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in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: June 6, 2021

Podcast #671: Begin the New Year by Reflecting on These 3 Life-Changing Questions

As one year ends and another begins, it’s natural to reflect on both the past and the future — who we were, who we are, and who we want to become.

My guest today offers three questions that can help make that self-reflection truly fruitful, insightful, and possibly even life-changing. His name is Gregg Krech, he’s executive director of the ToDo Institute, which promotes principles of psychology based on Eastern traditions, and the author of Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection. Gregg and I begin our conversation with what Naikan is, and how this structured method of self-reflection can hold up a mirror to your life, helping you gain greater self-awareness, and see reality, and the way people perceive you, more clearly. Gregg then walks us through Naikan’s three rich, incisive questions and how to use them to help you discover how you really show up and operate in the world. We end our conversation with how to incorporate these reflections into your daily routine, and even make it a special ritual with which to ring in the new year.

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Show Highlights

  • What is naikan? What’s its history?
  • How naikan fits into the idea of morita (action oriented) therapy
  • The value of self-reflection 
  • Why we often miss how much other people are doing for us
  • Moving from a complaint-based life to one of gratitude 
  • The power of asking yourself what you’ve received in the last year 
  • How to work reflection into your daily routine 
  • Why it’s important to look at what you’ve given to others
  • The hardest question of all: what are the difficulties I’ve caused?
  • Turning naikan into a regular ritual 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

naikan by Gregg Krech book cover.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. As one year ends and another begins, it’s natural to reflect on both and the past and the future. Who we were, who we are and who we want to become. My guest today offers three questions that can help make that self-reflection truly fruitful, insightful and possibly even life-changing.

His name is Gregg Krech. He’s executive director of the ToDo Institute, which promotes the principle of psychology based on Eastern traditions and the author of Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection. Gregg and I begin our conversation with what Naikan is, and how this structured method of self-reflection can hold a mirror to your life, helping you gain greater self-awareness and see reality and the way people perceive you more clearly.

Gregg then walks us through icons Naikan’s three rich incisive questions and how to use them to help you discover how you really show up and operate in the world. We end our conversation with how to incorporate these reflections into your daily routine, and even make it a special ritual with which to ring in the New Year. After the show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/reflect.

Alright, Gregg Krech welcome back to the show.

Gregg Krech: Well, it’s good to be back Brett. Thanks very much.

Brett McKay: So we had you on the show, I think a year ago, it might have been two years ago. It’s… Time has flown. I’ve lost… My sense of time in 2020 is completely messed up. But anyways, we had you on to talk about Morita therapy and your work with it, which is a type of Japanese psychology. Today I want to talk about something that’s adjacent to that, which is a practice that you work with and help people work with. It’s called Naikan, another Japanese practice. So let’s start off. What is Naikan? Who developed it and what’s its back story?

Gregg Krech: Well, Naikan is a method of self-reflection that was developed in Japan. It was developed by a man by the name of Yoshimoto Ishin back in the… Oh, 1930s, 1940s was really kind of time when it first started to arise. But it was preceded by a kind of ancient tradition of self-reflection called mishirabe, which went back hundreds of years prior to that. And was affiliated originally with a form of Buddhism called Shin Buddhism, which is actually the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan today.

It’s an interesting form of Buddhism. Not a lot of Americans know about it, but it’s based or grounded in a concept called tariki. And tariki means something like “other power”. So we can look at, for instance, in the personal development arena, you hear a lot of things that are based on jiriki which means “self-power” as opposed to tariki which means “other power”.

And self-power is kind of the message that we give to people, “Look, if you wanna change your life, you gotta do it yourself, nobody’s gonna do it for you.” And it’s a healthy message in a lot of situations. Tariki is the message that you can’t do anything by yourself. You cannot do anything by yourself because anything that you try to do requires the support of other people, other objects, forms of energy, money, and so you’re really dependent on other things in the world for being able to just live, for example, or make any changes in your life.

So it’s a very different kind of conceptual foundation that you find in Naikan than the other form of Japanese therapy that we talked about last time, which is Morita therapy.

Brett McKay: So for those who haven’t heard that episode, just high level, what is Morita therapy? What’s the basic story behind it?

Gregg Krech: Well, Morita therapy is often called “psychology of action”, and it’s also from Japan. But it really is a very purpose-oriented type of approach to psychology, which has people focused primarily on what they can do and what they can’t do, and accepting what they cannot do. But really putting their energy into what’s controllable and what they can do. I think it’s probably the most popular approach that we teach.

And the book that I’ve written about is the most popular, best selling of the books, because most people, particularly going into a new year, are thinking, “I wanna be able to accomplish my goals this year. I wanna get more done.” And so Morita therapy is a really good tool for helping us to deal with the psychological obstacles of accomplishing what we wanna do and getting things done in our life.

Brett McKay: How is Naikan related to Morita therapy? Is there a connection there some time in the development of Naikan?

Gregg Krech: There really isn’t historically much of a connection. They were really developed from separate paths. Morita is also connected in a informal way to Buddhism through Zen. It’s a different form of Buddhism. But they kind of came together in Japan. And a man that I trained with, David Reynolds, really pulled them together.

I think they complement each other very well. One being the action-oriented side of this material, and the other being the reflective side of this material. And I think we need to have both in our lives.

Brett McKay: Right, that’s… Also you see that in the West through the dichotomy between contemplation and action. Like Aristotle talked about that too. So let’s talk about Naikan. What is the goal of Naikan and the self-reflection that you’re doing there?

Gregg Krech: Well, I think the goal is simply to really see reality more clearly. And it sounds like something that we wouldn’t have to make any effort to do because most of us go through life feeling like we’ve already… Are already able to kind of see reality and specifically see our conduct, in terms of how we’re living very clearly.

But I like to think about Naikan as a kind of tool that’s like a mirror. So if you’re getting ready to go out either to work or for the evening, most people probably spend at least a moment in front of a mirror, just to kind of see what they look like. To see if their hair looks okay, or if their clothes are presentable. You kind of glance at things. You might spend more time than that. But that gives you a reflection so you actually can see yourself. Because without a mirror, we’re actually very limited.

I can see a good part of the front of my body up to maybe about just below my neck, but I can’t see my face. I can’t see my head, and I can’t see almost any part of the back of my body. So I really need a mirror to be able to get a fuller look. In fact, if you go to a barber shop or a hair stylist they’ll often use a second mirror, so you can kind of see how your hair looks in the back after it’s been cut.

I think Naikan is a kind of mirror. It allows us to really see more clearly what other people see. And often what we think of ourselves, how we think we’re looking in the world, how people are perceiving us, is not the same as how other people are actually thinking of us. So Naikan actually is a way of using this method, this method of self-reflection, to kind of get a sense of what it’s like for other people to actually have to deal with us.

Whether it’s at work or members of our family, or in a professional capacity. And that’s not a perspective that we naturally have. It’s a perspective that we actually, in order to take, we have to actually step back from our normal perspective to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes and to say, “What is it like to deal with Gregg as for instance, his wife or his daughter?”

Brett McKay: What is it that we usually miss that other people are seeing, but we’re not seeing?

Gregg Krech: Well, it really varies from person to person. But I think one of the things that we miss is often how much other people are doing for us, because we’re often not paying very much attention to that. And that has to do… When we talk a little bit about the reflective questions, we can discuss that further. But one of the things we miss is really the level of support and care people are providing for us.

But another thing that we miss, and it’s really very hard to get in touch with, is how what we’re doing is causing trouble and difficulty to others. How we’re inconveniencing others. How we’re closing problems for others. That’s often something that we overlook. We focus a lot on how other people cause us problems.

And if we’re driving to work on the highway, somebody kind of cuts us off and goes in front of us and almost causes an accident, and of course our adrenaline gets peaked. And we walk into the office and we tell everybody in the office, “Boy, I almost had an accident on the way to work because this jerk kind of cut right in front of me.”

But if we cut in front of somebody else, which we probably did accidentally at some point, we don’t usually tell anybody about it. We’ll usually dismiss in our minds by saying, “Oh, I didn’t see that car there.” And then we’re kind of done with it. So one of the things that we can look at becoming more aware of is essentially how we’re causing trouble and difficulties to others, which is a much more constructive type of information than looking at how other people are causing us trouble.

Brett McKay: What’s the end goal? So the whole goal of Naikan is get a better idea of what reality really looks like. How other people perceive us, not just what we see. What happens once we do that? What is supposed to happen?

Gregg Krech: Well, I think that… I would say that one of the foundation or main goals of this process of self-reflection is really to shift from a complaint-based life to a life of genuine appreciation. So a complaint-based life is something that many of us are familiar with probably because we’ve seen other live that kind of way, and we know what’s it’s like to be around somebody who’s constantly complaining.

But of course there are times when we’re that person and we’re constantly complaining. And even when we don’t complain out loud we may be just going through a litany of complaints about, “What a terrible day this was. I’m so glad this day is over.” Or in this case, “What a terrible year this was. I can’t wait to have this year and get on to the next year.|

I think as we reflect on our life and the world around us and the people around us, and we get a clearer sense of what’s really going on that we’re able to see, we’re much more likely to develop a really genuine or authentic sense of appreciation for our life.

Brett McKay: So it’s therapeutic. It sounds like what some people try to do with cognitive behavioral therapy. One of the issues that that’s trying to solve in the West is wrong thinking. Or just thinking that’s not… That doesn’t see reality. And most times what you do is you start… You only see the negative, and cognitive behavioral therapy uses logic to be like, “Well, no things aren’t as bad as you think they are.” It sounds like Naikan, the self-reflection Naikan, that’s another way to get at that problem.

Gregg Krech: I think that we’re not actually trying in Naikan to change our thinking, we’re actually trying to change our seeing. More specifically trying to change where we’re putting our attention. And there’s a maxim that we’ve developed that says, “Your experience of life is not based on your life, it’s based on what you pay attention to.”

And so if you just think about being at the end of a day. Or again, let’s use the example, since the timing is that we’re approaching the New Year, the end of the year. If what we’re paying attention to most of the time is the infection counts and the virus statistics, and the political turmoil, and our personal troubles and difficulties, then our experience of life is really painted by that kind of information, the kind of things that we’re attending to.

But when we actually pay attention to the other parts of life, which is that, in my case, that I for instance have not gotten sick. I have a car that drives, that drives me around and it works fine. I have food in my refrigerator. My daughter graduated from college this year even though there wasn’t a ceremony. When we start looking at life in a more complete way, we’re much more likely, I think, to develop a genuine sense of appreciation.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s dig into this self-reflection Naikan. And it’s really, it’s simple, it’s just three questions. But you can go deep with each of these questions. So the first one is… When you do a Naikan self-reflection, you ask, “What have I received from blank?” So why begin with this question?

Gregg Krech: Well, I think the question of looking at what you’ve received… And there’s a movement in positive psychology towards looking at how to develop more gratitude. And so you’ll see this whole idea for instance, of gratitude journaling. Putting down the things that you feel grateful for. This question is very carefully worded because it’s not asking you what you feel grateful for, it’s asking you to identify in a more factual way, “What have you received?”

So if I just use that question right now. I’m receiving the use of this microphone that I’m speaking into. The use of the technology that you’re using on your show to record our conversation. I’m receiving your attention and your invitation for me to be your guest on the show today.

I’m also receiving electricity and WiFi, a nice quiet room to basically sit and talk to you in. I’ve got a window in the room, so there’s some sunlight coming in. My eyesight is working pretty well. And I can go on and on with a list of what I’m receiving just right at this very moment. And the reality is that most of the time, for instance, as I go through the day, I’m not aware of most of those things.

I’m not aware that for instance, I’m receiving fresh air and oxygen that’s infusing my lungs and allowing me to breathe properly. And so, when we pause and we do this kind of reflection, we essentially expand our awareness of how the world is supporting us and caring for us.

There’s a neuroscientist by the name of Rick Hanson. And he developed, I think, a great metaphor for why this question’s important because he talks about our natural tendency… In fact, he attributes it to the way our brain is actually wired together from a neuro-scientific standpoint. He talks about the natural tendency we have to really notice the problems, challenges, threats, difficulties in our life.

That those things tend to stick with us in a way that he connects with the image of velcro, the way a piece of velcro sticks to the other side of itself. But when things are going on, like we have fresh air to breathe, or we have a cup of coffee to drink, or we have hot water in the shower, or our car starts in the morning, we tend not to notice those things.

And so that’s more like Teflon. So we can think of this tendency that we have, which goes really into the way our brains are wired, as the difference between velcro, of noticing troubles and problems in our life, and Teflon, which is the way that the things that are actually supporting and caring for us tend to just kind of get noticed incidentally and then kind of slide right back off to become invisible.

Brett McKay: Sorry, I wanna reiterate you’re not… This isn’t based on feelings. This is kind of like Morita therapy. With Morita, you’re not really focused on your feelings, you’re focused on action you can take. The same with Naikan. You’re not thinking about what you feel grateful for, you’re just thinking about factually, what are the things that I receive from different people or organizations, or even just the Earth itself, the universe itself on a daily basis.

Gregg Krech: Yes, it’s actually very objective. And it’s one of the things that I think is a common denominator in Morita and Naikan, is their both what I would call reality based therapies. In both cases, you’re trying to see reality clearly. And the fact that I’m receiving oxygen to breathe right now is just simply an objective fact of my existence.

And the fact that I have WiFi that I’m using in order to have this conversation with you is just a fact of my existence. And so those facts remain, whether I feel grateful for those things or I don’t feel grateful for them.

Brett McKay: And so when you’re reflecting on this question, how do you go about it? Do you just think about things in general that you received that day? Or do you focus on a relationship? Or do you focus on… What’s the best way to go about this when you reflect upon this question? ‘Cause I mean, like I said, there are so many things. You could spend hours thinking about all of the things we receive on a daily basis.

Gregg Krech: Yeah, which is actually a great thing to do every once in a while, particularly if you’re feeling a lot of self-pity or depression, is to really spend a couple of hours and see how long of a list you can make. But there are different ways to use this question, and you can direct the question towards the world as a whole, which is to some extent what I’ve been doing in the examples I’m giving. Or you can direct it towards a specific person.

And my wife, Linda and I, who’ve been working together for 25 years or more have… We use this as part of our morning routine. And we… The whole thing, this part of it takes probably about five or six minutes. And what we do is we sit down and we say, “Let’s just reflect on each other for the previous day.”

So we have probably three minutes of silence. And I’m thinking of, in part, the first question, “What did I receive from Linda yesterday?” And I’m thinking, “Well, she got me a hot cup of coffee, and she made a really nice healthy salad for dinner. She kept me company on a walk that we took at lunch time so I can get some exercise. And she picked up the mail from the post-office. And she listened to some music that I was trying to compose and gave me some feedback.”

So I’m just coming up with a very practical list of what I received from her the day before. And she’s doing the same thing in her three minutes, and we’re using these other questions as well. And then we actually just share that with each other for a couple of minutes. We find that it’s a really great way to start the day, that we look back at the previous 24 hours.

And most importantly, we found that using this process keeps us connected to what the other person in the marriage is actually giving to us. I would say without exaggerating that if it wasn’t for this process over the past 25 years, I’m not sure we would still be married.

This really has kept us from falling into the trap that I think is very easy in a relationship or a marriage, where you start getting focused on what the other person isn’t doing, that you really want them to do. Or what they are doing that really aggravates you. And that’s where your attention goes, and that’s what your experience of the marriage starts to become.

So this is kind of an antidote to that. And even by just taking a few minutes in the morning, we’re able to kind of rekindle a sense of appreciation for one another.

Brett McKay: You can do this with relationships that aren’t intimate. You can do this with anonymous relationships or sort of transactional relationships. Like the example I came with. So here’s, we’re in the pandemic. You order food from DoorDash, from Pei Wei. It gets, it magically arrives at your door.

Well, there’s a lot of people involved that made that happen. There’s the DoorDash driver, there’s the people at Pei Wei that cooked the food, there’s the systems that were developed that allowed you to order online, order with a click of a… Thing on your screen with your smartphone. People who grew the food, picked the food. You can really just keep going back and back and back and real seeing, “Boy, a lot of people made this pad thai possible.”

Gregg Krech: That’s right. I think what you just shared with us in terms of starting that list is just an example of taking a particular incident or event, just receiving food being delivered from a restaurant, and you begin to see the endless roots of what it took for you to get that meal. If we don’t do that, then we can get pulled in the direction of the only thing that we notice is that the food isn’t as hot as we wanted it.

And that becomes our experience. It’s like, “What’s wrong with these DoorDash people? It took him so long to get here and now, the food’s cold and now, I have to heat it up.” And so again, you look at this idea of how you make that shift from a complaint-based life to a life of genuine sense of appreciation. I think reflection and attention are the two basic ingredients in that recipe.

Brett McKay: And what I’ve done, I’ve done this reflection, and I follow the instructions. I don’t think about things that you feel grateful for. I just sort of focus on the objective, like things I received. What I found was the natural result with that is I started to feel grateful.

Gregg Krech: Yeah, it’s just I think that… And again, that may not always happen, and that’s okay too, because that’s not what we’re… That’s not the goal, in a sense. It’s the, it’s a benefit that just arises naturally. And so ironically, we actually can get to the point where we realize that actually, just feeling grateful is something that we can be grateful for, because it’s not something we’re controlling. It’s happening to us.

But the idea that we go through that process of looking at how we’re supported, whether it be by food delivery, or whether it be by our partner in our relationship, and then we just allow gratitude to rise naturally or not to arise naturally. There’s no effort that’s involved in order to try to get us to feel a particular way.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I really like that ’cause when… I’ve tried the gratitude journal and that the question like, “What do you feel grateful for?” The first time you do it, it’s like, “I can come with a whole bunch of stuff.” But then after a while, you’re like, “Man, I can’t, I don’t feel like I… I can’t feel anything anymore. I’m just… It’s not there anymore.” But when you just think about, “Okay, what have you received?” Man, I can just, every day, I can just keep listing stuff, 365 days of the year.

Gregg Krech: And I think that it’s a great practice because, for instance, I’m wearing a Timex watch right now that was my dad’s watch. He died about six years ago, and passed this watch on to me, and I wear it almost every day. And any time that I’m reflecting, I almost always remember to think about how many times a day I’ve looked to see what time it was, and I’ve looked at this watch I received from him.

So in a way, this gift remains alive for me, and his kindness and my memory of him remain alive, because I’m doing that kind of reflection, and noticing it by just being able to say, “Yeah, I received the use of this watch, which allows me, very easily, to tell what time it is at any given moment in the day.”

Brett McKay: And beyond just recognizing and sort of seeing reality for what it was by recognizing the things that you receive from different people throughout the day, should you go and tell people? Like recognize, like go people publicly and say, “Hey, you did this for me. Thanks so much.”

Gregg Krech: I think that’s a great question. And I think, again, there’s nothing in Naikan that suggests that once you see that somebody’s done something for you or helped you or supported you, that you have to do something for them or say thank you. But in many cases, it just arises as a natural response. So if we compare it to the 12-step program, there’s a whole process, for instance, of making amends.

It’s one of the steps, that after you’ve done this inventory of yourself, and I mentioned the 12-step program because it’s very consistent, even though it’s a different process. It’s very consistent with Naikan, and there’s a number of people who have been involved in the 12-step program who have then also been working with Naikan and found the two to be very complimentary.

But in Naikan, you’ve reached the end point when you’ve actually seen the answers to these questions. And then whatever feelings arise is just what arises naturally, and whatever actions you decide to take. I can give you a quick little example, which is, I live in this rural community, Monkton, Vermont, and they just put up a community dog park, a fenced-in area at this fields just about two miles from where we live, and happened to be living with my daughter who just graduated from the university, who just got a puppy.

And so the timing of this was great, and we take her over there, and she can run around in this huge fenced-in area. Other dogs come and they play. And so in recognizing that, in reflecting on how valuable that’s been, I just decided to write a letter to the… I found out who was on the committee that got this dog park built, and just wrote a letter, both congratulating and thanking them, and offering to bake a loaf of bread for each member of the committee.

And it’s not because there’s something in the process that says, “Oh, I should do something in return.” It’s just because I just have this natural feeling, this natural response of wanting to do something in return in order to give something back to these people who put in a lot of time and energy to get this thing developed.

Brett McKay: Alright, so that first question, “What have I received from?” That, if someone just did that question for their self-reflection today, I think they’d get a lot out of it, but it doesn’t stop there. The second question…

Gregg Krech: Yeah, and I agree with you. I think that sometimes, people, they say, “Oh, I don’t have time.” And you just, if you just spend five minutes and just do that first question, I think you do get a lot out of it. But as we’ll see, I think if you take some time to do the other two questions, it actually begins to build on the first question.

Brett McKay: Alright, so the second question is, “What have I given to?” fill in the blank. So what’s the purpose of this question? What are we trying to do?

Gregg Krech: So this is just the reverse, we’re just looking at the… We’re just changing the direction. If we use your example of DoorDash, we’re thinking, “Well, what did I give? So I paid for the meal that was given to me. There was a fee added. I gave a tip to the driver,” maybe. So we’re looking at what you gave in the situation.

And so, when we look at these two questions side by side, we now see the give and take of our lives, either during this period of time or in relation to this particular relationship. So if I was to do this somewhat thoroughly, if I could, in relation to my wife for a 24-hour period for yesterday, and she was to do the same thing, I would basically see all the things I received from her and I would identify what I had given to her.

And that is a wonderful reconciliation to look at because you see the debits and credits. And the man who developed Naikan, Yoshimoto Ishin, he was a very devout religious person, but he was also a very successful business person. And he wrote that he developed these first two questions, kind of working from a accounting or business framework.

Because his company, which made artificial leather for Japanese cars back in the ’60s and ’70s, that his company would send out a statement to their clients saying, “Here’s how much product we shipped to, and here’s how much money you basically paid. And either you have a credit or you owe us some money.”

He saw this as kind of more of a spiritual reconciliation based on our life. “So I went through the day yesterday, this is what I received from the world: Food from the refrigerator, air to breathe, my car worked, my wife made a nice salad, this whole list of things, a hot shower. And here’s what I gave: I walked the dog, I fed the dog. I helped my daughter with a particular question she had about the computer. And now, I look at these things side by side.”

And for me, personally, and I always encourage people to deal with this freshly, but for me, personally, almost all the time, what I find, no matter what I’m looking at, is that I’ve received more than I gave. When I first went to Japan to do my first training in this material, I spent two weeks going through my entire life, 16 hours a day, just reflecting on my life using these three questions and looking at every relationship in the same way. “What did I receive from this girl I dated when I was in high school for those two years? What did I give to her?”

And in every single case, I found that I had received more than I had given. So one of the things that happened is I changed my self-image, kind of. Changed because it had to change, ’cause I had always thought of myself as a very giving person, but in reality, it was more accurate to say that I was a receiving person, or some people would say I’m a taking person. But I received much more than I was giving in all these relationships.

And that astounded me and it made me, on the one hand, feel guilty that I wasn’t giving more or doing more, but on the other hand, it made me feel more cared for and supported than I had ever felt in my entire life. This is when I was back in my early 30s, it’s over 30 years ago now.

I think when we look at these two questions side by side, we begin to get a sense of the balance or imbalance in our receiving and giving. And in situations where we’re receiving more, again, there’s often this natural sense that, “I wanna do something more for my wife, I wanna do something more for the community, I wanna do something more for the planet,” whatever it is that we’re looking at.

And it’s not based on some commandment that I should be a better person and be kinder to people, it’s based on just a natural sense that arises in me that I wanna do more for others because I feel like my life has been so blessed.

Brett McKay: In conjunction, when you were talking about this question, “What have I given to?” You quoted this article from the 1940s, Forbes article. It’s called Try Giving Yourself Away, and it’s really… I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I read about it. What’s the big idea there and how is it connected to this question of “What have I given to?”

Gregg Krech: Well, it’s an interesting article by this man going back into the ’40s, where he just really tries to look for opportunities for how he can do things when he’s out and about, how he can give things to other people, including just feedback or advice in situations where that’s called for, and he tells a lot of stories in that book.

And I think that one of the things for me that that really has gotten me to see is that even in situations where I’m making a special effort… Now, I’ll use the example of baking bread, even though I haven’t done this for these people yet, but let’s say I, tomorrow, I’d bake a loaf of sourdough bread for one of the people on the dog park committee, and I deliver it over there. And I think, “You know, that was kind of a nice thing that I did. They made this dog park, but at least I did something in return.”

But here’s this question of, “What did I receive in order to do that?” So I’m trying to actually do something that’s nice, I’m trying to respond to my natural sense that I wanna do something to help repay these people for what they did that has benefited me. But in order to do that, I needed to get flour, I needed to have a baking board, I needed to have a good oven, and I needed to have water, good fresh water for the bread and some salt, all those ingredients.

I actually needed to have sourdough starter, which was, now that I think of it as we’re talking, was a Christmas gift from my daughter from two years ago. I still have the same sourdough starter that I’ve kept up for the past two years in the refrigerator, so that went into the bread. And I began to see that even in my efforts to try to give something or do something for others, to try to give myself away, I’m dependent on all of these other people and things and forms of energy just to be able to do that.

So I’m very humbled by that process. It really makes me feel very humbled to think about that even in a situation where I’m doing something that seems kind and giving, I have to receive so much to be able to do that.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it really shows the interdependence of relationships.

Gregg Krech: Yeah, and I think that interdependence, that principle, which is very easy to comprehend intellectually, and exists, I think, in virtually every spiritual tradition in the world. But when you actually do this kind of reflection, you start learning about how that’s working in a very mechanical way, in a very practical way in your day-to-day life. And it’s a very different thing, I think, to experience it practically than it is to just consider it to be like, “Oh, this is a beautiful, spiritual principle.”

Brett McKay: Alright, so reflecting then on, “What have I received from?” and also, in conjunction with, “What have I had given to?” there’s no end game with this. With Naikan therapy, there’s no goal that you’re supposed to do something, but the… One of the natural results is that you’re maybe gonna wanna do more, you maybe wanna serve more, or maybe just be more helpful, more useful to people.

I love in the book, you give different suggestions on how you can do. It doesn’t have to be big. An email of encouragement, a text of encouragement, picking up litter, really small things that serves its purpose.

Gregg Krech: Sometimes, I’ll get an email, and you probably have had this experience, you get an email or even a short message just saying, “You know, I really love what you’re doing,” or, “I loved your show,” or, “I loved your book.” And it goes into a little bit of detail, and it makes your day to get that kind of feedback.

And you think about what was the cost of that to the person who wrote it? About maybe two minutes or three minutes of their time, and pressing the send button on their phone or computer. So we’re capable of actually spreading a lot of joy and happiness and gratitude in the world with, in many cases, a very small investment of our energy.

Brett McKay: Okay. So we talked about, “What have I received from? What have I had given to?” Let’s talk about this third question, which is, “What troubles and difficulties did I cause, blank?” So what are we doing with this question?

Gregg Krech: Well, this is the hardest question, and this is the question that people question most often because it’s not a question that makes us usually feel good. I often tell people that the process of doing this kind of reflection is not a process that’s designed to make us feel good. It’s a process that’s designed to help us see the reality of our lives.

And so we’re looking at this question, “How did I cause inconvenience, problems, troubles to my wife, to my daughter, to just other people that I’ve been around for a certain period for the past day or the past month?” And it’s a difficult question to look at. But the best example of why I think this is effective is I can go back to studies that they did in Japan in the 1960s, where they used Naikan in the prison system over a period of years, and they did research.

And they had people who were in prison who were convicted of crimes, in some cases, serious crimes. They had people spend one week, just like you would in a retreat, doing Naikan on their lives and going through their lives with all three of these questions, including, “What trouble and difficulty did I cause?”

You can imagine somebody, particularly if they’re a career or a life-long criminal, what it would be like for them to actually just sit and do nothing but think about all of the people who suffered as a result of the crimes and the criminal activities that they had involved in their life. And what they found is they then looked at the recidivism rate, and they found that in every prison that was doing this, the number of people after they left prison that were re-arrested was dramatically lower than with the people who hadn’t gone through this process of Naikan reflection.

So again, it wasn’t like it was attached to any moral commandment that says, “When you get out of prison, we want you to be a good citizen.” But this process itself just influenced people to essentially make changes, significant changes in their lifestyle, once they had really seen the difficulty and suffering that they’ve caused.

The same kind of research exists with people in Japan who are alcoholics, in terms of looking at how they’re drinking, cause suffering and difficulty to other people. So if we’re willing to be honest and open to how we’re causing problems and difficulties, and it doesn’t have to be the kind of things that you would see if you were in the Japanese mafia.

It could just simply be, “I left my dirty dishes in the sink, and my wife ended up washing them,” or, “I left my socks on the floor in the bedroom,” or, “I was half an hour late for a lunch appointment and the person had to wait for me.” But when we see those things, we begin to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. What is it like for someone to be my colleague and have to work with me? What is it like for my wife to actually have to deal with me as her husband? Or for my daughter to have to deal with me as her father?

And some of the most, I would say, profound and emotional reflections I’ve had have really been doing this third question, and looking at people I was very close to, my family and close friends for years, and seeing, essentially, some of the really selfish things that I had done to cause trouble and difficulty to those people.

But I would argue that that’s incredibly important, because whether you see it or not, it’s part of a page of the book of your life that’s already been written. So your choice is really, do you want to be conscious about how you’ve lived your life? Or do you want to essentially be blind to these elements of how you lived your life?

And I think we should, in the interest of living a good life, and in the interest of our own spiritual aspirations, we should try to be more conscious of basically how we’re living.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And this question is useful, ’cause like you said earlier, we tend to overlook the things that we do. We tend to focus on what other people do that inconvenience us, the guy that cuts us off, man, we’re talking about it to our wife when we get home, “This guy was such a jerk.”

We tend to overlook when we’ve done that in the past. And this question says, “No, you do this stuff too, you gotta see reality for what it is, you cause inconvenience just like that guy who cut you off.”

Gregg Krech: Yeah. I think most of us have gotten a lot of practice, and therefore developed a habit of complaining about other people. And in some cases, it’s this… Whenever I think about it this way, I’m always surprised, but it’s almost more natural when you get together, whether it’s just with your partner or your roommate, or a group of friends for dinner, it’s almost more natural to complain about all the problems in your life, than it is to talk about all the things that are going well, where all the ways in which life is actually helping or supporting you.

And so, people often find that, if you work in an office setting with other people, that complaining is actually the norm in that social experience. If you were to go into the office and say, “Well, let me tell you what happened to me on the way to work this morning. First of all, my car started the first time, it’s just amazing, I turned the key, it started right up, and I looked at the gas gauge and it was full, and apparently my husband must have filled it up with gas yesterday.”

“Then I’m driving down the road, and traffic is backed up, and there’s this truck painting these yellow lines on the road, so that you know which lane you’re in, so that people don’t crash into each other, isn’t that fortunate that somebody’s out there doing that?” And if you said that, people would look at you like you’re nuts. [chuckle]

But if you go in, and you just run off a litany of complaints about the traffic and the news and the political situation, people just shake their head and agree with you, and then they basically share their own experiences about those same things. So, complaining has become much of a norm in our social experience.

Brett McKay: Right. These questions helps you be less of a complainer. You even recommend that people spend about 60% of their reflection when they’re doing Naikan on this question.

Gregg Krech: Yeah, and that’s really what was, I think recommended to me in my own training in Japan, is that this is really of the three questions, this is really an important question because it allows us to see ourselves, again this idea of using a mirror, in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise see. And when I talk about the idea of putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes, this question, “What is it like for Linda to be married to me?”

That that process of doing that psychologically is really the foundation of empathy, it’s the foundation of compassion, it’s the foundation of understanding. So our ability to see things from the other person’s perspective, including ourselves, is really one of the essential elements, I think of a healthy relationship with anybody, someone we’re working with, or members of our family.

So if we can do that, we really increase the chances that we can basically have healthy relationships in our life, as opposed to conflict and resentment towards others.

Brett McKay: And how do we not let this exercise delve into self-loathing? You think, “Man, I just… I inconvenienced, I caused so many people so many problems, I’m a terrible person.” How do you avoid that?

Gregg Krech: Yeah, I think that it comes up a lot where, particularly from therapists will say, “Well, do we really wanna have people who are already struggling, for instance, with depression or anxiety, looking at themselves and looking at in a way that just makes them feel bad about themselves?” But if we think about it, it’s feeling guilty about specific actions or specific conduct, is that really a bad thing? I think it’s an actually a natural response of compassion.

When we look at something that we’ve done that has caused trouble to someone, to feel bad about that, I think that actually comes from a compassionate part of us. And I think to not, to do something that has caused suffering and not feel bad about it is to some extent pathological, it’s not really healthy.

So the key thing is, in your question is, we don’t wanna get caught up in that kind of self-loathing. What we wanna do is use it as information, as feedback from reality, for maybe how we can change our lives or make some changes in how we’re treating other people or in the way that we’re living.

And also, it’s very humbling. I think that people who are successful, people who have written best-selling books and have successful businesses and are CEOs, it’s very hard for people who have any success in their life not to begin to feel a little bit arrogant or self-righteous or kind of above others.

And I think for people who are successful, looking at how they’ve caused trouble and difficulty and problems to others on that path to success, is actually very humbling, and probably very good in terms of helping them to stay away from going in the other direction, which is to get caught up in the sense of self-righteousness and arrogance.

It’s the opposite of what you had mentioned originally, which is getting caught in a state of looking at other people and thinking, “Why can’t that person just get their act together? Why are they messing up their lives like that?” So I think being humble for many of us is actually a very healthy experience.

Brett McKay: So the three questions again, “What have I given to? What have I received from? And what troubles and difficulties did I cause… Fill in the blank.” Can you imagine you just do this on a daily basis, you can do this morning before you set out the door, or at night before you go to sleep?

Gregg Krech: Yes, I think that… I mentioned just taking, again six or seven minutes with my wife Linda in the morning where we do this as just part of our morning routine. I think you can dedicate blocks of time to this, in the same way that you dedicate time to getting physical exercise by going running or going to the gym or working out in some way. I think we have to dedicate time to self-reflection. If we don’t do that, it’s very hard to have, I think any balance in our life.

Most people are very active, and we’re busy people. Most of us are busy. You ask people, “How are you?” And they say, “Oh, I’m so busy.” And we go from one thing to another, and we get to a point in our day where we say, “Okay, that’s it, I’m done,” and then we shift from action to some kind of passivity, which could be looking at Facebook, watching a movie, watching a sitcom, surfing the internet, passive activities.

So we have action and we have passiveness, or passivity, but what’s often missing from our life is reflectivity, which is what we’re really discussing today, and actually building time into your day, even if it’s just for a few minutes before bed, first thing in the morning, to just be reflecting on your life. Using this kind of method or even other methods that may lead you to the same type of contemplative approach to your life.

Brett McKay: Right, so you do Naikan daily, it doesn’t take very long. But you also, in the book, talked about you can set aside periods, especially on days where you just do Naikan reflections, make it a sort of a ritual. And one way, you talked about you can do that, is using the new year to do special Naikan reflection.

So we’re about to start a new year, ending 2020, about to start 2021. How can folks modify Naikan so they can reflect on the year that’s passed and the one that’s about to come?

Gregg Krech: Well, it’s a perfect time to actually be doing this, at the end of the year and going into a new year, and I encourage people to spend even a minimal amount of time doing some type of reflection on the year, before you get into setting your goals or making resolutions, because in every case, both personally and people I’ve worked with, when you do that it informs what you end up doing in terms of moving forward in your life. And I think that’s one of the real values of self-reflection, is that doing this reflection informs moving forward in your life.

For years there was a woman in Upstate New York that used to actually host an event where people came sometimes from several hundred miles around, and we spent the last eight hours of the year doing quiet self-reflection, up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, and then we toasted and had a nice meal together.

But it’s a great way to end the year, and this year where people are less likely to have social engagements and New Year’s Eve parties, I would really encourage people to think about using that evening, New Year’s evening, and just sitting back and doing some reflection. And we actually have a booklet that I developed, that have updated every year for about the past 10 years, called, A Guide to New Year’s Reflection.

And if you think it’s okay, Brett, I’d be happy to give people an email address, and we’d be happy to send them a link, so that they can download that and use that if they want to do some reflection on New Year’s Eve. But it’s a great way to end the year. And it also offers you a different perception of the year. Most of us think, “Oh, this year 2020, what a crazy terrible year, can’t wait ’til the year is over, get a fresh start in the new year.”

But if you reflected, or at least for me personally, I found that there were some really great moments and experiences of joy, great times that I really connected, for instance with my daughter who’s been living with us during the lockdown, in the pandemic period of time. There’s a lot of positive things that happened in the year for me, even though there was also a lot of losses.

And so it gives me a much more balanced view of the year to look at it specifically, using this kind of reflective process, than just my gut sense of it being really a rotten year.

Brett McKay: And then after you do that reflection, you can then start setting your goals for the new year, based on what you’ve thought about.

Gregg Krech: Yeah, I think… And again, I teach a course in the beginning of the year, if it’s okay to mention this, called, Living on Purpose, which is really designed to get people started off in the right direction of the year, and it’s really the idea of looking at, “How can I be very clear about what’s going to give my life meaning this year?”

Those are the things that I want to elevate in terms of the energy that I’m gonna put in, we have a certain amount of energy that we’re gonna have available to us, if we live a whole year from now. And we want to have those things that are really gonna be meaningful, and important to us, to get a lot of that energy, and I think if we start thinking about it that way.

The hard thing, of course, is sticking to it once we get going, and that’s where the Morita Therapy piece of this material comes in, once we’re actually in the process of doing things, and then taking action, we can shift into this other mode of psychological support. But I think the idea is that there’s a very natural process of reflection and contemplation that leads to and redirecting our energy, our goals, and the things that we want to achieve in the coming year.

Brett McKay: Well, Gregg, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book, Naikan, and the rest of your work?

Gregg Krech: Well, we have a website that has a lot of our material up there, which is called thirtythousanddays.org, dot O-R-G, and it’s spelled, it’s the words “thirtythousanddays”, all together. And if people want to send an email to us at the address, T-O-D-O, [email protected], then we’ll be glad to respond and give you a link so that you can download this New Year’s booklet. But you’ll find a lot of resources on our website.

I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and the reason that I’ve continued doing this for 30 years is because I really believe it’s a great alternative to some of the more traditional Western therapy and Western psychology that is really common in the US. I think for people who are inclined to look at approaches from the East, whether it be acupuncture or yoga or Chinese medicine or martial arts, I think there’s some great wisdom that we can take in also in the area of psychology.

Brett McKay: Well, Gregg Krech, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure. And have a Happy New Year.

Gregg Krech: Well, thank you, Brett, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, and I hope you have a wonderful new year and a great year next year.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Gregg Krech, he’s the author of the book, Naikan, it’s available on amazon.com. You can find out more information about his work at his website todoinstitute, that’s T-O-D-O, institute.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/reflect, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM Podcast, check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years. And if you like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AoM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial.

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