Okay, the following is an article I wrote for Yoga Journal a couple of years ago, about the practice of Naikan, which comes out of the Pure Land Buddhist tradition. As you'll see, it's a bit more involved than either the September or October Daily Practices, but I think you'll find it potentially one of the most life-affirming experiences you can have through practice.
If it seems like too much to do the whole practice every evening, may I suggest that you take just ten (10) minutes each evening to contemplate just one of the three questions, instead of all three.
SO, for instance, on Monday you can contemplate question one. On Tuesday, question two. On Wednesday, question three. Then repeat, question one on Thursday, question two on Friday and question three on Saturday. Take Sunday off!
I really hope you'll join me this month in this fascinating practice, and share your insights and experiences throughout the month.
yours in metta,
Poep Sa Frank Jude
Standing in line at the grocery store, a friend was bowled over by the simplest act of kindness: a stranger let her step ahead of him in line with her quart of milk. Such a little thing and yet, as such "little things" sometimes do, it momentarily swelled her heart with joy and overwhelmed her with a rush of gratitude that lasted the whole day. What she experienced, and what she ultimately realized as the source of the gratitude, was more than the chance to checkout faster—it was the affirmation of her connection to a stranger and therefore to everyone.
Gratitude seems, on the surface, to be an emotion that arises from a sense of indebtedness to another person or object for taking care of you in some way, but looking deeper, you'll see that the feeling itself is actually a heightened awareness of your connection to everything. It’s a moment when you break out of the small self-centered point of view—with its ferocious expectations and demands for a romantic partner, a boss who sees all of your talents and none of your weaknesses, a gourmet dinner on the table—and appreciate that through the labors and intentions, and even the simple being of an inconceivably large number of people, weather patterns, chemical reactions and the like, you have been gifted with the miracle of your life, with all the goodness in it today.
Much of the time, you may be inclined, as Roger L’Estrange, the 17th century author and pamphleteer said, “to mistake the gratuitous blessings of heaven for the fruits of our own industry,” while the truth is you are supported in countless ways all day long. You awaken on schedule when your alarm clock beeps—thanks to the engineers, designers, assembly workers, salespeople and others who brought you the clock; by the power company workers who manage your electricity supply; and many others. Your morning yoga practice is the gift of generations of yogis who observed the truth and shared what they knew, of your local teacher and her teacher and his teacher, of the authors of books or videos you use to practice; of your supervisor who lets you come in a little late; of your body (for which you could thank your parents, your doctor, your friend who helped you through the flu, the food that helps you maintain your good health, and the "you" who cares for that body day after day)—the list goes on.
When we awaken to the truth of this incredible interconnectedness, we are spontaneously filled with joy and appreciation. It is for this reason that one of the most transformative practices in which we can engage is the cultivation of gratitude. Patanjali wrote that samtosha (contentment, or appreciation for what you have) leads to unexcelled joy, while other yogic texts say that this sense of appreciation is the “supreme joy” that naturally leads to the realization of the Absolute. Yet how often do you actually feel and connect with gratitude?
Thankfully, gratitude can be cultivated. It simply takes practice. But if you're like most people, your practice is often focused more on noticing what goes wrong rather than all that's right. And, chances are, you’ve gotten really good at it! Human beings seem hard-wired to notice how reality fails to meet some conceptual ideal they have of how things should be. How many times a day do you sink into disappointment, frustration, and sadness, because others have fallen short of your expectations? If you limit your attention to how life lets you down, you blind yourself to the myriad gifts you are receiving all the time.
You may, for example, have ideas about the “ideal” holiday visit with your family: Where it will take place, who will be there, how everyone will act, what you'll eat, what kinds of presents you'll give and receive. But the actual visit surely won't match your ideas. And that's when you're likely to act like a child who has a certain Birthday gift in mind: As he unwraps one present after another, looking for that one toy his heart is set upon, he grows ever more upset and disappointed. Utterly dejected, the presents he has received lie unattended.
This will likely be your situation until you begin to consciously, mindfully, shift your attention from the mental formations you cling to, and begin paying attention to the reality of what is. For the fact of the matter is, regardless of how dissimilar your holiday gathering (or any other moment in life) might be from what you had imagined, there is much to be grateful for.
A short survey might include recognition and appreciation of the effort it took for our family members to get together in the first place, of the vehicles that brought you together, and all those who have constructed and helped maintain them; the clothes we wear, the utensils we use, the furniture and the house itself. We receive nourishment from what had once lived, whether vegetable or animal. And that food did not just magically appear. Before it was cooked, it required the energy of the sun, the minerals of the earth, the rain, the work of farmers, food processors, truckers and retailers to bring it to our table. It is, as Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, the gift of the whole universe. When we stop and really look, we see that we are supported continuously in literally countless ways. This is the highest wisdom of yoga -- the truth of interbeing, no separation.
To begin to pay attention to how fully and completely we are supported, we must break out of our constricted cage of self. With a more balanced view of reality, we are less preoccupied with what’s not meeting our expectations, and more present to what is given. We grow more appreciative of what we have, and seeing how dependent we are on others, we grow in generosity, wishing in some small way to repay at least a part of our debt.
Thank Your Mom!
To begin cultivating gratitude, it helps to be aware of some of the most pernicious obstacles to doing so; often it is these very obstacles that provide the opportunities for practice. One of the most obvious obstacles is the failure to notice what you have—a working alarm clock, a roof over your head, a family with which to share the holidays. As the song says, “we never miss what we’ve got till it’s gone.” So, first thing you need to do is to start paying attention to what you have!
And here’s where expectations can prove to be an obstacle. We expect our alarm clock or our car to work, our loved ones to be there for us. Once we come to expect something, we tend not to pay it attention. We take it for granted. So, use expectations as reminders to cultivate gratitude.
Another big obstacle, and therefore another opportunity to cultivate gratitude, is the trap of thinking you are entitled. Gratitude may not spontaneously arise when the garbage man takes away your trash, since he's "just doing his job. " But the fact is regardless of his motivation, you are benefiting from his efforts and can meet them with an expression of gratitude.
So far, I’ve been talking about the formless practice of cultivating gratitude through simple mindfulness. A formal practice, developed in Japan by a practitioner of Pure Land Buddhism, is known as Naikan, which means “looking inside.” It’s a structured method of self-reflection that encourages a more objective survey of ourselves and our relationship to the world. At its most profound, Naikan is practiced on retreat with trained counselors. From dawn to night, every day for a week, retreatants sit and reflect on their mother—what they received from her, what they gave to her, and what troubles they caused her. They generally spend 90 – 120 minutes reflecting on their life, first from birth to age six, and then for each three-year period of their life, meeting with a counselor after each session, until their whole life has been examined in relation to their mother. They then move on to their father, siblings, lovers, friends, etc. Retreatants are free to honestly look, perhaps for the first time, at how they have lived their lives. Despite the emotional and physical difficulties of such retreats, participants typically end retreat feeling deeply loved and supported, experiencing a rich vibrancy of life, and a sense of oneness with the world and others. They also often feel a strong desire to generously give to others as they have received.
Naikan can also be done as a daily practice -- the rewards will become immediately evident in the blossoming of a natural, deeply felt sense of gratitude and appreciation for your life, and for all the gifts you receive daily. Gifts that we realize were always there, but went unnoticed and therefore unappreciated. The practice of Naikan can lead you to the realization that you are rich indeed, and that not only are you not alone, you are truly supported by the universe! You may even come to see the truth in the exhortation of the 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
A Question of Gratitude
By becoming aware of all that we've received, we find gratitude for all that happens in our days. Make Naikan your evening practice for this month and see what happens!
Question One: Sitting comfortably, with eyes closed, take a few moments to bring attention to your breath, mantra or any technique that you normally use to center yourself. When you feel settled, ask yourself: What have I received today?
Be specific and reflect on as many things as you can remember. It can be something as simple as the smile your partner gifted you with as you awoke, the cup of coffee s/he brought you, or the sound of birdsong at dawn; the driver who let you merge into the crowded freeway; your car that you used to run your errands. Remember, the motivation or attitude of those who gave you something is not the issue. Maybe you were offered lunch because you showed up at lunchtime rather than because your friend made some personal effort to make you lunch. The fact is, you were fed, and you can cultivate gratitude for that. The mere fact that you benefited from something or someone’s actions is all that is required to cultivate a heart of gratitude.
Notice how many of these things you didn’t appreciate as they happened. Can you recall what was taking your attention when one of these acts of grace occurred? Were you stuck in problem-solving mode, thinking of your “to do” list, or in making judgments? Reflecting like this, we may be surprised at just how many things we receive throughout any given day.
Question Two: After you’ve replayed the whole day in your mind, contemplate the question: What have I given today?
Go through the day’s events in the same way, but this time noticing what you have given to others during the day. Be as specific and concrete as possible. As above, your motivation is irrelevant. What did you actually do? It may be something as simple as feeding your cats, washing the breakfast dishes, or sending a friend a birthday card. We often live as if the world owes us. As you reflect on what you have given today, you will likely see that, if anything, each of us owes the world an insurmountable debt. This insight is more than merely humbling; you may find yourself not only feeling a deeper sense of gratitude, but a natural desire to be as generous as you can in serving others.
Question Three: For the final ten minutes, contemplate the question: What troubles and difficulties did I cause today?
Again, be specific. Don’t overlook the seemingly “insignificant.” Your list may include things like, “I backed-up traffic while looking for a place to park,” or “I chased the cats off the lounge chair so I could sit there.” This question is often the hardest, but its importance cannot be overstated. It may bring up feelings of remorse, but its primary purpose is to provide a more realistic view of our life. Mostly, we are all too aware of how others cause us inconvenience or difficulty, but rarely do we notice when we are the source of inconvenience. And if we do, we usually brush it aside as “an accident,” “not that big a deal,” or “I didn’t mean it.” We cut ourselves a huge length of slack! But seeing how we cause others difficulty can deflate our ego, while reminding us again of the grace by which we live.
These questions provide the framework for reflecting on all relationships, including with family, friends, work associates, partners, pets and even objects. You can reflect on a specific person over the course of your relationship, on the events of one day, or a holiday visit to your family.
The practice of Daily Naikan is best done toward the end of the day, allowing about 30 minutes, though you could take less time if necessary. Remember, what makes this a meditative practice is that we are not analyzing our underlying motivations or intentions; we are not interpreting or judging. We are simply shifting our attention from self-centered thinking to seeing things as they are, and as all Yoga traditions point out, in seeing, there is wisdom and liberation.