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Undoing Your Painful Thoughts with The Work of Byron Katie, Part One

Posted Nov 18 2008 11:35am


“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

So many, many things in our lives begin with a single thought. Our thoughts affect our behaviours, our character – our very destiny. And to grow, to heal, to love – thoughts should be the first thing we examine.

Throughout the time I’ve been in personal development, I’ve examined many systems of working with our thoughts. One of these was the current force amongst psychologists – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (a basic overview here). A large part of such work revolves around removing the distortions in our thoughts, and with them, our suffering. However, I felt there was something lacking – the undoing remained at an intellectual level, and in my experience, change was slow – effective, but measured in weeks and months.

Journey into your Thoughts

Introducing The Work

It was then I re-discovered The Work of Byron Katie. I’ve played with it many times before, but it never really worked for me. A few months ago, I figured out why – I made the same basic mistakes many newcomers did. And when I finally started doing it “right”, the changes have been rapid. They occur at a far deeper level, and troubling beliefs and perspectives that have plagued me for years disappeared in a matter of hours and days.

And so I present a guide that will hopefully address these mistakes, as well as introduce this wonderful system to those who have never heard of it. I highly recommend you spend some time exploring it – it really does work magic, if done right.

This is not a replacement for her material and instructionals – which are all free at her website www.thework.com – but rather to be read in conjunction. If you are unfamiliar with this method of inquiry, and are interested, please head over and explore her website and resources. Good starting pages are How to do The Work and Resources (scroll down to “The Little Book”, a free PDF with a detailed introduction and instructions).

Why This Guide?

So why this guide? Firstly, I plan to write a series of posts that explore some deeper issues. In inner work, people tend to gravitate towards either working with thoughts, or working with emotions. Inquiry via The Work is the most powerful method of working with thoughts I have discovered; letting go is the emotional equivalent. I plan to write those posts and detail the process of uncovering issues, and simply refer back to these posts when it comes to undoing and healing them.

Secondly, beyond covering the mistakes newcomers make, there are some common and dangerous misunderstandings I’ve found when exploring the internet, and I want to address those as well. In doing so, I hope to help spread this system of finding inner freedom.

Please note that I am not a qualified facilitator of the Work. I write this only as someone who has dedicated months to studying and applying her material. There might be subtle misunderstandings of my own, but I hope not. ;)

And finally (I know this is a long introduction, sorry): This is not a paid review or anything of the sort. I’m just a big fan. Even if I do link to Amazon for her books, there is no affiliate code inserted, it’s for reader convenience. So, let’s begin!

The Questions of The Work

After all that rambling, what exactly is the Work? Four basic questions and some turnarounds. How can it be that simple? How does it work?

Every time we are upset, there is a thought, or a deeper belief, that lies underneath. Curiously, these thoughts do not often represent reality – and therefore we find ourselves suffering because of a mere distortion, a misinterpretation. Other times, our thoughts are accurate, but they represent a form of resistance towards reality. And often, it is this resistance that causes our pain, not the person, not the situation. And when we realise this for ourselves, as Katie says, the thought lets go of us.

Let’s illustrate this guide with a small event that happened to me a few months ago. I was at a restaurant, when I got up to go outside. There was a woman sitting behind me, and I unknowingly bumped into her. When I got back from my phone call, her husband began telling me off. I apologised several times over the next few minutes, but he ignored me and kept shouting at me. Soon, I got angry, and told him to stop being so rude, before returning to my seat. He continued glaring at me and making comments throughout the rest of the night, and it made me feel quite angry, and strangely, gave me an overwhelming sense of despair.

So that’s the basic story – we’ll keep referring back to it throughout the guide.

Step One: Putting Your Thoughts on Paper

In the official website, you can find a worksheet called Judge Your Neighbour (look at the sidebar on this page ). One is prompted to write down everything they feel about a person they are upset with. Although one can do the inquiry on any thought, it is recommended for beginners to do the process on others until they become familiar with the process.

Two important points for the first step:

  1. Please don’t try to do this in your head. Resist the urge, for we end up censoring ourselves by being “civilised”, “spiritual”, or “mature”. To get the full benefits, we are invited to be childish, hurt, petty, and spiteful. Writing them down short-circuits our self-censoring tendencies.
  2. A good variation is to relive the situation as best as you can, and pour your heart out on paper, without being confined to the prompts on the worksheet. Just whatever you were thinking of at the time. The worksheet uncovers many statements that one might not normally think of, but at the same time can be a restriction.

For example, I wrote several worksheets on the angry husband event, and although I dropped a huge portion of the hurt, I couldn’t get to the core of the issue. When I simply allowed my thoughts to free-flow on paper, though, the main issues arised – the thoughts: I didn’t do anything! Stop hating me!

Without putting pen to paper I could not have found these thoughts. I just felt a general sense of anger, and when I admitted it, a sense of despair and rejection. Secondly, my pride got in the way. I wanted him to stop hating me; I wanted him to like me, accept my apology and see me as reasonable and magnanimous. But these thoughts – the ones that did the most damage – had been pushed down because I refused to admit to them. There was too much macho pride; I could admit to anger, but I refused to admit to being hurt and feeling sad and rejected.

So: write it down, worksheet or not. Let your mind run free and uncensored. This is a step that cannot be skipped, no matter how strong the urge is. If you’re worried about people seeing your writings, then simply tear them up once you’re done.

Step Two: Listening to the Heart

In the instructions, Katie mentions casually to make the process into a meditation. I think that was under-emphasised, as in my experience, the meditation component is the most important.

Try this exercise I learnt in a meditation class: Close your eyes, and ask yourself: I wonder what my next thought would be? And just be still and wait for an answer. Keep alert, and simply wait. This state of mind was what worked best for me.

The first time I tried the Work, I did everything in my head. I answered the questions through the mind, using logic and rationalisation. I debated with myself, I thought about things, I argued and analysed. And so the results I got remained intellectual – I didn’t feel much different. The realisations, the undoing of the distortions, had not truly sunk in.

With this state of mind, we bypass the logical, arguing mind – and wait for the answer to surface from the heart.

So, let’s move on to the actual process of inquiry.

Step Three: The First Two Questions

The first two questions of the actual process are simple:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it is true?

When you ask yourself these questions (and the second is only if you reply “yes” to the first), spend at least thirty seconds waiting for the answer, while in the described state of mind. And whatever answer arises, sit with that and the feelings that come with it, for at least thirty seconds as well. This allows the realisations to sink in.

In fact, Katie has mentioned that one can sit with a question – both the waiting and the sinking-in – for hours or days. When we work with deeper core beliefs, this amount of time might be exactly what is required. Thirty seconds is an arbitrary minimum, you are encouraged to take as long as you need – but people have a tendency to rush the process, not getting the full benefits of inquiry. This is to circumvent that. I cannot emphasise this enough: the before and after periods are just as important as the answer itself.

A final point: the answer might not come in the form of a word. It can come as a feeling, an image, or a “knowingness”. As long as one is honest, the process is working. There is no right or wrong answer – even a genuine “I don’t know” is as good an answer as any.

What These Questions Do

But what do these questions do? They serve to see if we are attaching to a lie. Do we really know what the truth is? In my example, the major painful thought revolved around my perceived innocence: I didn’t do anything wrong.

But was that true? My pride said yes. My desire to cling to a magnanimous self-image said yes. But I did do something wrong. It was simple to see, but I refused to admit it. I am a big man, six foot four, and the woman I bumped into was petite. It is possible I caused her actual physical pain beyond a simple bump. All of a sudden her husband’s anger didn’t seem so unreasonable. My righteousness dropped drastically, understanding increased, and I was more open to forgiveness. If I did cause pain, was a simple verbal apology enough? Probably not.

Again, this is the value of getting into the “empty” state of mind. Without it, the mind will stick to what it knows – the false perceptions, and nothing will have shifted.

Righteousness

This removal of righteousness, positionalities, and stories is one of the biggest benefits of this system. I’ve been using emotional work and letting go on people I have not forgiven for a long time, and although I cleared most of my resentment, eventually I reached a point where nothing shifted. The reason for this was simple: I still clung to my story – I still believed that they had done me wrong. As long as I held these positions, I could not find total freedom. In my opinion, there is nothing that a mix of inquiry and releasing cannot heal.

A good supplementary question at this stage is: Do you absolutely know what is best for them / me in the long run? Many painful events carry a hidden life lesson, or served to make me stronger, or led to something that was ultimately beneficial. (There are too many examples of this – we discussed some of this in Gratitude for the Bad.)

However, a perfect example was the event that led me to re-discovering the Work. I had a major argument with my friend, which left me furious for weeks. It eventually led me to re-try the Work, and with it, I discovered a tool which dissolved far bigger and long-standing issues – some of which had haunted me for most of my life. In the long run, the argument and the ending of a close friendship carried with it one of the biggest gifts I have ever received. When I realised this, my resentment and righteousness at him began to melt away.

Have No Motive

Here, I need to discuss a common problem: inquiring with a motive. We’ve discussed righteousness – very often we carry this righteousness across to inquiry. We block off genuine answers because we are afraid of being wrong, or we are afraid of what we might discover, or we are afraid that the other person is right about us. (More on this in the future, but for now, one can inquire into the statement: I can’t be wrong, or If I forgive him, that means I lose or any variation that is holding you back.)

But a common dangerous motive is inquiring with the intention to drop the belief. We know that inquiry will allow a painful belief to dissolve, and so we do it with that goal in mind. This might lead us to force ourselves to give what we think is the right answer in order to drop the belief. Katie states to do inquiry for love of the truth – and nothing else.

For example, a core belief I worked on was: There is something fundamentally wrong with me. I did the Work simply to drop this belief, thinking it was just a matter of “doing my time”. But my motives blocked the process, for my heart was saying “yes – there is something wrong with me”. Maintain inquiry, until the moment comes when the answer is a genuine “no” – that is true freedom! (And if it doesn’t, that’s what the remaining questions are for.)

There are many other motives: trying to drop an addiction, or to improve a relationship, for example. Stay alert for your own.

A Variation

To close off Part One of the guide – a variation of the statements. What if the statements we are dealing with are really true and there is no room for distortions or misinterpretation?

I am angry because he kept telling me off after I apologised.

How can we question that? Yes, I am angry, and yes, he continued to tell me off. At this point, it is helpful to explore the underlying issues. Two of my favourite ways to deal with this:

  1. What does that mean?
  2. Turning it into a should.

The first question allows us to investigate our interpretation of the event. When he ignored my apologies and continued telling me off, he made me feel like I was invisible, that nothing I said mattered. This are some of the core shames and beliefs I have been struggling with for a long time – and I have interpreted his actions to fit in with this core belief (instead of a more rational perspective – he’s just really angry ). So I worked with the re-written statement – I am invisible because he kept telling me off.

The second question is to look at the “shoulds” behind the thought. Many cognitive therapists talk of the “tyranny of the shoulds” – how a life lived to shoulds cause the most suffering. Therefore, some of the best inner work one can do is undoing these rules. In my case, the should was clear – people should always accept an apology. Was that true? Where was it written that a simple apology would clear things up? If I did cause his wife physical pain, was a mere word enough to remove her bruises?

What’s Next?

And this ends the first part of the guide. There are two more questions to the process, and the turnarounds, which will come in the rest of the series. Please subscribe to get updated as soon as they are posted!

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