Rice and Gratitude – What is Naikan practice?

“Looking into my bowl of rice, I see clearly that this food is the gift of the earth and the sky. I see the rice field, the vegetable farmer, the sunshine, rain, manure, and the hard work of the farmer.”

This is the writing of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and reminds me of my early childhood in Japan.  I was taught to be grateful when eating rice and not to waste even a single grain as it would be disrespectful to the farmer.  This rather strict teaching embodies the concept of gratitude.  As a small child, it developed in me a sense of connectedness to the wider community and mother nature.

According to studies, the benefits of gratitude include:

  • Increased sense of both physical and mental well-being
  • Enhanced resilience when coping with adversity
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Strengthening of our compassionate mind

How can we cultivate gratitude?  – Apart from writing a gratitude journal, gratitude letter, or meditating on gratitude, we can also practise Naikan

Naikan is a reflective practice developed by a Japanese Buddhist businessman in the 1940s.  Since then, it has been used as a Buddhist-informed cognitive therapy in Japan and Europe.
Naikan means ‘looking within’ in Japanese, and involves asking these three seemingly simple questions:

  1. What have I received from ___________ ?
  2. What have I given to __________ ?
  3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused __________ ?

You can do Naikan reflective practice on any relationship, including family members, friends, co-workers, pets, any objects you own or even behavioural issues.  You can focus on an individual relationship over a specific time frame.

Another way to do Naikan practice is to focus on the past 24 hours. You can reflect, perhaps before going to bed, on how you were supported or helped by others during the day.  For instance, someone might have given you a beautiful smile or opened a door for you as you went through your day.

When contemplating what you have given, you can also reflect on who or what facilitated your actions or labours during the day.  As an example, in the course of your work, be mindful of the supporting actions of others, such as the train driver who gets you to work on time or the cleaner who cleaned your office.

In everyday life, we experience frustration or annoyance at the inconsiderate actions of others.  The third question challenges us to consider if we might have acted similarly without noticing.  For example, talking on a mobile phone in a public space.

Naikan practice helps us realise how we have been supported and cared for.  It also challenges our tendency towards feelings of entitlement.  One of the main aims of Naikan is to help us see ourselves more objectively in the wider context of the Universe.