Reflecting on Reflection: On Love and Naikan Meditation

Naikan meditation, sometimes called the Japanese art of self-reflection, is the practice of reflecting, often in writing, on the following three questions:

What have I received from _____?
What have I given ______?
What troubles have I caused ______?

According to’s “How to Practice Naikan Reflection,” Naikan may take several different forms: a daily practice in which you reflect on events and people in your day; a weekly (or otherwise extended) practice reflecting on your relationship with a specific person over time (often starting with the beginning of the relationship, through the present); or an intensive week-long retreat meditating on the “movie of your life” as a whole. The intensive experience may be impractical or intimidating for many (although John Kain’s essay “The Beautiful Trap” inspires me to consider it). A daily or weekly practice is within reach. So I decided, in this month of romantic overdrive, to meditate daily for a week on my relationship with Steve, to see what I could discover.


The first lesson

The first experiment fail was the “daily” aspect.

Weekends when Steve and I were together, I felt awkward saying, “Oh, I need to go off in the corner and contemplate us—entertain yourself.” Weekdays, I gave my energy to previously scheduled evening commitments. One night I wimped out after taking notes and prepping for classes until 9 pm.

Since part of the idea is to focus on the acts of giving and receiving themselves, rather than the stories we tell ourselves about those acts—or the judgments we’re quick to pass on them—I simply note: reflecting daily was a challenge. It was also a quick lesson in how easy it is, in the complex worlds we navigate, to let our relationships sift to the bottom of the priority list.

Ultimately I wrote two reflections, in two long blocks of time, each one focused on one of two weekends we spent in each others’ company. Steep learning curve.

What have I received ?

The first question functions a bit like a gratitude journal. The To Do Institute describes the benefits of reflecting on the first question this way:

We hurry through our day giving little attention to all the “little” things we are receiving. But are these things really “little?” It only seems so because we are being supported and our attention is elsewhere. But when we run out of gas or lose our glasses, these little things grab our attention and suddenly we realize their true importance. As we list what we receive from another person we are grounded in the simple reality of how we have been supported and cared for. In many cases we may be surprised at the length or importance of such a list and a deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation may be naturally stimulated. Without a conscious shift of attention to the myriad ways in which the world supports us, we risk our attention being trapped by only problems and obstacles, leaving us to linger in suffering and self-pity.

I wasn’t surprised by all the ways Steve offered support and care, only humbled once I broke out all the “little” actions into a bulleted list. Here’s an excerpt from the first Friday night’s contemplation, “What have I received from Steve?”

  • Tickets to a concert: plus all the planning for the evening;
  • Time and space: he let me work, picking up a cake and a bottle for the event himself;
  • Hugs: he gave me a welcome hug and kiss when I arrived;
  • Encouragement: even though I wasn’t totally happy with my blog post, he told me he liked it and reassured me;
  • Dinner: he suggested a location and paid for our meal;
  • Affection: he held my hand multiple times in the evening, walking to the car from the restaurant, during the concert, on the way home;
  • Care: he held my wine glass for me, and sat with me when I couldn’t balance my plate;
  • Conversation: over dinner, and then later, even when he was tired, he kept talking with me and listening as we lay in bed;
  • A warm and comfortable bed to sleep in. A clean towel. Toothpaste.

A clean towel seems unimportant, maybe, without the context that some years ago I found myself showering in a boyfriend’s bathroom absent not only clean towels but also soap in any form—when both of us were well over thirty. The “little” things another person does to make life more comfortable (and sanitary) make a big difference.

Over the rest of that weekend, and the next, Steve gave me many things. He loaned me a pair of socks (I forgot mine). He sent me a link to a video to use in my class. He listened to my plans for a creative project and offered feedback, then helped photograph the process for the blog. He planned our Valentine’s getaway weekend, ran at my pace in the 5K, and wrote a fairy tale about us that left me breathless. Paying close attention to these many gifts made me feel oh, so lucky and deeply grateful.

What have I given ? What troubles have I caused ?

The second two questions hold us accountable for our own contributions to the world and our relationships. The list of what I’d given to Steve on the first weekend included the following:

  • I made the date night commute this time.
  • I made it a point to be on time (or darn close), skipping some planned preparation, because I know punctuality is important to him.
  • I made him breakfast at my house.
  • I held his hand, reaching out for it in the car and at the concert.

Valentine’s weekend added a few more items, such as a handmade card, tickets to a favorite band, arranging a table by the fire-pit for our post-5K lunch at the winery, plus many expressions of thanks for all he did to put our trip together. Still, I have some work to do.

I know numbers aren’t the point—they can be too easily confused with keeping score—but they’re instructive. I counted 36 and 37 things received from Steve, respectively, for each of the weekends I reflected upon, but the numbers of what I gave were 19 and 26. Steve may perceive some “giving” I do that didn’t make it to my list, but if my giving totals somewhere between a half to two-thirds of my receiving, I want to give more.

I am happy to note that I typically don’t cause trouble more than three times a day. 🙂

 A little enlightenment: the takeaway

Even this brief venture into Naikan illuminated much about who I am and who I want to be in our relationship. I struggle with time—punctuality and efficiency, getting caught up in projects or conversations and losing track. Steve dislikes being late, so I’m actively trying to do better, to give him that gift. One of the things I value most is how he supports my dreams, making me want to offer him more of the same in return. Simple expressions of affection and gratitude, gifts of time, words of encouragement: these are what matter. Learning what makes us and our partners feel loved and valued and then offering those things enables us to practice loving each other consciously and deliberately.

Other lessons emerged: I’m less giving when I’m more stressed. That’s probably true for most of us, so it’s something to watch for, work to counteract. The exercise also led me to contemplate how to classify moments when we challenge the other’s point of view, open each other up to seeing things differently: is that causing “trouble,” or is that a gift? How can we make sure to approach it in a way that it is a positive force?

The best “gives” and “receives” are those it’s hard to tell where to assign. If we take each others’ hand as we walk along the greenway, or engage equally in the back-and-forth of a lively conversation, haven’t we both given and received? A good relationship will, I think, have many such shared moments. They are the most beautiful gifts of all.


Cardinal Point Winelovers 5K, 2/14/15

Cardinal Point Winelovers 5K, 2/14/15


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