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




“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.

Rather than,

“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.

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.

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.

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 ]