A focus on gratitude is typical this time of year. But more often than not, the cognitive or behavioral nods we give gratitude around Thanksgiving can feel a little limp, rote, and unedifying. If you feel like this American holiday has been lacking in meaning, maybe what you need is to infuse it with a Japanese practice.
The Naikan method of self-reflection grew out of Buddhist spirituality and has been recognized by psychologists as a way to develop greater self-awareness, gratitude, empathy, and direction. Naikan involves asking yourself three questions: What have I received from others? What have I given others? What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?
Gregg Krech, who is the executive director of the ToDo Institute, which promotes principles of psychology based on Eastern traditions, has created a Thanksgiving-specific version of Naikan that helps practitioners dig further into its first question. Today on the show, we talk about the way Naikan differs from mainstream gratitude practices and is based less on feeling and more on seeing the world objectively. Gregg shares six prompts that can help you recognize the reality of how you’re being supported in the world, cultivate the art of noticing, and embrace life’s grace.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- The ToDo Institute’s free Thanksgiving Guide to Self-Reflection booklet — scroll down, enter your email into the form, and a PDF of the booklet will be sent to you.
- Gregg’s previous appearances on the AoM podcast:
- Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection by Gregg Krech
- AoM Podcast #906: Stop Being a Complainer
- AoM Article: The Spiritual Disciplines — Gratitude
- Sunday Firesides: Graduate From the Kindergarten Class of Gratitude
- AoM Podcast #459: Beyond Gratitude Lite — The Real Virtue of Thankfulness
- How to Fight Entitlement and Develop Gratitude in Your Kids
- AoM Article: The George Bailey Technique — Mentally Erase Your Blessings for Greater Joy and Optimism
Connect with Gregg Krech
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. The focus on gratitude is typical this time of year, but more often than not, the cognitive or behavioral nods we give gratitude around Thanksgiving can feel a little limp, rote, and unedifying. If you feel like this American holiday has been lacking in meaning, maybe what you need is to infuse it with a Japanese practice. The Naikan method of self-reflection grew out of Buddhist spirituality and has been recognized by psychologists as a way to develop greater self-awareness, gratitude, empathy, and direction. Naikan involves asking yourself three questions. What have I received from others? What have I given others? What troubles and difficulties have I caused others? Gregg Krech, who’s the executive director of the ToDo Institute, which promotes principles of psychology based on Eastern traditions, has created a Thanksgiving-specific version of Naikan that helps practitioners dig further into its first question.
Today on the show, we talk about the way Naikan differs from mainstream gratitude practices and is based less on feeling and more on seeing the world objectively. Gregg shares six prompts that can help you recognize the reality of how you’re being supported in the world, cultivate the art of noticing, and embrace life’s grace. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/Naikan.
All right, Gregg Krech, welcome back to the show.
Greg Krech: Well, thank you, Brett. It’s great to be here again.
Brett McKay: So we had you on the podcast a few years ago to talk about the Japanese practice of Naikan. And I wanted to bring you back on the show to discuss how we Americans, we’re about to celebrate Thanksgiving here, how we can use this Japanese practice of Naikan to infuse our Thanksgiving with more gratitude. So let’s start off with a recap of Naikan for those who haven’t heard about that previous episode. What is it? How did it develop? And what’s its purpose?
Greg Krech: Well, in the simplest form, Naikan is simply a method of self-reflection. And it’s a very structured method of self-reflection. When I was researching my first book on Naikan, I remember finding that virtually every religious and spiritual tradition encourages people to engage in self-reflection, but in most cases, there’s no structure or guidance in terms of how to do that, right. So normally, we just think about kind of finding a quiet place to sit and reflect. And Naikan provides a nice structure that basically shows us how we might do that. And that structure consists of essentially three questions, all of which are very simple, simple enough for children. The first question is, what have I received from others or from a particular person? The second question is, what have I given? So it’s kind of turning that question around. And the third question was, what troubles and difficulties have I caused to others? So those three questions really provide the foundation of this method of self-reflection.
Brett McKay: And what’s its purpose? What’s the end of doing this self-reflection? What do we hope happens?
Greg Krech: Well, there’s, I think, a variety of different purposes. And I’d say that probably one of the most practical is trying to make a shift. And I talk about this when I try to introduce people to Japanese psychology in a concise way, that there’s three shifts that I think it encourages people to make. And one of those shifts is a shift from what I call a complaint-based life to a life of genuine appreciation and gratitude. And so that Naikan self-reflection is basically a tool for helping us to make that shift. And I think one of the things that has developed in our society over a long period of time is that I think to a great extent, we have become a culture of complaint to the point where complaining is actually the norm. So a person comes home from work and their partner’s there and they walk in the door and the partner says, “oh, honey, how was your day?” And the person now says, “oh, let me tell you about my day.” And they go through a litany of problems that the copier broke and they were late for the meeting and there was construction on the way to work and they got all these emails that they couldn’t catch up with and on and on and on.
Right. And then the response to that may be something like, the person realizes that they’ve been doing all the talking, so they say, “how about your day, honey?” And the other person says, “oh, let me tell you about my day. You think you had a bad day?” And we almost compete to see basically who can come up with the most complaints about their day. And the reason that I say that’s the norm is that if you walked into the house, in most cases, and someone said, how was your day? And your response was, “well, let me tell you about my day, this morning I got in the car and I turned the key and the car just started on the first crank, just no problems whatsoever. And I was driving to work and I got behind this truck that was painting those lines in the road. And I realized how great it is that we’ve got those lines that distinguish between lanes so that we basically can stay in our own lane. We don’t constantly crash into other people. And then I got to work and I got a parking place. The coffee was nice and hot and all ready for me. I had a comfortable chair to sit in.” And after a while people are saying, okay, okay, okay. There’s no drama to that. I think we kind of like drama and complaining somehow seems to be associated with drama. So if somebody actually was to give you a list of all the things that worked well for them or that supported them that day, most of us would either find that boring and or think that person was kind of weird.
Brett McKay: Right. And so what the Naikan practice does, it’s a structured way. It’s helping you see reality as it really is. Because as you said, we tend to focus on the negative, but there is all this good stuff that happens in our life.
Greg Krech: Yeah. And I think, and this isn’t a new idea that we take most of that for granted. We’ll go into the bathroom or to the kitchen and we’ll flip on the light switch and that light switch will go on two or three or 400 times in a row with no problem. But one of those times that light’s not gonna go on because maybe the bulb is burned out and then we notice it. So those 400 times when the light just went on, we don’t really pay much attention to it, but as soon as it doesn’t work, we notice it. And I think we do the same kind of thing with people, with our partners, with our children, with our colleagues and friends. We tend to get focused on when something happens that doesn’t work or that doesn’t meet our expectations or approval. And so this kind of self-reflection, when you ask what the purpose is, part of it is to just give us some time to really reflect on our lives and our conduct, how we’re living our life. Which most of us don’t do because we’re so busy. And by the time we’re finished with our busyness, we’re tired and we’re exhausted and we kind of zone out in front of the internet or a movie. But the other thing that this does is in addition to the self-reflection we’re doing, it begins to affect the way that we see the world when we’re not reflecting on our life.
So we get up the next day and we start noticing things that we hadn’t noticed or thought about before, particularly things that ways in which the world is supporting us or caring for us. So it begins to not just give us a different way of looking at reality when we’re doing that reflection, it actually gives us another way of looking at reality as we start to go through our day.
Brett McKay: Okay, so it’s the traditional Naikan questions. There’s three of them. It’s what have I received from a particular person or from the world? And then the second question is, what have I given? And then that third question is, what troubles and difficulties did I cause? And again, I think the thing with Naikan, you’re trying to be as objective as possible. You’re just, the goal is to notice things and not necessarily notice the things that make you feel bad or good.
Greg Krech: Yes, I think that we’re not… I have come to see this after working with this material and teaching it for 30 years. I’ve come to see this process as kind of a research experiment in the same way that you would do research in the field of science. And that is that you start with data collection. So if you’re trying to do an experiment or research a particular hypothesis, you start by collecting data. And when you collect that data, I think in most research, you’re trying not to be biased towards a particular outcome. And so I see it the same way. We’re not trying to find things that we’re grateful for. We’re just simply noticing that as a result of the microphone that I’m using or the Wi-Fi in my house or some satellite someplace, that you and I can actually have this conversation. And that’s just really a statement of fact. So because my auditory sense, my hearing is good, I can actually hear you very, very well in terms of us communicating online. That’s just a statement of fact. So if I ask the question, and this is where I think Naikan differs from a lot of gratitude practices in positive psychology, because we’re not really asking a question, what am I grateful for? Because what am I grateful for will vary depending on my mood at any given moment, right.
If I’ve just had a big argument with my wife or with a colleague, there may be lots of things going on that are supporting me, but I’m not going to feel grateful for those because I’m just in a crappy mood. But if I just simply list the fact that I’ve got electricity that’s supporting me and I’ve got, it’s cold outside today, it’s below freezing and we’ve got heat in the house. If I start listing those things as just ways that I’m being supported by reality, it becomes actually much more of a research project, and as you were saying, much more objective, and I think therefore meaningful.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve had that experience with… I’ve done gratitude practices in the past. And I always find that I’m able to list some stuff, but then I run out of things to list because I’m not feeling the gratefulness for that particular item. And because I’m not feeling gratefulness for it, I’ll overlook it. And so what Naikan does, it takes the… You don’t need to feel gratitude to list it. It’s just, think of all the good things in your life. Don’t even have to be grateful for it or feel any positive things towards it necessarily, but just list those. And then what happens though, when you do this, I’ve done this before. As you start doing that, you start feeling gratitude as a result.
Greg Krech: I think that that’s a common response when we start looking at our life and we start seeing, if we start seeing this, and I always like to phrase it that way because I do think of it as a research project, but if we start seeing that we have a long list of ways that life and the world around us and the people and the objects and the forms of energy are supporting us, then I think it is a natural response in those cases most often that we do respond internally with a sense of appreciation or a feeling of gratitude. And it’s a very natural response. And I think when we do some of the gratitude practices, as you were saying, it’s almost like there’s a moral imperative for you to feel grateful for something. And when I work with people doing Naikan reflection, if they read off a list of 20 things and they’ll say you know what? To be honest, I don’t actually feel grateful for any of those things. I’ll just say, that’s okay. That’s fine. It’s not based on an outcome that we’re trying to get in which we feel grateful. So when that does happen, it’s really just a natural response that we have.
And curiously enough, and there is some research to support this, the more that we are aware of the way that the world and our life and others are supporting us, and the more that we have that response of feeling grateful for that, the more likely we are to want to give back, to want to do something in return for the people we’re closest to, for the world, for people who are struggling in other countries. Other words, it seems to stimulate a sense of wanting to give back because we feel very fortunate in terms of our own situation.
Brett McKay: So what you’ve done in the past few years, you’ve developed a Thanksgiving Naikan. This is something, a practice that you developed in your family and then you’ve shared it with others. And what you’ve done is you’ve developed some more questions that dig deeper into that first question in Naikan is what have I received from blank? So let’s start off with this question. How can people incorporate a Naikan reflection into their Thanksgiving holiday? How can we make the experience a part of the ritual? Like what have you done in your family to make Naikan a part of your Thanksgiving?
Greg Krech: Well, Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday specifically because it’s a holiday in which we try to step back from our lives and really appreciate a lot of the elements of our life. And so we raised two young girls, and I think probably they were about a year and a half apart. And probably when my oldest was about five years old, maybe six, I just developed a one-page sheet. They didn’t know how to write or read yet, but they could understand the question of what is it in life that you’re thankful for? Or what is it in life that’s making you happy or providing care for you? And so we just asked them to draw pictures in boxes. We would say, here’s some boxes for people. So for instance, grandma, and here’s some boxes for animals, maybe our dog, Barley. And they would have questions here and there. But the amazing thing was, I would give them this piece of paper, and even at that age, we would take about 45 minutes. Everybody went to a separate room or corner of the house. And the idea was to be quiet for 45 minutes and just work with your sheet of paper. And they were actually incredibly focused on this when we did it.
And then the wonderful thing was really getting back together after that 45 minute period with some tea or coffee or juice for the kids and going through and this started out just as one page, but going through that and having everybody share here’s some of the people that are really have played an important role in terms of supporting me or contributing to my life during this past year and. And the girls would do that. And they were very capable of doing that at least as well as the adults were. And that’s also my experience when I did my training in Japan, that I would hear recordings of children doing Naikan at the centers that I trained at, that I did retreats at. And I would often think they’re better at this than I am, even though I’m in my 30s at the time. But that’s how we kind of started this process. And then every year it expanded. And then sometimes we had people from outside, guests, often family, sometimes non-family. And we would invite them to participate in that. So the mornings, at least a portion of the morning was always dedicated to just quiet self-reflection, but using some kind of structure.
And then this wonderful experience of just sitting around and just sharing the ways in which life is supporting us from these various different perspectives. And that’s how we started our day. And I think it just created a completely different atmosphere in the home to start the day that way as we moved forward then into cooking and eating. And a lot of times when people would join us for the first time, they had never done this before. And it was just great to kind of involve them in the process. So that over years, that’s grown to this little booklet that you mentioned. And so now there’s these different categories. One category is who are people in the present of my life in this past year or so that have been supportive to me. And how have they been supportive? One of the most important things that people do if they try this process is to be specific. Because if you were to ask me well, who’s been supportive of you in the past couple of weeks? And I could say to you, “oh, my wife, Linda, she’s been very supportive.” And I can say that without even thinking about what she did. But if you followed up and said, “oh, that’s great that she’s been supportive. What did she actually do to be supportive?”
Well, now I have to sit back and think, well, what did she actually do? Well, she brought me home a nice little chocolate tart when she went shopping yesterday, which was really great to have for dessert. And she gave me a foot massage the other day. And she made a really nice pasta dinner a couple of nights ago. But to do that, it takes some mental energy for me to remember back to do those things. But if I say as a concept, “oh, Linda is so supportive or she’s so helpful, where she’s such a loving wife.” I can say that as a phrase without it having any kind of content to it, right. And it doesn’t take any mental energy. So when we go through this process, we don’t want to just think of like, oh, this friend of mine has been really supportive. We want to actually make a note, how have they been supportive? Well, this couple lent us a walker for my wife’s surgery last year or something like that. And that’s a very specific thing. And to do that, it actually takes some quiet and it takes some time and it takes some mental energy, but it’s those details that really make this self-reflection a powerful process.
Brett McKay: Okay. So we’re going to talk about some of these questions, but before we do, let’s just do the brass tacks practicalities. I love this sort of thing. So I love this idea to start off your Thanksgiving with a Naikan session and this can be done, again, it’s just you need time by yourself. I can see people making this like a ritual where they’re getting around the fireplace and then they just have pen and paper. Should you write this thing down or is it just a mental practice?
Greg Krech: Yeah, I always encourage people when they’re doing it like this on a holiday or if they’re just doing it as even a daily practice to actually write. If you’re using the Thanksgiving approach, then you just basically, in our booklet, you already have these boxes laid out. There’s a box for nature. Here’s a box for forms of energy. Here’s a box for people. Here’s a box for people who taught you things that you know how to do. So the structure is already kind of laid out for you, but you can just take a piece of paper, copy paper. But writing, I think, is a good way to stay focused. If you go to Japan or if you come here to Vermont to do an actual retreat where for a week you spend about 100 hours reflecting on your whole life, that retreat you don’t write. It’s actually something that is more in the direction of a meditation type of reflection. So you’re actually holding those memories in your mind or your heart. In Japanese, there’s a word, Kokoro, which is the… Both mind and heart together, so you’re holding those there instead of actually writing them down. But for Thanksgiving, I encourage people to write them down because then you have a chance to step back and look at what you’ve written. And also it makes it easier to, to share with other people.
Brett McKay: And how long should a, a Naikan session last? It sounds like it needs to be kind of long, because again, you’re not just being vague with your ideas, you’re, you’re trying to get specifics that takes time.
Greg Krech: It’s good to give it, I think, more time rather than less. But I always tell people, it’s better to, to just spend five minutes doing this than no time at all. If you can spend on Thanksgiving, if you can spend 45 minutes or an hour or 40 minutes, I think it’s a nice block of time. But if you have a half an hour, you can do, that’s fine. If you only have 20 minutes, that will work. The key is to, to really try to stay focused. So don’t do this while you’re cooking and you’ve got things on the stove and you have to constantly be running into the kitchen. Try to actually do it where you can sit quietly. It’s not something a lot of us do where we actually just sit quietly. So it feels a little awkward at first. But it’s, it’s a great practice.
And I think if you’ve got other people, I never, we would never like force our kids to do this. We would say, this is what we’re gonna do. If you wanna do it with us, you can join us. And in some cases, when, one of my daughters got into her teen years there, there was a Thanksgiving where she just didn’t wanna do it. And that was fine. But you can actually do this by yourself if you’re spending Thanksgiving Day by yourself or if you’re by yourself, because people are coming over later in the day and they’re not necessarily interested where you’re gonna just jump into eating. You can also do it just by buddying up with somebody who’s at a distance, and you can both decide you’re gonna do it in the morning, and then you get together at some point of time online and you just kind of share your reflections with that person. So, so there’s lots of of ways to make the mechanics of this work, but I do think having a as good a block of time as you can, where you can be free from distractions and really have some quiet reflective time, that’s, that’s really important.
Brett McKay: So an important concept to keep in mind as you do this reflection of your blessings, that’s what they, they call it in Naikan these good things, is this idea of Okagesama. Did I say that right?
Greg Krech: You’re close. It’s [laughter] It’s Okagesama Sama.
Brett McKay: Good. What, what is that and how can it guide our Thanksgiving reflections?
Greg Krech: Well, it’s a Japanese phrase, Okagesama, and, and the foundation of that phrase, Okage actually translates into something like shadow. But the phrase is actually used in Japanese to just say thanks to you. If somebody said, I’m a musician and I play in a, a band. And if at the end of the concert, you know, if one of my band members comes up and says, you know, you did a great job on the lead on that song, or You did a great job playing keyboards today. And if in Japan I might say Okagesama, which means thanks to you, it means I’m recognizing that you contributed to the opportunity that I had, you know, to, in this case, play music in that band. And so the term shadow means that we’re trying to shed a light on things in our life, which normally are in the shadows and in the shadows, attentionally so in the shadows, in the sense that we just don’t notice them, or we take them for granted, or we don’t really appreciate them. And so this idea of Okagesamade really means that we’re stepping back to try to shine a light on these things in our life that have gone unnoticed and unappreciated.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s dig into the prompts. You mentioned one earlier. The first one is to list people who are blessings in our life in the present. And I think most people when they do this exercise, the first thing you’re gonna think of, of course, is your family or friends. But with Naikan, again, you’re, you’re wanting to look into the shadows. You’re wanting to look at who are the people that I, I’m maybe overlooking you’re encouraged to think more broadly about people who bless you. So what are some of the people who bless us on the regular that people might not think of as blessing givers?
Greg Krech: Yeah, I think it’s, it’s really interesting to kind of try to step back from our life and think about people who, who play a particular role and how our life might be different if that person wasn’t present in our life or if they didn’t play that role. And, and so I remember for many years, both my daughters took piano lessons for about six years. They took used a, an approach called Suzuki Music Education. And there was this wonderful Suzuki piano teacher named Jody. And she was always on my list for all those years because she was doing such a great service, not just for my daughters, but for our whole family. They became really, you know, just wonderful pianists and it was great listening to them in the house. So she was always one of the people that I saw as being a blessing in the present of my life.
And even though it’s been many years since my daughters had piano lessons with her, I still, when I look in at who have been blessings in my life from a standpoint of the past, I always list her because she played such an instrumental role. And so sometimes there are people who years ago, were blessings in the present time of my life, and they no longer are there, they may not be alive, they may not be part of my life in the same kind of way people drift off in different directions. But if I think about what they did for me in the past, even 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, I can still see them in as blessings. And even in the, my current life, like we have a, a local auto repair garage. We live in a pretty rural area, and we have a local auto repair garage that’s about two miles from here.
And they have been an incredible blessing in our lives, even though we may only have contact with them a few times a year. But for instance, last year, my, my daughter who, who lives in an apartment happened to be visiting, and she was driving home in the winter and a truck ran her off the road into a huge snowbank. This was at seven o’clock at night, she couldn’t get out. And I picked up the phone and I called this garage, they have a towing service number, and they know me, and I know that guy. And he was going out for dinner, and he was there in five minutes with a chain and a tow truck pulled her out and went off to his dinner. And I’m just thinking like, to have someone like that in your life, it’s not just that particular incident, it’s the confidence that there’s somebody there who’s got your back in a situation like that where you have a problem with a car. Right. So he, he’s on my list this year. His name is Matt. If he’s listening, he’s on my list this year as a real blessing in my life.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. We’ve been saying this word blessing, and I think people, when people hear blessing, it has religious connotations. But for the Japanese in this Naikan practice, what does blessing mean?
Greg Krech: Yeah, I think, it is a term that pretty much gets associated with Christianity, and I don’t think it’s necessarily used. Certainly the English word blessing isn’t necessarily used in Japan or Japanese. But I like to distinguish between these terms of gratitude and grace and gratitude I think is wonderful. And I think, as you mentioned earlier, if we reflect on our lives in this way, often gratitude is just a natural response that gets stimulated. But we can be grateful for something and at the same time have a sense that we earned it or that we deserve it, right? So I can, you know, look around, the house where I’m at, and I can see all these nice little furniture and books and calligraphy on the walls and photos and decorations. And I can think, you know, I’m really grateful to be able to have lived here all these years, but I can also be thinking, but you know, I worked really hard for this and, I put in a lot of time and energy in kind of developing this work.
And so, so I think I earned this right. And I’m not saying that you didn’t, I think everybody has to look at that themselves, but so we can be grateful, but we could also have this kind of ego sense of I really did earn this, or I deserve it. But with grace, grace has a different kind of implication. I think grace is really something that we’re given or something that happens to us that we very clearly didn’t earn and don’t deserve. And that’s what I see as the difference between gratitude and grace and grace. I associate with the concept of a blessing. So when I look at, at something that, like the thing I described, for instance, the incident with calling Matt to have him tow my daughter out from a, a snowbank, that was grace. You know, it was grace that he answered the phone.
It was grace that he was willing to come out and, and do this for us. I think our insurance actually paid for that. So I don’t even think we paid a penny directly for that service. I don’t have any sense that I earned or deserved that service from him at that particular time of the evening, in the middle of the winter when it was dark. So I see that much more as a, a blessing. And I think the more that we reflect on our lives, I think part of what happens with me is that it tends to nurture a sense of humility, which is not natural for me at all, [laughter] I should say. But when I look at how much I’ve received and then I look at these other two questions, what I’ve given in return and the troubles I’ve caused, it humbles me. And in that humility, I’m much more likely to see the things that I’m receiving as blessings than the things that I earned or deserve.
Brett McKay: Okay. So this idea of, list people who are blessings in your life. So think beyond just friends and family. It could be the tow truck guy, it could be a coworker who always checks in with you and sees how you’re doing, how your kids are doing, and it kind of brightens your day. It could be the people who, you know, I think recently this past year we had a big storm here in Oklahoma and the power went out. And it was because, you know, trees fell on the power lines. And I, I remember like there was people out there 24/7 for several days trying to get the power back on. And I think the tendency the time for was for people to like, complain about it. Oh my gosh, this PSO what are they doing? They can’t do anything, right? But it’s like, no, there’s these people out there away from their families for several days trying to give me back electricity. So that you can think about tho those sorts of people, just not just friends and family.
Greg Krech: Right. And, and you know, some of those people on your list, for instance, I know the towing person, Matt, I know his name, but the kind of people you’re mentioning are people, we kind of know that they’re there and we know what they’re doing, but we don’t even know their name. There may be people whose faces we know and we don’t know their name. There may be people who we just even don’t know who they are. If we saw, if you saw that person from the electric company on the street, you wouldn’t even know that they were part of that process of trying to get the electricity back on. But I have that same experience. ’cause we get a lot of storms out here, particularly in the winter, that knock out our power. And the, they send these people out in trucks in the wee hours of the morning when the temperature is 20 below zero and it’s 25 mile an hour winds.
And they’re out there trying to repair an electrical line. And I wish that I actually knew specifically who there were, they were. But we had this great experience, a number of years ago, actually, this is probably about 25 years ago, where it was during the summer, but there was a, an electrical outage because of a big storm, right? During the time that we were having a residential, a 10 day residential program at the ToDo Institute where people learn this, this work. And the power was out for about two days, and then it went back on right before the end of the program. And this woman from Florida, Victoria said, you know, I, I would like to send a gift over to the people at the electric company who, who got that power on. And we said, well, we don’t really know who they were.
And she said, well, you know, I’m gonna give you some money. I want you to pick up a box of chocolates, and then whenever you’re over by their office, just drop it off. And, and so my wife did this. She bought a box of chocolates and she went to the electric company and she said she walked in and the person behind the desk looked at her and kind of outta the corner of her eye said, yes, can I help you? Because they’re obviously used to someone walking in with a problem or a complaint. And my wife basically pulls out this box of chocolates and she says, you know, we were doing this program and the power was out for two days, and they finally got it back on, and we just wanted you to let you know that how much we appreciated that. And one of the people there wanted to send you a box of chocolates.
So I brought you a box of chocolates, and the woman almost like fainted [laughter] She was, she was so surprised, you know, to get that kind of response and feedback instead of like, why did it take you so long to, to get the power back on? You know, we didn’t, we weren’t able to watch the football game kind of thing. So I think it’s actually a great example of how in Naikan there’s no moral imperative to take any action as a result of your reflection. In other words, our self-reflection ends when our self-reflection ends, but often we’re moved to actually do something. And I think this is a case of turning that self-reflective process actually into, real life action, which in this case, I think was the kind of action that makes in a little kind of drop of waterway makes the world a better place. But again, it’s, it’s a very natural thing. It’s not somebody who is being told like, you should really do something nice for the electrical company. It’s just a natural response that we might have when we begin to see these kinds of things.
Brett McKay: Can the people who bless us also be people who hurt us?
Greg Krech: Absolutely. That’s a great question and assumption. I think that, you know, I think we’ve become very much a society that tends to look at people as black and white. Not from a racial standpoint, but from a good and bad standpoint. You know, this has been reinforced by movies for, you know, decades and television shows. There’s the hero and then there’s the evil person in the, in the show. And so there are people who hurt us, you know, who, who genuinely do things that cause us trouble, cause us problems. They neglect us. They don’t come through when we need them. We all know who those people are. Anybody listening to this could probably take two minutes and, and start coming up with a list of names. But those people may also be, they may also be people who provided us with a certain types of benefits or care or support during our life.
And so one of the challenges of Naikan is to be able to see that both of those things are true. This person actually caused me suffering or difficulty in my life, and they also made it possible for me to do this or to have this. And they supported me when I was in this situation over here when I really was desperate. So, you know, in a sense, it not just acknowledges that most of us have the capacity to both be kind and to be selfish, which I certainly do, but it means that we recognize that that’s really kind of human nature. And if we’re connected with somebody, whether it’s a partner or a a friend from childhood or someone we’ve worked with for 20 years, it’s really just a matter of time before people are going to disappoint us, right? And we don’t want to let a single incident, or even several incidents dissolve a relationship that has lasted for decades and been based on a lot of, giving and taking between us, because now suddenly there’s this incident. So I think it’s, it’s one of the great values of doing this kind of reflection is that we might come out, come up with a conclusion, yeah. That this person who actually caused me a lot of trouble also was someone who had a different time, gave me a lot, and, and cared for me and supported me a lot. And to be able to just live with that paradox, right? That, yeah, that’s, both of those things are true.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And, and to be clear, you talk about this in your book about Naikan. Some people you’ve worked with have had people in their lives where they’re doing this reflection. Who has, who has brought me blessings in my life? Or what have I give gotten from somebody? They have people who have been abusive, but then at the same time, they reflect, well also this abusive person has, you know, they did X for me. I had a parent who was abusive, but my parent also signed me up for sports. And I had this great memory of going on a trip with dad or whatever. And Naikan isn’t saying that, oh, you should just ignore the abuse and like, you know, maintain that relationship even despite that. It’s not saying at all, it’s act. You actually say no if you’re in a bad situation, get out of that bad situation. But the idea is just, you have to look at the whole thing. It’s trying to be objective as possible, even with the bad stuff.
Greg Krech: Yeah. And I would never suggest Naikan to someone, at least Naikan on a person who was actively abusing them. I would, in the same sense that you just said, I would first encourage that person to get to a safe situation so they’re no longer being abused. But if somebody comes in who is abused, you know, years ago or decades ago, or as a child, I think it can be very healing to go through this process because you’re not just doing Naikan reflection on that person to see if there was any ways that they supported you or cared for you. You’re doing Naikan reflection on all these other people in your life as well. And so it raises this kind of interesting question that I think is a bigger question than, than Naikan. It’s much more of a maybe a, a question about healing and what does it actually mean to heal or to be cured?
Brett McKay: And I think that the western approach to that tends to be to see things as tumors. If we have something in our past in which we suffered a lot, that we somehow have to go through a process of surgically removing that from our consciousness or our psyche or our memory so that we can then be at peace and be content and, and essentially be healed. But here’s a very different kind of approach to healing, which says that one of the ways that we heal from being hurt is to basically realize how much care and love and support we have received in the larger context. Not from a particular person, but from everybody and everything in the world. And that healing isn’t about getting rid of something that if it’s in our past, we really can’t get rid of it. It’s, it’s part of our karmic history, so to speak. But it’s basically seeing it in this larger context of a world which has, you know, brought us lots of, of support and lots of joy and cared for us to get us to this point in our life. And yes, there was this incident and there was this incident and there was a whole string of these incidents, but we see them in a much larger context of being loved and cared for. And I would say that that’s actually a wonderful way to think about healing.
Okay. So that’s the fir We went deep in that first question of who are the people in your, in the present who are bringing blessings in your life? And the key there, think outside the box. Don’t just think friends and family. And then also get very specific. Don’t just be like, I’m grateful for my wife or my best friend. Like actually write down something specific they did in the past year to bring you a grace in your life. And then also you’ve been talking about you can do this with people in the past, in your life. So you’ve done that with your daughters’, a piano teacher? So this could be old teachers, you might have had old mentors you had at a job. It could be old friends, it could be. I mean, just think back decades into your life, years into, back, into your life to find these people. Don’t just, don’t just think about grandma, grandpa. Of course, if they’re, if that’s there, put it there. But get broad with this. You want to get things outta the shadow and also get very specific. You also talk about objects, list objects that are blessings in our lives. What are some things that you list on your list here?
Greg Krech: Well, of course, there, you know, particularly in, in our culture these days, there’s always lots of gadgets, you know, ranging from phones to tablets and, and those things, I think for a lot of us play a very practical support role. But in terms of other types of objects, you know, our, our car, we have a four-wheel drive, Toyota RAV4. Then we put studded snow tires on that. This is what you do in Vermont, [laughter] So that, that is a really important object during the winter because we live up in a hill, 400 feet from the road, and we need to be able to get down to that road. And that car is, is just a great car for us. So that’s certainly one of the objects I wear eyeglasses, you know, my, my eyes are limited. I’m primarily nearsighted and, wearing eyeglasses allows me to see the world so much more clearly than if I don’t have those eyeglasses, and in fact allows me to drive safely as well.
So my eyeglasses are an example of that. My watch is an example of that, and, and I have an an, an Apple watch, which I got a few years ago, so now I use that as a timer when I’m baking and things like that. So I could go on and on in terms of everything from clothing, I have a great bicycle. I love cycling in, in Vermont. We have some beautiful roads. So that’s, that’s a really a wonderful thing that I appreciate and that is kind of a blessing in my life. I think when we start, you know, thinking about objects, just if I just look around the room, you know, I’m looking at the, we have a wood stove that we use to keep the house warm, and that’s our fallback when we lose power, is that we can heat in the wood stove and get some heat in the house.
I have a nice stereo speakers that I’ve had since I was in college, [laughter], these advent speakers, which have a wonderful sound. And I, I love listening to music in the living room because of that. So, and you know, it’s, as I’m actually responding to your question, tell me some of the things on your list. I can feel my internal experience changing. I can feel myself kind of softening to the world, you know, having more of a sense of appreciation for my life just by answering the question for 60 seconds or 90 seconds in this conversation, I already can kind of feel how my attitude and my way of understanding my life at this moment has changed.
Brett McKay: No, I, I can do that. I’m looking, I’m in my closet. That’s for my podcast studio and [laughter] right in front of me. I have my MacBook Pro. I’ve had for a long time, it’s beat up. But this is what’s giving me my livelihood. It allows me to do my podcast, allows me to write articles. It’s allowed me to surf the internet and create memories for my family. You know, planning trips, communicate with friends who are are, who are gone. So, I mean, right there, my laptop, there’s so many things I could just be, not even, I don’t even to be grateful for it. Again, you, you don’t have to feel gratitude right away. It’s just what are the good things that your laptop has brought into your life? What else do I got here? I’ve got a suit that I really enjoy that I, I I got to wear yesterday and I look sharp at church.
There’s a pair of shoes that like flat sold. They’re a barefoot shoe that, helped alleviate some foot pain that I was experiencing last year. So that, that’s a, I think you can, you can go deep with that one and you can get really mundane. You don’t have to think about the big things. You can even just think really silly things that you might not, might not think of if you were doing a typical gratitude practice. Another prompt that I thought was interesting is list forms of energies that are blessings in your life. What do you mean by forms of energy?
Greg Krech: Well, I think that the one that probably most of our listeners are pretty clearly connected with would be electricity. And I don’t really know in any deep way how electricity works. I have a basic idea, but if you think about the electricity in your house, what you see is you see these switches on the wall and you see these outlets, right? And if you need to give power to something, so it will work. Could be your kettle boiling water or your coffee maker in the morning, or your blender or just a lamp so that you can read, you know, you just plug it into this thing in the wall and suddenly it, it’s functional because it has power. And because I’ve done some construction work in my life, I know what those walls look like before the inside walls get put up. There’s all this wiring back there, right?
But it’s all hidden. We don’t see that wiring. And I think it’s a great metaphor for a lot of our life. You know, what we see is what’s on the surface, but the world is basically doing things that are underneath the surface or hidden from us. Our, the way our postal mail comes in, the, you know, the amazing system of email that we have, there’s a, a whole kind of, you know, backstory to how that came about and who invented it and who’s maintaining it that we don’t really see. So electricity is a, a great example of a form of energy that you can connect to so many things that you do probably in the course of a day. But sunlight, even if you don’t have solar, we have windows. And I think on a day in Vermont, which are rear when it’s really a sunny day, the house just kind of has a different feel for it when it’s filled with sunlight.
So that to me is a, a form of, of energy as well. So you can just, just think about other kind of forms of energy. There’s a, a type of energy we get for our bodies when we eat, you know, particularly nutritious food, right? Um, that gives us energy, caffeine, and coffee gives us energy. So we can even think about it that way. But it’s just another way to kind of slice this pie is to really think about, you know, what is my life like thanks to different forms of energy and this kind of question that we can always reverse, which is, what would my life be like without that thing? Right? What would my life be like without electricity? Would my life be like without sunlight or an object without eyeglasses? And we realize as soon as we start thinking about what would happen if that was missing from our life, often we see it very differently. And then of course, it’s not till it really is missing that it becomes very noticeable.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s the, George Bailey effect, right from, it’s a wonderful life where, you know, George Bailey, he’s able to see how blessed he is by seeing what would happen if he didn’t exist. And so you can do that with people, like, what would happen if I didn’t have my wife in my life? Or what would my life be like if my child wasn’t in my life? And then you can start, it helps you bring things out of the shadows that you otherwise would overlook. So that’s another thing you can do during this Naikan practice. Another prompt you have for your Thanksgiving Naikan session is that I really liked is list things that you have learned to do that have been blessings in your life. And so, again, I did this myself kind of quickly before we got on the show, and it’s just you, I got really mundane.
I was like, I learned how I know how to walk. I learned how to ride a bike. I learned how to throw a football. I learned how to hit a baseball. I’ve learned how to read, I’ve learned how to write, and then I can get more complex. I’ve learned how to navigate complex bureaucracies. I’ve, you know, life skills allow me to navigate life. And all these things have brought me so many good things in my life. And as I was thinking about this reflection about things you have learned, I think this is a great antidote to self-pity. When we take on that victim mindset, we kind of think of ourselves as, as less than able to navigate the world. We think of ourselves with less agency, but focusing on the things that we have learned in our life can help us get outta that. We can actually see, oh, actually I’m capable of increasing my agency so I can navigate the world and, and take on the world. So I think that can be a really powerful reflection, especially if you’re feeling a lot of that victimization self-pity.
Greg Krech: Yes. I, I agree. And I think that the other thing that you can do once you start creating that list is then take each of those items and actually think about, can you think of someone or how it was that you learned that? So I had a, a piano teacher, you know, for six years that taught me how to in introduced me to playing piano. And, and it’s one of the reasons that I can actually play professionally now. But my mother was a singer and she also provided tremendous inspiration and encouragement for me to practice. And, and, and basically there was always music going out in our house. So when I, you know, look at whatever musical skill I have right now, I can actually start identifying specific people or things, you know, that basically inspired me. And sometimes it’s a YouTube video where they did a lesson in, you know, how to solo in the blues or something like that.
But for each of those things, I remember, because I’m a writer also, and, and I can go back to first grade, the first person I think who really started teaching me how to write was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Meyers. I remember her name. And, and so, so part of it is we realize how much we’ve learned to do. And part of it is we’ve realized that when we’re born, we don’t know how to do anything, right. We basically kind of know how to breathe and cry, but pretty much everything that we know how to do at this point, even if it’s to cook rice or how to clean the bathtub, is something that at some point we had to learn from someone or from some mechanism, even if it’s a book or a video. And so I think it’s also very humbling to realize that we have benefited from, again, so many people, some of whom we don’t even know that made it possible for us to learn how to drive a car. Do you, do you remember who taught you how to drive a car? Brett?
Brett McKay: It was my parents. So like, my dad and my mom would take me out different times.
Greg Krech: Yeah. And, and I remember my dad specifically taking me to this high school parking lot, you know, where I grew up in Illinois and, when it was empty on a Sunday morning, and, you know, I would be driving around learning how to drive. And so again, these are things that we, we take for granted, but often there were specific people involved. And this question is an example of the interactive nature of this process, because I may think about things that I’ve learned to do and I may connect me with someone who taught me to do that. And then I think, oh, I can put that on my list of people who were blessings from my past, right? ‘Cause I didn’t think of them when I did that list. So it’s not really as sequential, sequential of a process as it may seem, because often we’re jumping back and forth between those lists.
Because we’re working on thinking about objects or thinking about what we’ve learned. And that’s, getting us, helping us to remember something that goes on a different list. So the idea is to really just try to capture as much as we can objectively, you know, about our life, our life from the, as far back as we can remember until the present day. So that gives us the kind of picture of essentially where we’ve come and where we are at this point. And it doesn’t mean that we didn’t suffer or have problems or challenges or difficulties, but for many people going through this process is a way of just reconnecting with a very natural sense of appreciation and gratitude that we have, the life that we have.
Brett McKay: So this last prompt can be a tough one. List difficulties and disappointments that have turned out to be blessings in your life. What kind of things might end up on this list?
Greg Krech: Yeah, and that is a, a difficult one. And I, and when people come and do a retreat, I don’t give them this question until towards the end of the retreat. And I always make it optional because I don’t want people to, I think that there’s a certain kind of energy in, in some of the views about gratitude, that you should be able to look at any difficulty, tragedy in your life and see how it was a blessing. And I don’t believe that. I don’t think you can be grateful for everything that happened to you in your life. There are things that I think that are, painful and tragic, and I don’t think we should force ourselves to try to be grateful for those things. On the other hand, I think that sometimes when we look back over something that happened so many years ago, and the example that comes up for me, and I’ll just give you a very short version of this, is that when my dad was in his mid eighties, after many, many years of my suggesting this, he finally agreed to come and move to Vermont and live here so he could be close to us.
He lived in Chicago and I went out to get him in January of 2014. I had a one-way ticket for him so he could come back on the plane with me, and we were gonna just pack up a couple suitcases and have things shipped. And when I got to his house, he wasn’t there. It turned out he was in the hospital, he had fallen in the hospital, they diagnosed him with stage four lung cancer. And I unexpectedly spent the last 10 days of his life in hospice with him where he died in my arms. It was not the ending of a story that made me very happy. I was terribly upset. I went through a lot of grief. It was all a complete surprise. When I look at this now almost 10 years later, it was a real blessing. And what was a blessing is I got to spend the last 10 days of his life with him sitting next to him, talking to him, holding his hand. And a lot of people don’t have that opportunity with a loved one. And I did. And, and so I see it now not as something, oh, you know, it wasn’t sad, it wasn’t upsetting, it was, but when I look back at it now, it was really a blessing that I had had that time with him the way that I did. So that’s an example of something that I could put in there very genuinely as a blessing.
Brett McKay: That’s really beautiful. Well, Greg, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work and this Thanksgiving Naikan?
Greg Krech: Well, our website where we have a lot of this workup is called 30000days.org. So it’s 30,000 days all one word org. And what I thought we could do, if this is okay with you, Brett, is to put up the actual booklet that we’re, we’re using. I always revise it every year, so it won’t be, probably be up till Monday, but we’ll put it up on the site so that, people who are listening to this, if they hear this in time for Thanksgiving or if they, even if it’s after Thanksgiving, they’ll be able to go to the site and, and actually download that booklet if they want to use it. Does that sound okay?
Brett McKay: Sounds great. Well, Greg, thanks so much for your time. I hope you have a very happy Thanksgiving.
Greg Krech: Yes. And, and you too, Brett. I hope you have a, a great holiday and a great holiday season. And again, thanks for, allowing me to be a guest on the show today.
Brett McKay: My guest day was Greg Krech. He’s the executive director of the ToDo Institute. You can find more information about his work at his website, 30000days.org. And while you’re there, make sure to request a free copy of their Guide to Thanksgiving reflection. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/Naikan, find links to resources we can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And I wanna wish you all a happy Thanksgiving. Thank you for listening to the podcast. I hope you have a great holiday with your friends and family. If you haven’t done so already, I’d really appreciate it and be grateful if you shared the show with a friend or family member. Subscribe to the podcast, give the podcast review. All those things help our podcast grow. So thank you so much. Happy Thanksgiving. We’ll see you next time. And don’t just listen to the podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.