A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness: Japanese Psychology and the Skills We Need for Psychological and Spiritual Health

Gregg Krech

Gregg Krech is one of the leading authorities on Japanese Psychology in North Americaand is the founding director of the ToDo Institute, an educational center for purposeful living in Vermont. He is also an award-winning author of books such as Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection, The Art of Taking Action - Lessons from Japanese Psychology, and Tunnelling your Sunlight - 21 Maxims of Living Wisdom from Buddhism and Japanese Psychology to Cope with Difficult Times. Over the past 30 years, Gregg has introduced Japanese psychology to more than 10,000 people through his workshops and online courses.

So what skills are required for mental wellness? There are many skills that will have a good influence on your mental health such as problem-solving, time management, organizing your living space, and managing your finances. Guidance on these topics is readily available. The four skills I would like to identify, however, are indispensable to mental wellness and rarely discussed. They are also skills in which many of us are deficient. And the absence of even one of these skills can result in a great deal of suffering for us and those around us.

This book offers skills that people need for psychological and spiritual health. In this review let’s see how these skills and practices help people attain mental wellness.

Skill #1: Acceptance

Gregg states that when people are in conditions that they find unpleasant, they try to manipulate the conditions so they align with their preferences and desires. He mentions three strategies that people often use to manipulate their emotional discomfort:

  • Avoidance - this involves trying to escape from our feelings/thought – avoiding what is uncomfortable and pursuing what is comfortable… The avoidance strategy involves resistance. We resist our emotional experience and devote great energy and attention to trying to manipulate ourselves into a different state. Unfortunately, the resistance itself nurtures our discomfort. And the preoccupation with our internal experience (thoughts and feelings) tends to intensify our suffering while distracting us from activity that can give our life meaning and purpose.

  • Resignation - we may accept our emotional state and take no action whatsoever. This is a type of acceptance that is really resignation… In resignation, we are not trying to escape from our feelings, we are simply languishing in them.

  • Complaining - when we grudgingly accept our circumstances, we may nevertheless continue to resist our experience by regularly complaining.

These strategies may seem helpful to diminish emotional discomfort and offer some initial relief, but as Gregg mentioned, they only offer resistance and tend to distract us from activities that will give us life meaning and purpose. 

Gregg then introduced a fourth strategy for dealing with our emotional discomfort: arugamama. He states: “The state of arugamama is one in which we do not try to escape from our emotional experience. We are not seeking any kind of emotional or cognitive state other then the one we are in at the moment. Yet we continue to devote ourselves to what it is that is important for us to do. We carry out the purpose of our lives, because they give life meaning.”

Arugamama is accepting things as they are, and I agree with Gregg that when people stop trying to escape from the true nature of things, they can move forward and live in a more natural and meaningful way. We must accept our struggles and learn to live with them. I believe that through life challenges, people learn more about their ikigai.

The acceptance of others

We need to learn the wisdom and skill of simply accepting what is. Life cannot always be the way we want it to be. Our plans rarely go according to plan. Flexibility and acceptance are qualities that help us live more wisely – spiritually as well as psychologically.

Much of the suffering that occurs in relationships is related to our effort to try and control other people. The alternative is to accept them as they are – an option which is much more compatible with loving them. When we stop trying to fix or change the other person, it frees up our energy to just love them.

In my interview with Gregg Krech, he talked about “seeing the crooked tree as straight.” Everybody is crooked in the sense that people have their flaws, problems, and limitations. Gregg thinks that if people could just stop fixing others and just accept them, there would be more space for love for everyone. 

I agree that it is vital that we accept others as they are because trying to fix them to become the person we expect them to be will cause us more conflict and frustration.

Skill #2: Co-existing with unpleasant feelings

Coexisting with unpleasant feelings is the antithesis of such a feeling/response approach.

The ability to coexist with feeling states is the foundation of self-control, but it is truly a skill, not just an idea. 

You practice coexistence by learning to work with these everyday situations without allowing your body (behavior) to automatically respond to your internal experience (feelings/thoughts). 

The more we resist or fight these feeling states, the stronger they become. It’s as if the attention we give to unpleasant feelings is actually a form of nourishment, like water to a plant. The more we try to “work on” or “work through” such feelings, the more they grow, branch out, and occupy a larger space in our life.

To coexist with our unpleasant feelings may be a bit challenging for us. When we feel something bad, we try and find ways to get rid of those unpleasant feelings. However, in our attempt of removing those emotions, we might end up making things worse because the more we think about it, the more it consumes us. 

Gregg states that the alternative is to encounter these unpleasant feelings with acceptance.  You don’t direct your energy towards trying to change or work on your feelings. You just notice them and accept them.

The uncertain future

We cannot know what the future will bring. Our challenge is living with the present, acknowledging that we don’t know what is going to happen later. We only know the reality of the state of affairs we are faced with now. If we can stay grounded in what is knowable, we can avoid being drawn into the thoughts, dreams, fears and images of an unpredictable future.  

What we need to focus on is the now. How do we make the most of living in the now? We need to be present, and one way to be present is either to do things properly or to do them to the best of our ability.

Leading with the body

The best way to create momentum is by taking small steps. This strategy is well documented in a Japanese approach called Kaizen. Kaizen began as a method of continuous improvement in the manufacturing industry, but its application to personal change has been developed by Robert Maurer, a therapist, who suggests that small steps are the key to accomplishing change over time. Small steps give us momentum, yet only require a minimum of effort. 

As you are anticipating your action, your thoughts and feelings are likely to offer resistance. But remember, you don’t need to go along with them. And you don’t need to try to motivate yourself or change your thinking. You just need to coexist with your internal experience while you put on your shoes and walk for two minutes. Once it becomes clear to you that this is possible, you’ll find that the skill of coexisting with your feeling state is tremendously empowering. You no longer have to feel like doing something in order to do it.

By learning to take action when we don’t feel like doing something, we overcome anxiety, fear, and depression without overcoming them at all. We are no longer slave to our feelings. With this skill, we have purchased our freedom and now can choose a path guided by purpose and the needs of the situation, as it arises – moment by moment.

To practice acceptance is a process. Sometimes it may be difficult for us to just let things be and accept them as they are. That is why I agree that we have to take these small steps towards acceptance. In my conversation with Bob Emiliani, a professor, researcher, kaizen practitioner, and author, he mentioned that there are no limitations to where kaizen can be applied, hence, we can apply it to our personal lives as well. He mentioned that in kaizen, people plan, do, study, and adjust to solve their problems – to recognize the problems and come up with ideas. 

In the context of acceptance, people can apply this principle of kaizen, where they identify what their problems are, accept them as they are, and try to come up with ideas on how they can live coexisting with those challenges.

Skill #3: Working with your attention

The field of psychology is still preoccupied with self-preoccupation. Too often it teaches us to do what we already do too well – pay attention to ourselves. In the course of exploring our pain, our worries, our feelings, and our dreams we forego the development of a more needed skill – to notice and engage in the world around us. Without practice, these muscles atrophy. So the next time you find yourself self-absorbed, take a walk. Look around you.

The world is an interesting place. It might even give you something to do. If the stars are out, close your eyes. Listen. You might just hear them twinkle. That is how they get your attention.


I believe that going out and connecting with nature is something that we should practice daily. Being in nature gives us time to contemplate and figure out what is really important in our lives. We tend to get easily distracted by things around us, especially with the presence of social media, that is why I think it is important to step out for a while and appreciate the beauty of nature and understand that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.


Skill#4: Self-reflection

The image we have of ourselves is rarely the image others have of us.

Self-reflection can open our eyes to the true nature of our life psychologically, spiritually and practically, as we consider our relationships with others.

The skill of self-reflection has three main components: the awareness of how I am supported by others, the awareness of the balance (or imbalance) between my giving and receiving, and the awareness of how I impact on the world around me. 

Self-reflection gives us a valuable opportunity to understand what it is like to be in the other person’s shoes. 

Self-reflection opens up great possibilities for acceptance, understanding and conflict resolution in our most meaningful relationships. 

Self-reflection is probably the single greatest tool we can use if we want to have successful relationships with others.

Gregg mentions that thinking about ourselves and being self-aware are not the same thing. I agree that self-awareness is to understand the situation and people around us. Something I learnt from Japan is that we don’t always have to say what we want and we can actually consider the feelings of others before we say something. A Japanese idiomatic phrase that articulates this idea is kuuki wo yomu, to read the air, where you consider the needs, thoughts, and feelings of others before speaking your mind. When you read the air, you are using your self-awareness to be considerate of others.

Gregg also mentions Naikan, a method of self-reflection that really is a big help for self-awareness. Naikan consists of three questions to reflect on: what did I receive from? What did I give to? And what troubles and difficulties did I cause?

Conclusion

This book is very timely as a lot of us might be facing some challenges in life. The skills and practices mentioned in this book are helpful teachings we can implement to achieve mental wellness. Acceptance, coexisting with unpleasant feelings, working with your attention, and self-reflection are essential skills that we need to live a life with purpose. Though it won’t be easy to practice these skills, we can start with small steps and eventually learn to live and accept that challenges are part of life. And these challenges may help us discover our ikigai.

>
Scroll to Top