June 17, 2013


Two weeks ago, I attended a psychiatry conference on mindfulness in cultural context. Many of the talks were about contemplative practices from cultures outside North America, and one in particular caught my attention:

The Japanese practice of Naikan (tr: inner-looking or introspection) is a structured method of reflection designed to help people broaden perspective, gain insight about themselves and their relationships, and increase appreciation of the kindnesses of others. Practicing Naikan involves sitting for long periods and reflecting on the following three questions as they relate to various significant others (e.g., parents, children, partners, friends, teachers):

What have I received from this person?
What have I given this person?
What troubles and difficulties have I caused this person?

The objective of Naikan is to generate a realistic view of our behaviour and of the give and take in our relationships. The obvious fourth question (What troubles and difficulties has this person caused me?) is purposely excluded, with the rationale that most of us are already quite adept at pinpointing and obsessing about the inconveniences caused us by others--and that our focus on this aspect of our relationships is responsible for much day-to-day stress and unhappiness. 

What happens when we practice Naikan? Research demonstrates that the practice increases our sense of connectedness with others and improves quality of life. If we once believed ourselves to be alone or to be "self-made," recognition of the kindness and contributions of others increases feelings of security, connection, and gratitude. Insight into the troubles and suffering we've caused others can create change in our behaviour and in our relationships.

In traditional Naikan retreats, practitioners sit in silent isolation for fourteen hours per day for two weeks reflecting on the three questions. This is described as a profound and life-changing experience, but when a week-long retreat isn't accessible or desirable, we can try daily Naikan. Daily Naikan practice means taking time at the end of the day to reflect on the three questions as they relate to the day’s events. What did I receive today? What did I give today? What troubles and difficulties did I cause today? Even trivial-seeming instances of give and take such as "My colleague brought me a coffee" and "I cut off a guy in traffic" are included.

Daily Naikan may not be as profound an experience as a week-long retreat, but I noticed that just keeping these questions in mind as I went about my daily life in the past two weeks changed my perspective. I was more mindful of the kindnesses I received and more aware of the hassles and difficulties I caused--with the end result that my behaviour was more flexible and more giving. I drove a friend to the airport, agreed to give a presentation as a favour to a supervisor, and offered my apartment to visiting friends so they won't have to book a hotel. I softened my stance against a colleague who gets under my skin, changed my schedule to accommodate a client, and called up friends just to see how they're doing. The first two Naikan questions helped me appreciate the love and guidance I receive and less apt to focus on the support or attention I don't receive. The third Naikan question helped me recognize times that I was needy, irritating, or rude--which will help me change my behaviour.


NB: Naikan has clear parallels to the What Went Well exercise and other positive psychology exercises such as keeping a gratitude journal--and the same reported outcome: improved quality of life. Naikan can also be considered to be a form of mindfulness practice in that it involves attention and awareness, and making an effort to see ourselves and our circumstances clearly.


  1. Thanks for a really interesting post! It sounds like a really worthwhile practice, and makes a lot of sense. I'll definitely be trying it out for myself.

  2. Because I struggle sometimes with doing too much for others, I'm wondering if this practice's focus on selflessness might tend to reinforce that. However I think about being mindful of what others give me might allow me to reflect on what I allow others to do for me, so that might balance it somewhat. Women in general are raised to be other-focused to the neglect of their own selves (martyrdom), so the absence of self focus in this practice may make it a poor fit for some women.