3 Questions That Can Change How You Write and Live

Naikan and the Japanese art of self-reflection

As I write these words, I am conscious of how I will answer three questions.

After all, I am taking your time as a reader. I just hope I am giving something tangible back and restoring balance.

Three questions

Translated, the Japanese word Naikan means looking inside. Born out of the austere practice of self-examination known as mishirabe, Ishin Yoshimoto wished to provide a more accessible path to compassion and awareness.

And that’s what I’m asking myself. How much am I contributing to the world as I write, and how much am I removing?

In Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection, Greg Krech describes how, while on a retreat, he learned how to step back from his life and see things more simply.

Though the idea was attractive, the reality was uncomfortable. Yet Krech persisted with his self-reflection, considering each person in his life and asking:

1. What have I received from them?

2. What have I given them?

3. What troubles have I caused them?

We have each moment to decide who we are. We can recognize the countless ways we have been loved and how “despite our failures, life has not failed us. In spite of our mistakes, reality has supported us”, says Krech.

Attention and compassion

The questions, while simple, are powerful tools for reflection. Individually each provides a different perception; as a whole, they offer a connection and compassion for our place in the world.

“As I notice, I learn about noticing and not noticing. I learn about attention,” continues Krech.

We spend so much of our time focusing on ourselves, our emotions, thoughts, feelings, and needs, forgetting the cost to others. And at what price to ourselves. What are we missing? What are we losing during our times of busyness?

Feeling raw

While not overly prescriptive, Naikan suggests we set aside time and space for self-reflection and use the three questions to examine our lives and our place in them.

An authentic and truthful view of ourselves can leave us feeling raw. Looking at ourselves with openness and witnessing the reality of how we relate to others can hurt. Yet from our discomfort and suffering, we can find freedom.

Krech describes it beautifully. As we watch the film of our lives–how we have lived and how its energy flows through us–we’ll:

“destroy false myths, do battle with ego-centered dragons, get snared in traps of pride, and get stuck in the quicksand of selfishness.”

The reward is greater faith in ourselves and life itself.


Reflect on each question in turn. Practice with someone special in mind, then move on to others you connect with:

What have I received from X? They made me lunch; they told me they loved me; they found my phone.

What have I given to X? I remembered to pick up their dry-cleaning; I took the kids out so they had peace; I held them when they were sad.

What difficulties have I caused X? I am sometimes grumpy; I don’t always give all my attention to what they say; I forget to show my love.

There is also value in considering our relationships with objects and experiencing more compassion for the world. Consider your phone, the designers, the builders, the packagers, the delivery drivers. They are all giving you something, and yet you are scarcely aware.


Pay close attention to your expectations. We spend much of our time believing the world has failed us. Yet why do we “believe that the universe should conform to our ideals?” asks Krech.

Focusing on the gap between what we believe we deserve and what we are given, we miss those moments we receive in abundance.

After all, without realizing it, every waking moment your life is being protected and saved from danger, risk, pain, discomfort, and suffering. There are people out there hidden in plain sight, giving you healthcare, food, electricity, education, protection. When did you see them last? When did you show gratitude?

Gratitude as wisdom

Ultimately gratitude is an act of attention and reflection. It takes practice but can, over time, become automatic and a source of quiet wisdom.

And research confirms its value. Naikan is a valuable therapy for depression, conflict, anxiety, and even aiding recovery from schizophrenia.

When working, driving, shopping, spending time with your loved ones, consider what the world gives to you, what you do in return, and what troubles you cause.

When you write, consider balance. What are you giving the reader in return for their time — the most precious commodity they possess. The answer may make you a more authentic writer and a better person to be around.

Ready to learn more?

Click here to find out about mental fitness 101.

Psychologist in Human Performance. Writing about positive psychology and the science of mind to better understand human potential. Owner Explorethelimits.com

Sign up for Explore the Limits

By Explore the Limits

Exploring human potential through psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and AI Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store