Mindfulness is a concept that has become popularized recently in the realm of psychotherapy as well as in the media. Mindfulness refers to a state of hyper-awareness, where one takes the time to ground themselves and become cognizant of what they are experiencing at the present moment.
Practicing mindfulness – specifically in the context of becoming aware of one’s self- is a wonderful and very relevant technique, especially for those with anxiety or depression, but there are many other contexts to consider. The American, western culture is a very individualistic one. We value independence, autonomy, and to an extent, selfishness. These values are certainly beneficial in the worlds of marketing, sales, and technology, but when taken too far we may approach levels of apathy for others that could prove dangerous.
Consider this pandemic. As everything went remote, interpersonal contact is severely lacking. School, work, social events, and basically anything that CAN be online IS online as a courtesy to public health. This virtualization of life rapidly became so normalized, and I, for one, am frightened by the negative ramifications that might confront us in the future.
I worry that dehumanization will be a consequence of life online. Sitting in Zoom class, I feel as though I am not communicating with real human beings, but soulless names on a screen. I wonder how children will learn how to perform in important social situation, or if their facial expression recognition will be impacted. I believe it would be wise to take preventative measures to stop any harm from this new virtual-lifestyle before it begins.
Here is where I would like to propose the Japanese therapeutic technique of Naikan. Inspired by Buddhist traditions, Naikan is the practice of mindfulness in a relational context. Eastern cultures, rather than being individualistic, are collectivistic. Instead of valuing independence or autonomy, core values of theirs include family and interdependence; it makes sense that their mindfulness techniques would be more others-focused than self-focused.
Naikan directly translates to “introspection”, or “inner looking”. This is similar to American mindfulness, however the introspection in Naikan serves to evaluate your attitudes and behaviors in relation to others.
To practice Naikan, one must ask themselves the following three questions:
What did this person give to me?
What did I return to this person?
What trouble did I cause this person?
The purpose of these three questions is to take time to consider the kindness of others with intentionality. Often, in our individualistic culture, our minds trap us in rumination and despair. When Murphy’s Law seems too applicable (when everything that COULD go wrong does), the last thing on my mind is deliberately appreciating the kindness of others. But I believe that this technique of Naikan could help us strengthen our empathy, and keep us from dehumanizing although we are remote.
It is important to consider the purpose of Naikan, especially when attempting to apply these three questions into daily life. Taken out of context, these questions may make relationships seem transactional. It is important to understand that just because someone makes an effort to do something for you, you do not owe them anything. The essential takeaway from Naikan is that you are not the center of the universe, you are a small part of a whole – a family, a community, etc- and sometimes a little bit of gratitude and empathy can help you see the beautiful things life has to offer.
Silva, C. O. (2014). Mindfulness of the Kindness of Others: The Contemplative practice of Naikan in Cultural Context. Transcultural Psychiatry, 52(4), 524-542. doi:10.1177/1363461514562922