009 – Gregg Krech on Japanese Psychology in Times of Uncertainty

Gregg Krech

Japanese Psychology With Gregg Krech

In the Podcast:

  • What's Controllable and What isn't Controllable?  04:42
  • Day to Day Living 10:31
  • Naikan 14:16
  • The Three Naikan Questions 16:53
  • What can we be thankful for? 18:41
  • How can we cope with feelings as a sensation? 26:09
  • Inaction Demons 36:22
  • Seeing the Crooked Tree as Straight 47:05
  • Freeing Yourself 54:21
  • Advice for People Struggling with this New Lifestyle 56:19


Nick: Hello, it's Nick Kemp here from ikigaitribe.com with episode nine of the ikigai podcast. In this episode, I had the pleasure of speaking to Gregg Krech on the subject of using Japanese psychology in this time of uncertainty. I hope you enjoy this episode. 

Now, Gregg, you are the author of several books, including the award-winning book, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self Reflection, The Art of Taking Action - Lessons from Japanese Psychology, and also the book Tunnelling your Sunlight - 21 Maxims of Living Wisdom from Buddhism and Japanese Psychology to Cope with Difficult Times.  Along with your wife Linda, you are the founders of the Todo Institute (Eastern Way), a nonprofit centre in Vermont that uses Japanese Psychology as an alternative to traditional Western approaches to psychology.  

And these methods you use include Naikan therapy, Morita therapy, and Kaizen. And your work supports a blend of the psychological, the spiritual, and the practical based on values such as purpose, gratitude, mindfulness, compassion, and constructive action. And over the past 30 years, you have introduced Japanese psychology to more than 10,000 people through your workshops and online courses. So thank you so much for coming on to the podcast.

Gregg: Thank you, Nick, for having me, it's a pleasure to have a chance to talk with you.

Nick: So I feel like I know you, Gregg, because I've just gone through your course on tricycle.org: The Japanese art of self-reflection, Naikan and the Buddhist path to gratitude and Grace. Now I found that very helpful. And the course reminded me of a time in my life when I was getting very close to my wife. My wife is Japanese and I was living in Japan, and I was living in Tokyo and she was living in Nagoya. She had just got a new job with a company and she was required to do a Naikan retreat. And it was extremely intense, she had to live in a temple for five days and go through this process of self-reflection, and then talk to a total stranger, the Obasan's wife, obviously about very deeply personal things over five days and when she came out of it she had this feeling of being free in two senses. Sort of being free from this intense experience, but also free from perhaps what she learnt about life in her past. 

So Naikan is something I'd love to touch on but before we begin, I thought we'd start with a quote because we're living in this challenging time of this global pandemic. For many people, they have lost their jobs, their livelihood, and there may be lost even loved ones. So I'll just quote from your book, The Art of taking action. 

What's Controllable and What isn't Controllable?

Nick: "Whenever we're facing a challenging situation, one of the wisest things we can do is take a few minutes to distinguish between what's controllable and what isn't controllable."

So as a place to start with I have lost a lot of control. What are your thoughts and advice on what we're going through? And how can we distinguish what's controllable and what isn't In this new era we're living in?

Gregg: It's a rare situation and as we were talking before this is new territory for all of us so there are no experts around. But I think we are facing a situation where most of us have very little control when we step back and look at that question, what's controllable and what isn't? My family is in isolation In our home, we're comfortable, we have food and electricity and internet but we're not going out as many people aren't except to buy food or go to the post office, pick up our mail a couple of times a week. And so our control is very limited to what we do within this house and not having contact with other people, maintaining that kind of distance to try to flatten the curve as they're suggesting as far as the pandemic is concerned. 

We're looking at a virus which not only we can't control, but nobody seems to be able to control. And we're having decisions made for us by local and state governments and federal governments over which we have no control at this point. So I think that we're facing a situation in which we're having to deal with circumstances most of which are beyond our control. I would suggest that that's actually true through most of our life and that it just becomes more obvious in a situation like this. I think we often wake up in the morning and we start our day with a sense of security, that we know what our day is going to be like. We're going to make our coffee, we're going to take a shower, we're going to get in their car, we're going to go to work, we're going to have a couple of meetings and come home and have dinner and maybe exercise and we kind of have a plan for the day and the next day and when we go on vacation. We have this sense of certainty and control when we don't. So I think it's somewhat of an illusion. 

Now we're facing the fact that it is an illusion because now it's very obvious that we can't control these things. I don't think we've ever had much control over life beyond our conduct or our behaviour and how we handle things. I think that's really where we have to put our energy and look at how we're handling the situation. 

I was talking with a colleague of mine, who's also trained in Japanese psychology and she was suggesting this idea that if we imagine that it was 5 or 10 years down the road, and we were looking back over this period right now. And we were looking at our life and how we lived during this time, how we conducted ourselves. How would we want to remember that? How would we want to be able to remember how we acted during this challenging and difficult time. I think when I thought about that it immediately stimulated this idea of integrity that I would hope that I could look back at this time and think that I had lived with integrity, whatever that means to me in terms of my day to day existence. 

I think it's an interesting way to look at it, to think that the time has passed and now we're looking back and most of us want to see ourselves as having coped well, as having lived with some integrity, as having treated other people well, as having been compassionate and not just self-centred under challenging circumstances. So this issue of what's controllable comes down to how we are going to handle it on a day to day, on a moment to moment basis. How are we going to conduct ourselves in the context of a very challenging situation?

Nick: I agree and I think that perspective of looking back on how you behave and what actions you take, it's probably a good place to start. I've been thinking a lot recently on how In a way, this is either an opportunity, or I think we're finding out very quickly what is important in our lives now that we've lost so much control. We can't catch up with friends and for some of us, we can't even go see family and we might not be able to say goodbye to members of our family in person. 

Day to Day Living

Nick: So for me, I think in terms of my fascination with ikigai, it's made me realise that this probably is a chance to work out what is our ikigai. I think a lot of people are finding out that family, friends are perhaps the most important things in our lives. We do have an opportunity to perhaps think about how we can handle the situation and what is important. And as you know ikigai is greatly misunderstood and ikigai relates to our day to day living. So our day to day living is the only way we experience life. We have all these things we've enjoyed and probably taken for granted and now we don't have them.

Gregg: I think that because so many of us are in isolation and a number of us have found that we now have extra time on our head. We can control in many cases how we use that time so we can use that time binge-watching on Netflix but we can also use that time doing some quiet self-reflection on exactly the kinds of questions and the issues that you're raising, which is to try to get in touch with what is important in our lives. And I think you're right in many cases people do immediately start thinking of the people that they're close to their loved ones, their family, their good friends, their teachers, those suddenly rise in importance as we're faced with a situation and we really can think about the relative value of different aspects of our life. So I think that's one of the things that can come out of this. 

I had an online meeting with people who've been in a course that I just finished called the Art of Taking Action. We were talking about the circumstances and this one gentleman who's probably in his 60s or early 70s was saying that he has three daughters. So they set up a way to kind of connect online but one of them has been estranged from him for many years now. And so he was connecting with his other two children and one of his other daughters said do you want me to ask the third daughter if she wants to be part of this family connection. He said you can ask her out, I'm guessing that she's going to have no interest but she did have an interest. She reconnected with her family particularly her father, which hasn't happened for years. 

So I'm not trying to paint a picture of the Coronavirus as being full of blessings. But in this case, one of the outcomes of People's reflection on what's important is that we think about some of the estrangement that we may have from other people in our lives, particularly family members. We realized that if something happens to them, or something happens to me, we don't want things to end with that kind of unfinished business. So in this case, the threat of this virus may move us in the direction of reconnecting more compassionately or kindly, with people that we've been disconnected from.


Nick: Yeah, I agree that there is an opportunity for us to find out what we value and as your example showed, we make decisions to finally reconnect with people. So you mentioned that it is an opportunity perhaps for us to reflect or self reflect. So let's touch on Naikan, which is something you teach. And you describe Naikan as a kind of technology. So would you like to touch on what you mean by that and also introduce the three Naikan questions?

Gregg: Sure. Naikan is a method of self-reflection. I went through the same experience that you described, that your wife had. This would be probably 31 years ago in Japan not far from Nagoya, in a  Naikan centre there, except I was foolish enough to sign up for two weeks rather than five days. So I went through that process and for those of you who are curious, it's a process in which you spend about 15 or 16 hours a day, facing a wall and just reflecting quietly, on how you've lived your life going through your life in a structured way, through the years, and also through the different people who have been meaningful in your life. That's all you do and then you sleep and then you wake up and do the same thing. It was the most profound experience of my life. And it's probably the experience that kind of set me in the direction of making this work my ikigai as you would say for the last 30 years, my purpose for the last 30 years. 

It's a very structured methodology and what I mean by that is, when I researched material for my book on Naikan, I tried to look at just the general theme of self-reflection and I found that almost every spiritual and religious tradition encourages self-reflection. But I found that in many cases there was an absence of an actual methodology of how to do this, what are the mechanics of doing this? Do you just go out in the woods or into a cabin in the woods, or to the mountains for a week or two weeks and just sit there and kind of think or reflect, Naikan has a structure to it. 

The Three Naikan Questions

Gregg: The core structure is these three questions. The first question is, what have I received from others? Or if you're doing Naikan on a person, if you were doing Naikan on your wife, Nick, it would be what I received from my wife? The second question is what have I given? The third question is, what troubles and difficulties have I caused others? It's a very simple framework which can be used and I've worked with children as young as five years old who can easily understand those questions and work with that type of reflective process. But to kind of jump into the particular application to our situation right now I recently wrote a poem.

I think to me there are two directions we can go in that area that are somewhat off track. One direction is the direction of looking at our circumstances and just seeing only the problems and the suffering and the difficulties. That's a very seductive path right now because we're challenged by a lot of difficulties and problems and potential things that might come up as this unfolds. The other path that I think I see is people putting a sugar coating on this, it's creating these wonderful opportunities. It's opening up a chance to remove the pollution from that atmosphere. I'm not saying that there aren't opportunities or that the atmosphere isn't incurring less pollution. But I think that can be a more pollyannaish type of path where we don't see that there are real problems that we're facing. 

What can we be thankful for?

Gregg: So I tried to use this Naikan process to think about this idea, which originally comes from a Benedictine Monk by the name of David Steindl Rast who's based in Austria, he writes a lot about gratitude. He said something once that stayed with me, he said that we can't be thankful for everything. But we can in any moment, we can find something to be thankful for. And I think he said that in response to somebody asking him, Well, can you be thankful for war? Can you be thankful for violence? So we're today he might be asked Can you be thankful for a pandemic? Because that was his response. 

And I think it's a wonderful response because we can't be thankful for all these people getting sick and being quarantined and suffering from illness, and in some cases dying. We can't be thankful for that. But we can be thankful for all of the healthcare workers, the doctors and the nurses and the nurse’s aides and people who are working on the front lines under very difficult conditions. Without in many cases the kind of equipment they need, the kind of medical technology they need, there's no real treatment for this virus at this point. So we can be thankful that there are people out there who are making great sacrifices and taking great risks to try to ultimately protect us and take care of other people but also protect those of us who are isolated from this disease. So that is something we can be thankful for. 

As I wrote this poem I went through that list, we can't be thankful for the United States economy crashing. But we can be thankful that there is a safety net that there's unemployment insurance and that the government is trying to provide people with, financial support that we most of us,  have connections with people in our community, or church or family, who wouldn't let us starve to death as a homeless person on the street. So we can be thankful for those things even though we can't be thankful for what's happening economically around the world. 

Even in my situation, I can be thankful that I live in a comfortable place, I'm surrounded by woods, so I can go out the woods each day, I have internet access, which is how we're talking right now, I have electricity, I happen to be living with two women who are great cooks spI'm eating quite well. And I'm a baker so I come from a line of bakers in our family so I baked sourdough bread. So I have a lot to be thankful for, even though my life has changed dramatically, and I have my losses and things that I miss, I can find things to be thankful for. I think that path is in Buddhism, what they call the middle way, but it's the idea that we acknowledge the suffering of the situation. But we see that the situation is more than just suffering. That there are also things that we can appreciate and be thankful for, within the context of the suffering and the challenges that are going on right now.

Nick: That poem you wrote, that's beyond the veil of disappointment.

Gregg: Yes, yeah. 

Nick: I'll link that in the podcast notes. I was reading that this morning. And thinking it was so true that we're going through this very unpleasant experience with all this uncertainty. But, we can reflect on what we do have and even what we've had in the past, and just to read a few lines of that poem we can't be thankful for the empty shelves at the supermarket but we can be thankful for the food we can buy, and the farmer’s drivers and employees who've got it there. So that's just one thing and I'm sure everyone listening could write an endless list on what we can't be thankful for but what we can be thankful for related to the same thing.

Gregg: I think not letting our attention get trapped into only looking at problems and potential problems and suffering, the process of opening up to the fact that there also are things that are working and there are people who are supporting us in this kind of way, is one of the things that keep us mentally healthy in a circumstance like this under these kinds of conditions because if we get caught in this spiral of negativity then it's very hard for us to maintain any kind of good mental health or even sanity under the circumstances. 

One of the things that I'm very aware of because I think you're in a situation where you're living with somebody else, and I have two people from my family, my wife and my daughter, and because we see each other 24 hours which is very challenging for many families. But they're counting on me to be able to maintain my composure and equanimity and also good spirits under challenging circumstances, and I'm counting on them as well. They're my cheerleaders, and I'm their cheerleader. So it's not just for ourselves that we're trying to keep our attention balanced between things that are in the category of suffering and things that are in the category of blessings, but it's also for the people that you're living with. Most people know that Living with somebody who is constantly negative or constantly depressed, really takes its toll on you. 

So again, when we look back at this period, we don't want to be that person. I want to be the person at least that helped to lift the spirits of the people around me rather than pull them down. I think it's a challenge but I think seeing life in this middle path kind of way, gives us a better chance of doing that for ourselves, but also for the people that we come in contact with.

Nick: You're touching on an area I wanted to ask you about and that's our feelings so many of us are now going through probably negative or very frustrating feelings. You write 

"Feelings are sensations and the ability to tolerate sensations we'd rather not have is supremely important. Without such tolerance, our lives remain needlessly honourable to our wild and fickle feelings, and our plans get needlessly derailed."

How can we cope with feelings as a sensation?

Nick: Now we're dealing with an extreme situation and we have all these feelings of frustration, uncertainty, perhaps even anger. So do you want to touch on that Gregg, how we can cope with these feelings that you described as a sensation?

Gregg: I think one of the distinctive features of Japanese psychology, in this case, particularly Morita therapy, is a view that is very contrary to most western psychology. It’s this idea that our feelings are primarily uncontrollable. So in a traditional, traditional meaning Western kind of psychotherapeutic environment, if somebody comes in and they say, the problem I'm having is my feelings. I feel depressed or I feel anxious or I feel lonely then the work that's done therapeutically is trying to help that person to change their feelings. So they don't feel depressed, and they don't feel anxious, they feel confident. 

So we start with what I consider to be just a more realistic perspective that we really can't control our feelings, that we can't control feeling anxious, and most of us are finding that out right now. If you come aware that you're feeling anxious it's not like you can just hit a button and turn it off. So there are lots of methods in western psychology that attempt to try to in one way or another get you to the endpoint which is to not be feeling anxious. In Morita therapy, the endpoint is to accept your feeling of anxiety,  not to change it, but to accept it. That may sound like it's not as optimal of an endpoint as just getting rid of it altogether. I'm going to suggest to you that it's a much more realistic endpoint which is to accept that you're feeling anxious because you really can't control it. 

Once you accept it, what you open up is the possibility that you can live your life coexisting with your unpleasant feeling, In this case, we're talking about anxiety as an example, you could live your life coexisting with anxiety, rather than every time you feel anxious you have to kind of stop what you're doing and work on getting rid of your anxiety. 

The story that I tell, which is a story that just occurred a few years ago, because I had been a living room musician for much of my life. And a few years ago, I decided that I was going to go out and play in public. The music that I play is mostly blues. I'm a blues pianist. I remember I used to go to these blues jams, blues jams were where musicians would go, and then musicians would just get up on stage, they would be called up and there would be like a rotation. It's very spontaneous. You might be a harmonica player or guitar player and you'd be called up and you would just get together and you just start playing with whoever else was on stage to finish the song and then maybe one of the guitar players would get off stage and another one would come up. I had decided that that year was going to be the year that I got up on stage and played the piano in front of an audience.

I waited until the last blues jam of the Year in December because the idea of playing on stage in public at a club was so terrifying to me. I remember the moment where I was at this blues jam and I had signed up to go up and play and the person who was running the jam said Gregg, can you come up here and play the keyboards for us in the next couple of songs. And I remember just the huge adrenaline rush of fear and anxiety, and the tightening up of all my muscles, and just this incredible anxious response. I also remembered that there was nothing I could control about my anxiety, but to accept it. So while I was feeling that level of fear and anxiety I was putting one foot in front of the other, walking towards the stage, getting up on the stage and sitting down behind a piano. 

Within about 20 seconds, somebody said we're gonna play this song in the key of A. The next thing I knew I knew I was playing the piano on stage. But I had no confidence, I had an overwhelming sense of anxiety. But I was able to coexist with anxiety and do the thing that was important for me to do. That's really what we teach people in this kind of psychology is to be able to coexist with depression, with fear, with anxiety, with shyness, with loneliness, whatever challenging feeling that you're facing, and continue to live your life based on what's important for you to do so that you don't give up your life when you're faced with a difficult or an uncomfortable feeling. 

We're in that situation with our anxiety over the pandemic, over the virus, where we find ourselves in fear of our health, family's health, we find ourselves anxious about our jobs. There are all kinds of circumstances stimulating, fear and anxiety. So it's a wonderful time to practice this, to learn how to coexist with that. Look at what's important for us to do again, it comes back to this issue of what can we control? We can't control our feelings. So what do we do? We accept them, but we can control how we conduct ourselves. So what do we do? We go shopping for food, we put some of the food into a food bank box at the door, people who can't afford food, we Skype with our mother or our sister or something to see how they're doing. 

We do our work even though we're constantly feeling distracted. We wash the dishes, we clean the house, we do the things that are important for us to do, feeling anxious, feeling afraid and there's great empowerment that comes from that approach to life. As opposed to feeling that whenever we're faced with anxiety or fear, we're kind of at its mercy. So it's a very different approach to anxiety and fear. I think it's an approach that is a great fit for the challenges that we're facing in this pandemic.

Nick: I'm very familiar with feelings of anxiety, even relating to playing music live, I play the guitar and I can't tell you how many times I felt anxious and have had sweaty hands. When I played in Japan, I had to drink a few beers because I'm a very happy drunk, so if I became a happy drunk I could then play but once you take action, you take these baby steps. Before you know it, you're doing and almost enjoying the thing you thought you could not do. So this idea of acceptance is rooted in Buddhism and I found it very powerful. 

Gregg: I just wanted to add these principles in Morita therapy many of them are derived from principles from Zen from what you might say would be the psychological principles we would find underlying Zen. But what's interesting and I didn't discover this until after I had been studying this for many years. The approach that I recommend in terms of coping with feelings, this approach of acceptance fits perfectly into the template of the Serenity Prayer that they use in AA in the 12 step program. So if you look at that template of the Serenity Prayer, it's to accept what you can't control and to have the courage to change what you can control, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

So really, what we're suggesting is to accept what you can't control, which in this case, is your internal experience, your feelings, your thoughts, all these uncontrollable things, to change what you can control, which is your behaviour to put your energy into how you conduct yourself in the world and relation to others and the wisdom to know the difference, to know the difference between what you can and can't control. So on the one hand, we have this approach to psychology that's rooted in Eastern philosophy and Buddhism. And on the other hand, it fits so nicely into a template of the Serenity Prayer from the 12 step program.

Nick: I didn't know about the Serenity Prayer. So is that used Alcoholics Anonymous?

Gregg: Yes, it's the AA recovery program. 

Inaction Demons

Nick: I was about to quote something from your book which sort of encapsulates what we've discussed. 

"Notice the feeling, recognize it for what it is, take a deep breath, and then shift your energies to that which needs doing."

The vital next step is you recognize what the feeling is, you take a deep breath, and then you take some sort of action. It doesn't have to be a massive big action, it can just be a baby step. Then I guess once you've done that step, you take the next step, and the next step and keep going. So it's almost like the English phrase, keep calm and keep going. That leads to what I found appealing in your book was the inaction demons and what I used in the subject lines, the email I sent you because I had uncertainty about contacting you and you know, would you reply? And will you come on my podcast? So I think I wrote my inaction demons didn't let me stop me from contacting you. I think that's a great way to look at our fears and uncertainty regarding inaction. We could see it as a demon. So do you want to touch on that?

Gregg: Sure. I think that we have all kinds of ways, all kinds of strategies, some of which we've become very skillful at to keep us from doing the things that we need to do in our life. So when I talk in my book about the demons of inaction, that's a list of those strategies. You can think of that also like just the resistance that we have to do certain things, we gravitate towards doing pleasurable things, we gravitate towards doing things that are easy to do, gravitate towards doing things that have some clarity involved. But when we're faced with a situation we need to do that stimulates feelings of discomfort or anxiety, or it's confusing, we're not sure how to do it, like how do I fix my microwave. 

So there's a sense of confusion or not knowing, we tend to avoid those things. What happens often when we avoid things that are important for us to do is that we develop a skill that we don't want to have, which is a skill or a habit of essentially going with our feelings. If I don't feel like working on my taxes, I won't do it. If I don't feel like doing the dishes in the sink, I won't do it. So we do the things we feel like doing and we don't do the things we don't feel like doing. 

For me, I think that's the best definition of procrastination.  Procrastination is an issue of how we're dealing with our emotional or feeling state. It's often that we're doing the things that only make us feel good or we think will make us feel good, and we're avoiding the things that don't. But empowerment is about being able to do the things that we don't feel like doing because they need to be done in our lives. Our lives often end up being better, more successful, we have fewer problems, when we do things that need to be done when they need to be done. 

We have to learn how to coexist with feelings like anxiety, if you do taxes, I assume that in Australia, you have some kind of tax reporting system. If people do that, and they find that confusing and complicated, and therefore they try to avoid it and wait till the last minute, and I speak of this from experience, because I was like this for many years, then what you do is you just create more suffering for yourself. The least amount of suffering is to just do your tax early, get it filed and be done with it. Otherwise, if you wait months, and months, until the last minute, you have all those months to worry about it and be anxious about it. 

So as we're facing things in our current situation, there's probably going to be several things that we're going to have to deal with,  we're going to feel like we don't want to do them, we're going to want to avoid them, they produce anxiety, they stimulate fear. We have to be able to coexist with those feelings, while we take whatever steps are necessary for terms of those kinds of issues. If we do that we'll manage our lives and we'll manage in this case,  coping with the circumstances much more effectively than if we let our feelings paralyze us or if we're constantly looking for a way to transform them into feeling good. 

So there's an underlying assumption that feeling anxious, fearful, lonely, depressed, is part of the human condition, there is no permanent escape from that it's just part of the human condition. Rather than try to find some permanent cure, for those kinds of feelings, we learn to live our lives despite those feelings. By doing that, we get a lot more done in our life. It's not just that we're more productive, but we're also more responsible, and in many cases more successful, we cause less trouble and suffering to other people who are counting on us to do those things when we say we're going to do them. 

So it's a great path for taking care of what we need to do in our life. By again, learning how to accept our feelings. We're not talking about denying our feelings, but learning how to accept them. While we're accepting them to move on. The metaphor that one of my students years ago developed was, it's like going out for a drive in the car and here you have this feeling of fear, so you just pack up your fear in your backpack or your little suitcase, and you take it with you for a ride and it sits in the backseat, while you do the things you need to do your errands and stuff while you're out. But for many people, anxiety and fear become the driver. We don't want our feeling state to be driving the car of our life. We want to be able to take that car to where it's important. But we also take those feelings with us because they're part of us so they come along for the ride, but they don't prevent us from doing what we need to do while we're out.

Nick: You've reminded me of what Ken Mogi said to me in a podcast and he said ikigai responds to proactiveness. So if we have this in action and this fear of doing things, and you describe the inaction, demons like fear, indecision, discouragement, perfectionism, television, boredom and difficulty. So he says, ikigai responds to us being proactive. So all you gotta do is just get up first thing in the morning, get up, brush your teeth. By doing all these small chores, if you approach them with this proactiveness you're more likely to experience small tastes of ikigai in your daily life. 

So I think that approach and also this idea of if you're feeling fear don't deny it because it's there. Don't make it drive you. So you're constantly bouncing back to fear as something that's moving me forward and driving me,  that sounds very unhealthy, but accept it and say, Okay, I've got this fear, well, I'll just let it be with me, but I'm going to do something now I'm going to do whatever it is I need to do. I've found that over time, some of the things I found difficult to do they're still with me, but they don't pop up as often as they used to. They're not as intense, the feelings are not as intense and paralyzing as they used to be.

Gregg: Yeah, and that's a great description, Nick. I think about what can happen over time. I've been playing on stage now for over three years but I still feel anxious and in some cases, when I get up on stage to play before an audience. So it's not like when you do that the anxiety goes away. The difference is that because I know that I can play anyway, whether I'm anxious or confident, isn't that important anymore. When you think that you have to feel confident to give a presentation or do something in front of others. If you think that it's necessary to have confidence then you have to do everything you can to get confidence. 

When you realize that if I feel relaxed and comfortable and confident I can play music in front of people and if I feel anxious and nervous, I can also play music in front of people then it ceases to become such an important issue. I think that that's a great outcome. In a sense, we're never really cured of anxiety, but It loses its importance in terms of something that we are trying to get, we just basically are willing to accept, this is how things are. Suddenly, the importance of it diminishes, and we're able to just move forward in our life.

Seeing the Crooked Tree as Straight

Nick: So I think what we're talking about Gregg is that we're working on ourselves. I want to touch on something you mentioned in your course on the website, tricycle.org. That's seeing the crooked tree as straight. It's about how we try and solve our problems by fixing our people. You have this, this metaphor or this example of seeing the crooked tree is straight. So would you like to explain that?

Gregg: Yeah, I'll see if I can do the condensed version, it comes from a  Zen story about Zen monk named Ikkyu. He was travelling through a province in Japan and the governor of that province had put up a sign in front of this very gnarly, crooked large tree that was growing. It's the kind of tree if you've ever seen trees that are on the coast by the water that has been sculpted by the winds and the rains it was just an incredibly sculpted and crooked tree. He put up a sign saying that anybody who can see this tree as straight, will win a prize. 

All these people would see the sign and they would look at the tree and they walk around it to try to look at it from a different angle there, they would think there must be someplace where you can stand where you can see that this tree is straight. Some people would lay down under the tree, one person actually went home and brought a ladder back to try to climb up to the crown of the tree and look down on it. But when Ikkyu came by, he was a Zen monk, he looked at the tree. And in a moment he left and he went right to the governor's mansion. And he said like I see the governor because I have the answer to the riddle, and I'm here for my prize. The Governor was a little sceptical and he said, Well , tell me. How did you see the crooked tree as straight? And Ikkyu looked at him and just said it's crooked. And that's the answer to the riddle. So what does that mean?

In the piece that I wrote, I talked about what that means in terms of our human relationships with others. When we see people, everybody looks crooked in the sense that everybody's got their faults, everybody's got their problems and limitations and there are all these people in our lives and we see how they're living and we think, why don't they just get their act together? Why don't they just, you know, do this or do that we don't understand why they just can't get their act together and live a good life like I am like we are.

So we see all these people as crooked, and we put a lot of energy into trying to straighten them out. We do that by talking to them and telling them what they need to do. We counsel them uninvited, we send them emails about it. So we put a lot of our energy into trying to fix and straighten up other people who we see as crooked. Of course, they're doing the same thing with other people. What we don't realize is that everybody who's in my little forest around me, they see me as crooked. So we're all trying to straighten each other out. 

Ikkyu's response of how you see the tree as straight, is by just saying, seeing that it's crooked, is a way of basically just accepting the crookedness of the tree in the sense that there's nothing to be fixed. This is the nature of the tree. 

This is how it is, there's nothing to fix about it. It's fine the way it is and as I say fixed, but often we're trying to fix people in a way that we are trying to be compassionate. We love these people, we want them to have better lives. We want to rescue them from some of the sufferings that they're going through, which we feel is unnecessary because they didn't make good decisions. If we could just stop trying to fix people, stop trying to rescue them from their nature and we could accept them. It would create all of this now freed up space for us to just love them. 

I had this experience with my mother, she passed away about five years ago, but my mother spent a lot of time complaining about everything. I remember being in the car with her once, she lived in Chicago and I was visiting her. We were driving back. She loved horse races and thoroughbred racing at the racetrack. So I had gone with her when we were driving back, and the whole ride back it was just one complaint after another. Finally, I looked at her and I said you know, Mom, you complain a lot. And she looked at me, she gave me this look out of her eyes can't put it into words. And she said, Maybe I like complaining. I had this little lightbulb go off, this little epiphany that her complaining wasn't a problem for her. It was my problem and I didn't need to fix her complaining. It wasn't my job to get her to be a non-complaining human being. She was very comfortable being who she was ao she was a crooked tree. 

She was very comfortable with her crookedness. The problem was, I needed to be able to be comfortable with her crookedness. That little moment helped me do that. It helped me drop a lot of my efforts, not all of them, but a lot of my efforts to try to get her to change in the way that I thought would be good for her. And as a result, when I stopped trying to fix her, we had a much better relationship. It improved significantly, in terms of just being able to concentrate on what I can do to be a loving son towards my mom. So that was a wonderful gift at that particular moment. It was very much in line with what I think Ikkyu was saying in this story.

Nick: It's a powerful experience when that happens, that's happened with me to other family members where I've had these expectations that I just thought were normal and so and so should treat me this way, and so and so should behave this way. Then the day you realize these have been my expectations. and now that I've accepted who they are, everything is so much better. I'm not wasting all this mental energy on being upset or frustrated because they didn't meet my expectations and our relationship improved. 

Freeing Yourself

Nick: life is better for everyone because I'm not complaining or revealing that when I do this it's just normal for you to do this. And that's not the case. That's an expectation I used to have. It's very powerful when you have that experience. I was very fortunate that it happened to me to realize I'm having these expectations of other people. When they don't meet them I get upset and so I'm causing my pain but as you say, if I see the crooked tree as straight, meaning I accept who they are, everything about life is just easier. And you're setting them free and yourself free in a sense.

Gregg: Yeah and there's a great quote, I wish I could remember where this comes from but the quote is 

 "Trying to change another person is an act of aggression. Accepting another person is an act of love"

Gregg: I love that because whenever I'm trying to change another person if I can remember that I'm thinking this is an act of aggression. It also dovetails right back into this issue of what's controllable and what isn't. Other people's behaviour is not controllable by me, I can't control my wife's behaviour, I have two daughters, I can't control their behaviour. I can't control Donald Trump's behaviour. I can't control anybody's behaviour except my own. Everybody else's is uncontrollable by me. So I do much better when I keep that in mind and focus on how I want to conduct myself and live, instead of looking at other people and trying to figure out what they need to do differently.

Advice for People Struggling with this New Lifestyle

Nick: There are so many questions I have and I'd love to discuss but I think we've gone for 40 minutes. I think we probably should end with focusing on what we can do or what advice you have for people struggling with this new lifestyle we're going through where we're isolated, where we can't go out and live the life we've experienced, for how many years we've lived. So what's your advice to people who are struggling in this situation?

Gregg: Again, this is not an easy situation for any of us and it's new territory for all of us. So we're all trying to figure out how to make this transition and because we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow or next week, or in the summer, we don't know what we're trying to transition to. So I think I had the realization just a couple of days ago that part of my experience now in the last couple of weeks, staying at home, is that I'm spending no time planning for the future. All of my mental energy is about today. What do I need to do today? I'm not planning vacations, I'm not planning travel, I'm not planning seminars so I'm very grounded now. Which is kind of easier, it's easier to just focus on the day and I like the idea of just taking life a day at a time It makes a lot of sense to me. 

The big thing that I would suggest to people that one of the strategies that I think can be most helpful, is you can't control all this news coming at you, you know that here's what's going on in Italy and here's the number of deaths in Sydney and you're just bombarded by all this news about what's happening globally with the pandemic. But what we have to do, I think, is come back to our immediate surroundings and our life in the present moment, not just today, but right now. And see throughout the day, if we can find little moments of joy, little moments of being thankful for something because that's the best opportunity we have to try to keep ourselves sane and healthy under these circumstances. 

So when I look at my day it's kind of the end of our day today but I look at this walk I took in the morning with my daughter and we found this bush called the Pussy Willow which has these beautiful little white buds that only come out for a few days in the spring and we found one and it had been raining there were drops on them and it was just very extraordinarily beautiful to just see that and then because we live in the woods I have a bird feeder and we have these birds. I don't know if they haven't been to Australia called Chickadees. Do you have those in Australia?

Nick: I don't know. Probably no.

Gregg: We have these little small birds called Chickadees. I've gotten to know them over the years and so they'll eat out of my hand. So I can go out with bird seeds and just stand there and many of them will just come and land right on my hand and take the seat. That's a high point of my day. I love that experience of connecting with another species. Having my first cup of coffee in the morning. I love good coffee and taking that first sip and closing my eyes, just feeling that rich taste of coffee and feeling good go down my throat. 

So what we want to try to do is stay grounded in real life. If you don't have the coronavirus, and you're worried you're going to get it. The reality is right now you don't have it. So stick with the reality of what you know, and what you can experience within your house within your bedroom, on your front porch, and see if you can find little moments of joy or opportunities for thankfulness of things that are interesting and beautiful. It's springtime, now you're in the opposite seasons, right? You're in fall, but we're just starting our spring here in the US and so there's a lot of buds on the trees, and there's flowers kind of just starting to shoot up out of the ground and there are lots to see in terms of this rebirth that occurs in spring. So I find that for me, it's great to just walk around and find little signs of spring. That's really to be our strategy for being able to continue to enjoy life, within a situation that is extremely challenging to us. 

If you're listening to this, I would encourage you to try to make that your practice today or tomorrow to just look for little opportunities where you can find something that makes you smile, or that's interesting or beautiful, or gives you a little moment of joy when my daughters were little, your children and I would put them to bed, I would always ask the last thing I would ask them to tell me what the highlight of your day was, they would share something with me. Sometimes they'd ask me and I would cheer for them. I always did that, because I wanted that to be the last thing that they focused on before they close their eyes and whatnot. But I find it works well for me too, to just think about sometimes I'll be in bed with my wife, and I'll just say was the highlight of your day Linda. She'll say the same thing to me and it's a nice note to kind of end the day. But it also reminds you that you have to look for and sometimes make those highlights happen throughout the day.

Nick: Now you're reminded of one of Ken Mogi's pillars of ikigai, which is the joy of little things. Another one is also being in the here and now and you can't enjoy the little things without being in the here and now. It is such a simple thing to do and as you mentioned I was thinking about the beautiful smell of coffee this morning and we've had extremely beautiful weather the last couple of weeks, and now I go for walks. There's no traffic and you sort of have this awareness, things are quieter, and I'm fortunate to have a lovely walking track near my house. You just feel more present and you can embrace all these little things that we just take for granted every day. So I think that's really good advice to grant ourselves and to embrace and appreciate the small things that make up the meaning of our lives. So Gregg, where can people find you? Is it Todo which a lot of people misinterpret as too do institute.org? 

Gregg: Yeah, the best website to find my writing and the content of what we're offering as an organization is a site called thirtythousanddays.org. It's just all one word thirty thousand days, all letters, that's also the name of our journal because 30,000 days is the average number of days that we have to live in our life. So we decided to name our website thirtythousanddays.org. So that's a great place to find all of our resources. If people want to contact me directly, they're welcome to email me at gregg@todoinstitute.org. 

But for all of your listeners, I wish you well and I hope you stay healthy and safe. I hope that you do what you can to try to use your time in whatever way that seems meaningful for you. Even during periods that we have like of isolation right now, because I'm doing a series right now of features over the next three weeks and the name of the series is called life not on hold. We may be quarantined or isolated, we may be facing a situation in which we really can't be out and about, but our life is still going. The clock is still ticking, and we have to figure out how to use this time, as valuable as we can. Good luck to everybody. And Nick, it was such a pleasure having this conversation with you. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Nick: Likewise, Gregg, thank you for coming onto the podcast and I’ll want to ask you back. I will link to all your websites in the podcast notes. So thank you very much, Gregg.

How to Practice Naikan Reflection

The Three Questions

Naikan reflection is based on three questions:

  • What have I received from __________ ?
  • What have I given to __________ ?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused __________ ?



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