Naikan Practice

A Mindful Approach to Step Ten (Part 2)

(Part 2 of 2: Read Part 1)

“The wise have always known that no one can make much of his life until self-searching becomes a regular habit.”
– Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

“We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
– Step 10 of Alcoholics Anonymous

The founders of the Twelve Step program suggest we keep our emotional balance by incorporating an evening inventory into our routine, “when we review the happenings of the hours just past.”

As a tool for doing this, I have come to love the Buddhist practice of Naikan, Japanese for “looking inside.” It’s a simple but beautiful way of reflecting on the past 24 hours by asking ourselves three profound questions:

1. What have I received?

By reflecting on the first question, our mind develops “a wide-angle lens,” shifting attention away from the pain of our difficulties to the joys of what we have received. We move from the natural human tendency to zero in on what bothers us to seeing a more complete view--not denying things that are difficult, but keeping our troubles in perspective.

In a typical Naikan reflection, we think about what we’ve received in general during the past 24 hours. We can also reflect on what we’ve received from a particular relationship or circumstance. Alcoholics and those from alcoholic families--who so often anticipate the “next shoe to drop”--can particularly benefit from reflecting on “What have I received in the past 24 hours that supports my recovery?”

Reflecting on what we have received helps us develop a deep appreciation for life, a spontaneous gratitude. We often take the “little” blessings of life for granted. But are these things really so little? Maybe they only appear so because our attention is elsewhere. The hot water in our shower, the coolness of the air conditioner in summer, the wonderful salad of fresh greens we had for dinner … With a specific gratitude list, we can’t refute the good things that happen.

2. What have I given?

The founders of the Twelve Step program urged us to consider all the small ways we contribute to a better world. AA literature notes that it is important to give ourselves credit for any way that we acted responsibly. This is especially important in early recovery. If you said hello to the bus driver, you did good.

At first, I panicked before considering this question—worried that I would not be able to come up with anything. But when I actually started writing, I realized, Oh yeah, I did give something back. I said hello to the lady at the grocery store. I took my friend Jody to dinner to celebrate her birthday. I fed the cats. I listened to my husband talk about his relationship with his son and offered my thoughts.

The point? We often live our lives in delusion. Perhaps we feel resentment when others let us down, not fulfilling our hopes or expectations. And when people are supportive, perhaps we take their efforts of granted. Answering the second Naikan question, like the first, shifts our focus: We may see that we actually give little to others, sparking a desire to change. Or people of the co-dependent persuasion may find that they’ve given and given and given--and perhaps feel resentful as hell about it. Or we may see that we are not doing so bad after all, and that we have, indeed, been able to be generous with our attention and care.

Answering the first two questions, one after the other, can have a profound spiritual impact. We become aware that life is a miracle, and that we can never repay what we have been given. We can only be struck with awe and gratitude at its mystery.

3. What difficulties have I caused?

Implicit in this third Naikan question are many others. Do I give back to the Universe and to the community? Do I realize that giving to others helps my own recovery and way of living? Am I willing to own up to the difficulties I cause, even if I didn’t intend them?

Notice that nowhere in Naikan practice do we reflect on what somebody else did to us or why we were justified in our reaction. Step Ten tells us to take responsibility and promptly admit our failing--regardless of how other people act and how they treat us.

Practicing the Naikan inventory regularly, and writing it down once a week or month, can enrich our recovery, deepening the neural pathways that gratitude forms in our brain.

Thérèse Jacobs Stewart, M.A., L.P., has been a practicing psychotherapist, meditation teacher, and international consultant for more than 28 years. She is the author of Mindfulness and the 12 Steps and Paths are Made by Walking. She will be leading a retreat at the Dan Anderson Renewal Center July 22-24, 2016. For more information about her center and teaching schedule, visit
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