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Naikan is a Japanese word which means "inside looking" or "introspection." A more poetic translation is "seeing oneself with the mind's eye." It is a structured method of self- reflection that helps us to understand ourselves, our relationships and the fundamental nature of human existence. Naikan was developed by Yoshimoto Ishin (1916-1988), a devout Buddhist of the Jodo Shinshu sect in Japan. His strong religious spirit led him to practice mishirabe, an arduous and difficult method of meditation. Wishing to make such introspection available to others, he developed Naikan as a method that could be more widely practiced.


Naikan broadens our view of reality. It's as if, standing on top of a mountain, we shift from a zoom lens to a wide-angle lens. Now we can appreciate the broader panorama - our former perspective still included, but accompanied by much that had been hidden. And that which was hidden makes the view extraordinary.


The Three Questions


Naikan reflection is based on three questions:

- What have I received from ..........?

- What have I given to ..........?

- What troubles and difficulties have I caused ..........?


These questions provide a foundation for reflecting on relationships with others such as parents, friends, teachers, siblings, work associates, children, and partners. We can reflect on ourselves in relation to pets, or even objects which serve us such as cars and pianos. In each case, we search for a more realistic view of our conduct and of the give and take which has occurred in the relationship.


In examining our relationship with another we begin by looking at what we have received from that person. My wife made me fresh squeezed orange juice this morning. A colleague sent me a calligraphy pen. A man at the motor vehicle office gave me an application for renewal of my driver's license. These are all simple, clear descriptions of reality. The other person's attitude or motivation does not change the fact that I benefited from his or her effort. Often we take such things for granted. We hurry through our day giving little attention to all the "little" things we are receiving. But are these things really "little?" It only seems so because we are being supported and our attention is elsewhere. But when we run out of gas or lose our glasses, these little things grab our attention and suddenly we realize their true importance. As we list what we receive from another person we are grounded in the simple reality of how we have been supported and cared for. In many cases we may be surprised at the length or importance of such a list and a deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation may be naturally stimulated. Without a conscious shift of attention to the myriad ways in which the world supports us, we risk our attention being trapped by only problems and obstacles, leaving us to linger in suffering and self-pity.


Next we take a look at the other side of the equation. What have I given to the other person? Yoshimoto was a businessman. Each month he would send out statements to his customers and receive similar statements from suppliers. Here are products that were sent and the amount of money received. We receive a similar statement from the bank regarding our checking account. This tells us, to the penny, what our balance is. If we take the efforts of others for granted, we live as if we were "entitled" to such efforts.


If we resent it when people do not fulfill our expectations, we live as if we deserve whatever we want. As we reflect on our relationships, one by one, we begin to see the reality of our life. What is more appropriate - to go through life with the mission of collecting what is owed us, or to go through life trying to repay our debt to others? Even if you think you know the answer, it is not the same as discovering the answer.


The third and final question is the most difficult of all. Mostly we are aware of how other people cause us inconvenience or difficulty. Perhaps somebody cuts us off in traffic, or maybe the person in front of us at the post office has a lot of packages and we are kept waiting. We notice such incidents with great proficiency. But when we are the source of the trouble or inconvenience, we often don't notice it at all. Or if we do, we think, "it was an accident" or "I didn't mean it", or perhaps we simply dismiss it as "not such a big deal." But this question is truly important. Yoshimoto suggested that when we reflect on ourselves, we spend at least 60% of the time considering how we have caused others trouble. His words are echoed by the lives of Franklin, Schweitzer and St. Augustine. If we are not willing to see and accept those events in which we have been the source of others' suffering, than we cannot truly know ourselves or the grace by which we live.


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