And now, time for the wrap up of this serial. Here are just some of the changes I noticed in myself over the past year.
I’m less judgmental. One of the first changes I noticed in myself after starting this detox was that I didn’t come down as hard on other people in my thoughts. I still judge, but right on the heels of my judgment is often a benefit-of-the-doubt type modifier. She’s lazy, I’ll think. But hey, I get that. I’m lazy, too, when I think I can get away with it. I complain to no end about housework and cooking, for instance. . . . He’s negative, I’ll think. But I’m negative, too. I focus way too much on what I don’t have. These reminders take much of the bite out of my thoughts, which helps me see people more clearly. And I think they notice the difference.
I am more fair-minded about myself. As described previously, I’ve found a great deal of freedom from the belief that I should be perfect and that I have to accomplish something significant every day (or ever, for that matter). I write when I have the time, energy and desire to do so, and I’m usually surprised by how much ends up getting done.
I feel more secure in my friendships. Byron Katie says that the relationship you perceive yourself to have with someone else is the true relationship–even if the perception and reality of it is different for the other person. One of my favorite Katie quotes: “I like to say that I have the perfect marriage, and I can never know what kind of marriage my husband has.” In the past, I’ve often tried to analyze a friend’s feelings for me–take her temperature, so to speak–then grade our relationship accordingly. Lately, I’ve felt a much reduced compulsion to do so. When the temptation comes, I say to myself, “I love her. That’s my only job here.”
I enjoy motherhood and marriage more. I love my family the same as ever, but now I appreciate them more. I understand that they’re not the source of my unhappiness–or my happiness, either.
I feel less attached to my positive-feeling beliefs (including my spiritual beliefs). I’m humbled knowing I could be wrong about every last one of them.
When a stressful thought arises, I feel a great sense of relief when I remember that I have the Work. I wrote about this realization early on in this serial, and it remains one of the most significant advantages of the process for me. The Work calms me, even before I begin.
I am more grateful for challenges, more accepting of pain. I’m reminding myself often that the worst is really the best. Doing so has become a new spiritual practice.
In the beginning of this serial, I hoped to make major inroads against my depression, to get rid of my negativity and maybe even to experience a glimpse of the nonbelief state in which nothing is known. I also wondered if the Work might be my so-called One Great Spiritual Practice–my go-to strategy for feeling better when everything else fails. I did not accomplish most of these goals. As I said before, I am still depressed. I didn’t glimpse the nonbelief state and truth be told, I’m not sure I want to anymore. I’ve decided I no longer believe in a One Great Practice; to the three I’ve been doing this year (mantra meditation, following my inner guidance and the Work) I’ve added two more: reminding myself in difficult moments that pain is a gift and taking time to feel my feelings of sadness. All these practices are helpful, and I don’t plan to prioritize the Work over any other of them. I’ll admit, though, that I have no desire to add another to the list. It just gets hard to keep track.
But there’s the negativity thing, too, and in that the improvement is significant. I didn’t realize how much victim thinking I’d fallen into until this year. As I wrote down my negative thoughts one by one, self-awareness crept in. Then, as I worked through them, my head cleared.
I called this process my detox, but do I feel detoxified? Honestly, not as much as I’d like. One year is a long time, but the thirty-eight and a half that came before it have taken their toll. My detox continues.
So, it’s June. June 12, my phone says. I find myself, suddenly, at the end of my detox. But it’s not done. I’m still going.
Though I appreciate the freedom I found this year as often as I remember it (which is often), as I told you before, my depression did not improve. I don’t know why this is, though I don’t think it’s a failure of the Work.
Depression is complicated. No one really understands it. Is it genetic? Is it reversible? We don’t know. I do know that I’ve now spent a year dealing with my negative thoughts using the primary non-medicinal treatment, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and another process that’s similar. I’ve dealt with my negative thought patterns, untangled a lot of brush. I feel like I’ve cleared a pretty nice path and found a great amount of peace.
And my efforts, of course, were not limited to this year. The last decade of my life has been devoted in part to overcoming depression through spiritual and other means. And though I’ve had some significant successes with the spiritual stuff, it’s the non-spiritual methods that have worked the best so far.
So, this month, I return to my full dose of my antidepressant. Too, I recommit myself to frequent heart rate-raising exercise. I’m not giving up spiritual techniques; I’ll definitely continue doing the Work on depression. But I am giving up the idea that in order to be mentally healthy, I can’t rely on medication. I’m giving up the idea that antidepressants are a weakness, that I could do this on my own if only I were perfect enough.
I am not perfect. I am not always strong. And even if I were, I might not be able to cure my depression. “Even if I were.” How profound. How ridiculous. I’m not perfect. I’m not always strong. And because I’m not, I don’t need to be.
There are no “shoulds,” remember? There’s only what is. There is only each of us, doing the best we can. Right now, as I sit here, on the twelfth day of June, the best I can do is exercise and medication.
And more Work.
In May, I did the Work on twenty-one stressful thoughts, and I did a handful of extras so far this month as well. Here are a few significant examples of my turnarounds.
Thought: My husband doesn’t appreciate me. He takes me for granted.
Turnarounds: My husband does not take me for granted. I take him for granted. I take myself for granted. He respects me. I don’t respect him. I don’t respect myself. He was mad at me about an action. It was me who made it about not appreciating me and not acknowledging me, me who started looking for evidence of that.
Thought:My depression is deeply ingrained and will take a long time to undo.
Turnarounds: My depression is not deeply ingrained and it will not take a long time to undo. It will take the right amount of time to undo. It is not ingrained at all. It is a result of my stressful and untrue beliefs. Maybe a different medication will help a lot very quickly. Just exercising helps me immediately, too, almost every time.
Thought: I am bored with life. Motherhood is so boring.
Turnarounds: I love being a mom. Love it. I can write, read, watch TV, talk with friends, make art and more if I feel bored. I am not bored with life. Motherhood is good to me. Life is good to me. Motherhood is quiet sometimes, but not boring.
Thought:I should not be depressed.
Turnarounds: I am meant to be depressed. There is a reason for it. I should be depressed. It is teaching me a lot. It makes me more compassionate, more caring, more sensitive, a better friend and a better human. I will be able to help a lot more people because of it.
Thought:I want to help more people in my life. I am not helping other people enough.
Turnarounds: The right opportunities to help others come along when they come along. What’s meant to be will be.
Thought:I cannot handle this much depression.
Turnarounds: I can handle this much depression. The nanny comes tomorrow and after that I’ll take a nap. I have things to look forward to. David is helping me greatly with the kids every day. I will get through, like I always do.
Other thoughts I worked on:
I am not a very likable person.
There is something about me that is unattractive to other people.
I am bossy, opinionated, uncaring, a loudmouth and judgmental.
Several years after first learning about the power of the mind, I, too, was finding my way. For a time, my main spiritual practice was saying mantras and affirmations in an attempt to change my life circumstances. The strategy worked; things I wanted came to me. Then, the rate of change slowed. I became interested in other ways of improving myself, an interest that led to my writing the first two books in this series. During this time I learned several new spiritual practices, including meditation and following my intuition, practices I value to this day. By the end of the second of these spiritual memoirs, though, my focus began to shift. Rather than seeking enlightenment, I started seeking acceptance. And I don’t think it’d be an overstatement to say that since completing that book, acceptance has been the theme of my life.
One afternoon during this difficult time my Buddhist friend came to my house for a visit. She let me sit on the mattress on my living room floor–practically at her feet–and ask her what she thought of my life goal to live in a state of meditation (which for me is spiritual-ese for “continual bliss”).
“That’s a good goal,” she said. I was buoyed, but she wasn’t done. “You will still feel pain, though, you know. The waves won’t knock you over, and whatever happens, you’ll have peace. But sadness? That’s still going to happen.”
“Even if you’re perfect, if you do everything right?” I asked. “Even if you’re in touch with the Divine at all times?”
“I think so,” she said. “I think you always will.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. “But part of me is convinced that if I’m spiritual enough, pain will be impossible. I’ll be able to return to my spiritual high, no matter what happens–at least most of the time.”
“Well, that’s what you’ve been taught. As a Buddhist, I’ve been taught something different. Buddhists seek to be at peace in the midst of all circumstances. But we don’t try to maintain an emotional high. The body can’t handle it. It wouldn’t even be healthy.
“The high is temporary. The high is a buzz. When you seek to sustain it, you create attachment.”
Byron Katie disagrees. “Peace is our natural condition,” she says. When we’re free of our limiting beliefs, we can’t help but feel good; it’s who we are. The discomfort, the pain–they’re not the truth. They’re the result of our fears. As we do the Work and the untrue thoughts dissipate, we free ourselves from suffering. This is my experience, and yet–there’s still pain. Lots of it. Even after a year of the Work. Maybe a year isn’t long enough to find freedom. Or maybe my Buddhist friend is right, and as long as I’m still on earth, I’ll have suffering.
I don’t know. I wonder. I don’t know.
But I know what I know, which is that when you can’t avoid pain, you can still appreciate it.
Appreciation is a shortcut to acceptance.
A few days ago, a blog reader asked me how we can balance our need to change difficult life circumstances with our need to accept them. It’s a great question, and when I began my response, I didn’t know where it would go. I made a few general statements, nothing particularly insightful. Then I decided to speak of my own experience. This is what I said:
“Personally, I don’t leave much to fate. If I want it, I go after it. I simply try to do so in an detached way, with the attitude that if it’s not meant to be, well, I’ll be fine. Does this ‘going after’ of something sometimes feel like non-acceptance? Surprisingly, not really. Think of it this way: Acceptance is not liking something. Acceptance is looking at something you don’t like and realizing that it is the very best thing for you right now.
“Acceptance isn’t liking something. It’s not liking it and appreciating it, anyway.”
At the start of this serial, I described my struggles with motherhood, perfectionism, depression and more. And since writing those words, little in my external reality has changed. Ellie is over a year old now. My boys are five and three. I still don’t get much time to write, and I’m still depressed.
And yet. Things have changed. Internally, that is. Somewhere along the line–I believe it began in the fall–I started interrupting myself during tough moments to remind myself to appreciate difficulty. “This is the good stuff,” I tell myself when I find myself bubbling with annoyance or anger. “This is the best part, the part that helps me grow. If I didn’t have challenges, life wouldn’t be worth living. If everything was always perfect, what would be the point?”
It’s a great habit. No–it’s a great spiritual practice. One of the best.
These days, I still seek to maintain a state of continuous meditation. I still try to use my intuition for decisions large and small. But when it comes to spirituality, I’ve shifted focus significantly. My new form of spirituality isn’t seeking bliss, or enlightenment, or a continual experience of the Divine. It’s less lofty than that, more practical. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like spirituality at all; instead, it’s just a philosophy that helps me get through the day. Put succinctly, my religion is peace, pain, hard work, appreciation and acceptance.
Pain is a gift. It’s the greatest teacher we’ll ever have. Inner peace is our truest compass. Hard work reminds us of our humanness, but it’s appreciation that does the heavy lifting. When I appreciate something without liking it is when I’m really being a master. Then, at the right time, acceptance follows.
Appreciation leads to acceptance, which leads to peace.
Like Kuffel, I’m not everyone’s idea of a success story. She’s still fat. I’m still depressed. But I’m starting to see my way more clearly. And for now, that’s enough.
Frances Kuffel is not a fashion model. She’s a literary agent, an author and a struggling overeater. She’s written two memoirs–both excellent, I might add–and she’s both your most smartest and your most understanding friend. In Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding My Self, Kuffel recounts her journey from a size thirty-two to a size six. In Eating Ice Cream With My Dog: A True Story of Food, Friendship and Losing Weight . . . Again, she details her way back up the scale, and her attempts–and those of four of her friends–to regain control. In the end, none have met their goals.
And there is good reason for that, Kuffel writes. Everything from depression to hormonal imbalances to family to habits. When Kuffel attends a week-long weight-loss retreat, she follows the strict diet almost exactly . . . and loses two pounds. By the end of the book, she’s found acceptance for herself at her current weight, an example many of us would do well to follow. Of women who manage to maintain their hard-won weight loss, she says, “They are either biologically lucky or work so hard at it that it’s become their life.”
I have to agree. For some people who are temperamentally and evolutionarily predisposed to easy weight gain, being thin is worth the effort it takes. For others, it really isn’t. I wish more people would make the decision to maintain healthy eating and exercise habits, as Kuffel tries to do at any size, then let the numbers fall where they may.
It’s a bold decision, this cross-current choice. Many fat people feel constant pressure to force their bodies to change. I don’t know Kuffel’s thoughts about her body today and how much of that pressure she feels. But from her writing it seems that she’s found her own kind of happiness, her own way through it all.
Byron Katie isn’t the only one out there screaming about questioning one’s established beliefs. Lots of people are–people of all kinds. Most aren’t quite as awe-inspiring as Katie, but they’re pretty cool anyway. Here, a small list of people I find myself thinking about long after reading their stories.
Gary Taubes argued convincingly against the health and effectiveness of the low-fat diet and quickly became a polarizing figure. (See Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease.)
Timothy Ferris rethought work efficiency and built a huge, loyal following and a global brand. (Read The Four-Hour Work Week.)
Josh Waitzkin came up with a unique learning strategy—and won both the U.S. Junior Chess championship and the world champion title in Taiji Push Hands, a martial art. (See The Art of Learning: A Journey In the Pursuit of Excellence.)
Social media marketers Seth Godin and Jeff Jarvis were among the first to realize the potential of online social media-, gift- and content-based marketing. (Read anything by Godin and What Would Google Do?: Reverse-Engineering the Fastest-Growing Company in the History of the World by Jarvis.)
Robert Kiyosaki redefined wealth as the ability to live off the interest of your assets (Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!).
Chris Anderson predicted the future of purchasing patterns (The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More).
Tony Hsieh created a company devoted primarily to its front-line employees (Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose).
Then, of course, there’s Todd Beamer.
When United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked on September 11, 2001, this all-American hometown boy from Flint, Michigan helped deflect a terrorist attack. The Wikipedia article on his life tells the story:
“United Flight 93 was scheduled to depart at 8:00am, but the Boeing 757 did not depart until 42 minutes later due to runway traffic delays. Six minutes later, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. 15 minutes later, at 9:03 am, as United Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, United 93 was climbing to cruising altitude, heading west over New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. At 9:25 am, Flight 93 was above eastern Ohio, and its pilot radioed Cleveland controllers to inquire about an alert that had been flashed on his cockpit computer screen to “beware of cockpit intrusion.” Three minutes later, Cleveland controllers could hear screams over the cockpit’s open microphone. Moments later, the hijackers, led by the Lebanese Ziad Samir Jarrah, took over the plane’s controls, disengaged the autopilot, and told passengers, “Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board.” Beamer and the other passengers were herded into the back of the plane. The curtain between first class and economy class had been drawn, at which point Beamer saw the pilot and co-pilot lying dead on the floor just outside the curtain, their throats having been cut, as a flight attendant informed him. Within six minutes, the plane changed course and was heading for Washington, D.C.. Several of the passengers made phone calls to loved ones, who informed them about the two planes that had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and the third into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. Beamer tried to place a credit card call through a phone located on the back of a plane seat, but was routed to a customer-service representative, who passed him on to GTE airphone supervisor Lisa Jefferson. With FBI agents listening in on their call, Beamer informed Jefferson that hijackers had taken over United 93, that one passenger had been killed, and mentioned the dead pilots. He also stated that two of the hijackers had knives, and that one appeared to have a bomb strapped around his waist. When the hijackers veered the plane sharply south, Beamer briefly panicked, exclaiming, “We’re going down! We’re going down!”
At this point, Beamer and several other passengers and crew members decided to ignore the threats of the hijackers and face near-certain death by storming the cockpit and steering the plane into the ground. “The plane was twenty minutes of flying time away from its suspected target.”
Beamer, a baseball player and Sunday school teacher, was survived by his wife and two sons, aged three and one at the time.
What inspires me most about Beamer, and about all of the people in this list, is realizing that at some point, they all had to make a decision. A window opened–whether for minutes, as it did for Beamer, or for months, as it likely did for some of the others–during which they had to define who they were, no matter the consequences. And each of them was able to get it right.
By a general standard, I’m not a fearful person. Not shy. No huge paranoias or looming existential concerns. And yet, the opinions of others–or, more accurately, the possible opinions of others–give me pause on a nearly daily basis. Talking to other moms about various parenting decisions, for instance. Talking about a controversial book I like, or the fact that I’m a libertarian. Just earlier today I found myself seriously considering what my neighbors would think if I plant a bunch of new trees in our yard. Twenty trees, but still. They’re just trees.
What the heck?
I don’t know what it’s like to be Gary Taubes or anyone a tenth as influential as he. But if he can face the ire of entire organizations devoted to vegetarianism, grain production and nutrition information dissemination, plus a lot of reputable scientists and in-person hecklers, I think I can plant any damn number of trees I want.
I can make my yard into a damned forest.
I can question my beliefs–even the ones that people swear are healthy and important.
Is it true? I’m getting a yes. I know that we often feel unable to change our bad habits, our bad feelings, our unhappy life situations. But when I close my eyes and question the belief, all I can think is, “Yes. I can feel it. My inner body, the energy inside myself that I feel when I’m meditating, is part of the rest of the world’s energy. I may be in this body right now, but the essence of me is power.”
Can I absolutely know it is true? No.
How do I feel when I think the thought? When I feel that I have power, I also feel that what I do, say and think is important. I remember that my thoughts create my reality, and even affect others around me and beyond.
How would I feel if I were unable to think the thought? If I thought I was powerless, I’d probably feel that life is meaningless, that nothing I did mattered.
The Turnaround: We don’t have power. This statement is also true. We don’t have power over God or other people. Also, though we do create our realities, the vast majority of that creation happens subconsciously. With years of spiritual practice, we can change our beliefs and brains somewhat, but most of us will never get around to doing the Work on them all. Which is why Katie tells us to focus on the thoughts that cause stress. The others just aren’t the priority.
So again, is it true? Yes and but. People have power, and yet, we can’t always access it. That is the truth, and it reminds me to have compassion for those among us that feel stuck in a pattern they don’t like.
Since my last personal update, three breakthroughs, no breaks. Three months with some good news, some bad. February was slow, with only nine worksheets. In March I did thirty-three and in April, twenty-eight. As promised, I addressed the thought “I am not accomplishing enough” and “I have depression.” I also did excavations on my feelings of depression and guilt. I’ll start with the good news: I discovered that I am accomplishing enough and that I don’t have to be perfect (a thought I found to be at the core of my guilt). So, yeah–good stuff. Significant.
I share shortened versions of my Work on the latter statement below. It shows how I turned the thought around, but it doesn’t show my inner shift. It would be impossible for me to accurately assess the changes that have occurred, much less describe them. I suppose I can tell you that I no longer have these thoughts every day. And when they do come, there’s the Work, following right behind. Saying in my ear, “Is it true?” The Work is never a one-time healing session; it’s a living creature with a specific, ongoing job to do. It gets assigned to a thought much like a blocker would be assigned an opponent in basketball. It follows the thought up and down the court, sometimes stealing the ball, sometimes missing. Even when it gets outmaneuvered, it’s never far from its player.
Now for the bad news. While I feel secure in my progress on my guilt and my compulsive need to achieve, my depression–that beast–is unchanged. In my last update I mentioned it was still with me and since that time, not a damn inch of ground gained. If anything I would say it’s worse than it has been all year. An example of my Work on the topic is below, and though as I was writing these turnarounds I believed them to be true, I’m really slogging through these beautiful spring days. The skeptic in me would say that the Work is inadequate; I seem to abolish one stressful thought only to replace it with another. On balance, I am less happy than I have been since starting this detox, even though I’ve made lots of progress.
I’m not feeling guilty. I’m not hating motherhood. I’m not obsessing about how much writing I’m getting done. I’m more at ease in my relationships, and generally less negative.
But for all that, I’m not feeling good.
Here, my Work examples for February, March and April.
Beliefs Behind My Sadness: An Excavation
I am heartsick. I am lonely. I have depression. I am depressed due to a genetic predisposition towards depression. I have negativity. I have stressful beliefs. I don’t love myself. Others don’t love me. I am incomplete. My life is incomplete. I am lacking. I am deprived of love, fulfillment, beauty, accomplishments, fun, ease, relaxation, the state of meditation, friendship, caring, yummy food, goodness, enoughness. There’s something I am missing. There’s something I need to do have or be that I am not doing having or being right now. I need to do more, have more, figure out more, change, be different. My life is not perfect yet. I am not perfect yet.
The thought from above that resonates the most: I am depressed due to a genetic predisposition towards depression.
Is it true? I don’t know.
How do I feel when I think the thought? Stuck. Conditioned. Hopeless.
How would I feel without the thought? Free to feel any way I feel, without judgment of that feeling and without identity creation around it.
The turnaround: I am not depressed due to a genetic predisposition towards depression.
Evidence: I can be and regularly am free or partly free from depression. When I’m immersed in something enjoyable, I’m not depressed. Also, I have experienced true, pure inner peace at certain moments in my life. This couldn’t occur if I had a permanent physical condition. My depression may be a result of lifelong thought habits that I can change over time. Or it may be a result of my current belief system, which can change in just a moment.
Beliefs Behind My Guilt: An Excavation
I should: take more walks with the kids, drive the kids more places, visit friends more, be a better person, be a better friend, be perfect, be less judgmental, do the work more, eat much less, eat healthier, not let baby cry, be more sympathetic to my kids, not take on so many outside projects, take day each week to just play with and read to kids, not give the kids so much candy, help the kids through their fights more carefully and thoroughly, meditate all day, embrace boredom, give the kids more vegetables, be cooler, be a loner, be self-sufficient, be more caring and giving, be less selfish, be in the state of meditation all day long, do my own projects only when I have a nanny, sit more, walk more, nap more, smile more, write more, get more accomplished, do the Work more, and be more in control of my kids.
The thought from above that resonates the most: I should be perfect.
Is it true? No.
How do I feel when I think the thought? Absolutely frustrated with myself.
How would I feel without the thought? I would be able to forgive myself for wasted time and other mistakes, small and large.
The turnaround: I don’t have to be perfect. I shouldn’t be perfect. I am perfect enough. I am entirely perfect. All of these statements feel more true to me than my original thought.
Evidence: No one is perfect. Imperfect people still have wonderful, close relationships, fulfilling jobs and meaningful, happy lives. People forgive them, and they forgive themselves. In fact, if someone always did and said the right thing, it would hinder their ability to learn and grow and help others do the same. It would probably mean they weren’t taking on any challenges.
Author Rachel Bersche is a woman after my own heart. She’s a doer. A planner. A fixer. A solver. Someone who doesn’t wait around for results.
Someone who takes charge.
(Someone, also, who writes memoirs about her one-year self-improvement goals, but that’s sort of beside the point.)
All this to say that MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend is my kind of book. The premise is as follows.
After a move to a distant city to be with her boyfriend, Bersche realizes something: she really needs some new friends. So, she hatches a plan uniquely designed for the Generation Y’ers among us: She’d go on fifty-two friend dates—one each week for a year. She’d meet the women online, of course, as well as in the traditional ways—an improv class, book clubs, parties. Her motive wouldn’t be a secret; she’d blog about her experiences and tell many of the women what she was up to. After all, as she argues in her book, if people can admit to looking for a partner, why can’t they admit they want a new best friend?
Cute stuff, right? So practical. So original. And pretty challenging, too. But she did it. She accomplished her goal. And these days, it’s the Rachels of the world I most want to emulate–not the visualizers, manifestors and conference attendees.
Mostly, I just want to work hard.
The law of attraction is a useful concept. The problem is that it’s a bit . . . limited. When Jane died, I didn’t see it coming; it just happened. Life happens. Sometimes we don’t get what we think we want; instead, we get other circumstances that better serve us.
That’s right: we get what we need.
The spirit has goals that the mind knows not of. And I’ve decided I’m okay with that. Hard work is it’s own religion. So is neuropathway rewiring, whether Byron Katie-style or otherwise.
Often, changing our perspective on our circumstances, rather than changing the circumstances themselves, is enough.
In recent years, the field of neuroscience has benefited from greater interest and better technology than ever before; “I’m a neuroscientist” is kind of the new “I’m a doctor.” Once a little-understood region of the human anatomy, the brain has become the ultimate research tool, providing clues to some of life’s biggest questions. Brain activity scans have been used to help scientists learn how the human mind responds to stimuli of every kind, leading to new ideas about how pleasure works, how addiction works, how people learn and make decisions–even why they believe in God.
One of the main insights from recent years: The brain is not an unchanging entity, the pattern of which is encoded once and for all by genetics. Instead, it is a highly malleable organ, reorganizing itself moment by moment. As each of our thoughts occur, our brains either create a new neural pathway (arrange multiple axons in a way that allows them to send neurotransmitter chemicals back and forth between two remote areas of the brain), or strengthen pathways that already exist (build up myelin around the axons). The pathways that don’t get used eventually die. Even more significant: Neural pathways continuously send out chemical requests for more of their kinds of thoughts to travel their way–and the stronger they get, the more requests they’re able to send.
All this to say, we can change our thought patterns, the physical ones.
We can change our brains.
Since learning meditation and other spiritual techniques, my appreciation of the mind has only grown. However, there’s another type of human power I mentioned that’s equally important.
I I first read the story of the Yale University torture study shortly after my New Age conversion, around the time that I first learned about the law of attraction. And though I’ve heard it several times since, I just can’t resist a retelling here. It’s just so darn . . . poignant. You know?
Beginning in the year 1961, Yale University conducted a set of frightening psychological experiments on a mix of average people. 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 setup 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 in 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.
People aren’t bad. We’re just . . . well, team players. We’re built to thrive best in healthy hierarchies. The real problem comes when the hierarchies malfunction–which of course they often do. Then, it’s time for some independent thought. It’s time to remember that we have power, even in seemingly hopeless situations.
When I think about it now, it seems pretty sudden. On my thirtieth birthday, I was recently separated from my first husband, living in the spare bedroom of an ant-infested, cat-run house on the wrong side of El Paso. I was only a month in to my writing career, working at a small ad agency for less money than I’d made as a part-time waitress. I had no friends, no car, no television and no family within several hundred miles. Yet somehow, four years later, four days after my thirty-fourth birthday, I was lying in a hospital in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Seattle, giving birth to a surprisingly good-looking and perfectly healthy baby boy, Xavier. My home, which I lived in with my new husband, David, was down the street from the Microsoft world headquarters in a neighborhood that boasts the best schools, the best parks. I had a small group of friends, and my writing career was everything I wanted it to be. I was running my own business, and I was succeeding.
Four years. That’s how long it took for everything to shift.
Xavier was born a year to the day after Jane was born, and in the years following his birth, the circumstances of my life continued to improve. Newly indoctrinated with New Age philosophy, I began to credit not just luck and hard work with the turnaround. Surely, the power of the mind was at work here, too.
The law of attraction isn’t a particularly intelligent-sounding theory; to many, it sounds pretty silly. In spiritual circles debates over the exact mind-over-matter equation abound, but I won’t get into any of that here. I’ll just note that almost every modern non-Judeo-Christian spiritual teacher discusses the idea, whether or not they use the now-unfashionable term. We laugh about the book The Secret and it’s materialistic promises. But Matt Kahn, Eckhart Tolle and even Byron Katie mention similar ideas. They don’t make it their focus, but all of them and many others, including whole Eastern religions, believe in the mind’s ability to radically, even wholly, affect one’s life circumstances.
But even if you don’t love the idea (I get it, believe me), it’s hard to deny that people have power. We have the power to change our circumstances directly. The power to change our beliefs about those circumstances. And sometimes–maybe more than sometimes–we get a law of attraction-type superpower, and we get to change our circumstances by changing our beliefs alone, no special action required.
It might surprise you to learn that the relaxation of my goal this month wasn’t entirely due to laziness (though, admittedly, that was a factor). There was something else at work here, too–something even more unfortunate: I got tripped up by a bit of skepticism.
Here’s how it happened. While doing some research for this series, I came across a negative review of the Work. Intrigued by this perspective, I started seeking out similar information, and what I found was predictably disturbing.
Interestingly, Katie’s detractors seem to be relatively few in number; Googling combinations of the terms Byron Katie, The Work, fraud, guru, fake, and scandal brings up a few relevant pages and a whole lot of irrelevant ones. Even more significant, the same two naysayers are quoted on most of the relevant articles, and only one of these people claims firsthand experience with Byron Katie. That said, there are a few probable arguments made against Katie as a trustworthy guru and reliable source of information, as well as several good arguments against the validity and effectiveness of the Work. In the interests of objectivity and knowledge, I address them here.
The ad hominem arguments are as follows:
1. Byron Katie shows anger, annoyance and other negative emotions at times, even though she says she never suffers and she implies that she feels constantly at peace with what is.
2. Byron Katie says she doesn’t read self-help books, but she has, in fact, done so, and the Work seems to be a repackaging of CBT and some of the other techniques in books she has read.
3. The School for the Work, the conferences Katie leads to teach her process, uses cult-like methods to encourage loyalty and to heighten participants’ emotional response.
And here are the main arguments against the method itself:
1. The Work causes confusion in the practitioner who is taught to question her thoughts till nothing seems true anymore.
2. The Work employs several logical fallacies, including begging the question, false dichotomy and generalization.
3. The Work encourages a lack of compassion for people’s pain.
4. The Work encourages false blaming; if all of life is a mirror, the sufferer is at fault for everything he experiences.
5. The Work claims to be a one-size-fits-all approach, a cure for all pain, and discourages other important and effective therapeutic methods.
6. The Work is a form of self-deceit.
Pretty good list, isn’t it? You’d think I really did my homework. Actually, most of these arguments are found in a single online article (see end notes). A few are mentioned other places as well, and still others, notably the last few, are my own.
The ad hominem arguments are, strangely, the most convincing to me, even though logically they shouldn’t be. Though I understand that the imperfections of a guru in no way refute the truth of her ideas, when we don’t trust the messenger, the message itself is often compromised in our minds. The first personal attack I’ll address, and the one that seems most damaging, is that Katie isn’t perfect.
Ah, perfection. We love to pretend it exists. We want so badly for Eckhart Tolle to exert divine love while flossing his teeth and the Dalai Lama to bless the snot in his handkerchief. And these special teachers know this. Some go to pains to remind us they’re only human, too, telling stories about their difficult moments. Others, though, aren’t quite so forthcoming.
As a writer, I understand the temptation to withhold damaging information; they’re just trying to help people, right? When Katie says she never suffers and Tolle claims continuous awareness of the present moment, they think they’re doing us a favor. They’re communicating to us that their day-to-day experience is largely joyful and easy, and that ours can be, too.
They’re offering us hope.
It’s unfortunate, really, the damage done later when some minor mistake that reveals their humanity is exaggerated a hundredfold in the light of such high expectations.
There should be a class for new gurus.
All this to say, there are a few reports out there that Byron Katie acts differently in person than she does on camera or on the stage. Since I’ve never met her or even attended one of her conferences, I’m not in a position to judge the veracity of these reports, and even if I did, my experience with her would likely be a public, not private, one, which wouldn’t count for much. My position on Katie’s sincerity, reliability and character is, therefore, simple: it’s not for me to judge or concern myself with. My best guess is that she does have a few flaws and that she does behave at least a bit differently at times with those she knows well. She probably gets impatient, bored, angry and sad, but I believe her when she says she doesn’t suffer. It’s possible to lose sight of the bigger picture for minutes or hours at a time, and then to snap back to your usual happy frame of mind. It’s possible to be flawed, but not let the flaw drag on, to express a negative feeling without hanging onto it tightly.
It’s possible to feel and express pain without suffering.
Our second personal attack on Byron Katie is that she purposely and knowingly appropriated her self-help method from other self-help books, then passed it off as an original method. Again, there’s no proof of this, certainly no firsthand knowledge on my part, so I can only offer an opinion. But I just can’t believe that she lied about the inception of the Work. Such an elaborate story. So detailed. So personal.
That said, unconscious imitation is a common human experience; one could argue that it’s all we ever do. If Katie read books about CBT and the like before discovering the Work, that knowledge may have partly influenced her revelation.
I believe in divine inspiration. But divine inspiration is limited; it’s part and parcel of the medium. For this reason, different clairvoyants will often hear and learn very different things from the other side. Medium Esther Hicks, while in a trance channeling the spirit collective called Abraham, was once asked by a conference attendee if Abraham is able to speak Spanish and thus serve another community that needs their message.
“We can,” Abraham replied. “Just not through Esther.”
“Through someone else, then?” the man asked, and Abraham said, “We choose you. We choose you.”
Maybe we’re all channels, in our limited way. If so, it’s okay that we don’t have the whole picture. We pass along what we know, what we’ve learned. We imitate.
The third argument against Katie seems to be the most popular, but for me it’s the least convincing. I read three long testimonials about Katie’s School for The Work saying the the techniques use to heighten the experience are similar to those used in cults. Only one of these articles was written by someone who claims firsthand experience with the School; the other two quote her directly for their evidence. What’s more, in no way do I find this author’s interpretation of events convincing. What it comes down to is that the women felt manipulated and forced into certain activities like fasting, which others felt to be voluntary.
“Cult” is a popular word these days. Any decentralized group might be slandered as such, even non-religious ones. Individuals can and do get carried away with their loyalty, but in determining whether or not an organization uses manipulative practices to encourage loyalty, common sense will prevail.
Now I turn to the arguments against the process of inquiry itself. In a later section of this book, I will address the logical fallacies. The rest I deal with here.
The five remaining arguments have something significant in common: they apply only after a certain (some would say unhealthy) commitment level is reached. If a practitioner were to question each and every belief, all day long, confusion could certainly result. (Katie herself had this experience after her revelation that our beliefs are what causes pain. She had to re-enter the world of apparent truth–what we call reality–in order to start functioning again.) Similarly, a person who takes the Work to the extreme may become self-blaming and lose compassion. They may even attempt to deceive themselves about their own beliefs, pretending to let go of them in order to find freedom. Finally, Byron Katie followers may refuse other helpful therapeutic methods in the hopes that the Work will give them everything they need.
When we hear Katie’s words, we don’t hear moderation. This is one of the things I don’t love about her delivery. A parent grieving a lost child, a war victim recalling torture–no one, in her eyes, is too justified in their story to not benefit from letting it go.
And sometimes, she’s right. We do hold on to sadness too long. We do let it stand between ourselves and joy. But grief is a process. A beautiful one. An important one. It’s something we need to experience.
Conclusion: It’s so much simpler, isn’t it, to attach yourself to a spiritual practice (on a political ideal, or a parenting philosophy) wholly. It is so tempting to believe you’ve found the Answer, rather than to complicate things with annoying nuance. However, the illusion never lasts. Eventually, we find exceptions–times when our current favorite practices aren’t the most helpful or effective. Byron Katie fandom aside, I don’t plan to question my beliefs to the point of confusion, lack of compassion, self-blame or self-denial, and I’ll never (God willing) give up all other spiritual and therapeutic practices in favor of it.
I would be remiss not to remind you that Byron Katie agrees with me here. Though most of the time she seems to present her ideas as irreproachable, she occasionally reminds us that the Work is not about self-deception. If a turnaround doesn’t feel true to you, she says, move on. Find a different one that does. And never bring ulterior motives to the Work–that’s a technique that’s destined to fail.
And now we come to the crux of the matter: my detox report for January. Over three months have passed since my last update, and if memory serves (which admittedly it often doesn’t) my negativity demon has rarely been this . . . possessive. I mean, she’s there. But she’s sort of chilled out. She’s hanging around, but not really part of the conversation. At the risk of sounding like a commercial, I’m attributing the change to the Work. Even though I do have other choices.
I could consider the role of maturity, of time, or of working less. I could say, Hey, I must be experiencing a natural lull in the course of things. But that doesn’t feel true for me.
Time and maturity? The change wouldn’t be this abrupt, would it? And work? I’ve been going easy on (small-w) work since the baby was born, so that doesn’t seem like a likely candidate. Moreover, since my last entry, an unexpected change: I stopped meditating entirely. After a few weeks of practice with excellent results, the whole thing just dropped off a cliff.
So this increased inner peace definitely isn’t due to more spiritual practice.
The only other explanation I can think of is that aforementioned natural lull. Only time will tell if that’s a major factor.
The kids are still little handfuls and earfuls, and yet, their most difficult behaviors seem to bother me less. And anytime there’s a conflict (real or imagined) with a grown-up person, the Work short-circuits the drama. Lately, my biggest problem is that I’m a bit . . . bored. Things are too easy. Too simple. In November, I did the Work on the thought “Motherhood is difficult,” as I said I would, and what do you know? It helped. Ever since then–for almost three months straight–being a mom has felt pretty easy. After all, most of the day it really is. In doing the Work on the subject I realized that while the mornings are a bit challenging, afternoons are quiet and in the evenings my husband is home to help. And so, the ego switched it up a bit, so that now my pestering thought is that “motherhood is boring.” Typical.
Two more hard truths: I haven’t been in the state of meditation at all—not in the way I described in my last update. Plus, I’ve had my usual share of depression this winter. None of the thoughts that I pull out of my head regarding sadness seem to hit close enough to the bone. Depression is the only negative emotion I’ve experienced so far that doesn’t seem to respond to the Work.
And yet, I’ve been calm. Not overeating. Not overreacting. Patient with my kids and appreciative of my husband. I spend a lot of time looking at my kids—just looking. No mantra. No prescription. And . . . only a minimal amount of Work.
Yes, that’s what I said: a minimal amount of Work. Most days I’ve been skimping on even this basic, important practice. In the month of November, I wrote down forty-one stressful thoughts and in January, thirty-nine, though I didn’t do the full process on them all. In December, however, I wrote down zero–yup, zero. Whatever Work I did last month was brief, and not on paper. Instead, when a stressful thought came, I looked at it for a moment–just recognized it. Then I told myself to write it down later. Interestingly, though the whole month I failed to do so even once, some of the thoughts I’d noticed still evaporated. Not all of them, but some. And I think that’s pretty cool.
They couldn’t even stand a single true glance.
So, a bit of a break from my goal. But not really a break. The Work is becoming part of me, as Katie said it would. Recently, when I have written down my stressful thoughts, I’ve often abbreviated the process. I’ve been skipping the middle questions, focusing more on the first question and the turnarounds, then adding some CBT-type workups at the end.
I admit, somewhat guiltily, that I really, really prefer this shorter process.
Here are a few examples of my Work for November and January.
Thought: I am bored with my life as a mom.
Byron Katie- and CBT-type turnarounds: I don’t feel bored as a mom. Not as bored, nearly, as I would at a regular writing or proofreading job. I have so many choices of things to do during my day. I get to take my kids out wherever I want to go. And at night I can read or do some writing. Being a mom challenges me in a way I’ve never been challenged before. And I have fun, too; I get to spend a lot of time with the people I like best, including my mom friends. Overall, it’s the best job I’ve ever had.
Thought: Writing is hard. Editing is even harder.
Byron Katie- and CBT-type turnarounds: Writing flows well, once I choose a topic and a message to go with it, and get that tricky first sentence on the page. Editing is hard on the computer, but when I do it by hand, it is a challenge, but it’s fun.
Thought: I can’t think of work I can do right now with kids that I love and that matters.
Byron Katie- and CBT-type turnarounds: I can write books. I can focus only on my kids. I can meditate. I can volunteer.
And here, my worksheet concerning my spiritual belief that God is reality. This was an interesting one for me.
A Byron Katie Worksheet
Month Completed: January
The Statement: God is reality.
Is it true? No.
Can I absolutely know it is true? No.
How do I feel when I think the thought? Great. I feel more able to accept any situation that arises than I would otherwise when I remind myself that what is–reality–is always good because it is part of God and God is always good. That’s the crux of the belief, the aspect of it that keeps me coming back. It has great practical value in my life.
How would I feel if I were unable to think the thought? I don’t know how I would feel. It might feel good to have no definition for God at all, but if I believed that God is a force separate from myself and my life, possibly one that I had to worship or to please, it might limit my growth or even cause despair.
The Turnarounds: God is not reality. God is not definable. Reality isn’t even real. Even Byron Katie doesn’t belief her own statement on the subject. She knows that everything we see is an illusion.
So again, is it true? No. God isn’t reality. Certainly not our reality–nothing we experience on this tiny, insignificant planet. Maybe God is the ultimate reality, something beyond what we can see or experience, but if that’s the case, there would be no concept of God, with it’s spiritual implications, at all. Spirituality is only useful here on earth, where it feels like something other, something to do or to define. While in a spiritual state in which we could understand this truth, there would be no need to name the All; it’d just be what it is. No spiritualization required. No need to identify it using that term.
All this said, however, I’m keeping my belief that God is reality. After all, I’m a limited being, a human. The so-called “reality” of my senses is the only reality I’m able to perceive at this time, and it does me good to think of it as a positive force irather than as a neutral or negative one. It helps me remember that everything in my life–absolutely everything–is a gift, created for me specifically by some great, loving power. Besides, even if the illusion is just an illusion, it’s still part of reality, too.
Maybe God isn’t reality, but our illusion-reality is a small taste of God. I don’t need the whole pie, anyway.
Recently, I read two great books on the subject of reality, partly as research for this series. Having read a bit about quantum physics before, I suspected I’d find some interesting parallels in modern scientific thinking and Byron Katie’s ideas, and I was right. Lots of differences, of course. But some similarities, too.
In The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, Brian Greene puts all of modern physics in layman’s terms. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it, but what it basically comes down to is this: we don’t know what the hell this is.
Are we living in a dream? An illusion? A hollogram? A parallel universe, one of many? Forget the old questioning of what is up and what is down. We don’t even know what light and matter are. Whatever it is, it’s not Newtonian—not definite. The whole idea of physics—well, it isn’t all that physical, actually.
It’s something . . . else.
Don’t worry, you guys. I’m not going to do the whole quantum physics dance with you. We spiritual people have been to that party before. I’ll simply note that whereas classical physicists see stuff–real matter–quantum physicists see nothing but potentialities.
“Things become definite only when a suitable observation forces them to relinquish quantum possibilities and settle on a specific outcome,” Greene writes. Later, “If superstring theory is proven correct, we will be forced to accept that the reality we have known is but a delicate chiffon draped over a thick and richly textured cosmic fabric.”
Beautiful ideas. And another book takes them further. It’s called Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, and it may be my favorite scientific work ever. In it, Robert Lanza (and co-author Bob Berman) come to the same conclusion as Greene, then take it one step further, saying that absolute consciousness must exist in order for modern physics to make any sort of sense. A quote: “Our understanding of the universe as a whole has reached a dead end. The ‘meaning’ of quantum physics has been debated since it was first discovered in the 30’s, but we are no closer to understanding it now than we were then . . . This book proposes a new perspective: that our current theories of the physical world don’t work, and can never be made to work, until they account for life and consciousness.” By “account for,” the author means “acknowledge the primary importance of.”
Basically, according to biocentrism, without life and consciousness, nothing truly exists in the way we think of existence.
Holy crap. It’s Byron Katie all over.
There’s more to the story–so very much more. Please do yourself a favor and get the book. Suffice it for now, though, to say that it seems to many physicists that “subatomic particles actually do interact with consciousness at some level.”
God is reality. Consciousness is an inherent part of matter. Hmmm. Pretty similar indeed.
Interestingly, Lanza addresses the whole “reality isn’t real” question, too, bringing us full circle on our wild metaphysical ride. Nothing we perceive, he says, is truly separate from ourselves and our consciousness. Everything we see, hear and touch is just a pattern created by charged particles until our brain interprets it as a sound or a visual thing.
Briefly put: that proverbial tree falling in the woods really wouldn’t make a sound if no one was there to hear it. It would only create some vibrations. And actually, it wouldn’t even fall. Just more vibrations.
Just vibrations; nothing else. Crazy, right?
Ah, this book. Ah, Byron Katie. I love that two opposite things can be true at the same time. Matter has consciousness, but matter isn’t matter. Reality is God, if and inasmuch as it is real.
If I were to speculate on the relationship between these two statements, I suppose I’d resolve the confusion thusly: Reality as we know it isn’t reality at all. Reality is something beyond all this, an unseen vibration or symphony of vibrations.
This is God.
For now, though, our bodies and brains interpret the vibrations in various ways–in colors and shapes and even ideas and situations. This, too, is God, but only a small part, the little we can perceive of It in our so very limited state.
Our reality isn’t real–but it’s part of the picture.
And so, as we’ve seen, there’s a lot to this whole Byron Katie thing. Much more than at first meets the eye. But then again, isn’t that always the case? Everyone has complexities under there somewhere. Not just complexities; complexes. Mental constructs. Cities and cities of them.
Everyone has them. Even people who know that’s all they are–just constructs. Just mental cities, and some shoddy and poorly-planned, at that.
In my (very unauthorized) Byron Katie Metaphysics, I covered a lot of ground. Some of it I’ll get back to later. For now, I’ll focus on that essential, beautiful belief that I came to since losing Jane, namely, that God is all there is.
God is everything we see. We are all One. God is every molecule, every atom, the All. These were ideas that in the years following Jane’s death had become familiar to me. But Byron Katie has a better way of putting it. Listen to this–really hear it. She says, “God is reality.” Same idea, different words? Maybe. Why, then, do they hit me with such greater force?
Why does it feel like, Yikes. This–all this ugly stupid stuff around me? This is God?
Here, a few direct quotes that offer Katie’s perspective on reality.
“For me, the word God means ‘reality.’ Reality is God, because it rules.”—The Work of Byron Katie: An Introduction, Byron Katie
“You sometimes say, ‘God is everything, God is good.’ Isn’t that just one more belief? A: God, as I use that word, is another name for what is. I always know God’s intention: It’s exactly what is in every moment. I don’t have to question it anymore. I’m no longer meddling in God’s business. It’s simple. And from that basis, it’s clear that everything is perfect. The last truth—I call it the last judgment—is ‘God is everything, God is good.’ People who really understand this don’t need inquiry . . . Ultimately, of course, even this isn’t true.” —Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell
“Katie: Life is so simple: We walk; we sit; we lie horizontal. That’s about it. Everything else is a story about what’s going on while we’re doing it. Stan: It’s almost like the stories make my being real. [The audience applauds.] And without the story, I wouldn’t be real. Katie: And you’ve never been real. You know that. Stan: Yes. I’ve been at the forefront of the story. [He gives a low whistle.] Holy shit! [The audience laughs loudly.] Wow! My hairs are standing up. Is that significant? [More laughter.] Oh my God, that’s really true. Without my stories, there’s really nothing here.” —Who Would You Be Without Your Story?: Dialogues with Byron Katie, Byron Katie
“There is nothing that is true if you believe it; and nothing is true, believe it or not.” —Byron Katie
“The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is. When the mind is perfectly clear, what is is what we want. If you want reality to be different than it is, you might as well try to teach a cat to bark. You can try and try, and in the end the cat will look up at you and say, “Meow.” Wanting reality to be different than it is is hopeless.“—Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell
Pretty straightforward, right? God is reality. Only, wait: nothing is true or real. If anything is real, though, God definitely is. And if God is anything, God is reality.
Like I said: yikes.
Let’s just admit it: Katie’s thoughts on reality don’t make much sense. Still, she seems to be on to something. If God is anything, God is everything. There is a certain poetic truth there.
But what is everything? Is everything really everything? That’s the question I had when I first starting reading Byron Katie. Before that time, I understood that the trees were part of God. The people were. The mountains. Even beautiful buildings and other art. But Katie seems to imply that God is in situations, too–in anything that happens to us that we may deem either “bad” or “good.” (See the last quote.) In other words, that judgmental glance, that disappointment, that unfair comment, that anger. The crying baby, the sick child, the back pain. The friend that let me down, the husband that was mean. God isn’t just all that is–all the animals, vegetables and minerals. God is all reality–even the ideas.
Which is sometimes pretty cool to think about, and sometimes kinda sucks.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that change the course of your life. A chance comment. An accidental meeting. A TV show called “I Survived . . . Beyond and Back” on Lifetime. Other times, it’s the really big things that do it.
A year and a half into our relationship, David and I decided to start trying to have a baby. A few months later, I was pregnant.
The pregnancy was uneventful. I had some bad nausea and some problems sleeping, and I was more irritable than usual. But nothing really went wrong.
Then I gave birth.
Jane was beautiful. She was long, and fat, and had flawless skin and a perfect pug nose and very full lips and long, thick hair and fingernails well past the tips of her fingers. She looked healthy and perfect. But she wasn’t.
She wasn’t breathing.
Near total brain damage was the diagnosis. Cause unknown then and forever after. She lived four and a third days, though, each of them newly intense. And on one of them, along with everything else that was happening, the moment came.
I lost my Christian faith. Just not officially.
It happened like this: With me in Baby Jane’s room was a good friend. She’d been sitting with me for several hours. Earlier that day I’d felt a nudge–an inner urging we spiritual people place so much trust in–telling me to ask this woman about spirituality. Maybe I could tell she had something figured out. Or maybe it really was God who gave me the idea. Who knows? Either way, there she was, and when the moment felt right, I said, “Are you a spiritual person?”
“I am,” she said.
“A Christian?” I asked. Part of me expected her to say yes. That inner nudge–it was God using this tragic experience to bring me back to him, wasn’t it? It must be. Why else would I get it?
But then she surprised me. “No,” she replied. “I believe in angels and God, but not in any particular religion.”
I paused. Took this in. This is my message? I thought. That I can get away with being spiritual but not religious?
Hold on. Wait a second. How awesome is this?
Yeah. It’s the best thing ever.
It sounds strange and of course it’s only partly true, but it was right then–then exactly–I was done. I mean, I was mostly cooked, had been for quite a while. But there in Jane’s room, when my friend said she wasn’t a Christian–well, that was it.
Several months later, I watched the documentary on NDEs, and after that the whole thing was official.
I was now a non-Christian for good.
The change was indeed good for me. And it came at a great time. My newfound spirituality helped me through the most difficult experience of my life. The best part of the change: In allowing myself to redefine my faith, I gained the freedom to explore.
In the months following Jane’s death, following my friend’s suggestions, I read many incredible books on spirituality–classics I hadn’t even heard of till then. All the Conversations With God. Some law of attraction stuff and a book by Gary Zukav. I ate them up, went deep, took extensive notes. I experimented with new ideas. Reincarnation? Sure. Sounds strange, but it makes a certain sense. Channeling? Energy healing? Okay. Why not? If it’s out there, it’s available, right?
It was all so absorbing, so meaningful, so . . . important-feeling. If you’re a spiritual person, you’ll know what I mean. The woo-woo part of me, it seemed, had never really gone away. It had just been in remission.
Now, a restart. I thought about my early experiences with the Divine, my previous beliefs, and redefined them according to my new ideas.
Spirituality was real, and spirituality was good. People are, too. They are holy. Life is a game–a game with no rules. You just try shit, and see what works.
And it was during this time of searching that I adopted my next abiding spiritual principle, namely: God isn’t what I thought he was.
So, I get that tons of people will disagree with me on this. And I’m fine with it. Personal preferences, and all that. But when there’s a TV show that addresses the One Question—or at least one of the One Questions—namely, what happens when we die . . . well, that show should be pretty well-known. Like, more well-known than “Survivor.”
Well, as it turns out, there is such a show, and ironically, the name is similar. It’s “I Survived . . . Beyond and Back.” It recounts the experiences of near death experience (NDE) survivors, albeit in much less detail than one might prefer.
And it’s not really that popular. Go figure.
In any case. For me, discovering the show was a solid three-star experience. In other words, a pleasure less than a day at the beach and greater than a great meal. (Also a full star less than a single smile from a baby, but that’s not a fair comparison.) It was before I had kids, when I could take half a day off from adulthood pretty much whenever I wanted, so that is what I was doing. I turned on the TV, and got hooked by the premise. And from there it only got better.
The show is made in that classic TV documentary style, complete with dramatic reenactments and black-backdropped narratives by the real-life participants. Three stories mixed in together: First, a teenage SCUBA diver who gets decompression sickness after his suit malfunctions. Then a bedridden patient who dies due to a hospital error and finally, a bus driver who has a heart attack during her rounds. All three enchanting, and horrific, and consequential. But it was the second one that really got me.
The SCUBA diver–he looked like a nice guy. Could’ve been religious. When he dies he has a positive experience. Then the bus driver–a woman. She sees her ex-husband and is overcome by how pure he looks. She floats toward some bright lights, but is told it isn’t her time. She’s disappointed; she doesn’t want to come back.
Then there is Barbara, the bedridden patient.
She’s just had spinal surgery, which has gone well. Then she’s put on a respirator, which doesn’t. It malfunctions, and internal swelling stops her blood flow and her heart, and before the error can be corrected, she is gone.
Barbara moves over her body. At first, she feels at peace. Then suddenly, she becomes confused.
“But the next thing I knew,” she says, “I was in total darkness.”
That can’t be good.
Cut to commercial. The perfect time. Two happy TV endings, one hook.
Holy crap, I thought. I have got to finish this. No snack. No phone. Just wait.
At the time, see, I was still in limbo–that am-I-still-a-Christian phase I described earlier. I had David, and I loved my life, and I’d found a way to bring meaning to it. I no longer truly believed the salvation story. And yet, I hadn’t yet made a clear pronouncement regarding my new faith.
Can I call myself a non-Christian? Yikes. That sounds . . . scary. Maybe this show can help me overcome this fear.
Yeah. I took TV a little too seriously. (Still do.)
The show came back from commercial, as these shows do. And the ending was appropriately predictable. The darkness again. Then, slowly, Barbara’s actress representative reappears, and she is happy–even radiant.
In the narrative overlay, Barbara says that for a moment, she wondered what was happening. Then she realized what it all meant. It was dark because her face . . . was buried in the bosom of her grandmother.
Yes, you heard that right.
It was a bosom.
I’m not one for tears. Really wish I were. Maybe I could’ve had a nice cathartic reaction. Instead, I muted the next commercial and just sat there in the quiet, contemplating the ramifications a bit.
Of course she didn’t go to Hell. What was I thinking? They’d never show that on Lifetime. But she didn’t mention Jesus. None of them seemed religious. Maybe it’s okay to just . . . let . . . go.
Then again, I already had. I just hadn’t totally admitted it yet.
The Statement: Life is a game. There are no rules.
Is it true? Yes.
Can I absolutely know it is true? No.
How do I feel when I think the thought? I feel at ease. I feel less pressure to be perfect, to perform, than I do when I don’t reflect on this idea.
How would I feel if I were unable to think the thought? I would take life much too seriously. I would be too hard on myself.
The Turnarounds: Life isn’t a game. Life is serious. Life is consequential. There is only one set of rules in life and they cannot be chosen or changed; they’re set in stone. This is the belief that many people hold, and their belief isn’t any more or less valid than my own.
So again, is it true? Yes. It’s true for me. The only rule is that there aren’t any rules, as the kids say. But no, it is not true for everyone. Life is not a game for everyone.
I love the belief that life is a game, even though there’s no objective evidence that it’s true. As much as I’d like to hold my ideas as lightly as Byron Katie does, I’m definitely not there yet. I’m not even sure I’m headed that direction.
The belief that life is a game doesn’t cause me any suffering that I know of. Still, I’d love to get a glimpse of Katie’s clear-headedness, her total detachment from certainty.
Here are some other thoughts I did The Work on this month and last:
1. M. embarrassed me.
2. M. made me question and doubt my parenting style instead of showing sympathy and support.
3. M. acted badly because she wanted an excuse for not wanting to be told what to do.
4. M. is a lower-level human being who blames, criticizes and condescends rather than being honest with herself.
5. M. is condescending, insecure, judgmental, authoritarian, terrible with children, uncaring, unenlightened, a victim of her religion, easily annoyed, lazy, unhappy, mean, dishonest with herself, entitled, controlling and superior.
6. My husband isn’t helping me with the kids enough.
7. I’m sick of holding the baby.
8. My life is boring.
9. I hate mornings.
10. I am working too hard. I’m going to burn out.
11. My life is not relaxing enough.
12. I don’t have enough time to write.
13. I’m not getting enough done.
14. I have to get all my books done in case I get a long case of writers’ block or die.
15. If I could just catch up on my writing, I’d be happy.
16. If I don’t take enough long walks, I’ll get depressed.
17. My face is too round.
18. N. screwed me over by not showing up to work.
19. Dave should not have gotten rid of the vacuum.
20. I can’t remain in a meditative state.
I also did a mental excavation as follows using the method previously described. This time I examined the thoughts behind the thought “I have depression.”
1. If I didn’t have depression, I wouldn’t take care of myself with long walks, close friendship and much more.
2. Without depression, I wouldn’t know who I am.
3. If I didn’t have depression, I would have to face other scary feelings that I’ve been suppressing like anger, grief, fear and even joy.
4. No one wants to be friends with a happy-go-lucky Pollyanna type. If I didn’t have depression, I would be a more emotional person and embarrass myself.
5. Depression makes me a better writer.
6. If I didn’t have depression, I wouldn’t do spiritual practice.
7. Depression gives me an excuse for being weak and imperfect.
8. If I didn’t have depression, I wouldn’t feel compelled to do my writing.
9. Depression gives me a challenge and a purpose.
10. Depression helps me stay in control of my feelings.
In September, I worked through fifty-three stressful thoughts and limiting subconscious beliefs. In October, I worked through twenty-six. So I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me too much that as I come to the end of this month, I feel the best I’ve felt in over a year.
I’d even say I’m in the state of meditation.
In the previous books in this series, I discuss this phrase at length. Briefly, it’s the feeling you get when you’re listening for your inner guidance moment by moment, when you’re accepting what is and when you’re pretty much at peace. Lately, there have been times when I’ve tried to come up with a stressful thought to work on but can’t, which I consider an interesting marker of progress. And this despite several major parenting challenges. Triggered by whining, I screamed at my four-year-old (twice, I think). The baby cried inconsolably for several days. My exuberant two-year-old found a million creative ways to wake a sleeping baby. And yet–yeah. State of meditation, here I am.
It’s astonishing, really, how consistent my results have been with the Work. And yet, I still have quite a way to go. As you may or may not have noticed, several of the thoughts on this month’s list aren’t new; there are about five or so that I’ve dealt with several times each month since starting this process. I’m not surprised by this, nor particularly discouraged; some thoughts are more stubborn than others. Often this is because I’ve practiced those thoughts more. Other times it’s due to who they’re about. In my experience, the closer you are to someone, the harder it is to let go of a negative judgment against them. You’ve spent more time on the thoughts, gathered more evidence for their veracity. Plus, you just have so much more invested. If your friend or acquaintance is miserable and mean, it doesn’t affect you so much. But when your kids or your partner does something you think is unfair, it feels like your happiness is on the line.
“I can’t be happy if they aren’t treating me well,” we think. But is that the truth? Of course not. If Byron Katie’s husband didn’t help her as much as she preferred, or if her baby cried to be held all day long, she’d just sit back and enjoy it.
I am looking forward to being able to say the same for myself.
As I said: Maybe someday.
Meanwhile, I’ve decided to choose several thoughts to pay special attention to this year and to report on regularly. They are: “I’m not getting enough done,” “Motherhood is difficult,” and “I have depression.” I would absolutely love to make a huge dent in any of these this year and for me, doing so would really prove the value of the Work.
If the Work works on my biggest thought monsters, it definitely does work.
One of my favorite stories about viewing life as a game is also one of the most well-known.
In 333 B.C. Alexander the Great was just twenty-three years old, just starting his campaign for domination of the known world. He was still fresh, still optimistic, still sober–well, semi-sober–and his soldiers were still in awe of their leader. So when he commanded them to veer off course and stop by the legendary Gordian Knot, an intricate knot that held a historically important ox cart to a post, they presumably complied easily.
Alexander had hubris. Lots and lots of it. What better test for him, then, than this fabled knot? According to the tradition, the person to untie it would someday rule Asia. (Didn’t happen, but he got pretty close.)
When Alexander arrived, he tried several ways of untying it. Predictably, however, he failed. And so, he took matters into his own hands. He stared at the great historical and religious artifact for a moment. Then he took his sword . . . and cut the knot.
He cut the knot.
Following this incident, Alexander tore through the Hellenistic world, enacting ingenious plan after ingenious plan to take new lands for Macedon. Often outnumbered and seriously low on provisions, the army was nevertheless seemingly unstoppable. By the time exhaustion, disillusionment and distrust finally set it, the army was in India. They were getting trampled by elephants, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were the most successful warriors the world had ever seen.
And Alexander was the greatest king.
The man knew how to play his own game, how to break the rules.
One afternoon, I was taking a walk with a friend I’ll call Julie. Julie is beautiful, out and in, and I think highly of her. Despite this, we have a problem: sometimes (okay, more than sometimes), I feel compelled, almost beyond my ability to control it, to give her advice. (She is not the only person I have this problem with.)
On the day in question, Julie was upset, which to me is a wide-open invitation. Walking is a great activity for conversation, and that afternoon, a secondary benefit didn’t escape my notice, either, namely: the person you’re with is basically trapped.
You’re walking already. What’re they gonna do, run?
So, Julie was upset, and I was talking and talking, trying to come to some useful conclusion. Then suddenly, it hit me: this time, she had real problems. Problems I had no idea how to help with. So I stopped mid-oration, and tried to listen instead.
It was her job, she said. She hated it but she’d hated all her other jobs, too. She didn’t know what she wanted to do. Plus, she was broke. And her roommate was annoying her, and she disliked her apartment, and last week she’d run out of her medication.
It was rough.
As she continued to describe the situation, we passed the last stand of trees and I realized that soon, we’d be at our cars. I wanted to say something, offer something—anything. So, I threw out the only relevant remark I could come up with.
“There’s no right way to do this, to figure out what you want to do, you know? There is no blueprint for life. Life is like a game. You just try shit, and see what works. That’s it. You try shit, and see what works.”
I don’t know what effect the words had on Julie. But I do know what effect they had on me. Right after I said them, a bunch of my memories rearranged themselves in my brain, memories like the night in Bogota with Dave. I thought, too, about the spirituality books I’d been reading since my deconversion, books like Conversations with God and The Power of Now, and even some law of attraction stuff.
That’s it, I realized. Life is a game. There are no rules. You just try shit, and see what works.
And with that thought, my new life philosophy had words.