By Christina Stadlbauer and FoAM
Naikan is a method of intensive self-reflection, situated somewhere between contemplation, meditation and self-awareness, in which one's life is examined through the mirror of relationships (such as mother, father, children, partner, friends, colleagues), and past actions and behaviour are revisited from the position of a neutral and unbiased observer.1)
In Naikan, the process of silent retreat helps us become detached observers for a while, allowing us to see beyond habitual memories and reevaluate our perceptions of past relationships. By dramatically reducing the pace of everyday life and the influx of external impressions, as well as adhering to a strict and repetitive routine, the mind can undergo changes similar to those brought about through deep meditation. When operating at this level we can discover insights that have considerable impact on our lives and lead to lasting transformations. Our self-image and behaviour in the world can be re-calibrated.
Since we often spend more time with our colleagues than even our partners, this approach seems well suited for work environments, but to date, little can be found on using Naikan in work contexts, collaborative groups or in organisations. To my knowledge there are only a few examples, and these are not very well documented. Since the late 1980s Naikan has been employed in penitentiary institutions in Europe and has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the rate of recidivism of inmates.2) Naikan is also part of a holistic therapy for drug abuse and addiction offered in Switzerland.3)
To explore for ourselves the effects Naikan might have on individuals and a collective, nine FoAM members agreed to participate in a week-long Naikan retreat in the summer of 2011, guided by Helga Hartl.4) The immediate effect that Naikan has on a person's behaviour or the transformation of a team is difficult to measure. We tried to assess the changes of the Naikan retreat at FoAM on a subjective, personal level through a series of questionnaires and interviews, which have been drawn on to illustrate the following discussion.
We held the Naikan retreat in the FoAM studio itself – a space very familiar to everyone and where most of us work on a daily or weekly basis. The space was partitioned into makeshift quarters for each participant with sheets, cushions and parts of old installations. Daily life on the retreat was quite rigidly structured into periods of working, eating, washing, sleeping and contemplation. For example, twenty minutes was allotted each day for basic housework, such as cleaning the bathroom and kitchen, washing laundry, maintaining communal spaces. The quality of the space that grew out of the Naikan retreat was also fostered in part by the vow of silence that participants were asked to observe for the duration of the exercise.
To start with, participants began to feel an enhanced connection with and care for the space. It was interesting to see how much could be done in just twenty minutes a day by nine people. It wasn’t simply a matter of keeping it clean and tidy – our actual dedication and commitment to the space grew. Devotedly taking care of our immediate environment as a group, keeping it uncluttered and cared for, seems to me one of the fundamental lessons that we learned on the retreat. It brought us together in a joint pursuit where basic maintenance tasks were shared with everyone (rather than falling on just one or two people). Our working environment became more pleasant to spend time in. The space itself radiated a sense of balance and care.
A number of participants noted how the structure of daily life imposed by the practice of Naikan had beneficial effects for them. While this regime was sometimes difficult to acclimatise to in the beginning, after a day or two of adjustment many of us found it pleasantly refreshing not to worry about time or making decisions. It allowed us to sink deeply into the process of contemplation. Participants who were “a lot in their heads” noticed that they were not so quickly distracted when they gave themselves the exercise of doing a particular task at a particular time, while those whose work often seemed like a “never-ending tsunami” felt that focusing on one thing at a time made it more manageable. One participant said he could feel more confident about living in “non-decision,” and that “Naikan contributes to this type of faith in the path. You stay equanimous when turmoil is going on.”
Participants also reported a sense of improved focus, clarity and flow, which could potentially be brought back into daily life after the retreat. One participant thought that Naikan was “a nice method because your senses are so sharpened after the retreat.” Another noted a subtle shift after the retreat, when she became “very focused and precise! I also have no urge anymore for big and spectacular projects but I can enjoy the little things much more. Also I have more confidence, and I now trust more on the flow of things without needing to force anything.”
Perhaps most significantly, participants experienced an increased sense of connection, communication, openness and trust between one another that developed over the retreat and persisted for some time afterwards. Some felt they could be “way more open and there was way more open laughter” after the retreat; they addressed some difficult topics with collaborators that had been previously avoided, and became “more outspoken and felt more connected to people who also sat in the Naikan.” One participant noted that “after pushing the reset button [in Naikan], things look much more manageable than before. I can also share my concerns or the workload with other people at FoAM.” Another summarised that “I looked at a few difficult relationships and found peace with my actions, which was very important. It was inspiring to spend a week in the FoAM space, I feel like I want to make it reflect my inspiration. After the Naikan it was interesting to observe the relationships with people who participated. There was much more trust, intuitive confidence and flow in collaborations.”
Many of us consequently felt that we could be more frank and honest with each other as co-workers – that “techniques like Naikan can help to drop the mask that we are all wearing, and be frank.” One participant said that as co-workers we were “in competition sometimes, instead of being colleagues. After the Naikan, I feel I can be more in the team.” The practice of reflective contemplation fostered this sense of increased self-awareness and honesty. By becoming more aware of our positions in the world and our lives, it helped many of us become more psychologically and emotionally resilient when dealing with difficult situations in our lives. One participant reflected: “Naikan helps me to see clearly patterns of my character and strategies that I apply in life. In a way it cuts through illusions that I have of how things should be or how society thinks things should be. It makes me more aware of my environment, objects, people and vibes that surround me and helps me to be more patient and understanding.” Another observed that “by reflecting on my life and my actions in relationship with others I am more aware of behavioural patterns, so that I can be more open and honest in my communication, relationships and collaborations. By practicing Naikan in daily life, I am able to detach myself from very afflictive emotions and look at a situation from multiple perspectives before acting rashly.”
In the first moments after the Naikan retreat at FoAM, the glow of a luminous shared experience was very visible. People wanted to stay together to share and exchange experiences. Naikan had cleared our vision to see the world in a different light – as abundant, curious and joyful. All of us had gone through a similarly confronting process and to share this with one another reinforced mutual trust and respect. However, this energy seemed to disperse and fade in the following months. The speed and relentless pace of everyday life clouded the insights and subtle changes we experienced in the retreat, and they slowly ebbed away. Most participants agreed that we didn’t allocate sufficient time for integrating the insights and new techniques we encountered in Naikan before going back to business as usual. (The day after the retreat we hosted a large workshop for twenty people – and were bombarded with all the issues of production, facilitation and management that such an event demands.)
It became apparent that any contemplative technique – be it Naikan, writing a diary or any other form of mental detoxification – needs to be actively pursued in repeated and regular practice in order for the technique to unfold its full potential. To integrate a contemplative practice on a regular basis is a conscious choice that needs to be pursued with tenacity in the beginning, until the practitioners become accustomed to it and it is integrated into their daily life as part of their “culture.” Like any “culture,” Naikan has to be acculturated, has to be lived and nurtured if it can have a lasting effect. The integration of our Naikan experiences at work on a daily basis is an ongoing endeavour. It is not about completing a task and ticking it off the to-do list, but rather about maintaining a regular practice which is rewarding in its own right as well as contributing to a better lifestyle.