In the very famous book by Robert Cialdini called Influence, he tells a story that has been co-opted many times since, and now, I think I’ll do it again.
Beginning in the year 1961, Yale University conducted a set of frightening psychological experiments on a mix of average people. Bear with me a few moments—this is a little complicated. (But worth it.)
In each iteration of this study, three roles were played: the subject, the button pusher, and the director. The idea was simple: the button pusher would attempt to teach the subject, who was sitting in a different room, a set of word pairs. Then the button pusher would test the subject’s learning ability. When the subject responded incorrectly, the director (wearing a white lab coat) would tell the button pusher (the actual subject of the experiment) to deliver electric shocks of increasing intensity to the subject by—you guessed it—pressing a button.
Of course, the set up was a bit of a sham. No actual electrical current was delivered, but the subject made a convincing show of suffering, anyway.
The results of the study and subsequent studies shocked the researchers and the public alike: 65 percent of the button pushers complied with the researcher’s demands and pushed the torture button until the highest level of pain (an excruciating 450 volts) was delivered repeatedly—despite the fierce cries and protests of the subjects.
When the results of this study were announced to the public, they apparently caused quite a media frenzy. Respected analysts and psychologists made pessimistic observations about the evil inherent in human nature and society. What the journalists apparently did not reveal, however, was this:
The button pushers were in absolute anguish a great deal of the time.
They paced. They protested. They cried—even grown men cried. They begged not to be required to go on.
They didn’t want to do it at all.
In Influence and other analyses of this fascinating study, a clear conclusion is drawn: People in general put a great undue trust in authority. We listen to our leaders—or the people we perceive to be our leaders—and do almost anything they ask, whatever the consequences may be.
And I agree with this idea. In fact, I could not possibly agree more. However, there is a second conclusion to be made, and personally, I think it’s even more important than the first: People are almost totally unaware that the source of their greatest anguish is not other people.
It is themselves.
At any point in time during this experiment, any of the button pushers could have ended the torture of both the subject and themselves by doing one simple thing.
They could’ve stopped pushing the button.
Here’s the thing: We are powerful. Our minds–our beliefs–are the source of our greatest pain, as well as our only true joy. And yet, as many times as we New Agey-types say this, repeat this, remind ourselves of this, we often seem to forget it.
Which is where Byron Katie’s The Work comes in.
When I first came across Byron Katie’s website, there was a prominently displayed quote that went something like this: “The Work has one purpose: To end suffering.”
And I thought, Yeah, right, you guys. Everything I need to end suffering is right here, on this website.
A reasonable reaction, maybe. But that was long before I ever put The Work to the test.
What is The Work?
For those of you who are not familiar with The Work, here is a brief description from thework.com: “The Work is a simple yet powerful process of inquiry that teaches you to identify and question the thoughts that cause all the suffering in the world. It’s a way to understand what’s hurting you, and to address the cause of your problems with clarity. In its most basic form, The Work consists of four questions and the turnarounds.”
The questions are:
- Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
Pretty simple, right? And yet, The Work is one of the most powerful spiritual techniques I’ve ever tried. It combines well-known cognitive psychology principles (CBT is similar, and similarly amazing), neuroscience (brain rewiring theory, and all that), and–you guessed it–spirituality to address anything and everything that ails you.
And it delivers.
Can you be more specific?
Here are some of the negative thoughts I’ve freed (or partially freed) myself from through this method, just during the first two months of practicing it:
- I’m not thin enough.
- I’m not accomplishing enough.
- I’m annoyed by [insert person’s name].
- I’m angry at [insert person’s name].
- I want to work more.
- I don’t want to breastfeed anymore.
Another thought that I’m not totally rid of yet, but that I’ve already made inroads against: “I am depressed.”
Really? That doesn’t seem possible.
What do you mean, you’ve freed yourself from these thoughts?
I mean that when they come, they don’t feel as strong to me anymore. They are there, then I recall The Work that I did on the thought and how I turned it around, and it sort of makes its way through me to somewhere else. They’re not quite real anymore. I don’t take them so seriously.
And for depression, a condition that may be physically-based? Does it work for this, too?
Absolutely. I can honestly say that before The Work and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is very similar but not quite as powerful as The Work, I was never entirely convinced I could one day be completely free from depression. Now, I am.
But it will take time. This is not an overnight miracle cure. It takes, as the name suggests, work. Depression has made such deep inroads–superhighways, really–in my mind. All that needs to be slowly undone.
If it’s this amazing, why doesn’t everyone know about it?
People find The Work when the time is right. Also, Byron Katie’s ideas are pretty darn controversial. In her world, the problem is never the other person; it’s always you. “No exceptions.” Change your perspective, and you won’t suffer anymore, she says–no matter what anyone else does to you. A lot of people are stuck in victimhood.
Anything else we should know?
I cannot do The Work justice in this blog post. Rather than attempt the impossible, then, I direct you to one of my favorite Byron Katie YouTube videos ever (and that’s saying a lot, since I’ve been binge-watching them every chance I get). In it, Katie helps a distraught woman plagued with guilt over a relationship mistake see the truth of the situation.
(By the way, everything you need to do The Work is available for free on Byron Katie’s website.)