David Reynolds turns conventional psychology on its head, arguing that people should stop blaming their parents and start hoping their parents forgive them. Challenging the notion that we’re irrevocably shaped by our past, he has developed a practice he calls Constructive Living by blending two forms of Japanese psychotherapy, Morita and Naikan.

Morita therapy, advanced by a Japanese psychiatrist during the early 1900s, teaches people to act despite fear or depression. The emphasis is on working hard and living productively, no matter what one’s feelings.

Naikan therapy, developed by a Japanese lay priest, uses people’s guilt to encourage their gratitude, as well as self-sacrifice and service, toward those who have nurtured them. It is said to be particularly effective in Japan in treating alcoholics and criminals.

Reynolds, who has a private practice in Constructive Living in Coos Bay, Oregon, holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and has been on the faculty of UCLA, the University of Southern California School of Medicine, and the University of Houston. He has written more than twenty books, including Playing Ball on Running Water; Thirsty, Swimming in the Lake; and Rainbow Rising from a Stream. For more information write to David Reynolds at P.0. Box 85, Coos Bay, Oregon 97420, or call (503) 269-5591.

We’re grateful to Michael Toms of New Dimensions Radio for permission to reprint this interview.

— Pamela Tarr Penick


Toms: How did someone trained as an anthropologist become interested in Japanese psychotherapy?

Reynolds: I was in the United States Navy and was sent to Japan. I became intrigued by the Japanese people. They were very kind and polite, but I always wondered what was going on in their heads. It was as though they would tell me only what they thought I wanted to hear, and I could see a lot of myself in that. I don’t like angry confrontations. I like people to like me. I thought that if I could understand the Japanese I might be better able to understand myself.

So when my navy hitch was up, I entered UCLA’s psychology department with the rather grandiose goal of understanding the Japanese mind. In those days, the psychology department was studying rats in mazes. I couldn’t understand how, even if I knew all there was to know about rats, this was going to explain the Japanese mind. So I shifted my study from psychology to anthropology.

About that time, a Morita therapist came to the United States, and I traveled with him as his interpreter. Later, he invited me to Japan and introduced me to other Morita therapists. I began to study Morita therapy in order to write a dissertation and as a way to get at what the Japanese people were really thinking. I imagined that in the therapy setting people might be willing to share their innermost thoughts and feelings. Perhaps I’d begin to understand only neurotic Japanese people, but it was a start.

Toms: Did you just launch into the world as a Morita therapist?

Reynolds: No. It was a more gradual process. As I was doing my dissertation work, I was living a lie. I was pretending I understood Japanese perfectly when I interviewed clients, but in fact I didn’t. People would rattle along in Japanese, and I would nod and smile as though I understood every word they were saying. Perhaps a third of what I was hearing made sense. Because in longer interviews clients might refer to something they’d said earlier and catch me in my lie, I began scheduling very short interviews with long gaps in between.

Finally it dawned on me that my task was to gather information for my dissertation, and no matter how well people thought of me, I wasn’t going to have that data if I didn’t understand them. You can imagine the looks on their faces when, three or four months into the interviews, I started saying, “Please speak more slowly” or “Excuse me, I have to look that word up in a dictionary.” I felt embarrassed, imperfect, and exposed — and I got the material for my dissertation.

It’s fine to want people to think that you’re smarter than you are. It’s fine to want to appear competent and in control, even when you’re not. You have to accept those feelings — but then do what you need to do. That’s essentially what Morita therapy is about. It’s not about fixing feelings or developing self-confidence or becoming comfortable.

Toms: In some ways Morita therapy seems to be an integration of the Japanese way of living with a Western psychotherapeutic approach.

Reynolds: I think there’s some truth in that. But one may wonder why, if all the Japanese already live the Morita way, they would need psychotherapy to teach them how to do that. I think that living the Morita way, living constructively, is difficult for people in any culture. It’s easy to talk about but difficult to do. For example, I’m afraid to fly. I have a lot of insight about why I’m afraid to fly, but having all that insight has never helped get rid of the fear. What I’ve learned from Morita therapy is that the reason people don’t fly is that they don’t buy tickets and they don’t move their feet up the ramp onto the plane.

I have no strategy for overcoming my fears or for becoming comfortable with flying. Yet I’ve flown around the world probably twenty times, traveling to Japan twice a year, to Hawaii, and around the United States to lecture. Scared to death, I fly. What keeps me on that plane is my purpose: I need to get to that next lecture. That pulls my attention together when it’s fragmented by fear.

You’re asked to remember calling your mom a bitch and stealing money out of her purse, and then to remember that she sat next to your bed and kept that cool cloth on your forehead when you had strep throat.

Toms: In different forms of Western psychotherapy and in personal growth therapy there’s an emphasis on becoming — becoming someone or something other than who we are. I notice in your books there seems to be a great deal of emphasis on being as contrasted with becoming.

Reynolds: Becoming doesn’t happen in the real world. There’s firewood, and then there are ashes. There’s somebody who’s hurting in a given moment, and in the next moment he’s not. And frankly, I don’t think anybody understands how that happens. Constructive Living is not about turning ourselves into something different. It’s about just doing what needs to be done.

Toms: So that’s the Morita side of Constructive Living. What part does Naikan therapy play?

Reynolds: Our culture is strange. We look for every possible excuse not to be responsible for what we do in our daily lives. One of the excuses these days is that something terrible happened to us in the past. We spend years in therapy trying to figure out how our parents hurt us through their imperfection. We consider ourselves victims who have struggled hard and overcome that background to become who we are.

That’s a very convenient kind of lie. The fact is that in everyone’s past there was somebody — perhaps not a parent — who changed our diapers and fed us, whether they felt like it or not, whether we thanked them for it or not.

Naikan is a way of looking into the past — not inventing it, just looking — and checking on the reality we’ve systematically ignored so that we could build our egos and think of ourselves as giving people. The truth is that I’m a taker. I’ve been a taker since before I was born; even in the womb, I was taking from my mother’s bloodstream. That’s true of all of us.

For example, right now I’m borrowing the use of this chair, which was made by somebody I’ve never met. And somebody else went to the trouble of bringing it here. And somebody else keeps it clean. And now this chair is literally supporting me. So the efforts of a long line of people have contributed to my sitting here.

There’s a story in Naikan about a little child who’s hungry. An adult comes along and says to the child, “I love you. When you’re hungry, I feel terrible. Here, have some bread.” The child eats the bread, and for awhile he’s not hungry.

Along comes a second adult, and he says, “I’ll give you some bread, but you’d better remember who gave it to you. And if you ever want bread again, you’d better do what I tell you to do.” The child eats the bread, and for awhile he’s not hungry.

Along comes a third adult. He doesn’t say a word to the child, just sets the bread down on the table and walks off. The child eats it, and for awhile he’s not hungry.

There are two truths to that story. Most of the people who come in for Constructive Living instruction see only one truth, the truth about the adults’ attitudes: one, they’ll say, was loving, one was controlling, and one was indifferent. But there’s another truth to that story: all three of those adults gave bread to the child, and the child ate it, and for awhile he wasn’t hungry.

We often remember only the imperfect attitudes of our parents. But we should also remember that they took care of us or we wouldn’t have survived. Naikan’s not about trying to convince people that their parents were perfect. Rather, it requires people to see the other truths, the other part of reality that they’ve conveniently been ignoring. It’s not about forgiving your parents. It’s about hoping they forgive you. Figuring out how you hurt them as you grew up is an important step for all of us because it leads to some healthy guilt and to the realization that we were loved and cared for in spite of our imperfections. That’s a wonderful insight because you no longer feel you have to be terrific to deserve other people’s loving care. I’m the recipient of the concern and effort that went into making this chair whether I’m a good person or not.

Toms: In Judeo-Christian culture, we hear a lot about guilt. But I’ve never heard it called “healthy” before. What do you mean by that?

Reynolds: We need lots of guilt. Naikan leads you to an existential guilt that cuts into the notions of self-esteem and self-worth. It’s very trendy these days to work hard on developing self-esteem and self-worth, as though that will make life easier. Naikan offers something more like reality-confidence or reality-esteem. The fact is I’m not OK all the time. There are times when I don’t deserve self-esteem. There are times when I’m really a fine fellow and times when I’m not. Trying to generate some flattering image of myself all the time is unrealistic; it’s sort of childish, actually. On the other hand, even when I’m not a fine fellow, people keep taking care of me.

I don’t have anything that’s here thanks to my efforts alone. For instance, my clothing was produced by someone else and sold to me. I bought it with my money, but where did I get that money? Somebody gave it to me. You can say, “Yes, but you worked for that money.” And I have to say, “But who taught me to do the work I do, and who did me the favor of hiring me? Who does me the favor of listening to my lectures and buying my books?” The money that I use to buy this clothing is given to me.

My body, too, is not mine. It exists thanks to the efforts of two people — joyful efforts, I suspect, but efforts nevertheless. And it’s been sustained by feeding it food that’s been produced by others. Well, how about my words? Are my words my own? Not really. I didn’t come into this world speaking English. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to teach me how to speak this language, and the same with Japanese. As a matter of fact, I never even know how I’m going to finish a sentence when I begin to talk, and I think it’s the same for all of us. We have a general idea of what we’re going to say, but words are gifts that come out of nowhere. It’s the same with our thoughts.

So when I look carefully at what I’ve earned — what’s mine only by my own efforts — I can’t find anything. Nothing at all. Instead, I find that I’ve been taking and borrowing from the world as though it were my due.

If there’s anything that characterizes neurotic, suffering people, it’s the feeling that they’re not getting their share. They need the guilt that comes from realizing they’ve been taking without gratitude. Alongside that guilt comes the understanding that the world keeps taking care of you even though you don’t deserve it. So you don’t have to live up to some artificial, lie-supported view that you’re terrific.

If there’s anything that characterizes neurotic, suffering people, it’s the feeling that they’re not getting their share. They need the guilt that comes from realizing they’ve been taking without gratitude.

Toms: This idea that we’re all born guilty sounds like original sin.

Reynolds: Original sin is a great philosophical concept, but it has zero personal implications for most people. In contrast, with Naikan, you’re asked to remember calling your mom a bitch and stealing money out of her purse, and then to remember that she sat next to your bed and kept that cool cloth on your forehead when you had strep throat. When you start remembering some of the things you received and what you gave back, then you feel some personal implications.

The guilt that we ordinarily carry is trivial compared to what one feels when one uses Naikan. But, again, that guilt is always balanced by the sense of having been loved and taken care of in spite of one’s own imperfections, and that’s a wonderful gift. The result is a desire to repay the world. But in fact you can’t repay the world because it keeps giving too fast.

Toms: How would you describe enlightenment?

Reynolds: I really have no idea what enlightenment is about. But I can talk about certain stages of development from a Constructive Living point of view. The first stage is a person who’s miserable, and his room is messy, and he doesn’t even notice that it’s messy. That’s the lowest stage, not because the person is miserable — everyone is miserable some of the time — but because he doesn’t notice that his room is messy.

The next stage is the person who’s miserable, and his room is messy, and he notices that his room is messy. But that makes him feel even more miserable because now he says, “I’m the kind of guy who has to live in this messy room.”

Next is the person who’s miserable, and his room is messy, and he starts cleaning up his room. The reason he cleans up his room is to distract himself from his misery. So he’s still trying to build his life around his feelings.

The fourth stage is the person who’s miserable, and his room is messy, and he starts vacuuming his room because, he says, “It’s messy.” His purpose is not to fix his feelings; it’s to pick up his room. There’s a kind of pride in that person.

And the final stage is the person who’s miserable, and his room is messy, and he starts cleaning it. If you ask him what’s going on, he says, “I’m really happy that there are a lot of people who are cleaning up this room.” You look around and you say, “There’s only you cleaning up this room.” And he says, “Yes, but my mother taught me how to vacuum. And somebody made this vacuum cleaner. And somebody at the electric company keeps the power running so I can vacuum.”

Toms: In your book Pools of Lodging for the Moon, you discussed several ways to be miserable. Can you briefly describe one?

Reynolds: Focusing on yourself is one way. When new students come in, I’ll ask them to close their eyes and describe the office. The more they are hurting, the less they can tell me about the office. That’s because people who are hurting walk around not noticing much besides what’s going on inside their own minds. They miss this varied, interesting reality. That’s the main reason I want people to pay attention to reality. It’s much more interesting than ruminating in one’s mind. What a waste.

Toms: Are there ways to be happy as well?

Reynolds: Christians will come to me and say, “I ought to feel joyful all the time because that seems to be built into my religion. But in fact, I don’t.” These are unrealistic expectations about the world. Nobody’s happy all the time. Nobody feels good about themselves all the time. Even people who’ve had enlightened moments sometimes feel miserable. But Western culture presents impossibilities to people as though they were possible. In this culture we talk about feeling good about oneself or about controlling one’s feelings, conquering one’s fears. That’s foolishness. Nobody does that. What you find, in the real world, is that people do courageous things scared to death. And people work hard when sometimes they’re very bored. People often believe their therapists joyfully get up every morning and hurry to the office, eager to see all of their clients that day. That’s not true. The only difference between therapists and their clients is that therapists show up for all the sessions.

Sometimes I don’t love all my students equally. Sometimes I don’t feel like going to work. Sometimes I’m in a bad mood. That’s OK. Feelings are not controllable. What we can control is what we do. And that’s where freedom lies.

Copyright 1990, New Dimensions Foundation. This interview is an edited transcription of New Dimensions Radio interview #2191. A cassette tape is available for $11.95 (add sales tax in California) from New Dimensions Tapes, P.O. Box 410510, San Francisco, California 94141, (415) 563-8899.