Our Parents in Retrospect

I had the opportunity to reflect on both my father and mother during many Naikan retreats over the past 28 years.  I had turbulent relationships with both my parents during my childhood, but I credit Naikan reflection for opening my eyes and my heart to my parent’s love, and for moving me to a place of greater acceptance that was, in part, built upon the recognition of my own limitations and faults.  My own weaknesses as a parent are prominent.  My father’s devotion to me is an ideal that I strive for in my devotion to my daughters.  And, to be honest, both my children are much easier to parent than I was.

Not everyone will have the opportunity to reflect on their parents while their parents are alive.  But when we reflect on them we have an opportunity to rewrite our stories so they more accurately represent the original draft – the draft that took place in reality, rather than our minds.  We can create a story more grounded in fact and less tainted by the emotional coloring of our confusion, anxiety, resentment and anger as we unfolded into adults.

There is nothing in Naikan reflection that condones violence or abuse by a parent towards a child.  Spiritual and psychological contemplation is not designed to deny our suffering, for we all have suffered.  In fact, it’s the recognition that we all have suffered that allows us to be released from the illusion that somehow our suffering is special — somehow it is worse than the suffering of others.

When we see people at work or social gatherings, we see people making their best effort to function despite the suffering that occupies their life in the present and past.  We easily make the mistake that these people “have their act together.”  But in reality, in the privacy of their bedrooms, in the confidential corners of their relationships, and in the recesses of a mind which harbors their fears, anxieties and regrets about life, they suffer as well.

One of the gifts of Naikan, of quiet contemplation, is that it allows us to see beyond our suffering into how we were cared for and loved.  And sometimes, it allows us to see suffering itself as having been the messenger of grace.  For many of us, this discovery can only be made in retrospect.  For some of us, self-reflection will paint the way we understand the present, and open doors to a future that would otherwise have remained bolted shut.

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

Naikan’s Purpose is Spiritual Awakening

Naikan’s Purpose is Spiritual Awakening

The founder of Naikan, Yoshimoto Ishin, was a devout Buddhist who saw Naikan as a spiritual practice. In the 1950s, he had some of this writings translated into English and compiled in a book titled Self-Reflection will Guide You to the Right Way. In this book, Yoshimoto describes the purpose of Naikan as follows:

“To be spiritually awakened from suffering is the aim of it. In other words, trying to get rid of the selfishness in you, to reach the stage to be able to endure whatever difficulties you may have.”

In this passage, we see how Yoshimoto makes a direct correlation between suffering and selfishness. Although current discussions of spirituality in North America rarely mention selfishness, there is no greater obstacle to living a spiritual life than it. At the heart of spirituality is self-transcendence and freedom from self induced suffering. Neither of these is possible when we are seized by an ego that demands people act as we wish, that grow anxious over the future, and that becomes angry when we do not get what we want.

Naikan’s three basis questions —What did I receive from others? What did I give back to them? What troubles and difficulties did I cause others? — are simple. But the consequences of reflecting on them are profound. They can liberate us from the prison of self.

Photo Credit Empty Cage by Hartwig, HKD. Licensed under Creative commons.


Imperfect Love

The shouts of imperfect love were so loud
They blinded me to my own ingratitude

                 —Ho Sen


This post was written by Viveca Monahan.

My mother would be turning 100 years old this year had she lived. I have been writing a memoir since her death twenty years ago, which was the period at the end of a long Alzheimer’s sentence. My memoir had been stuck in the tangles of how I suffered from her death, was burdened by her disease, and before it all, how deeply I was wounded when she left me as a child. My suffering became the story of my life and it began when I was still a small child, spinning and weaving its way through my youth and into adulthood, winding up here on the early steps of old age.

Several years ago I attended Naikan retreat and was asked to reflect on my mother – to recall all I had received from her, including the diapers she changed for me and the money it cost to raise me. I sat in my hoza with only a white screen to look at and remembered, a few years at a time, the large and small ways my mother gifted me. This took more than ten hours of my Naikan day. Ten hours to recount the gifts I received from my mother. It took far fewer hours to recall what I gave to her in return. In fact it was so few I barely remember them.

It was the third question, what troubles and difficulties have I caused to my mother,? that brought my attention to another story thread. In answering this question from the beginning when my mother, a foreigner alone in a new country, gave painful birth to me. And then with all her love, made choices for my upbringing that would take me away from her. It was here facing the screen of my life that I realized for the first time how it must have felt to be my mother, carrying her beloved infant in one arm and a little brown leather suit case in the other. How her heart would be breaking as she left me to grow up with a different mother.

My heart softened as I reflected on my mother in all her fullness. What I received. What I gave in return, and what troubles and challenges I caused her. There was an obvious missing question regarding my own suffering, but Naikan does not address that. I had been carrying that story very well myself. Naikan opened my eyes to another story, not a replacement, but a way to see what else was true: I was a happy child. As I carry this thread of my mother’s sacrifice and loss alongside the story of her imperfect love, I ache with gratitude and curiosity about what else is true. And it is with this ache I pick up the threads and continue to weave our story.

Small Joys – Les Petits Bonheurs

When my Granddaughter Sophie was seven, she came home from school with a completed project titled, Les Petits Bonheurs. This project was a booklet where she had illustrated a “small joy” on each page. I was so touched with the wisdom of her teacher and the small joys that Sophie had illustrated that I decided on the spot that I would do the same, although, I chose to use photographs rather than drawings.

In so doing I was immediately struck by the impact my Naikan practice had in helping me to notice all the small joys in my ordinary moments. In fact the practice of Naikan is in itself a joy because it reminds me everyday, in the midst of obstacles and confusion, to look and see what else there is to notice beyond the default of the obvious.

Life is messy. Yet I can take a moment and enjoy the beautiful blue of my breakfast bowl. A bowl that a potter, unknown to me, built, glazed and fired in a kiln many miles away, which I now get to use. I can notice the skill of the lab tech who carefully and kindly, draws blood from my small and rolling veins. I no longer take for granted the helping hands; the red cardinal; the first peony; the golden light prior to sunset; the open arms of my grandchild or the extraordinary kindness of my Mother. All of these beautiful and significant ordinary moments are in clear view thanks to the Naikan effect.

In these troubled times, it is easy to believe that life is bleak. There are of course bleak moments but there is also the truth that kindness is rampant, whether we notice or not. The practice of noticing, through the lens of Naikan, gives us a chance to rejuvenate, be inspired, and consider what we can do today to also make the world a better place right where we are.

The Naikan effect tends to open hearts, eyes, and minds to see more clearly the reality and wonder of each ordinary day and the endless flow of beauty, and help that comes our way. I heartily recommend this practice as a way to find small joys in the midst of daily life and as a way to be a small joy for others.

Note: when I was in Japan two years ago I witnessed this scene many times of a younger person not just helping but caring for an older woman or man who needed help. I was deeply touched and inspired by these ordinary moments of kindness. This too is a small joy for me.

A Naikan Exercise to Help Overcome an Addiction

Since the 1960s Naikan has been used at hospitals in Japan to help alcoholics quit drinking. As one part of addiction treatment programs that use Naikan, people are asked to calculate how much money they spent on alcohol. You can try this exercise by doing the following.

  1. Make a list of the ages you drank alcohol. This can be done, for example, by simply listing the ages that you drank in a column on the left side of a page. So if you started drinking at age 17 and are now 42, you would list ages 17, 18, 19, 20, and so on up to age 42 in a column.
  1. Then next to each age put the total amount of how much you spent on alcohol when you were that age. To calculate roughly how much you spent on alcohol when you were a particular age, you can estimate how much you spent each week on average, and then multiply that number by 52.

    To find out how much money a week you spent on alcohol, it can help to first calculate how much you spent at stores for alcohol to drink at home or bring somewhere, and how much you spent on alcoholic drinks at bars, restaurants, and other places.

    Let’s say you are calculating how much you spent on alcohol when you were age 25. After some self-reflection on what you bought at stores on a regular basis and on how much you spent drinking out at places, you conclude you spent 20 dollars a week at stores for alcohol and then spent on average 50 dollars on drinks at bars and restaurants. You would add the 20 dollars you spent on alcohol at stores to the 50 dollars you spent elsewhere to get a total of 70 dollars; so you would use this amount of $70 as the average you spent a week on alcohol at age 25. Because you figured you spent $70 on average a week and there are 52 weeks in a year, you multiply 70 by 52 and find that the total is $3640.   You would then write this number next to the age you were at the time — in this case age 25. Then you would go on and do the same for age 26, and for each age you drank alcohol.

    You might not be able to calculate exactly how much you spent when you were different ages and may find that you drank more during some times of a particular year than others. What is important is that you reflect on how much money you spent on alcohol at different ages and try the best you can to come up with an estimate for each age.

  1. After you have a rough estimate of how much you spent on alcohol each year of your drinking, you add up all the numbers. So let’s say you were only drinking for five years between ages 20 and 24. You found at age 20 you spent about 2,500 dollars on alcohol; at age 21 you spent 3,700; at age 22, you spent 3,200; and at 23 you spent 3,400; then at age 24 you spent 3,000. You would add up all these numbers: 2500 + 3700 + 3200 + 3400 + 3000, which equals $15,800. So the total amount you spent on alcohol during your five years of drinking is $15,800.
  1. You can go deeper by reflecting on other financial costs due to alcohol. These costs may include the following: money spent on repairs of things you broke or damaged when drunk (e.g., crashed cars); money spent on a lawyer or legal fees if you had to go to court as a result of doing something intoxicated you probably would not have done sober; the increased cost of insurance due to a DWI; lost income due to the loss of a job or time working because of drinking; the cost of hospitalizations or rehab programs. The costs of all these things can than be added to the amount spent to purchase alcohol.

    Many heavy drinkers and alcoholics, even those who assumed they spent a lot of money on alcohol, are astonished when they see the totals for the first time. The realization of how much was spent and what else could have been done with that money can make it more difficult for people with an alcohol problem to think that their drinking is not a big deal. For example, a person who spent 17,000 dollars on alcohol over five years might realize he could have paid off much of his student loans if he spent a lot less money on drinking. Or the person who realizes that over 10 years he spent 30,000 dollars on alcohol and could have used that money to buy a new car or put a down payment on a house if he had not spent it on alcohol. If a heavy drinker is suffering from financial difficulties, the alcohol cost calculation exercise can help him see how those financial problems may be linked to his drinking.

The above financial cost calculations can also be done with other addictive substances besides alcohol, such as recreational drugs or even cigarettes. It can also be done with gambling.

If you are struggling with an addiction or others have told you to cut back on drinking, or drugs, or gambling, you might use the above Naikan exercise to try to figure out how much it has financially cost you over your lifetime. You might be surprised at what you find.

Intimacy and Self-Reflection: Seeing Yourself Through the Eyes of Your Partner

What would it be like to be your partner who has to deal with you on a daily basis? What does she see when she first looks at you each morning? What habits of yours does he find most annoying? How do you think she feels when you stare at your phone while you are having breakfast and she is talking to you? How much time has he spent waiting for you because you were late during the past month? How many times has she been criticized by you? How many hours has he listened to you complain about your work or your family or your health? How close can you come to putting yourself in her shoes, to understanding her frustration and fear, to seeing yourself through her eyes?

Mostly, we see things only from our own self-centered perspective. If it rains and I am supposed to play golf, I get angry, but the farmer down the road is pleased because his crops need water. If I can briefly step outside myself, I may get a glimpse of life from another perspective. I may get a glimpse of myself from another perspective.

Naikan reflection provides an opportunity for me to know my partner and to know myself more intimately.

We build a connection on this knowing – Awareness. Appreciation. Attention.

Excerpted from, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection by Gregg Krech (Stone Bridge Press, 2002).

[ Photo by Yatkin S Krishnappa [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ]

My Naikan Lens

As an amateur photographer I am interested in the art of seeing. What I have learned about photography is that an excellent photograph has more to do with “seeing” than with expensive equipment. Naturally we learn about and utilize the equipment we have in order to take advantage of the photographic opportunity. But so much depends on how we look.

As I prepare for a photography week in Mexico this month, I am looking at my lenses: wide angle; telephoto, and macro. Each one serves a different purpose and when I select the right lens for a particular photographic moment, I up my chances to capture what I see.

I find that life is also like that. Depending on the lens I choose to view my circumstances, life can look bleak, often with good reason, but I can expand that view to see beyond the difficulties. As I prepare for my upcoming holiday, I am reminded once again of how the practice of Naikan is all about noticing. If I wish to expand my view of the world it can be helpful to use a wide angle lens. This allows me to take in more of the scene. Rather than focusing on just the parts of my life that are unsatisfactory, I have a panorama before my eyes that includes the peaks along with the valleys. In fact it is likely that I will notice things that are mostly overlooked.

If I want to examine something more closely I can metaphorically use my wide angle or a macro lens for detail. I can take a closer look at things, people and situation’s, or my role, and see what I may be taking for granted, or not noticing at all.

When I reflect on my life through a Naikan lens I get to see our humanity in the cracks and flaws; the nature of mistakes; the joys; the love and hurt; the misunderstandings and the forgiveness. Utilizing the lens of Naikan can help me to see my life more realistically. It allows me to realize that along with the challenges of my life and the lives of others, helping hands arrive simultaneously. For every single difficulty I have experienced there has dozens of people and things, offering assistance, either practically, kindly, or when there was nothing more to be done, through words of comfort administered by ear. Is it not amazing, this overwhelming experience of kindness, of being supported, whether we notice it or not.

The noticing, however, is indispensable to living a meaningful life. And the practice of Naikan offers us a simple method to increase our chances of doing so.

It boils down to three small questions by which we can assess any situation, relationship, or our day.

What have I specifically received from people and things?

What have I specifically given back?

What troubles or worries may I specifically have caused?

You may already notice the absence of the fourth logical question – what troubles has another caused me. No need to worry about that question because most of us are really good at answering it. No more practice required. In fact, the over emphasis on that question may contribute to our lack of working with the other three questions.

The wonderful thing about these three questions is that there are no right or wrong answers. Each of us gets to decide in the quiet of our own reflection how we choose to answer. There is no check list of what we “should be” noticing.

Over time with the doing of Naikan we may experience a more realistic view of our everyday life and the wonder of it all. And with that our role as a victim is vanquished and our desire to give something back to the world is enhanced.

For more information on Naikan I recommend Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection by Gregg Krech

I hope you come by here often to learn more on how a variety of people are influenced by this simple and profound practice.



Self-Reflection for Parents

[ photo: Porthcurno Beach, Cornwall Karen Roe 08-03-2005 ]


Somewhere in the heavenly realms of a galaxy far, far away, there may exist a pantheon of parents who never fight with their children, never get annoyed by them, never wonder why their sons or daughters do not take their advice, and never wish their children would act differently. Back here on planet Earth, however, things are different. Disagreements between parents and children, particularly teenage children, are as common as broken shells on a beach.

Some disagreements with our children and the arguments they incite may be inevitable and even necessary for our relationships to grow. But some are unwarranted and hurtful. How can we avoid those arguments that are neither good for our children or our relationships with them? One way we can do this is by remembering how we were with our own parents when we were the age of the children we are having difficulty with.

To help us remember what we were like, we can use the Naikan method, which involves asking three basic self-reflective questions: What did I receive? What did I give back? What troubles and difficulties did I cause?

Starting with your mother, you can ask, “What did I receive from my mother when I was my child’s age? What did I give back to my mother at that age? What troubles and difficulty did I cause my mother when I was that age?”

If, for example, you are having trouble with a 14-year-old daughter, you would ask “What did I receive from my mother when I was 14? What I give back to my mother when I was 14? What troubles and difficulties did I cause my mother when I was 14?” Or, if you are struggling with a 17-year-old son, you can ask “What did I receive from my mother when I was 17? What did I give back to my mother when I was 17? What troubles and difficulties did I cause my mother when I was 17?

It is often best to focus on one question at a time. When you first try Naikan, you might concentrate on the first question for five minutes or so, then the second question for another five minutes. Then spend ten minutes trying to answer the third question. Because the third question is the hardest, it requires more time than the first two questions. You may write your answers down, but it is not required. Time permitting, you may also focus on these questions for longer periods of time, but 20-minutes is a good starting point.

On a different occasion, after you have used these questions to reflect on who you were in relation to your mother, switch and do the same with your father: “What did I receive from my father when I was 14 (or whatever age your child is)? What did I give back to him when I was that age? What troubles and difficulties did I cause him at that age?”

The first time you try this you may discover something important about who you were as a child. Going back and trying it more than once can lead to even deeper insights.

As a child you were your own distinct person. You had your own unique relationship with your parents that differs from the one your child has with you. Despite that, you may find similarities between you and your child. You may find that you too took things your mother did for you for granted and showed little appreciation. You might remember how you helped your father with something or how he did things for you that you had forgotten. You may recall that you lied to your mother, or caused her difficulty when you neglected to do something, or made her worry when you did not follow her wishes.

Of course, you might discover other things instead. The point of this Naikan exercise is not simply to find out how we were once like our children. Rather, its purpose is to lead us to greater self-knowledge of who we were as well as who we are. By knowing our lives and ourselves better, we are more likely to become both the parents we want to be and the parents we want our children to have.

Clark Chilson



Welcome to a World of Self-Reflection

[ Photo by Vamps – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 ee, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33041011 ]

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.

An introduction to the mechanics of Naikan self-reflection can be found here.

And there are additional resources on Naikan here.


Naikan Self-Reflection Retreat: May 7 – 13, 2017

In between birth and death everything I have is a gift — my body, the
clothes I wear, the knowledge I have, family and friends, hobbies I enjoy,
the house I live in, and so on. They are all ‘mine’, but only as things
temporarily entrusted to me during my sojourn on earth.” — Rev. Taitetsu Unno


Most people are born, live and die without ever taking the time to truly reflect on how they have lived their lives. In our busy lives it is hard to find time for serious, quiet reflection. But to fail to look closely at the reality of our lives is to ignore what Reality can teach us. This retreat provides an unusual opportunity to step back and examine your life.

The retreat, being held May 7-13, 2017 in the Green Mountains of Vermont, will be conducted by Gregg Krech, author of the award winning book, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection. Gregg has been conducting Naikan Retreats throughout North America for the past 20 years, as well as certification programs in Japanese Psychology at the ToDo Institute.

More information and registration >>

Download complete information (PDF) >>


[photo by John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA (Plum Blossoms I) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]