“What did I receive today? What did I give today? What troubles did I cause others today?” These are the questions that form the core of the Japanese meditation practice called Naikan. It is not about keeping score; rather, it is a way of putting life in perspective and acknowledging our interdependence.
The word “Naikan” can be translated as “inside looking”. The practice was developed by Yoshimoto Ishin in Japan as an accessible method of structured self-reflection. In the U.S., the ToDo Institute offers programs in Naikan and other methods of purposeful living. They refer to the practice of Naikan as being like a “shift from a zoom lens to a wide-angle lens”.
So what did I receive today?
- A good cup of coffee made for me by my husband
- An invitation from my friend for dinner
- Pleasure from the butterflies attracted to our yard by the bush my husband planted
- I wore a robe that was given to me by my mother
- A walk on safe sidewalks and streets in my neighborhood built by my county government
What did I give today?
- I bought groceries and made dinner for my family
- I invited my neighbor to walk with me
- I listened to the chatty person who kept me from my work
- I collected things I no longer need so I can give them to charity
What troubles did I cause others today?
- I kept the light on when my husband was trying to sleep
- I hurried my son when he was talking to me so that I could read the newspaper
- I was impatient with people in the store parking lot
Practicing Naikan reflection can help alleviate stress too. By stopping to appreciate the things other people do for us, we acknowledge that they have a choice, and we can’t just expect that they will do what we want. That helps us let go of rigid ideas of the way things are “supposed” to be. At the same time, by reflecting on the trouble we might be causing others, we become aware of the ripple effect of our actions and the possibility that they might be the source of some of the conflict in our lives.
Asking the questions can be revealing. Did my impatience impact how someone else’s day went? Am I failing to appreciate someone who is doing a lot for me? What would others say that I gave them?
Taking the time to examine my day, even down to the tiniest interactions, takes me out of the “I’m the center of the universe” mindset and reminds me that every day I depend on others to do their jobs, to make me smile and to challenge me to be my best self. President Obama’s recent comment, “You didn’t build that,” was taken out of context and criticized by many of his opponents. But what I think he meant to say was, “You didn’t build that alone.” Our success, good fortune, and wellbeing are not just a result of our own choices, actions and temperament; they are built on the cumulative choices and actions of people who came before us and who work and live alongside us.
As Albert Schweitzer once said, “Just as the wave cannot exist for itself, but is ever a part of the heaving surface of the ocean, so must I never live my life for itself, but always in the experience which is going on around me.”