Imagine yourself enclosed by a small space within traditional Japanese screens. In complete silence and isolation you examine in minute detail your entire life, especially important relationships like mother, father and siblings within the boundaries of the three strategic Naikan questions. Gradually over seven days of silence and deep introspection interrupted only by the Naikan therapist entering your space, bowing giving you food and drink and asking the three questions to the portion of your life you have been examining, piece by steady piece the meditator dismantles the ego that have hovered like dark clouds blocking the blue sky. Like awakening from a dream the meditator opens his/her eyes to the light of day. This is Naikan.
Naikan( From the Japanese Nai = Inner Kan= looking) is a therapy developed in Japan by Yoshimoto Ishin (1916 -1988). It was adapted from a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist practice of a meditation of deep introspection and self examination. Although the basic structure remains the same it has been further developed to be used in modern therapeutic settings.
There is emerging a palpable curiosity towards the Eastern and Buddhist psychology. With the emergence of the now evidenced based “Mindfulness” therapies (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapies etc) Naikan stands to be re-examined with energetic curiosity.
I must add a note of caution here. It is easy to confine the Mindfulness based therapies, of which Naikan belongs, to the therapist’s clinic. This would be a huge mistake. Naikan is essentially a way of life for everyone who wishes to live a more fulfilling and happy life.
Naikan is essentially a method of deep introspection. It is a way of examining one’s life from a different angle by asking strategic questions and arriving at a deep appreciation of life the way it is. The big mistake most people make with Mindfulness based processes is to expect the process to eliminate life’s problems. This is not the aim. After all, none of us are immune from life’s struggles or to put it in plain language: “s*** happens”. What Naikan does is to help us look at life’s sufferings from a different angle – one of deep gratitude. It does this by radically placing us in front of our self-centeredness. When we do this a new energy begins to flow and we become better equipped to face life’s issues.
Naikan does this by asking three strategic questions:
What have I received from person (or event) x?
What have I given to person (or event) x?
What troubles and difficulties have I caused to person (or event) x?
In Naikan we examine our entire life in minute detail from the time we were born to the present moment. We focus primarily or relationships rather than events as we are formed by our early childhood relationships and relationships in general. It is a Naikan principle that our mental health is based almost entirely upon how we relate with one another and our environment.
In Classical Naikan the client spends an intense seven day period in meditation on one’s entire life guided at regular intervals by the Naikan therapist. There are shorter versions of this process to suit the client’s schedule. It is often said that one of the “down sides” of Naikan is its intense seven day meditation. However, we must ask ourselves, what is seven days in what often has been a lifetime of struggle with certain issues?
Ideally Naikan is done with a “Naikan Guide” or therapist. However it can also be performed by oneself on a regular basis.
Gratitude in Naikan
The concept of “gratitude” plays a crucial part in Naikan. In Chinese the word for gratitude is “gan ji gan en”. The English word “gratitude” does not do justice to the Chinese words which convey a different concept. In our daily speech we can say we are “thankful” for something but still inwardly hold resentment or grudges. I can say “thank you” to someone for something even if that someone has annoyed me greatly. I do it out of politeness. The Gratitude in Naikan goes far beyond the concept of thankfulness. It is a realization of the “gift” of life and a sense of deep contentment with the way things “are”. . . an acceptance of the “is-ness” in all things. When we have this sense of deep gratitude we are free. Many say after Naikan they experience a feeling like a ton of bricks lifted off their shoulders. This is a happiness which goes beyond what “happens” to us.
Naikan is a therapy and process that places responsibility squarely upon the individual challenged with their issues. Throughout the Naikan process the therapist will not give “advice” but guide the client to take responsibility for their own healing. In this process there is tremendous empowerment.
There is much more to Naikan than these few words can give justice to. Like all Mindfulness studies – they need to be experienced rather than didactically analyzed.