Religious Studies Researcher Offers Tips on Self-reflection

Clark ChilsonIn the weeks before the turn of a new decade, many people grow reflective about the past. Have we been the kind of people we want to be? How can we be better in the coming years? 

Clark Chilson, an associate professor of religious studies in the University of Pittsburgh’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, studies one form of structured meditation called Naikan, which focuses on our relationships to others. And he said it can offer a roadmap for reflection.

The most direct translation of Naikan to English is “introspection.” The practice involves self-reflection on three central questions: What have I received from another person? What have I given back to that person? What troubles and difficulties did I cause that person? 

Typically, these questions are asked in relation to a family member or other prominent person in one’s life, either as part of a daily routine or as an intensive, weeklong exercise at a Naikan training center. But, Chilson said, “anybody can use them as a guideline for discovering how our lives are not just about ourselves.”

Chilson is one of just a handful of scholars outside Japan who study Naikan. Last year he detailed the practice’s Shin Buddhist origins in the early 20th century to its secularized, modern-day use in hospitals and prisons as a type of psychotherapy. 

Naikan and other forms of meditation have roots in religious practice—a fact that often gets lost in conversations about self-care these days, said Chilson. 

“Mindfulness is really trying to get you to focus on the ‘here and now,’” he said. “Naikan is really trying to get people thinking about ‘How am I interacting with other people? How am I interacting with the world?’”

In his Buddhism and Psychology course at Pitt, for instance, Chilson illustrates how individualistic and secular contemporary “wellness culture” can compare to meditations like Naikan using the question, “How many meals did your mother cook for you?”

“It’s easy to forget what other people have done for us,” Chilson said. “These three questions can be done in a few minutes, and for many people, it makes them aware of something that, upon a little self-reflection, was a huge part of their life, that they never recognized. Naikan is about directing people to these areas that they never thought about as a way of cultivating attention, to make us more generous towards the people in our lives who matter.”

Christopher Harding, a colleague of Chilson’s who studies Asian history at the University of Edinburgh added, “When people hear about the theory of Naikan, especially Westerners, they imagine it must be a recipe for guilt: focusing on what you have received from others, what you have given them, or inflicted upon them, in return. But to actually go through the process, as opposed to just thinking about it, is to experience this deep liberation—so people say.”

Chilson, for his part, has done several weeklong intensive sessions at Naikan training centers in Japan. He detailed the structure of intensive Naikan in his latest paper in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. He is also a member of the Japan Naikan Association. Between teaching and advising, Chilson tries to regularly practice daily Naikan. Sometimes it’s just a few minutes before bed, he said. But ultimately, it all adds up. 

With self-reflection, he said, “What we give our attention to is what we become.”