An experiment in mindfulness, Part Two

In my last post, I discussed what I learned from a Naikan workshop where we focused on just three questions. The first question was: What have I received in the last twenty-four hours? I learned that for me, as well as most of us, blessings are abundant. Life is not the bed of nails that many of us perceive it to be, but more like a comfortable mattress. If my life were a mattress, it might have a few lumps in it but they should be easy to ignore. It takes work for many of us to perceive that we receive much more than we give. Periodically contemplating your blessings, as I did last week, helps put your life in perspective.

Having realized that I was blessed in so many ways, the teacher gave us a second question: What have I given in the last twenty-four hours? Here are some of my gifts that I scribbled down on paper:

  • I gave my seasoned guidance to my employees. I hope that it was actually good guidance but there is no way to tell for sure.
  • The notes I recorded during a conference call
  • The thought and creativity I applied to my job
  • My labor in general, which hopefully made the world a bit better place and for which I was well compensated
  • My cat, as usual, received a belly rub on our bed before I retired. From his purring, he was obviously grateful.
  • I shut the blinds to our bedroom windows so we could have some privacy
  • I turned up the heat because we were getting a bit chill
  • My wife got my companionship watching TV
  • I dished out more than a few I love yous to immediate members of my family, including the feline
  • I spent about an hour in the morning doing the family bookkeeping
  • I put my daughter’s dishes in the dishwasher
  • I took out the trash
  • I listened well (I hope) to my wife as she expressed her thoughts and feelings
  • Not to be too crass, but I contributed my salary. I am by far the family’s major breadwinner. Without my income, my family would have fewer modern amenities to enjoy.

We had the same amount of time to write down what we gave others but when we were done, we quickly noticed that that our list of gifts was far smaller than our list of items that we had received. Few things on my list amounted to much. Yet, in spite of my limited contributions I received far more than I got.

The last question was the hardest: What trouble or difficulty have I caused in the last twenty-four hours? I found it hard because I do not like to dwell on my failings and imperfections. The instructor asked us to record any small inconveniences we caused on our list. If we cut into line ahead of someone, that inconvenienced someone. If we dodged our way through traffic in order to make it home a minute sooner, we likely caused other drivers to check their driving. When I contemplated my own failings, I found some I was uncomfortable even putting down on paper.

I know I can be perceived as domineering or arrogant even though, of course, I rarely perceive myself to be this way. To the extent that I am, I certainly regret any hurt feelings I might have caused. Fortunately, since the period was limited to twenty-four hours, there were few egregious things on my list. My minor transgressions included:

  • I spurned letting the cat on my lap because I was deeply into the middle of doing something on the computer. At the time, I thought that was more important than my poor feline’s impulsive desire for my companionship.
  • My daughter had rearranged her bedroom and was anxious to show it to me. Rather than rush up the stairs to see it when I got home, I made her wait several minutes while I unpacked myself and sorted the mail. I could have been more sensitive to her feelings.

What do exercises like this mean? It means whatever we want to glean from it. However, I did find it useful to spend a couple hours doing nothing but engaging in focused introspection. I am definitely more mindful now of how life has showered me with so many blessings. Some I can say are the fruits of my own labors. While I am grateful for my job, it would not be possible without education, and my education did not just happen. While I had to work at it, I was also blessed with parents who provided stability and encouraged me to learn, teachers who poured out their knowledge and passions, and society that demonstrated its values by spending tax money so that I could attend school free. In 1987, I spent a week in the Philippines. There I saw children running around in the streets. Back then (and it is likely still this way today) schooling was available only to those whose parents could afford it for their children. The children I saw were impoverished and spent most of their days trying to eke out a slightly higher standard of living for their families. The boys watched cars of wealthy foreigners like me, or tried to sell cigarettes. (They also smoked them.) Too many of the girls, once they were in adolescence, worked in bars and sold their bodies for money, even though they were still minors. Fleets of horny U.S. sailors took advantage of the opportunity. What a blessing that I was spared that sort of childhood!

I also learned that while I had my transgressions, overall I am a decent human being. If I do not cause much trouble, perhaps it was because life has largely treated me kindly, so I saw little reason to cause trouble. For me, for the most part life is truly good and rewarding. I am blessed because I received much of it without asking. I learned that my problems were not so much mountains as they were molehills, that life can be a great gift, and that I am fortunate and lucky to be alive at this time and in this place.

One response to “An experiment in mindfulness, Part Two”

  1. Hi Mark,

    Thank you for posting your experience with Naikan reflection. Daily Naikan is the simplest form of this type of reflection — it doesn’t take long and doesn’t tax our memory too much. Doing Naikan on a single person is the most traditional approach and is the foundation of the Naikan retreat, where one spends about 100 hours looking at one’s entire life. I like to see the whole process as a research project — you are trying to collect data, as objectively as possible, about how you have lived. You then analyze the data and come to your own conclusions. I used Naikan to reflect on my youngest daughter the other day. My list of what I had given was fairly long and while I was a bit surprised by what I had received from her, it was the third question — the troubles and difficulties I caused her — that pierced my heart like a knife. I was saddened by my impatience, lack of attention and a variety of unkind ways I had behaved towards her. I couldn’t wait till I got home so I could do something nice for her. I mention this because even though I have been doing this practice for twenty years, it still can have a surprising effect on me.

    I encourage you to keep up the practice, though it is hard to do so because we often see self-reflection as a low priority because there’s so much to do.

    I put together a brief presentation on Naikan and Gratitude for Thanksgiving and you might be interested. It is here:

    best wishes for the holiday season,

    Gregg Krech
    ToDo Institute


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