By Kira Goldenberg
Life can easily get overwhelming. For one thing, we Americans tend to work hundreds more hours per year than people from other Western countries. Plus, it’s flu season right now. And that laundry won’t wash itself.
One way to deal with it all is to broaden and shift your perspective -- and that’s where Japanese psychology comes in. Its two main concepts -- Morita and Naikan -- are ongoing practices aimed at helping you be your best version of yourself through cultivating gratefulness and acceptance. And kaizen, a Japanese management technique, will help you manage your time so you can fit the other two in.
Naikan, or introspection, is a practice with Buddhist origins that involves asking yourself structured questions: What have I received? What have I given? What difficulties have I caused? The idea is to cultivate a broader viewpoint of a given situation, so things that seem to have outsized importance recede to their real significance. (In other words, Naikan keeps you from making mountains out of molehills.) Practicing Naikan during a fight with your spouse, say, might involve reminding yourself that he’s the father of your kids, that the two of you are fighting in a warm house that has clean water, and that, though he never remembers to buy toilet paper, he makes mean pumpkin waffles. James Hill, cofounder of the Chicago-based Morita School and a certified Japanese psychologist, recommends setting aside a half hour each day to practice Naikan, making lists of what you’ve given, what you've received, and what troubles you’ve caused in the past 24 hours. “Like exercise or anything else in our life, that kind of investment really has an enormous payoff if we’re willing to do it,” he says. “If we can fall into the truth about our lives, we suddenly begin to feel more grateful.”
Morita is about learning to accept that all of your feelings are natural. For example, rather than slipping into denial when you feel overwhelmed or sad, acknowledge the feeling -- but don't let it make you feel trapped or stunted. Instead, try to remain present. "In most families, there are ambivalent relationships," observes Hill. "There’s conflict, there’s judgment. [But] all of those things are just a natural part of life. Many people will divert their attention from living their lives fully to the important task of trying to avoid or control these natural events or feelings.” That can get exhausting. If you tend to distance yourself from people and situations in your life that elicit uncomfortable emotion, Hill suggests that you begin your Morita practice by learning the art of sitting with bad feelings. “My recommendation would be to accept your feelings, to know your purpose and to do what needs to be done,” he says.
Kaizen is a Japanese management strategy, rather than a psychological paradigm. But like Morita and Naikan, it focuses on making incremental but continuous improvements. In a factory, that might mean gradually streamlining production, consistently seeking ways to make it more efficient and less expensive. In life, it can mean being more mindful and organized about how you spend your time, so you can fit in more enriching activities without increasing your stress. Kaizen can also mean looking at "failure" in a new light: If you focus on constant improvement, failure isn't a roadblock, it's an invitation to do better next time.