At the heart of healing, many persons speak of how practicing gratitude proves life-giving. I learned about Naikan, a fascinating Japanese spiritual practice of gratitude this past weekend while speaking at an international Sage-ing Conference in Seattle on Pilgrimage through Loss. Barbara Sarah led this workshop, a psychologist who uses this method in both her counseling practice and with a large Oncology Support Program in New York that she founded. Influenced by principles of Shin Buddhism, she believes this systematic structured method of self reflection proves immensely helpful in promoting compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, and attention with her clients and cancer survivors. It sounds deceptively simple, but it obviously has layers of meaning.
THREE KEY QUESTIONS TO ASK OURSELVES EACH DAY
1) What Did I Receive?
2) What Did I Give?
3) What Troubles and Difficulties Did I Cause? (I chuckled at this one thinking of how often in a day I interrupt Jim for help on computer problems!)
The suggestion is to take a few minutes every day reflecting on these three questions. They can be applied to a specific person (i.e. what did I receive or give from my spouse, parent, child, boss, etc.), general (i.e. all that we receive each day, like the sun rose, or rain for the parched land), or even to an object (I experimented with the newspaper and was surprised by some undercurrents of gifts, like a legal system that addresses injustice, or a fire department responded to an alarm).
The Key is in Specific Details
For example, even before 8 a.m. one morning when I practiced this in the broad sense, I noticed (that’s the ‘pay attention’ encouragement) that the newspaper man delivered the paper, the internet brought email from friends and global news, hot water came from the shower, Jim made a pot of decaf coffee for me and walked down to to box to bring up the paper, and Allie our golden retriever welcomed us with her exuberant joy of life. I had given Jim and Allie a morning hug, fixed Jim an aronia berry smoothie (a gift from our garden), etc…..you get the idea! Later, I interrupted Jim’s reading to ask him to go to the store because extra guests were suddenly coming for dinner, a staff person at Whitworth needed to leave a scholarship event go get name tags at the last minute because I hadn’t thought of it before, etc.
The idea of the Naikam reflection is to keep us realistic about the facts of our life and how interconnected we really are to one another and to embrace our days with the spirit of gratitude. If you notice, there is no question four that asks “What troubles and difficulties did others cause us today?” because the sense is we are all quite aware of who upsets and disappoints us which is often the source of our unhappiness.
What About Creating Healthy Discomfort?
My one concern when hearing about this was did the Naikan practice stifle or even silence healthy expressions of discontent, such as emerge from activists addressing significant injustices in our culture like civil rights, personnel issues in the workplace, or emerging global concerns like climate change? Sarah responded that she actually was an activist too and that the third question didn’t contribute to limiting her thoughtful participation in issues. The attempt is a realistic assessment, so it is feasible that the answer to number three could be an intentional attempt to create awareness of a problem, such as “I wrote my congressman expressing concern for coal trains coming through the city of Spokane.” More often, however, we fail to even notice where we create difficulties and this practice could help us expand to see more of the other person’s point of view on an issue.
I’m presently reading Gregg Krech’s book Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection to understand more. He is the Executive Director of the ToDo Institute, an education and retreat center in Vermont. Naikan has a growing field of mental health professionals in Japan and Europe using this practice as a tool in the areas of alcoholism, addictions, marriage and family therapy, conflict resolution in the workforce, and with children struggling with behavior issues. I’ll write more as I learn more. It’s just one more tool, like the gratitude journals, that draw us to a profound sense of thanksgiving for blessings that often go unnoticed.