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.”