The Beautiful Trap

Three simple questions form the basis of an increasingly popular practice: What have you recieved? What have you given? How have you harmed?

John Kain

Lance LetscherI’m sitting for fifteen hours a day in a four-by-four cell behind a shoji screen. Meals are brought three times a day to my enclosure, and apart from a short work period, two brief outdoor walks, bathroom breaks, a daily shower, and sleep time, I never leave my space.

There are only three of us on retreat here; although hardly mainstream, Naikan practice is beginning to catch on in the United States. It is a gracefully simple practice of reflection on your personal relationships—to your mother, father, siblings, lovers, friends—focused on three pointed questions: What have I received from that person? What have I given that person? What troubles have I caused that person? Fifty to sixty percent of your time, however, is spent on the third question, an emphasis that ties the ego in knots and tends to awaken a healthy dose of responsibility—and guilt.

The Japanese word naikan means “looking inside” or, more poetically, “seeing oneself with the mind’s eye,” an activity that triggers a profound shift in the way you view your relationships. Your responses to Naikan’s three questions, which surface gradually, painfully, joyfully—combined with the imperative to see yourself as others do—force you to renegotiate the boundaries you erect between yourself and others.

While I sit on a zafu, surrounded by the clicking of baseboard heaters and the sound of food being cooked in the kitchen below, it was in a cave that the progenitor of Naikan practice sat, over sixty years ago. A devout Japanese Jodo Shinshu Buddhist (a sect of Pure Land) named Ishin Yoshimoto had an awakening while practicing an austere form of meditation and self-reflection called mishirabe. The essence of that experience, molded by Yoshimoto into a more accessible practice he called Naikan, has rippled through the years—and across the ocean—to where I sit now, at the end of winter, in a beautiful old farmhouse in Monkton, Vermont.

Naikan creates—on one level—a very personal, and often painful, existential balance sheet. It gives you the opportunity to see how much support you’ve received from others over the years. It lets you realize your nonrepayable debts, shines a light on what and how you’ve given, and exposes the missteps you’ve made. But Naikan is more than just a personal accounting. Ultimately Naikan practice exists most comfortably in the murky territory between psychotherapy and Buddhism - and between the intellect and the blood-pulse of the body.

As a Zen practitioner, I’m familiar with the routine of long hours on the meditation cushion and the need for sustained attention, but Naikan brings a new flavor to my practice. Zen invites us to empty our minds in order to gain insight into the emptiness of self, and through this emptiness into the nature of the world. Naikan, on the other hand, urges us to fill our minds, through memory and reflection, with the weave of interpersonal connections that we’ve used (both realistically and unrealistically) to define our existence, and through this process it forces us to reconsider what constitutes our “self.” So while both practices are rooted in single-pointed concentration, in traditional Zen practice this concentration creates stillness of mind, sometimes compared to the gradual settling of sediment to the bottom of a glass of muddy water. The three questions of Naikan practice, however, churn up this sediment—of desire, anger, confusion, tenderness—and set it before us, challenging us at once to see through it, and to keep stirring.

I spend the first twenty-four hours of the retreat reflecting on my mother—which is how every Naikan intensive begins. Using Naikan’s three questions, I start by remembering my mother from my birth to age six, and then move forward through memory in three-year increments. Each stage of reflection lasts from two to three hours, after which a Naikan “guide” arrives, opens my shoji screen and, following an exchange of bows, listens to what I’ve recalled. This process is called mensetsu, the Japanese word for “interview,” and generally lasts a brief five to ten minutes. It allows the naikansha, or participant, to give voice to all the thoughts that have arisen, which is a powerful component of the process. Yet there are no judgments, no analyses, no offers of absolution. Occasionally the Naikan guide will give gentle advice to keep you focused, or encourage you to be as specific as possible in your recollections—but that’s all.

As I dredge up specific memories of what I received from my mother in early childhood—the German chocolate cake she made for my birthday, the gentle way she taught me to swim—I am filled with a palpable sense of appreciation. I feel more permeable, less armored. The idea of myself as “solitary” no longer plays. I can see my existence as an accumulation of layers, like colorful sedimentary rock, deposited through the acts of others, the acts of nature.

Yet my expanded sense of appreciation is hard to accept. I struggle to reconcile all of these wonderful memories with my long-held idea that I’ve suffered in the past; I want to be able to feel simply grateful. I stare at the light coming through the shoji screen two feet in front of my face, feel its elemental warmth. I stand up, stretch, and sit back down on the zafu, adjust my legs, take a few breaths. I move on to the second question: What did I give to my mother? Blank. I can’t stop the incoming memories of what I received. Eventually, I manage to dredge up a memory of making her a small table in wood shop, a couple of homemade birthday cards; I once wrote her a poem . . . the self-centeredness of childhood rolls right into my adult years. I move on to the third question: the troubles I caused. Once again, a deluge of memories. When I take my bathroom break I find, taped above the toilet on a fresh sheet of white paper, a written account of a previous participant’s reflection on his mother. He, too, felt he had given so little and caused much pain. I am somewhat reassured, yet when I return to my zafu it seems I can almost see the memories of my selfishness hovering above it, like a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing around a favorite camping spot. I sigh and settle back down. Any conceit I might have come with is rapidly deflating; even flushing the toilet seemed a symbolic act.

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