Naikan is a structured method of self-reflection that helps people understand themselves, their 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 practice is based on three questions:
- What have I received from (person x)?
- What have I given to (person x)?
- What troubles and difficulties have I caused to (person x)?
A related fourth question, "What troubles and difficulties has (person x) caused me", is purposely ignored in Naikan. Naikan presupposes that we're all naturally good at seeing answers to this fourth question, and that too much focus on this question is responsible for much of one's misery in day-to-day life.
There are many forms of Naikan practice, all focusing on these three questions. The most rigorous form of Naikan is practiced in one week Naikan retreats. Naikan retreats start by focusing on the three questions on the individual's relationship to their mother. The questions can then later be expanded outwards to other relationships. During the sessions a guide comes and listens to the participant from time to time allowing them to put into words what they have discovered.
Today, there are about 40 Naikan centers in Japan and Naikan is used in mental health counseling, addiction treatment, rehabilitation of prisoners, schools, and business. It has also taken root in Europe, with Naikan centers now established in Austria and Germany.
Naikan, and various forms of introspective practice from which it is derived, are also still conducted in a religious context within some Jodo Shinshu temples and communities. In such contexts the three 'Naikan Questions' may be replaced by reflection on a particular religious text, for example the Sutra of Filial Piety (a.k.a Sutra of Parental Benevolence).
A few critics suggest that Naikan could induce low self-esteem or even guilt complexes in some people. However Naikan teachers and practitioners counter that such a criticism is rooted in 'Western' notions of self-hood that differ from attitudes to self in Buddhism; the tradition from which Naikan originates (see Anatta).
The family-relationship focus of traditional Naikan may sometimes be less appropriate to those with fragmented or seriously dysfunctional family backgrounds. However, as with Buddhist metta meditation (mettā bhāvanā), there is no reason why Naikan practice need necessarily take family relationships as starting point. The benefit of looking at family relationships is that these are often most emotionally complex and connected with our sense of 'self'.
The Importance of Self-reflection
The practice of self-reflection goes back many centuries and is rooted in the world’s great spiritual traditions. Early adherents of such practices include the Christian desert hermits and Japanese samurai. More contemporary proponents included Albert Schweitzer, Ben Franklin, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Franklin, in particular, had a rather comprehensive and systematic approach to self-reflection. He developed a list of thirteen virtues and each day he would evaluate his conduct relative to a particular virtue. Daily self-reflection was a fundamental aspect of Franklin’s life.
Formal methods of self-reflection generally involve certain basic characteristics. First, there is the requirement for time which is set aside exclusively for the purpose of self-reflection. Second, use of a space, preferably with some degree of isolation that limits external distraction. And third, the application of questions or structure which helps us examine our lives with an emphasis on our conduct in relation to other people, creatures and objects.
Its structure uses our relationships with others as the mirror in which people can see themselves. We reflect on what we have received from others, what we have given, and what troubles we have caused.
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