Naikan: A Japanese Approach to Mental Health

In 12-step programs as well as most other forms of addiction treatment in the USA, the emphasis is on the individual. What harms have I done? How do I feel? What are my shortcomings? How can my life change through prayer and meditation? This way of approaching mental health and addiction recovery is decidedly Western. For those who are from Japan and other parts of the Far East, such individual- or ego-centered approaches may make no sense. A different way to address these issues is through Naikan, a Japanese approach to mental health.

Professor Clark Chilson, with the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, gives background on Naikan:

“Japanese families went to Buddhist monks to seek healing for their mentally ill relatives. …In the early 1900s, bio-medically trained psychiatrists replaced Buddhist monks as experts on “mental hygiene,” as it was then called. In the 1960s, at a loss for how to cure alcoholics and patients with psychosomatic disorders, some Japanese psychiatrists began to experiment with a Buddhist-inspired meditation called Naikan, which involved silent self-reflection. Surprised by the positive results, they formulated scientific theories for why Naikan worked. Those theories show how psychiatrists in Japan first came to medicalize meditation in ways distinct from how mindfulness would later start to be understood in North America as a medical intervention.”

Naikan means, “looking in” or “introspection,” but it is not an ego- or self-centered approach to therapy. The therapy focuses on the aspect of Japanese cultural identity that emphasizes being part of a whole. The idea is to broaden our view of reality such that our personal pain or suffering doesn’t matter as much as what we can contribute to our families, community, and the broader world. No effort is made to work through personal feelings or traumas. Rather, the individual is encouraged to act in ways that are immediately giving and service oriented.

There are broad similarities between Naikan reflection and the self-inventory addicts are encouraged to take daily if they use the 10th step of 12-step programs. But instead of emphasizing the wrong we have done and making amends, so that we feel better about ourselves and therefore don’t need to drink or use again, the Naikan approach challenges us to think selflessly about what we can do for others. Naikan wants us to act appropriately for the sake of the outcome, without regard for the individual’s feeling state.

All of us suffer from narrow vision and blind spots. We can’t always see our impact on others, especially if we are unkind or have acted shamefully. Naikan is a way of approaching these blind spots compassionately and decisively, so that one is thrust forward into a positive action state.

If you are in recovery from addiction and find that you don’t like 12-step programs, but can benefit from a structured form of meditation and daily reflection, consider trying Naikan. It is a proven approach for developing gratitude and becoming more effective at acting compassionately and respectfully in daily interactions.

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