April 25, 2003

Scaling the Walls of Youth: The Application of Japanese Psychology to Working with Children

by Gregg Krech

These are difficult times for children growing up. But the transition from child to adult, one in which our bodies outpace our minds, has never been easy. The Great Depression, Industrial Revolution, Vietnam War -- all presented complications and challenges which stretched the capabilities of inexperienced youth. Each generation faces worldly trials armed with limited wisdom and partially-forged tools, perils that accompany adolescence.

This essay provides a set of tools, practical and effective, to give youth a better chance of sorting out and managing the complications of contemporary life. Most of the ideas behind these tools originated in Japan, and were adapted from two Japanese models of mental health -- Morita and Naikan psychotherapy. Used skillfully, these tools can help children and adolescents respond to the life hurdles they are likely to encounter.

Purposeful Living
One of these hurdles is the degree to which people's actions are increasingly driven by the pursuit of pleasure, comfort and happiness. We (children included) are increasingly tempted by the "carrot" of good feelings, if only we will buy this car, drink this beer, or wear these clothes. Drugs (including alcohol and mood elevating medications) offer a similar, though quicker and more reliable, fix for our feelings. The transcendent value, reinforced by mass media, appears to be "the importance of feeling good" or, alternatively stated, the need to avoid feeling anxious, fearful, depressed, angry, upset, etc. . . . There are serious cracks in a life foundation built with "feel good/avoid feeling bad" materials.

It is not possible to capture and maintain a state of pleasant feelings -- unpleasant feelings are as natural and necessary as rainy days. They come and go despite our wishes. Anxiety is as uncontrollable as a rainstorm -- fear as uncontrollable as lightning. Rather than try to control such natural occurrences, which drain our energy and attention, it is better to accept these temporary internal weather patterns and learn to live well even when we are not feeling well. A life foundation built from constructive action is much stronger than one that constantly shifts with changing feelings.

Learning to accept and live with unpleasant feelings is a skill. It may be taught and learned by youth -- sometimes more readily than by adults. Young people have less to unlearn. Teaching them to accept their feelings as natural and respond constructively to their life situation gives them a crucial choice as they inevitably face moments of emotional pain and mental discomfort. Consider their other choices. They can act on whatever feelings they have which will, at times, produce violent, selfish, unhealthy or irresponsible behavior. Or they can "escape" from unpleasant feelings by trying to recapture good feelings, which can involve sexual activity, drugs or alcohol. Anyone who has bounced between these two strategies has probably discovered that pleasant feelings dissipate rather quickly against a background of a messed-up life. With each temporary "feelings fix" the side effects of an untended life multiply. Suicide is, perhaps, the ultimate escape from unpleasant feelings and an untended life. Taking care of our life, while accepting our unpleasant feelings, may render such tragic choices unnecessary.

The shift away from a feeling-driven lifestyle can be replaced by one that is purposeful and realistic. What is my purpose? What needs to be done in this situation? Ideally, we want the demands of the situation to dictate our response, not just our emotions. Youth have dreams and goals, though not ones which always meet with adult approval. By focusing on their behavior, their actions, they move in a purposeful direction. Scott may be bored with his algebra class and not feel like doing his homework. But his goal is to graduate, so attendance and study are consistent with his purpose. If Scott learns to accept his feelings, but act purposefully, he may pass algebra and graduate. But if he acts solely according to his feelings he'll exchange a few minutes of fun for failure to graduate -- a consequence which is likely to make him feel worse.

Reynolds (1984) identified the following principles, adapted from the psychological methods of Japanese psychiatrist Morita Masatake:

1. Feelings are uncontrollable directly by the will.
Adolescents cannot make themselves interested in a particular subject any more than they can control who they are attracted to.

2. Feelings must be recognized and accepted as they are.
Rather than suppress, repress, transform, fix or work through feelings it is wisest to simply feel what we are feeling.

3. Every feeling, however unpleasant, has its uses.
Anxiety may remind us to prepare for an exam. Confusion may help us to investigate choices more thoroughly. Depression may suggest that important changes need to be made.

4. Feelings fade in time unless they are restimulated.
A broken heart or a missed shot in a basketball game may feel like the end of the world. Yet feelings fade while the world remains.

5. Feelings can be indirectly influenced by behavior.
Doing something repeatedly may give us confidence. Constant complaining may stimulate feelings of resentment. Our actions often precede, rather than follow, feelings.

6. We are responsible for what we do no matter how we feel at the time.
Feelings don't control our behavior. We get out of bed when feeling sleepy. We don't hit someone, though we feel angry. Blaming our feelings for our behavior simply excuses unkind or irresponsible habits. Discarding such excuses, we create more space for healthy living habits.

It's important to teach children the "natural laws" of how feelings work. We don't want children to ignore their feelings, but neither is it good for them overvalue feelings or see them as the centerpiece of daily life. I sometimes use a theatrical metaphor in which feelings move from being the director of the play to becoming one of the actors. As an actor they're on stage from time to time; they may even have a lead role (as in decisions about marriage and relationships). But the new director is our purpose and the source of our purpose is what life needs us to do.

Broader Vision
When we are babies, we receive ongoing attention and care. Without such care we would die, because we have no way to care for ourselves. But as infants, we don't realize this simple truth. We are blinded by our self-centered desires and are mostly aware of what we need and when we are not satisfied. Then we cry. Tears can also be blinding.

When we grow up, we may begin to see the care we received as a child that allowed us to live. People often remember the care they received when they become parents and are providing care to their own children. When we become aware of all that we received as children, we are likely to feel supported and loved. As adults, awareness of the support received on a daily basis often stimulates a natural gratitude and appreciation of others.

Frequently, we focus only on our difficult experiences -- how we were mistreated, disappointed and neglected. Such awareness naturally leads to a sense of resentment, fear and anxiety. Mostly we are good at noticing problems and disappointments and not very attentive to the support we continue to receive. There is a Japanese method of self-reflection called Naikan (meaning "inside looking"). Developed by Yoshimoto Ishin, Naikan suggests that we simply look closely at the real nature of our lives - considering what is commonly hidden from our view. He suggests that we take time to reflect on the following three questions:

1. What have I received from others?
2. What have I given to others?
3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?

What are the implications of such reflection for teenagers? When I was an adolescent I had many problems. In attempting to deal with my problems I would commonly see my life as "problematic." Of course, I also had good friends, use of a car, food, clothing and caring parents. However, I seldom thought of these things. Now, when I reflect on those years, I realize that my problems were not as disastrous as I thought, while what I received as a child is much greater than I ever recognized. How nice it would have been if I could have seen this at an earlier age. We cannot succeed in changing a child's perspective by preaching. But we can offer them a method of self-reflection that allows kids to make such discoveries on their own.

Most people would agree that it is important for children to learn to understand others. What does it mean to understand another? Isn't understanding based on our ability to put ourselves in the place of another? If we wish to understand a homeless child we must put ourselves in the shoes (or bare feet) of that child. What is it like to return to a shelter to sleep each night? What is it like to only have clothes donated by strangers? What is it like not to have a yard to play games in? As we put ourselves in the place of this child we may begin to understand their experience, perhaps just a little.

But if we only see life from our own self-centered perspective we can never understand others. We are only concerned with whether people understand us. When a child lies, or steals, he only sees his behavior from his own self-serving perspective. If a teenager gets drunk, or criticizes another student who is disabled, he seldom is aware of the impact his behavior has had on others. Naikan helps us to see the impact of our life on the world around us. Asking, "how have I caused trouble to others?" requires me to step outside myself and consider my actions from another point of view. This is a new perspective for most of us, like seeing ourselves in a mirror for the first time. This awareness not only helps us to understand others, but helps us to develop a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Attention, Attention
When I was in Spanish class in high school I would often daydream or write notes to the girl across the aisle. The teacher would frequently notice and reprimand me (in Spanish or English) to "pay attention." Though I responded to her admonishment, I failed to understand the significance of her words at the time. Attention was more than just listening to her lecture. It was the basis of my entire experience. What I attended to, or noticed, shaped what I learned, felt, understood, thought and did. Life is a matter of attention.

Have you ever seen a truly wonderful movie? The story, characters and plot attract our attention like a magnet. For a few moments it is as if we don't exist apart from the film. When there is suspense, we feel tense. When there is humor we laugh. When there is tragedy, our hearts melt and tears roll down our cheeks. Then the movie is over. The theater lights go on, and we walk through exit doors through the lobby and onto the street. Now where is our attention? If we continue to talk about the movie, we continue to experience what the movie stimulates. But if we go dancing our attention may move to the music and people around us. Now we have a different experience.

Actually our life is similar to a very long film. We move around in a theater that wraps around us and we watch the screen of our mind. Different characters, plots, and images appear on this screen and we experience life. All we know is our experience. So even when we leave the lobby of the theater downtown, we continue to exist in this larger theater and the film keeps running. Now there is dancing on this screen. Now there is studying. Now there is listening to a lecture on Spanish grammar. And now there is daydreaming about the movie we saw last night.

As we come to understand the mechanics of our mind/film screen we realize how often our attention is not on what we are doing. Perhaps we are thinking about some foolish mistake we made earlier. Perhaps we are worried about something that might happen later. Perhaps we are fantasizing or pondering some brilliant idea. In such moments our attention has wondered off the path of reality and though we are living, we are not really living because we are not in touch with the reality of our life. This kind of wandering attention is responsible for much of our emotional suffering. Generally, there is much less opportunity for suffering in the present moment of our lives when we are simply doing what we are doing. But there is a wealth of suffering available to us in the reservoir of our uncontrollable past and in anxious visions of a future which has not yet arrived. To address this problem we need not learn to "pay attention," but rather to pay attention more skillfully.

Reality is interesting when I'm able to observe it in detail. Photography, poetry, painting and other arts require us to step outside ourselves and get lost in the details of reality. Basketball, quilting and gardening require attention as well. The experience of any activity, even washing dishes, is different when we pour our attention into it.

In recent years there has been a monumental increase in children (and adults) who struggle with attention-related problems (Attention Deficit Disorder, for example). A major factor that contributes to such problems is television. Many parents complain about television because of the content the amount of sex and violence on TV. But I'm referring to something that has a direct impact on our ability to attend: the pace of TV. The pace of most television shows is fast much faster than real life. The pace of most commercials is even faster. When children spend hours and hours passively watching a television screen, their mind adjusts to the pace of events presented on the screen. This speedy pace keeps a child's attention (and television producers know this) but once the child's mind becomes accustomed to such a pace, anything slower will not hold the child's attention. The pace presented on TV becomes the norm and the speed of real life is almost always "boring" in comparison.

Using our attention skillfully requires education and practice. If we are to help children become fully involved in real life we have to teach them how to work with their attention.

Mental Health Skills
Mental health requires that we learn certain reality-based skills. These skills are conspicuously absent from most formal educational programs and methods of western psychotherapy. They include:

1. The ability to observe, acknowledge and accept feelings and thoughts without necessarily expressing or acting on them;

2. The ability to pay attention to the details of reality in the present moment and bring attention back to what we are doing when the mind drifts elsewhere;

3. The ability to distinguish between what is controllable (our own behavior) and what is not controllable (just about everything else);

4. The ability to identify purposes and establish realistic goals;

5. The ability to co-exist with unpleasant feelings and still take appropriate action based on the needs of the situation;

6. The ability to examine our behavior in relation to others and assess the impact of our behavior on others.

To learn such skills requires practice and training. They cannot be learned by reading and talking just as cooking is not learned by talking about food. Doing specific exercises and assignments gives us an opportunity to practice new skills and respond differently to life situations. When mental health is defined as a state of mind in which there is happiness and freedom from anxiety it becomes elusive and unrealistic. The pursuit of such a state of mind is likely to cause disappointment, frustration and even greater anxiety. Only when mental health incorporates the assumption that unpleasant states of mind are normal and natural does good mental health become attainable.


We'd like our children to grow up with certain valuable skills: cooking healthy food, simple repairs around the house, driving a car, perhaps even playing the piano. To learn these skills children need instruction, reinforcement and practice. The same is true for mental health skills. We can teach these skills to children, even young children. We can provide encouragement and we can model these skills by demonstrating them as we face our own challenges and difficulties. The result can be children who are not only more responsible, but more attentive and sensitive to others. Ultimately our children will have to face their own difficulties without us. But by seeing that they have the right tools, we may be able to reduce some of their suffering and help them get by some of the obstacles that land in their path.

Suggested Resources:
Krech, Gregg. Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection.. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2002.
Krech, Gregg. A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness. Middlebury: ToDo Institute, 2000.
Krech, Linda Anderson. Truth or Consequences: Letting Children Learn from Reality.
Thirty Thousand Days Journal, Volume 9 No 2, 2002.
Kora, M.D., Takehisa. How to Live Well: The Secrets of Using Neurosis. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995.
Reynolds, David K. Playing Ball on Running Water. New York: William Morrow, 1984.

Gregg Krech is the Director of the ToDo Institute in Middlebury, Vermont -- a non-profit educational center using methods of Japanese Psychology. He has written several books including the award-winning book Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press, 2002) and A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness (ToDo Institute, 2000). His work has been featured in Counseling Today, Utne Reader, Cosmopolitan, SELF, and American Health magazines.

1994, 2002 by Gregg Krech. All rights reserved.

Posted on April 25, 2003 7:20 PM

Just what I needed to remember, thank you

Posted by: Sophie on March 28, 2009 7:31 AM

Fantastic. Very, very useful for me right now, thank you.

Posted by: duude on September 26, 2008 9:37 PM

Dear Mr. Gregg Krech,

Can we in Thailand kindly reprint your article in the WFB Review. It is a non-profit, Buddhist magazine that goes to 37 countries. Your article offers a lovely approach to Buddhism, Psychology & Youth.

Thank you once again.

Bhikkhuni Dr. Lee, Thailand

Posted by: WFB Review Magazine on May 3, 2004 8:15 AM
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