Lance Letscher/McMurtry Gallery
Lance Letscher/McMurtry Gallery

I’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.

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