The Practice of Naikan: How to Express Gratitude in Japan
The concepts of gratefulness and humility exist in practically every facet of Japanese culture and language, from the use of formal speech when talking to superiors and the subtle gradations of bowing to giving lavish compliments and always conducting oneself appropriately in the homes of others.
The philosophical sentiment underlying this cultural ethos is best captured in the practice of Naikan: a structured method of self-reflection originally developed in Japan.
According to the ToDo Institute, an educational center devoted to natural alternatives for mental health and wellness, “Naikan is a Japanese word which means ‘inside looking’ or ‘introspection.’ A more poetic translation is ‘seeing oneself with the mind’s eye.’ It is a practice of self-reflection that helps us to understand ourselves, our relationships and the fundamental nature of human existence.”
Three questions make up the bulk of Naikan: What have I received from the people in my life? What have I given to them? What troubles and difficulties have I caused them?
These three questions are used to reflect on people in our lives, whether acquaintances, family members, or significant others. During these reflections, we may discover how much of our lives has been dependent on others working and giving of themselves to make our lives possible.
It's easy for us to notice how others have slighted us by being late, lying to us, and not living up to our expectations. But what about us? What do we do that causes trouble for others, both loved ones and strangers?
By implementing Naikan into our lives we may come to realize that we’ve taken far more than we can give and been given far more than we can ever possibly repay—no matter how much we give of ourselves. The point of this isn't to crucify ourselves with guilt, but rather to allow us to become more conscious of how fortunate we are, how indebted we are to others—to become tremendously grateful for everything that we’ve been given throughout our lives.
Such self-induced epiphanies can turn resentment, grudges, and blame into humility, appreciation, compassion, and gratitude. They make it easier for us to step back and examine the string of moments that define our lives rather than brood on each of life’s inevitable flaws and disappointments from atop our high-horses.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we encourage you to find out more about this Japanese practice in Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection, a collection of introductory essays, parables, and inspirations by ToDo Institute Executive Director Gregg Krech that explains what Naikan is and how it can be applied to our daily lives.
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Written by Nikolas Bunton