I’d like to talk about a woman named Byron Katie, and share a simple process she calls ‘the work’, a process that has helped me immeasurably. Whereas once I used to suffer depression at various times in my life, I now find that depression is pretty much impossible. And although challenges and stressful things continue to happen in my life (for such is the very nature of life), I find that things simply don’t ‘get to me’ like they used to. I don’t get hooked and pulled in by them nearly so often and even when I do, I usually manage to re-align myself pretty quickly.
The key thing I learned from Katie was to question my thoughts. The core of her teaching is that when you unconsciously believe every thought that passes through your mind (especially the negative ones!) you suffer. When you learn to look at them objectively and question them, you’re no longer at the mercy of them. You are at peace with what is. Katie’s process of ‘enquiry’ is an incredible tool that anyone can use and which cuts through suffering like a sharpened blade…
It’s helpful to consider Katie’s own story. As her website explains:
Byron Katie became severely depressed in her early thirties. For almost a decade she spiraled down into depression, rage, self-loathing, and constant thoughts of suicide; for the last two years she was often unable to leave her bedroom.
Then one morning in February 1986, she experienced a life-changing realization. There are various names for an experience like this. Katie calls it “waking up to reality.”
In that instant of no-time, she says,
“I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.”
She realised that what had been causing her depression was not the world around her, but the beliefs she’d had about the world. Instead of hopelessly trying to change the world to match her thoughts about how it should be, she could question these thoughts and, by meeting reality as it is, experience unimaginable freedom and joy. As a result, a bedridden, suicidal woman was instantly filled with love for everything life brings.
The essence of Byron Katie’s teaching is that suffering is the result of waging our own little war with reality. Not only is it a war that we’ll never win, but it’s one that will inevitably cause us suffering. “Any thought that causes stress is an argument with reality. All such thoughts are variations of a theme: ‘Things should be different than they are.’ ‘I want…’, ‘I need…’, ‘he should…’, ‘she shouldn’t…’ It always hurts when you argue with what is.’
You stop arguing with reality by using a process of self enquiry called ‘the Work’, in which you identify any thought or belief that is causing you pain or suffering, and use four questions to examine it. Whenever you feel upset about anything, you can ask yourself ‘what would I have to believe in order to be upset about this?’ Ultimately we confuse our thoughts and beliefs and interpretation of reality as being reality itself. Believing that we know best, that are supreme arbitors of what ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t be’ is the ultimate delusion and it’s a recipe for a life-long dose of suffering, because we suffer each time life doesn’t match up to our mentally-fabricated story of how it should be.
“As you inquire into your own thoughts, you discover how attachment to a belief or story causes suffering. The mind’s natural condition is peace. Then a thought enters, you believe it, and the peace seems to disappear. You notice the feeling of stress in the moment, and the feeling lets you know that you are opposing what is by believing the thought; it tells you that you are at war with reality. When you question the thought behind the feeling and realise it isn’t trye, you become present outside your story. Then the story falls away in the light of awareness and only awareness of what really is remains. peace is who you are without a story, until the next stressful story appears. Eventually, inquiry becomes alive in you as the natural, wordless response of awareness to the thoughts that arise.”
It’s not about ridding your mind of thoughts; that would be like emptying the sea of water. It’s simply about being aware which thoughts work for you and which don’t. If a thought brings peace, it’s working for you. If it doesn’t, identify it and question it.
The Work involves taking a stressful thought and applying four questions and a turnaround. This is best done in writing rather than in your head (because as you know it’s easy to go around in circles in your head, but on paper everything is given concrete clarity).
Stressful thoughts might include: ‘he shouldn’t have spoken to me like that’, ‘this shouldn’t be happening,’ ‘I’m so useless,’ ‘I’m too fat,’ ‘my mother never loved me,’ ‘my sister should be more supportive,’ ‘I should have a better job by now.’ You might already have a truckload of justifications to support each one, but let go of all your stories. You have to have an open mind to do this and you have to want to know the truth more than you want to keep holding onto your story. Hold the thought or belief and ask yourself:
1. Is it true?
2. Can I absolutely know it’s true?
3. How do I react and feel when I believe that thought?
4. Who would I be without that thought?
You can then turn the original thought around; for instance, try on the exact opposite and see if you can come up with at least 3 reasons as to how this new thought might be as true as or truer than the original.
It’s amazing how you can simply transform even deeply-entrenched thoughts and beliefs that you might have been holding for years. Holding them up to the light of truth you might immediately see how thoughts like ‘nobody likes me’ are ridiculous generalisations and yet you’ve believed them for years. Then there’s the realisation that if we are really honest, we see that there are very, very few things we can be absolutely certain about in life…
When we realise that holding onto a thought that we probably don’t even know is true causes suffering and letting go of it enbales peace and freedom, we can go onto the turnaround, in which we identify the opposite of your original thought and find at least 3 ways in which the opposite is truer or just as true than the original statement.
The process is elaborated more fully on Byron Katie’s website (www.thework.com) and in her books ‘Loving what is,’ ‘I Need Your Love, is that true?’ (an excellent and ground-breaking look at relationships) and ‘A Thousand Names for Joy’. The latter is the first book I read of hers and is an extraordinary portrait of a woman who lives at total peace with life. It’s not as though she has had an easy ride either; she has suffered from Fuch’s dystrophy, a corneal disease that rendered her intermitantly blind and in constant pain. The way she dealt with that was a total revelation to me. Inspiring isn’t the word.
I hope that this has given people some food for thought. I really recommend that anyone uses the four question process anytime you are dealing with difficulty in life. I have found it incredible. When feeling very ill and down about it, I realised that the thoughts ‘I shouldn’t be ill’ and ‘this shouldn’t be happening’ were causing more suffering than the actual illness. I questioned them and let them go and felt a peace in spite of the physical symptoms. It didn’t mean I didn’t want to get better (don’t confuse acceptance with apathy and giving up), because I still did everything I could to get better, it just meant I was at peace with what is – and that sense of peace surely did more to help my immune system than all the stress and frustration.
In closing, here are some quotes by Katie which I love:
Peace doesn’t require two people; it requires only one. It has to be you. The problem begins and ends there.
The mind’s job is to validate what it thinks.
There is nothing that isn’t true if you believe it; and nothing is true, believe it or not.
When we stop opposing reality, action becomes simple, fluid, kind, and fearless.
I realised that it’s insane to oppose it. When I argue with reality, I lose—but only 100% of the time. How do I know that the wind should blow? It’s blowing!
Peace is our natural condition. Only by believing an untrue thought is it possible to move from peace into emotions like sadness and anger. Without the pull of beliefs, the mind stays serenely in itself and is available for whatever comes along.
Who would you be in people’s presence without, for example, the story that anyone should care about you, ever? You would be love itself. When you believe the myth that people should care, you’re too needy to care about people or about yourself. The experience of love can’t come from anyone else; it can only come from inside you.
I can find only three kinds of business in the universe: mine, yours and God’s. Much of our stress comes from mentally living out of our business. When I think, “You need to get a job, I want you to be happy, you should be on time, you need to take better care of yourself,” I am in your business. When I’m worried about earthquakes, floods, war, or when I will die, I am in God’s business. If I am mentally in your business or in God’s business, the effect is separation.
Nothing can cost you someone you love. The only thing that can cost you your husband is if you believe a thought. That’s how you move away from him. That’s how the marriage ends. You are one with your husband until you believe the thought that he should look a certain way, he should give you something, he should be something other than what he is. That’s how you divorce him. Right then and there you have lost your marriage.
No one has ever known the answer to why? The only true answer is because. Why do the stars shine? Because they do. Why is the glass sitting on the table? Because it is. That’s it. In reality, there is no why. It’s hopeless to ask; the question can’t go anywhere–haven’t you noticed? There is no ultimate answer to anything. There’s nothing to know, and no one who wants to know. Just have fun with the asking, because there are trillions of answers, as many as the stars in the sky, and not one of them is true. Enjoy the stars, but don’t think that there’s anything behind them. And ultimately, do you even care about an answer?