Naikan is a Japanese word that means to “look inside.”

Ishin Yoshimoto used this term to describe a structured method of self-reflection. Ishin was a devotee of Jodo Shinshu, a school of Pure Buddhism and in creating Naikan, he adapted a highly demanding ascetic practice called ‘mishirabe’, that involved going without food, water or sleep for days.

Naikan practice take a less austere approach, but it still involves commitment. Retreats normally last week. Participants spend all of their time in reflection outside of a short twenty-minute work practice, three meals and a shower. When they sit, it is on cushions or pillows in a small area surrounded by curtains or screens.

For reflection, participants are given three questions to contemplate:

  • What have I received from ____________?
  • What have I given to __________?
  • What troubles or difficulties have I caused __________?

The first purpose of these questions is to explore the quality of relationships of those around us. The positive psychology research consistently points to how important social relationships are when assessing happiness. In naikan, participants often start with the relationship they have with their mother.  Reflection period last 90-120 minutes and examine the relationship in segments of three to six years. At the end of each period, a coach enters, listens to what the participant has to share and make suggestions for the next reflection period. Participants continue through a set of reflections to consider the relationships with their father, siblings, spouse, children, and friends.

The second purpose is to show how much you are supported and cared for by those around you. As a daily practice, naikan can be expanded to acknowledge a wide variety of human and non-human items that allowed you to move through the day. I’d have to thank Gregg Krech for writing a wonderful book on Naikan, Aaron Feuerstein for popularizing and not patenting polar fleece, the leftover rice in the fridge that made it easy to make dinner and Matt Mullenweg for WordPress. I could go on to thanking my daughter’s wonderful new friend Hannah, a co-worker who quickly got a call schedule with an upcoming sponsor, autumn, and the airplanes that are built, are flown, and safely maintained to allowed me visit to Maine this week. This is what a naikan reflection list begins to look like.

The most interesting question to me in the naikan technique is the last. Psychology and psychotherapy have long used approaches that ask people to think about those around them, how they have been affected and the feelings that arise. Asking people what role they played in causing harm shifts the lens of self-reflection from being affected to doing the affecting. Ishin considered this practice so important he told participants in retreats to spend 60% of their time on this question alone.

As I have discussed, gratitude takes practice and naikan provides one possible route to improve your practice.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

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