Buddhist teacher and author Wendy Shinyo Haylett discusses the practice of Naikan and leads an analytical meditation that uses compassion to reflect on our more difficult relationships without judgement.
(This meditation is part two of our interview with Wendy Shinyo Haylett)
Introduction to Naikan
In this meditation, I will introduce you to a practice of self-examination called Naikan. The word Naikan means looking inside.
He wrote the book, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection. I offer a special thank you to Gregg for introducing me and so many others to this practice. And I am able to share this meditation and practice because of him and my late teacher, the Reverend Koyo Kubose.
Just a little history of Naikan—before we get into it—it was developed by Ishin Yoshimoto in the 1940s. Yoshimoto was a devout Shin Buddhist, and he applied a method of meditation and self-reflection called mishirabe.
This practice was rooted in an awareness of two basic Shin Buddhist principles. The first of these is the boundless compassion given to us by life, and the second is the inherent self-centeredness that is at the core of much of our thoughts and actions. You can see the tension between those two.
Now, these two things are the key to the faith of Shin Buddhism. It’s not a faith in a deity, a Buddha, or a God—even though it could be understood that way—but a faith in the everyday efforts of others to support and care for us.
Or even in the faith, in the things in our lives that support and care for us, like running water or refrigeration, things that were invented, created, and produced, again, by others.
The reality-based examination of our lives can help us to develop a natural sense of gratitude for the support given to us by others, others close to us, and distant others we don’t even know. This support has always been there but goes largely unnoticed and unappreciated.
Naikan helps us realize the care that has always been there and appreciate how we couldn’t live without the support of others.
Now, when doing this reflection, we see how much we have received from all of life and the countless ways we have been loved and cared for. We see that despite our mistakes, despite our own inherent selfishness, we are still supported. We didn’t have to be a certain way or a good person to be supported by life.
We see that despite our mistakes, despite our own inherent selfishness, we are still supported.
Life has not turned its back on us despite any of our failures. Although this is a one-time guided meditation, like any practice of self-reflection, it needs to be repeated. So the awareness we gain doesn’t fade from our current consciousness, smothered by the obstacles and problems of every day.
Life has not turned its back on us despite any of our failures.
Too often—and this is born out by the psychology of negativity bias—we focus on disappointments, hurt, anger, and anxiety. What if instead, we made a practice of focusing on the support, care, and kindness we receive every day?
Settling into the guided practice
So after this introduction, I’ll begin the Naikan meditation practice, the guided practice right now.
First, find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and set an intention to approach this meditation with a non-judgmental and curious mindset, being open to the ideas presented.
And without attaching any negative connotations, sit in a comfortable position with your back straight but relaxed. Your head aligned with your spine, your feet flat on the ground, and your hands resting on your lap or knees.
Now take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to relax.
Think of a person with whom you have an uneasy relationship
Next, think of a person whom you have an uneasy relationship with or tend to have conflicts with. This person could be a partner, a friend, a coworker, a teacher, a parent, or a child.
So next I will guide you in the Naikan reflection, that’s based on three questions.
When you think about this person, contemplate these three questions; you can reflect based on a specific period of time that’s more recent or in the past.
So you ask yourself these questions and I’ll guide you through them one at a time.
The three questions are, What have I received from this person?
Number two, what have I given to this person?
And number three, what trouble and difficulties have I caused this person?
Now these questions seem simple, and they are, but the complexity lies in reflecting on these questions honestly. It’s not a deep intellectual analysis but a challenge to see life just as it is.
What have I received from this person?
So I will use an example to help you frame the exercise for yourself. Reflecting on my mother who passed away in 1997, but who has represented some emotional distress to me, not from particularly harmful behavior on her part, but as a consequence of my sexual orientation and her natural parenting response.
So I first ask, what have I received from my mother? And this is where your reflection begins.
Despite difficulties or challenges in your relationship with the person you are using as the subject of the inquiry, the focus of the first question is on the care and support you receive from them or you have received from them.
Now, with a mother, like in my case, it is easy to see how much loving care you received even prior to your birth, the care she took of her body to make sure you were protected after you were born, the care of you as an infant and as a child. The many things she sacrificed so that you would be happy and healthy.
So in my case, even despite challenging feelings, in this reflection, I am focusing on how much care and support I received from her. And that was true no matter what else I used to feel, or what else I do feel towards her right now.
If you were focusing on your partner, you might look for some of the little things that they do for you every day: cooking, grocery shopping, washing the dishes, picking up after you when you’re in a hurry, reminding you of an appointment, or even telling you you have spinach in your teeth before you walk out the door.
There are many small, seemingly insignificant things that people do for us every single day, things we take for granted.
Now, in doing this reflection on your own, after this guided meditation, you might start a journal and make a list of the things you reflect on in the three questions. And in doing that, it will probably surprise you how long the list can get.
A deeper sense of gratitude will naturally arise. Opening your heart-mind to the grace that is the foundation of all of life.
Opening your heart-mind to the grace that is the foundation of all of life.
Without consciously looking at all the little ways the world supports us, instead, we tend to focus on our problems and frustrations causing a sense of self-pity and suffering.
What have I given to this person?
After you spend about 10 minutes in reflection on the first question, which we won’t do now, you move to the second question.
The second question is, what have I given to this person?
It is our self-cherishing nature to feel as if the world and everyone else owes me; a sense of entitlement is easy to fall into.
Why didn’t so-and-so thank me when I dropped by their groceries for them? Why doesn’t my boss appreciate me? Why is the pizza delivery person so late? You see, it’s what we do.
If we reflect on what we’ve given to another or others, it is easy to see that our balance sheet might be heavily weighted on the side of others giving to me.
So in my case, am I in debt to my mother, or is my mother in debt to me? I think I’m in debt to my mother no matter what our difficulties were.
Now like the first question, pose that second question for your own reflection or self-analysis and take 10 minutes to list specific examples, avoiding generalizations.
What troubles or difficulties have I caused this person?
Now, the third and final question is probably the most challenging, what troubles or difficulties have I caused this person?
Now when I do this, I can come up with millions of things, and when I think about what I’ve given to this person in the second question, I can barely come up with anything.
So this third question, depending on who you are and maybe what some of your psychological triggers are, could be a problem for you. It isn’t for me.
But the question again is what troubles or difficulties have I caused this person? Generally, we focus more on how other people cause us problems or cause us inconvenience.
Maybe somebody cuts us off in traffic or maybe the person in front of us at the post office has a lot of packages and we have to stand there forever.
We are hyperaware of how others cause us problems but when we are the source of the trouble or the inconvenience, we often don’t notice it at all. Or if we do, we think, Oh, it was just an accident, or I didn’t mean it, not such a big deal.
Now, Yoshimoto, the founder of this Naikan practice, suggested that when we reflect on ourselves, we should spend at least 60% of the time considering how we have caused others trouble.
When we reflect on ourselves, we should spend at least 60% of the time considering how we have caused others trouble.
If we are not willing to see and accept those events in which we have been the source of others’ suffering, then we cannot truly know ourselves or know the grace that life offers us every day in millions of small ways.
So in this third question, take at least 10 minutes—maybe 30 minutes, maybe 40 minutes, maybe 50 minutes—and make a list of the troubles and difficulties we have caused others in the past 24 hours.
In my case, reflecting on my relationship with my mother, oh, I created a long list of difficulties from being a moody and emotional teenager to not being there for her many times when she needed me as she began to age.
But more generally on someone you may be focusing on. Did you criticize someone? Did you leave dishes in the sink for someone else to wash? Did you keep someone waiting for a response to an email or a telephone call? Try to be as specific as possible.
Reflecting on the reflections
The last part of this practice, after the three questions, is a more typical sort of analytical meditation. It’s to reflect on the reflections.
What can you learn from what you found in your examination? Review your list carefully and frequently.
What are you aware of that you weren’t aware of before? What have you taken for granted? What do you need to do and what do you need to do differently?
You can do this practice daily prior to bedtime, which is a typical Naikan daily practice.
Or if you’re like me, that becomes too rote and you just start padding your lists, then you can make it a weekly review or a monthly review.
We think we know our own life. But what we know is only an edited version colored by our emotions and narrow vision.
We think we know our own life. But what we know is only an edited version colored by our emotions and narrow vision.
So to end today’s meditation, take a few deep breaths, and bring your attention back to the present moment.
Reflect on how this practice has affected your perspective on the relationship you selected and how it helped you to see things in maybe a more balanced and compassionate way.
It may create a greater sense of empathy or gratitude, and a responsibility towards another person.
Naikan meditation is a practice of self-reflection and awareness, so it’s important to approach it with an open and curious mindset, free from judgment of yourself or others, and free from criticism.
The more you practice Naikan, the more you’ll be able to develop a greater sense of gratitude, compassion, and responsibility towards yourself and others.
When you’re ready, open your eyes to what’s around you.
Take a few moments to ground yourself before moving on with your day.
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