Stories. We all have them: “My father was a critical perfectionist and I was never good enough to please him.” “My mother was jealous and competed with me.” “My father is an alcoholic.” “My mother beat me.” “My children don’t respect me.” “My ex is a jerk.” “I’m too fat.” “I was a bad mother.” “I’m not living up to my potential.” “My boss is a tyrant.” “My spouse nags and doesn’t show any love and affection.” “I don’t have enough money.” “My lover rejected me and I’ll never love again.” “I’m stupid.” And more …
We have myriad stories, opinions, and thoughts about our families, our friends and coworkers, and most importantly, about ourselves. And the vast majority of our stories seem to be negative: we are victims; we hate our bodies; we resent our loved ones when they don’t do what we want them to. We lug our baggage around with us everywhere we go: resentments, fears, regrets, anxieties, old wounds, losses, and regrets, as well as new worries of potential harms and hurts. Our stressful thoughts are too numerous to list them all.
A few weeks ago, I loaded all my own psychic baggage into the car and drove up the California coast to spend a weekend with Byron Katie at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. I had heard good things about her, so thought I would go find out more about this process she calls The Work.
The titles of her book intrigued me: “Loving What Is” and “I Need Your Love … Is That True?” And I chuckled with I saw her title, “Who Would You Be Without Your Story?” My answer: “I haven’t a clue.”
Katie didn’t explain her process when she started the workshop Friday evening – she just jumped right into doing The Work. I had a hard time following, as what she was saying didn’t fit into the well-worn grooves in my mind. I kept trying to hang her new information on some branch of old information on the tree of knowledge in my head, so it would make sense – but I couldn’t find a branch to hang it on. And that’s Katie’s whole point: The usual ways we think about things don’t work very well, so let’s find a new way to think – a way that leads us to the truth of our lives.
In other words, there is what happens in life – and then there is the story you tell about what happened. It is your stories, thoughts, and beliefs that cause you to suffer – if you want to get rid of the suffering, question your thoughts and beliefs.
It seems so simple … but like many simple things in life, it’s not always easy. We’ve been living in our stories for so long that we don’t know how to consider the possibility that they’re just that – stories. We have believed these stories for so many years that they have come to define who we are – or who we think we are. We don’t stop to question our stories because they seem so real, so true, so absolutely irrefutable. You and I cling to our stories as our identities.
What Katie offers is a gentle, loving, process of questioning thoughts and beliefs. She invites you to be curious about everything: your relationships with family members, your ideas about illness and death, your feelings about your body, your worries about money, your anger at people who have hurt you, even your political allegiances. There are no sacred cows in The Work – nothing is off-limits. In short, Katie offers a simple process for inquiring into the true nature of reality – and especially into the things that feel distressing and upsetting.
The Work consists of four questions:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?
After answering the four questions, you go back through each one again and experiment with turnarounds: (1) State the opposite of your thought; (2) State the thought as if the positions between you and your problem person were reversed; (3) State the thought toward yourself, as if it is you that you are having the problem with. Turnaround help you consider alternative perspectives to consider whether they reveal a truth you’ve been missing.
On my desk is a paperweight that says, “There are no mean people … only people with tight shoes.” Hmmm … perhaps thoughts are like shoes: some are comfortable, pleasant, and fit well, but many are uncomfortable, painful, and ill-fitting. Maybe there are no mean people … only people with tight, painful thoughts.
Katie’s process of trying on new thoughts is akin to trying on new shoes … “Try these thoughts. Do they hurt, or do they feel better?” “OK, now try these; how do they feel?” “How about one more; does this seem true? Is this thought more accurate?” You’re essentially trying on different ways of thinking about your life events – and the people involved – to see if the painful perspective you’ve been holding on to could be jettisoned in favor of a truer viewpoint, one that feels good. By walking a mile with new and different thoughts, you may find a new spring in your step, a new joy in your heart.
Instead of lamenting the past or worrying about the future, Katie offers a way to live fully in the present by loving what is – by greeting each and every life event with curiosity and openness, instead of fear and anxiety.
My weekend with Byron Katie reminded me of a wise saying I heard many years ago: “The mind is a dangerous place – don’t go in there alone.” These days I’m taking Katie and her four questions with me whenever I go spelunking in my mental caverns.
Perhaps the thing I liked best about Katie is that she didn’t evangelize or try to sell anybody anything. She simply showed up, did The Work with us, and enjoyed herself. I can see that The Work grows by attraction, not promotion.
I also liked the fact that Katie gives much of The Work away. She wants it to be free to anyone who seeks freedom from suffering, so her worksheets, articles, and many video clips can be downloaded free from her web site. She travels the world, going wherever people ask for her help, often doing The Work for free or very low cost. Her pro bono work in prisons is especially remarkable. I found her generosity and compassion as appealing as her simple methods.
So, how was my weekend at Esalen with Byron Katie? A simple placard I bought in a Big Sur gift shop pretty much says it all: “You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.”
September 11 was supposed to be an auspicious day for Franz Metcalf and me: It was the day of our first author event for our new book, What Would Buddha Do at Work? The book had just been published and we were excited to help people find freedom from suffering in the workplace using the Buddha’s teachings. Our author event was scheduled at a Barnes and Noble in the Bay Area. Franz had gone up to San Francisco a few days earlier to visit his folks, and I started driving up from LA before dawn on that fateful Tuesday.
An hour or so into my trip, once I got over the mountains and into the central valley, I turned on the car radio to check the news. Within a few seconds, I was listening to the horrific drama unfolding 3000 miles away. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. I grabbed my cell phone and called my boyfriend, even though I didn’t think he’d be awake yet. But he was. I started to cry.
Next, I called our publicist. “What should I do?” I asked her. She was crying, too. “Should I turn around and go home or should I keep driving north?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Let me call the bookstore when they open. I’ll talk to the manager and call you back.”
I kept driving; I kept crying; and I kept calling people. I didn’t want to be alone.
I called Franz in San Francisco. “What should I do?” I asked him. “Should I keep coming north or should I turn around and go home?” In the face of what was happening, a book signing seemed like the stupidest thing in the world.
“I don’t have a clue.” Franz replied.
I called my son. I didn’t have anything to say; I just wanted to hear his voice.
And that’s the way the morning went: driving, crying, calling the publicist, calling the bookstore, calling Franz, calling family, and more crying.
When we finally got hold of the bookstore manager, he said, “There are half a dozen people in the store, so let’s go ahead as planned.”
But of course, it wasn’t anything like we had planned. Franz and I gathered with the handful of people who had come to hear us. We held up our book and told them, “We wrote this book about Buddha’s teachings at work.” Then we set the book aside and spent the next two hours discussing Buddha’s teachings about violence, suffering, loss, and death. We wondered: What advice would Buddha give President George Bush? What words of wisdom would Buddha share with world leaders in a situation like this?
That first author event turned out to be auspicious, just not in the way we had planned. The tragedy of the day gave us an opportunity to live what we had been writing about: bringing Buddha’s teachings to bear on our own work of teaching and helping people alleviate their own suffering.
A few days later, Franz and I wrote a letter to President Bush, urging him to refrain from the lust for revenge that had our nation in its grip. We were as eloquent and persuasive as we knew how to be, hoping against hope that he might ask himself, “What would Jesus do?” since we knew he would never ask, “What would Buddha do?”
For all who place their ultimate focus in the invisible world, it may be true that there is no slayer and no slain, no birth, no death, and no pain because no separate persons to feel pain. But since the attacks of September 11th, for many of us all these things feel real—too real—this is where we live, this reality of death and people who want to cause it. And we will continue to live in this reality, so the question for us is: What kind of country and world do we want to live in?
No responsible and compassionate person condones the actions of the terrorists who brought death from the sky to our country. But death from the sky is a common event in many countries around the world. And we as Americans must acknowledge that we have brought death from the sky ourselves to many of those lands. We have now been brought within the sphere of a worldwide disease from which we have previously been immune. It may be we cannot now choose to live without a touch of terror; this is now our lot, just as it is for the rest of the world. But we truly cannot choose to live without freedom.
This choice, for freedom or for war, will create the world we will live in.The plague of violence and retribution we have seen for so long in the Middle East is now ours to accept or reject in our own lives. We must reject it. We have borne the blast of terror, but the terrorists have not truly achieved their goals unless they draw us into their sphere, down to their level. The devil always gives us a choice, doesn’t he? Well, this is our choice. If we choose retribution, we enter a cycle of revenge that will outlive us. On this bitter path we will first lose our peace of mind, then our safety, next our tolerance of others, and finally our freedom, the very essence of what we must preserve. From the moment we enter this war, we have already lost it.
We beg you, Mr. President, do not make this terrible error. What will be the legacy of George W. Bush? What will be our legacy to the world? Let it be this: not taking the wide road, but the narrow path. Following, as our greatest Republican president did, “the better angels of our nature.” It is your choice to command the powers of peace to defeat a foe that the powers of war can never overcome. We all want you to stand strong but for God’s sake and humanity’s, stand for peace. We are the authors of a recent book applying Buddhist wisdom to our lives at work. Your work is now the central work of the world. Please take Buddha’s advice:
“He insulted me, he beat me, robbed me!” Think this way and hatred never ends.
“He insulted me, he beat me, robbed me!” Give this up and in you hatred ends.
Not by hate is hate defeated; hate is quenched by love. This is eternal law.
~ Dhammapada 3-5
Walk the path of wisdom and compassion with Buddha; walk the path of non-violence with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.; walk the path of love with Jesus. Then let the world follow you. We will.
Franz Metcalf and BJ Gallagher
Coauthors of What Would Buddha do at Work? (Berrett-Koehler; 2001)
We sent our letter to the White House and we submitted it to The Los Angeles Times, who declined to publish it. Later, a Times editor told me, “It’s probably just as well we didn’t publish it. You and Franz would have gotten hate mail—maybe even death threats.” No one wanted to hear a message of love conquering hate – everyone was blinded by their pain and rage.
We don’t know if President Bush ever read our letter since we didn’t receive a reply. So we thought we’d share it with you now, in the hope that ten years of hating Muslims, two bloody wars, and over a million lives lost have changed public perspective on how to respond to terrorism. Whether you are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Shinto, or spiritual but not religious – for the love of all that is holy – choose peace, not war; choose love, not hate.
I met Steve Jobs about 20 years ago when a Silicon Valley headhunter called me regarding a job opportunity at NeXT, the new computer company Jobs had founded after he left Apple in the ’80s. NeXT was growing and Jobs wanted to hire a director of executive development. Needless to say, I was intrigued and excited by the possibility of working with the living legend.
The interview process took many weeks. I made frequent trips to Redwood City to run the gantlet of interviews with NeXT managers and executives, any one of whom could have vetoed me. Each time I passed muster, I proceeded to the next round of interviews. The lengthy selection process was a roller coaster adventure, with more than the usual highs and lows of job interviewing. The process even included an audition: I was required to teach a management seminar for Jobs and his entire executive team (no pressure).
A couple weeks after the seminar, I was invited back for a final, one-on-one interview with Jobs. We talked about his vision for NeXT, his thoughts about leadership and building a successful company, his insights into his competitors. He asked me many questions and I had a chance to ask him a few, as well. Interested in getting the measure of the man, I included personal questions along with queries about the position and the company.
“How do you want to be remembered when you die?” I asked.
“I don’t care if anybody remembers me,” he sniffed dismissively.
Huh! I wasn’t expecting that answer. After hesitating for a second, I tried a different tack. “OK, then, what do you want the people who love you to remember about you?”
Now it was Jobs’ turn to hesitate. He thought for a couple seconds, then replied, “I want them to remember me as the best dad in the whole world.”
Until then, I had admired and respected Steve Jobs … but now I loved him. I loved his humanity; I loved his commitment to his kids, present and future. And I loved his willingness to be open and intimate, if only for a brief moment.
I didn’t get the gig at NeXT … but I did get the opportunity to compete, test my skills, and see how I measured up against the other candidate. I gave it my best shot and came away happy far having come “this close” to working for Jobs.
Some months after my Great NeXT Adventure, I left my corporate management job to become a successful consultant, author and speaker. Jobs made his way back to Apple and ultimately bought NeXT. We both lived happily ever after – just not together.
I’ve never met Jobs’ kids, so I don’t know whether or not he is the best dad in the world. But as the father of the Mac, iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, and many more hi-tech offspring, he’s definitely the coolest.
God bless you, Steve Jobs. You and your family are in my prayers.
“There’s no place on the map called ‘Safe,’” a wise therapist friend told me many years ago, and her words came back to me as I read Marie Lawson Fiala’s new book, Letters from a Distant Shore. Her story reminds us how uncertain and unpredictable life is – despite the mighty effort we each expend trying to control our circumstances. How vain we are to think we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from danger, disaster, and death.
Fiala’s story is every mother’s nightmare. She was living her life as wife, mother, and lawyer, just going along in her day-to-day activities as we all do. Everything was fine; life was good; the future looked promising; and Fiala feel safe, secure, and serene. Then in an instant, it wasn’t fine – the unthinkable happened – and her world was turned upside down. On a relaxing Labor Day weekend at home with her family, Fiala’s 13-year-old son Jeremy suffered a massive hemorrhage from a ruptured artery deep in his brain. He crumbled to the floor in a heap, and everything Fiala thought she knew about her life crumbled too.
Her memoir is the powerful tale of a mother’s journey to hell … and back. Her emotional roller coaster of despair, hope, disappointment, fear, confusion, frustration, and back to hope again is a ride none of us ever want to take. But we’re heartened by the grace of Marie Lawson Fiala and her family as she tells us of their adventure together. Warning, gentle reader: Buckle up; it’s a heck of a roller coaster.
Letters from a Distant Shore has all the elements of a riveting motion picture: love, family, disaster, suspense, God, prayer, healing, hope, intensity, and eminently loveable characters. You’ll fall head over heals for young Jeremy as he becomes the sun around which Fiala and her family orbit. He is courageous, intelligent, fun-loving, and boyishly charming. You’ll find yourself rooting for him and his recovery, for he is too sweet a spirit for the world to lose so young. Your heart will be right there with Fiala, as her powerful mom-energy grows exponentially through the trials she endures at the side of her darling boy. And you’ll see the power of prayer and divine healing, as world-wide prayer vigils hold up Jeremy in praise and love. The Bible tells us that not a sparrow falls from the sky without Him knowing about it – and Jeremy is a beautiful and broken sparrow in desperate need of God’s loving, healing embrace.
When you finish the book you’ll want to immediately go find your own kids – or your friends or other loved ones – and hug them. You’ll want to call everyone you hold dear and tell them how much you love them. You’ll make a vow never to take life or loved ones for granted. But of course, that’s a vow you probably won’t keep, because we always slip back into taking our lives, and the lives of those we love, for granted. We’re only human.
Thank you, Marie Lawson Fiala, for reminding me how much I love my own son and how grateful I am that he is whole, healthy, and able-bodied – for today. Thank you for reminding me that I am not in control of my son’s life – or even my own. I’ve heard it said that “life is what happens while you’re busy making plans” and your book reminded me how incredibly true that is. And thank you for reminding me of the power of prayer and gratitude – always available to us, no matter what’s going on in our lives. Thank you for reminding me that life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass … it’s about learning to dance in the rain.