doing Naikan can read it.

(Translated by Clark Chilson)


Before you lies today’s road,
a new road,
one you cannot take again.

If you run from something because it is painful,
joy will become more distant.

Everyone has and can find a grateful heart.

Winners are strong;
those who yield are stronger still.

The world of people
has many mountainous roads to travel.

If you become conceited with your strengths,
they become weaknesses.

If you notice your weaknesses,
they become strengths.

Don’t be a doer;
be someone people rely on.

No matter the excuse,
your foolishness cannot stay hidden.

Instead of trying to do what you can today,
you worry about what you can’t do.

Although you know it,
you tend to forget what your parents did for you.

Happiness is not seen anywhere.
No one knows it.
Yet it is close to all of us.

The past creates the present.
The present creates the future.

At times of suffering,
look for the lesson in the suffering.

Nothing makes you suffer more than yourself.

Even if you don’t know difficult things,
there is virtue in simply not speaking ill of others.

Avoid anger.
Work to avoid it.
When you become angry, it shortens your life.

What you gain by burdening others
will not stay with you.

You quickly notice the faults in others
but readily overlook their good points and acts of kindness.

Rather than give attention to appearances,
Keep in mind the light within you.

Your plans for doing this and that are perfect gems,
but your failure to execute makes them flawed.

Many are pleased when praised,
but few examine themselves when scolded.

No matter how much you give,
kindness does not decrease
and the merit of it survives.

The course of events is not coincidental.

If you joyfully do a job you don’t like,
it becomes a job you like.

Even if you are good at doing things for others,
not expecting anything in return is difficult.

The true path is neither to the left or to the right.

At work, think of things from the perspective of others.

Money is precious and has magical powers,
but many torture themselves with it.

People do not give because they are prosperous,
they are prosperous because they give.

Wake up smiling;
go to bed with gratitude.

As days of hope, gratitude, and self-reflection grow,
your life takes on deeper meaning.


            A different translation by D. K. Reynolds and R. Omaki of the same poem can be found at http://constructiveliving2.weebly.com/poems-and-comparisons.html. The original Japanese version is available at https://www.n-classic.net/cms/wp-content/uploads/michinouta.pdf


Gratitude – a side effect of Naikan

Love is rooted in gratitude, its rooted in appreciation, and its rooted in not forgetting all of the things that are done for you by others every single day.        Dawa Tarchin Phillips from the article, Love Grows With Gratitude.

When I read those words yesterday my immediate reaction was YES! It is true. My next response was how perfectly Naikan is designed to help us cultivate noticing all of the ways we are helped every single day.

Take yesterday, as an example. While using the exercise of Daily Naikan I reflected for 15 minutes on  what specifically I had received from others and things in the past 24 hours that had been helpful.


  • The life giving benefit of the research of Dr Dennis Slamon and several other researchers, all unknown to me, who persevered against the odds to create the drug Herceptin that has extended my life.
  • The gift of a comfortable bed to help me rest during the night.
  • The company of my friend Ann during a 45 minute walk.
  • The beauty of thousands of tulips, in a variety of beds, skillfully designed and maintained by the gardeners for the City of Ottawa that I got to admire on my walk.
  • Remembering the annual gift of friendship of 10,000 tulips every year from the Netherlands to Ottawa as a thank you for liberating them in 1945.
  • The beaming smiles of baby Ewan that spontaneously exercised my smiling muscles in return.
  • A delicious vegetable omelet and a perfect cup of coffee from the people at Wild Oats, my neighbourhood coffee shop.
  • Helpful words by Stephen Cope, the author of The Great Work of Your Life, that I read while sipping coffee and waiting for my breakfast.
  • The freedom to sit in the backseat while my son-in-law did the driving during the downpour enroute to my Grandson’s Birthday party at “Clip and Climb.”
  • The gift of a free short performance from Cirque de Soleil – thanks to the Mexican Embassy’s community outreach that I got to watch with my grandchildren.
  • The offer of spots to sit, for my grandchildren, from Natasha who squished her family together so Sophie and Rowan could better see the performance.
  • A call from my 97 year old Mother checking in to see how her 70 year old daughter was doing.
  • The woman whose name I don’t know but whenever I see her on the street, like yesterday, waves a hello and a smile.
  • The dozen volunteers I saw raking and cleaning up a street with smiles on their faces, as part of community clean-up day.
  • The workers from the city who are clearing drains after the rain that caused havoc to the storm drains.


As you might guess, by now, there is no end in sight to the benefits I/we receive thanks to the effort of others, even if we fail to notice. In a general way we all know this but over time we forget; we take our lives for granted and pay more attention to what we are missing, what is going wrong and how others are failing us. Yet, when we stop to consider specifically how we are helped, we are reminded of how fortunate we are and how dependent we are on others every day.

The practice of Naikan adds back colour to what so easily fades into the background. It is such a simple practice in many ways yet offers untold practical benefits.

Gratitude is one of them, as is appreciation and kindness. Side effects worth having.



Lies and Consequences

This post was written by Viveca Monahan

People sometimes lie in subtle ways. These lies aren’t meant to deceive others. In fact they aren’t even voiced, but are pretenses we create for ourselves when we would rather not face what’s actually there.  They happen in a flash. Indeed had I not decided to capture my own inner fibbing I may not have noticed I was doing it. So I conducted an investigation to catch me in the act of pretending what I didn’t know. Here are my findings.

  • First thing in the morning I may have seen clumps in the kitty litter box under the bathroom sink, but I promptly blocked it from my mind. Ten minutes later my husband noticed those same clumps and he cleaned out the cat box.
  • Later I visited the grocery store. There was a homeless woman who always sits outside the east door selling a local newspaper. I pretended I didn’t notice her sitting there as I entered through the west door.
  • That evening when leaving my seat at the movie theater I pretended not to notice that I was leaving my half-eaten bag of popcorn, which had fallen onto its side under my seat.

In reviewing my deceptions I found they had certain commonalities:

  • There were no witnesses.
  • I was not consciously trying to deceive.
  • My subtle pretenses arose out of my innate laziness.
  • There would be consequences for someone else because of my laziness.

I observed other times I pretended not to know things. Like leaving lights on downstairs, pouring clean water down the drain, and allowing the wrong kind of plastic in the recycle bin.

I could have gotten away with it all had it not been for the third question in my Naikan practice: What troubles and difficulties have I caused?  On this one day my husband had to clean the cat box. The homeless woman was cheated out of a sale, and the movie theater attendant cleaned up my popcorn mess.    While reflecting on the day, I realized that regardless of the actual impact, I was causing trouble for others throughout the day, and it was all compounded by me pretending that I wasn’t.

Reflecting in a more global way, I wonder how half the country is so shocked about the opinions and beliefs of the other half. What have we all along pretended not to know?


This image is available for use on the Web under a Creative Commons 2.0 license with a link next to the photo pointing to jronaldlee.com as follows:Photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee.


Naikan and David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water”

Late one night a couple of years ago, I searched youtube for “David Foster Wallace” after watching the film about his life titled The End of the Tour. I stumbled upon his speech “This is Water,” which he gave at Kenyon College in 2005, but was not depicted in the film. After listening to it, I sat in a state of awe at its simple brilliance. I then did a Google search of it and found that many consider it one of the best commencement speeches ever given.

About a year after I encountered the speech, a student in a class I was teaching came to talk with me. I noticed “This is Water” tattooed on her wrist. Surprised, I asked her if it had anything to do with David Foster Wallace’s speech. She confirmed that it did.

The speech is about how to think intentionally, and how to avoid falling victim to our default way of thinking about the world from our self-centered perspectives. With a vivid description of a trip to a grocery store, he illustrates how our self-centered perspectives lead to suffering.  He advocates for using our attention in new ways when he says, “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”

You can find the complete text of the speech here

But rather than read it, I strongly recommend listening to David Foster Wallace give the speech. Listen here on youtube.  He delivers it in less than 23 minutes with humor and humility.

David Foster Wallace, as erudite as he was, may have never heard of Naikan. Yet, those familiar with Naikan will have no problem seeing how his speech resonates with it. For those unfamiliar with Naikan, the speech makes a persuasive case for the importance of Naikan in so far as it promotes using our minds to liberate ourselves from self-centered ruminations that lead to suffering.

Written by Clark Chilson

Image: https://pixabay.com/en/water-blue-surface-sea-ocean-768745/