Mindfulness of the Kindness of Others: The Contemplative Practice of Naikan in Cultural Context
Chikako Ozawa-de Silva, Emory University
Mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition involves a variety of practices, and contemporary secular forms of mindfulness practices, therapies and interventions that can similarly be broadened to include more of these forms. The Japanese practice of Naikan (meaning introspection or innerlooking) takes one mindfulness practice from the Buddhist tradition—that of recollecting the kindness of others—and asks clients to engage in this practice for one solid week, fourteen hours per day. Naikan does not see itself as a "therapy" or as a means for addressing particular mental health disorders, but as a "way to happiness." Nevertheless, difficult interpersonal relationships and a perceived lack of social support are chief sources of stress, and Japanese selfhood in particular has been described as interdependent and highly social in nature. It is unsurprising
therefore that Japanese would be drawn to relational forms of practice like Naikan, and that they would find particular benefit from such practices. Furthermore, my research on suicide in Japan suggests that feelings of loneliness and a lack of meaning in life (ikigai) are underlying causes contributing to suicidality and are not necessarily reducible to mental illness and depression. Recent ethnographic and survey work I have conducted at two Naikan centers suggests that Naikan significantly improves positive mental health, perceived connection with others, and perceived meaning in life, even up to six months later, thereby potentially undercutting factors contributing to depression and suicide. Naikan practice is not entirely limited to Japan, however, and its use in Europe and North America prompts us to ask about the culturally-specific and
universal aspects of mindfulness practices, and how we may construct mindfulness interventions that are best suited for addressing the mental health problems that face our communities.