This week I’m delighted to welcome Gregg Krech to our series of creativity interviews. Gregg is the founding director of the Todo Institute, and the author of Naikan, Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self Reflection. He is also the editor of Thirty Thousand Days: A Journal for Purposeful Living.
I think that the style of Gregg’s work, and his approach to life, parallels what we are aiming for here at WOWH. He describes his attiude to mental health as one, “that values action rather than talk, attention to the world rather than attention to oneself, and gratitude for the support of others rather than blaming them for our problems.”
Gregg lives in Vermont with his wife Linda, daughters Chani and Abbie, and their Golden Retriever, Barley
Hello Gregg, great to have you with us. One with the first question. What is it that drives your creative work?
I believe the world, particularly western society, is headed in the wrong direction. My writing is an effort to bring people back to a set of values that make life worth living: gratitude, compassion, kindness, self-awareness, interdependence, purpose and constructive action. My involvement in Japanese Psychology (Morita and Naikan therapies) was born from a desire to find a way of reconciling our spiritual and psychology worlds. Many Westerners have discovered profound wisdom in teachings from the East, but struggle with that wisdom and the nearly irresistible pull of contemporary western lifestyles. We need an approach to everyday life that is unified and grounded, so we don’t get caught up in a current that takes us away from an authentic and meaningful life.
Ten years ago I stumbled upon the phrase “Thirty Thousand Days” which is the average number of days someone in western society has to live. This idea is a driving force in my work and in my personal life. We’re reminded of our own mortality and the preciousness of our human life. Our limits challenge us to find purpose and meaning in this life. So my writing is often driven by the desire to remind people of the precious nature of their time and to help them use it wisely.
What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time and meet yourself at the beginning of your creative career?
I would encourage myself to trust the unfolding of life, to relax into that unfolding, and to be assured that life in twenty years would far exceed my expectations for it. Which it has.
How do you keep creating when things get difficult?
Our suffering offers us the greatest potential for waking up. These are the moments of our greatest creative potential. Some of the best artists, writers and musicians are those that have used their challenges and tragedies and turned them into creative outlets. There’s a phrase, “working at our edge” which is what happens when we feel we are pushed up right against the edge of our capacity to cope. It’s not something we find enjoyable, but it’s a place of great discoveries and creativity.
How does your creative work affect the rest of your life?
Because I write about psychology and spiritual practice, my writing informs my life and relationships. And much of what I offer originates in my own personal practice. So my life and creative work really depend on one another.
What is it like to send your work out into the world?
Of course, it always feels good to finish some project and publish it. And it’s my hope that it will be helpful to someone out there who finds it. This past year there were many “natural disasters” and we revised a small booklet that I’ve written called, “The ToDo Institute’s Guide to Navigating Through Crisis.” When you make something like this freely available, you never know who will stumble upon it. It’s a great example of just trusting the process. Sometimes you get very direct feedback from someone who writes to you and tells you how helpful something was. Other times you hear nothing. Either way, you simply move on to the next effort.
What was the best advice anyone gave to you?
I would say it’s the three questions from Naikan reflection:
1. What have I received from others?
2. What have I given to others?
3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?
These questions are so simple, it’s hard to imagine they could have much impact on someone. Yet they’ve changed my life dramatically. My work. My marriage. My relationship to my parents. And my whole outlook and appreciation for my life. It seems unimaginable that such simple questions could have such an extraordinary impact, but that is the power of self-reflection.
What helps you to pay attention to the world?
Paying attention to the world is one of the core teachings of my work. So I’ve developed all kinds of fun ways to do it and to remind myself to do it. Perhaps my favorite exercise along these lines is haiku poetry. I’ll give people the assignment to write a haiku poem in which the poet is invisible. Haiku has a specific structure of three lines with a specific number of syllables. (5-7-5). But haiku also points the poet towards the elements of life that often go unnoticed — rather than grandiose sunsets or snow-covered mountains. Haiku forces you to really look at what you normally don’t notice, like a weed growing from a fissure in a rock, or the sound of aspen leaves fluttering in the breeze. When my family travels, we have a daily haiku poetry contest and everyone gets involved. My children have become wonderful poets, but, most importantly, they have learned to really look around and see the world, rather than get caught up in their internal chatter of thoughts and feelings.
Thank you very much for your thoughtful answers Gregg. Do check out Gregg’s website TodoInstitute.org, and his blog, thirtythousanddays.org.