Tag Archives: Depression Memoir

Byron Katie Tips and Tricks, Part One (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Eleven)

“I get it” and “I got it.” So close, yet lakes apart, the letters e and o like distant symbols on a map. “I get it” is quick. It’s “Oh, shit. That rocks.” “I got it,” though? That can take a while.

When three months ago I began my Byron Katie resolution, I was delighted just to say “I get it.” These days, however, my goal is higher.

I want to look back and say, “I got it.”

Distance myself from self-consciousness, from loneliness, from depression? Yeah. That happened. I did that. Cast aside jealousy, comparison, ego-driven goals? Yup–made a lot of progress there, too.

Needless to say, I’m not there yet.

The Work is hard. Harder than I thought it would be. And not just the facing my emotions part. As I’ve nibbled away at my negativity one thought at a time, I’ve realized something: Byron Katie’s reality is a lot different from mine. Sometimes I truly don’t know how to do The Work most effectively.

So, I study. I read her books, watch her videos. I do everything I can to get inside Katie’s head. Because for me, unless I understand it, it isn’t fully happening. I can’t just do The Work–I have to analyze it.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this endeavor. Don’t you, too, love the intellectual trip? We join the online groups. We comment on the blog posts. We even shell out hard cash for conferences and retreats. Just maybe if I can say “I get it” one more time, we think, I’ll soon be able to say “I got it.”

Which is why for this serial, I’m contributing to the conversation not only by sharing my own experiences, but by creating a few knowledge collections, too. Keep in mind that these pieces are mine alone–I haven’t sought or received the Byron Katie Foundation’s approval. They’re based on direct quotes from her books and videos, nothing secondhand. (I don’t think anything like this yet exists to filch from, anyway.) Also note that I’m not a trained Work practitioner (though what a worthwhile achievement that would be). I’m just a person who uses the process.

Hope my conclusions aren’t too far off.

Up first:

Tips and Tricks for The Work of Byron Katie

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about The Work so far this year, it is that The Work works. There’s just one problem: you have to do it right. I mean, I hear the point Byron Katie often makes that the process is a simple one–just four questions and some turnarounds. But within the confines of that seemingly straightforward process lurk unexpected ambiguities and complications. Some of these are explicitly addressed in Katie’s books. Others are merely hinted at. Still other challenges I’ve come across in my own Work and found various ways to get through. What follows is a list of tips and tricks I’ve used to better ferret out my issues and find more freedom.

Tips for Finding The Stressful Thought

When I first started doing The Work, my biggest challenge was pinpointing the exact thought that was at the root of the negative emotion I was feeling. I tried really hard to figure out what exact belief was causing me stress, then often gave up in frustration.

When asked how to know which thoughts to do The Work on, Byron Katie often tries to simplify the matter for people. Work on the thought that you’re thinking right now, she says–the very first one that comes up. This isn’t bad advice and yet, I’m going to disagree; personally, I prefer to be selective.

Here are a few ways to make this process a lot easier.

I. Fill out a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet (or my revised version in the next installment of this series). On the worksheet, there are six well-thought out questions that help bring your buried beliefs to light. If you have a specific situation already in mind, ask yourself these questions, then do The Work on the statements you write that resonate:

1. In this situation, who angers, confuses, saddens, or disappoints you, and why?
I am (emotion) with (person) because (reason).

2. In this situation, how do you want them to change? What do you want them to do?
I want (person) to (action).

3. In this situation, what advice would you offer to them?
(Person) should/shouldn’t (action).

4. In order for you to be happy in this situation, what do you need them to think, say, feel, or do?
I need (person) to (action).

5. What do you think of them in this situation? Make a list. (Remember, be petty and judgmental.)
(Person) is (descriptors).

6. What is it about this situation that you don’t ever want to experience again?
I don’t ever want to experience (emotion and/or action).

II. FIND THE HIDDEN MEANING. Ask yourself what it means to you that you don’t have or feel what you think you want to have or feel. Once you’ve identified a situation you don’t prefer, add “. . . and it means that . . .” to find the underlying belief behind your negative feeling. Fill in either this statement: “I feel (emotion) and it means that (painful result/consequence/circumstance)”, or this statement: “I experienced (situation) and it means that (painful result/consequence/circumstance).” For example, “I feel hatred for someone and it means that I will never be able to forgive them and we will never be friends again.” And: “I experienced abuse and it means that I am unlovable.” Don’t do The Work on an emotion alone. Emotions are just alarm clocks, says Byron Katie. They’re there to wake us up to our false beliefs.

III. FIND THE GREENER GRASS. Ask yourself what difference it would make if you got what you think you want. Once you’ve identified what you don’t like or what you want to change, ask yourself why you want it to change. What difference do you believe it would make in your life? Would you have more money? More respect? And would those things make you happier? How? Do The Work on all of these ideas. For example, if you’re stressful thought is “I should weight 150 pounds” or “For me to be happy about my weight, I would have to weigh 150 pounds,” then ask why exactly you should weigh this amount, or any amount other than what you are. What are your deepest beliefs about how people would respond to you, how you would feel physically, etc.? Then do The Work on those thoughts.

III. FIND THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO. Ask yourself what the worst thing that could result from your unwanted circumstance might be. Make a full list, then do The Work on all individual fears that resonate.

IV. FIND THE SCREAMING CHILD. Pretend that your negative emotion is a small child and ask yourself what he or she is screaming out. Byron Katie says that our thoughts are the beloved. They’re our children, and only when we stop and give them the attention and love that they need are they able to grow up, let go and move on. But we have to let them speak unreservedly, without logic, with raw emotion, in order for them to feel fully heard. When I first started doing The Work, I tried very hard to come up with statements that made sense, that I could get behind. I thought doing The Work on thoughts I already knew weren’t true would be a waste of time. After seeing Katie work with more people, though, I realized that my seemingly nonsensical thoughts are important, too–sometimes the most important of all. Our minds may not believe them, but our emotions do–and only when we look at them honestly and inquire can they lose their power.

V. FIND THE CORE NEGATIVE BELIEFS, those that lie underneath many different painful thoughts that come up. Once you start doing The Work regularly, you’ll occasionally catch a negative core belief. These are the beliefs that have been with you for a long time, and are at the root of much of your mental and emotional challenges. Some of mine: life is hard and always will be; happiness isn’t for me; happiness is shallow; life is work; and, if I’m enjoying myself too much, I’m doing something wrong or avoiding doing something I should do. Other common core beliefs: I am not good enough; I am not lovable; I am sinful; I have to do this perfectly or not at all; and many more. Write these down as they come, then work on them at your convenience, even if they don’t directly relate to your current life situation.

VI. If all else fails, free journal for about ten minutes. Barf it all up and when you’re done, dredge it for the grossest, most substantial chunks. Then do The Work on those pieces. I use this technique when I’m just generally upset about everything and nothing in particular. It’s great fun.

An Excavation (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Ten)

Not to worry, though: I have a plan.

Recently I had an experience with The Work that highlighted to me a lesser-known trick to successful inquiry. And I’m hoping it’ll be the key to going deeper.

It happened late one evening when the kids were at the pool with David and I had a few rare hours to myself. I was sitting on the couch (okay, a mattress on the floor that I call a couch, because it is a couch, even though everyone else in my family insists that it’s a bed, which it isn’t). The lights were low. The TV was off. There wasn’t even sound coming from the heating vents. If I were being picky, I’d say that the refrigerator’s low hum broke the silence, but I’m not being picky.

It was silent.

And so, I did what any lover of quiet and her own company does.

I promptly logged onto Facebook.

There, several good articles. A few unusually good. I made some comments, reposted a few highlights. Then, amid the clutter, it reached out to meet me: a still shot of Rachel and Monica of Friends sitting on the Central Perk couch, deep in conversation.

Yes, a GIF. It was a GIF that got me.

Okay, so I probably hadn’t exercised as much as usual that week. Maybe I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, and was primed for a rough night. But the emotions that came over me as I looked–no, stared–at that simple photo were unexpectedly painful–pungent, even.

Oh, I thought. Here’s a moment for The Work.

I didn’t click away. I keep looking at the picture, thinking about what it meant to me. I remembered all those Friends reruns I watched alone in my college apartment during a time when my relationship roster should’ve been the fullest, but wasn’t. It was a decade of my life when I actually had the time to sit on couches in coffee shops, to do “study dates,” to go to parties on the weekend and to hang out–well, pretty much whenever. But because I was too shy and awkward and didn’t live in the dorms, I didn’t. And apparently, part of me still regrets that.

I turned off my phone and lay back (because I can do that on my couch). I noticed the mix of emotions, meditated on it a while. Then I realized what I was feeling.

It was grief.

Friendship is a right, my thoughts were telling me. Especially friendship in college. It’s one of the most essential human experiences, and I was largely left out of it.

And I’ll never, ever get those years back.

I’m forty. Almost. It’s been a lot of years since college. I have my best friend, who’s also my husband, three kids and a supportive immediate family. I’ve taken to texting my dad and my sister almost daily, and writing letters (actual letters!) to my brother and mom. I have a whole list of family friends and host at least one dinner at our house each month, and I see a mom friend at least once a week. I have two good friends from my neighborhood–very sweet women–and several other close mom friends I don’t see as often.

So what the hell is my problem?

But that isn’t the question, I realized even as I had that thought. The Work isn’t about talking myself out of anything. The Work is about simply bringing your false beliefs to light, and seeing if they hold up to scrutiny or fall apart.

The Work is about being curious.

Which is why that night, I switched things up a bit. Rather than finding a stressful thought or two, then jumping into the four questions right away, I spent a great deal more time trying to pinpoint the exact belief I was suffering with. And I’m glad I did, and I’ll do it this way in the future, too; it felt a lot more productive.

Here is part of what I wrote while sitting on the couch . . . bed . . . couch that evening, using a process I later called “emotional excavation” (basically just free-writing all my negative beliefs and thoughts on the topic at hand).

Emotional Excavation of the Thought “I Should Have Had More Friends When I Was in College”:

    • I should have had more friends when I was in college.
    • Friendship is a right, and that right was taken away from me.
    • I’ll never get my college years back. I’ll never have the fond memories I could have had.
    • I should have tried harder to make friends, joined more clubs.
    • I should have more close girlfriends now.
    • I wish I had a best friend other than my husband.
    • I don’t have enough friends.
    • People don’t like me. They just pretend to.
    • People think I’m weird.
    • People think I’m judgmental.
    • People think I’m a show-off. Full of myself.
    • People think I’m a bad listener.
    • People think I talk too loud.
    • People think I don’t like them, care about them.
    • People don’t like my conversational style.
    • People are uncomfortable with me because I’m uncomfortable with them.
    • I have nothing to offer other people.
    • People hate hearing my advice.
    • People feel defensive whenever I give them advice.
    • People misunderstand my intentions whenever I give them advice.
  • I need people to listen to me.
  • I need people to like me.

After I found all of these thoughts (and a few others) within myself, I chose the two that most resonated with me–tugged at a heart string, so to speak. Then I did The Work on those thoughts rather than the first thoughts I had, the ones specifically about college.

And it worked. There was a lightness that followed this experience. The grief didn’t go away completely, but I was able to detach from it somewhat. The following day I found myself feeling more grateful than usual for my husband and for the other wonderful people in my life. And over the past several months, I’ve actually made three new friends.

The moral of the story: there’s more in there, people. More negativity, more false beliefs, more . . . dirt. If I have deep sadness or deep anxiety or deep anger about something, anything–well, I have to just keep digging. I can’t just do the work on a single thought and call it good. I have to take the time listen to the feeling. Ask it questions.

I have to excavate.

Sticky Ickies, Every One. (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Nine)

In none of the Byron Katie books, videos and articles I’ve encountered has Katie ever advised someone to do inquiry on a pleasing thought. Though she teaches that nothing is ultimately true and our life experiences are all an illusion, if a thought makes us feel good, she says, just leave it alone. In her words: “I say keep it and have a wonderful life.” (–Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life)

I like her honesty here. Hey, it’s not the truth, but who cares? If it ain’t broken, don’t get out the hammer! But I also like the idea of questioning all my beliefs, not just my stressful ones. If I never rethink my underlying principles, how will I grow?

I love a challenge. Always have, always will. And so, I present last month’s Work on the belief that I discussed in the past few installations of this serial, namely, people are holy.

A Byron Katie Worksheet

Month Completed: August

The Statement: People are holy.

The Questions:

Is it true? Yes.

Can I absolutely know it is true? No.

How do I feel when I think the thought? I feel a lot of love for other people, a lot of forgiveness, and self-love and self-forgiveness, too.

How would I feel if I were unable to think the thought? I would feel as I used to feel: ashamed for every mistake I ever made.

The Turnarounds: People are unholy. People are sinful. People are bad. Or: People are not holy, because there is no such thing as holiness. People are just what they are–good, bad or indifferent.

So again, is it true? Yes and no. It’s true for me. But an atheist may not like the word “holy.” They may prefer a similar but different sentiment, or not agree with it at all.

And with that I conclude the first Byron Katie failure of this series. However, it’s a qualified failure. And one that I welcome.

The qualified part: I like the reminder that some people don’t believe there is such a thing as holiness. Words matter, and to an atheist or an agnostic, the word may be worse than misleading or baggage-laden. It may be plain wrong. Even Byron Katie, a person who doesn’t consider herself spiritual, would likely see the complications with a word like this. However, for me, the belief still rings true. Like I said, this Byron Katie failure is one that I welcome.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to let go of this spiritual belief–or any of my other ones, either. Questioning them is an exercise in humility, a way to put myself in someone’s else’s head–someone with a perspective that’s different from my own. When it comes to my painful beliefs, though, I’m far less detached.

I want to get rid of them–and fast.

Last month I wrote about some of the progress I’ve made during my detox, particularly in the area of my relationships. I told you about how after doing The Work on a close friend I was able to let go of some criticism and judgment. The good news since then is that this trend has continued; whenever I do The Work on another person, I see progress. The not-so-good news is that the areas I feel I need the most help in don’t concern other people. They concern myself.

And when I do The Work on myself, change seems slower.

Here are some of the thoughts I’ve questioned regarding my life and attitudes that continued coming back, despite repeated attempts at inquiry:

  • I hate washing dishes.
  • I’m sick of cooking dinner every day.
  • Parenting is difficult.
  • I’m sick of holding the baby all the time.
  • I want to be accomplishing more.
  • I have no energy.
  • I’m feeling compulsive about food.
  • I want everyone to leave me alone.
  • I am feeling sad.
  • I am feeling annoyed.

Yeah. Sticky ickies, every one.

In all, I did the Work on twenty thoughts in August. Added to the 25 in July, the 34 in June and the 47 in May (before I officially started my detox), I’ve put in a decent effort (though I could’ve done better). And yet, as I reflect on what I’ve learned so far, it’s hard to assess where I’m at. I know the process is working–at least some of the time. But is it healing me deeply? Is it getting at the root of my depression? What I’m hoping for this year is a fundamental change in who I am, in how I feel inside my own head. I don’t want to just get rid of certain obsessive thoughts only to see them be replaced by new ones; I want to notice a major reduction in the frequency of all stressful thoughts, period.

In other words: I really want more inner peace.

Am I on my way? I’m not sure.

Even Maurice Sendak Was Holy (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Eight)

Most of us receive our spiritual truths secondhand. We find them in books and in other people’s stories. A fortunate few, though, get to learn them firsthand. One such lucky person is Anita Moorjani.

As you may know, Moorjani wrote a best-selling book called Dying to Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing. It recounts the experience leading up to and following her near-death from cancer (so yeah, I consider her a credible source). The story is remarkable and includes a total healing of all her tumors within weeks of her returning to her physical body. But what I love most about the book is her discussion of what she learns from it all.

As someone who’s never felt the kind of Source-consciousness that she felt (in this lifetime, at least), it fascinates me to hear her takeaways. I love her realization that heaven isn’t a place but rather, a state of being. This makes sense to me and is confirmed by teachers like Byron Katie. Most of all, though, I was inspired by her understanding that her greatest purpose in life is merely to express her uniqueness in the world. She describes in detail how hard she worked in the past to please others and make decisions they felt were right. Today she knows that people’s differences are a good thing. More than good: beautiful and important.

“I began to understand that while I may have only been a thread, I was integral to the overall picture [in the tapestry of all life]. Seeing this, I understood that I owed it to myself, to everyone I met, and to life itself to always be an expression of my own unique essence.” ―  Anita Moorjani, AnitaMoorjani.com.

In his book Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut says something I think Moorjani (and Byron Katie) would like. The awareness of God isn’t the source of enlightenment, he says. To the contrary, it isn’t until we entirely let go of the idea that we need God and just let ourselves be human that our greatest epiphanies occur.

When I first read this, I didn’t understand what Vonnegut meant. Being more human makes us more spiritual?  After thinking it over for a few days, though, I got the point.

He was saying that people are holy.

Not God. Not the angels. Not the minister. Not the church.

People. Just people. Just as we are.

We’re not special because we’re spiritual, even if we are spiritual. We’re special because we’re human. Because we’re us.

Dictionary.com offers seven definitions for the word “holy.” The one I like best: “Having a spiritually pure quality.” My atheist friends Susan and Michaela qualify under this parameter. So does the late Maurice Sendak.

The author/illustrator whose works include In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak was a steadfast atheist his whole life. In Wild Things, his beloved character, Max, found that even though he didn’t always get along with his family, they were more important to him than anything–even than being the king of a faraway land.

In an interview Sendak did shortly before he died (read the whole thing here) in which he talked about how much he appreciated the beauty of the world and what a privilege it was to be alive, you can almost hear a grown-up Max speaking his words.

“. . . I am in love with the world . . .” he told Terry Gross, the interviewer. And his parting advice was, “Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.”

Living life. Ultimately, that’s our most sacred duty, don’t you think? That’s the greatest epiphany we can have.

We’re meant to be human. We’re meant to be ourselves.

If God made us for anything, He made us for that.

It’s the kind of thing a holy person would say, isn’t it? Yeah. Maurice Sendak, an atheist, was definitely holy.

And so it’s a bit strange that last month, as part of my year of Byron Katie-style inquiry, I questioned my long-time belief that people are holy. But I suppose if Byron Katie tells me to turn it around, I’ll give it a try. No harm can come from taking a second look.

Can it?

Dad, Do You Think I’m a Good Person? (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Seven)

My father is an intelligent man, and an eccentric one, too. He’s a hermit, by shyness and by choice. His home is filled with model trains, cats, books and, well, garbage, frankly. His only heat source is his wood stove. (Yeah. I come from good stock.) Though college educated, he’s not a fact person. What he is instead is deep.

Dad has instinct. Though he believes come crazy shit, every once in a while, when he’s in just the right mood, he’ll stun you. You’ll be sitting in front of the fire together or walking down the train tracks that abut his backyard, and he’ll suddenly come out with something that you know is true, even though at the same time you’re sure it’s not, because it can’t be.

One of these conversations happened when I was in high school. It was a quiet moment, and I was feeling kinda melancholy. Dad puttered in the kitchen a bit, then brought me a cup of watery coffee with lots of powdered creamer and one sugar cube. I took it, then gathered the courage to ask him a question.

“Dad, do you think I’m a good person?”

He stopped puttering and looked at me. Then he started washing a dish. (He always washed each dish right after using it.) When he spoke a moment later, there was a rare quality to his voice: gruffness, I guess, but the kind that covers up emotion.

“Yes, Mollie, you are a good person,” he said. “One of the best. But don’t worry about that.”

Okay, I thought. That makes no sense. But I kept listening. He wasn’t done.

“Mollie, you don’t need to be good to anyone else. You don’t need to do good deeds or be a good person. The only thing you need to do is to be what God meant you to be. He made you just like you are with your own DNA, because that’s the way he likes you.”

Sometimes I wish I would’ve asked him to explain a bit, to tell me how his words squared with what I’d heard in church. But at the time I didn’t want to reward his honesty with stupid, mundane questions.

I wanted him to know I understood.

A year or so later, another evening talk, this time while snacking on candy from the candy drawer that in my memory had never been anything else and had never been entirely empty.

I ate a mini Snickers bar, then another, and another. Dad was just getting out of bed after a long rest. Wearing only underwear and socks, he came to where I was sitting and added another board to the fire. Then he started his waking up routine.

On this day, unlike the previous one, my mood was optimistic. I’d just gotten a high score on an essay I was proud of. I told Dad what it was about, then dropped another tough question.

“Dad? Do you think I’m going to be a writer?”

“Is that what you want to do?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“And do you think you can?”

“Yes. But what if I’m wrong?”

When I got home that night, I wrote down his reply.

“I failed as a writer. I don’t regret it. I regret some things–bad things I did to people. Those are the things you should regret. But I don’t regret failing.

“It took me fifty years to figure out that what you accomplish doesn’t matter. And I’ve only known that for fourteen years, but it was worth the wait. Now that I know this, I have peace inside. And it’s okay that it took fifty years to learn. Because that’s all I needed to do.

“Give it a shot, Mollie. You’ve got a good shot. But if you fail, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.”

It was some of the best advice I’ve ever heard, including stuff I’ve read in books.

He really could’ve written more books.

There was only one problem with my dad’s unconventional wisdom: at the time, I didn’t quite believe it. I was still caught up in the fantasy of religion, the idea that if you input x you’ll get y. And nothing I’d experienced yet had convinced me otherwise.

Need more inner peace? Stop sinning, go to confession and attend church three times a week.

Want to get rid of anger? Pray for deliverance. If that doesn’t work, try a Hail Mary.

What my dad told me on these and other occasions contradicted this lifelong perspective. If you fail, he was saying, if you don’t do everything you’re supposed to do, it’s kind of . . . okay. Despite what you’ve been taught, you don’t need to be a good person all the damn time, Mollie. Just be who you are and the rest will work out all right.

And even though part of me didn’t believe him, part did.

The Christian in me said, “Yeah, Dad, that’s okay for you. You’re old, and you’re ready to make peace with your mistakes. I’m not there yet. I’m not ready to give up. If I don’t constantly work on myself, improve myself, achieve things, I won’t please God and I won’t be happy.”

A deeper part of me, though, knew he was right.

On both occasions, I thanked Dad for his suggestions. I didn’t mention how they differed from my spiritual beliefs. He was being vulnerable, I realized–letting me see the parts of himself that didn’t quite jive with his religion. The least I could do was accept the gift graciously, without judgment.

I did more than that, though. Not only did I accept his gift that day, I held onto it for a very long time. I carried it with me from college to college, apartment to apartment. Then later–much later, after the dust settled following my deconversion–I revisited Dad’s words, reopening them like a dusty letter found in an attic.

Hey, whaddya know? I thought. Dad was right the whole time. People don’t suck; in fact, they’re pretty great. They’re unique and beautiful and most of the time they’re doing the best they can.

I’d even say that people are holy.

Later, I read about a few other people who agreed.

It’s Cancer, Man. I’m Not Playing Around. (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Six)

I officially began my Byron Katie detox at the start of this month (June), just a week after having Baby Elanor. Other than the near-constant nursing, things were going pretty well. No baby blues, a beautiful child to kiss and cuddle, and Elle wasn’t even that much work yet; she slept over half the day. All in all, I was feeling way better than I did when I was pregnant. Still, life will be life, and when mid-month my friend Christine called late at night with upsetting family news, I found my reaction to be rather extreme.

“Jonathan smoked,” she told me, fighting back tears. “The thing I’ve always told him never to do. He smoked. He’s only fourteen. How could this happen?”

“Oh, wow,” I said, taken totally by surprise. “When? How did you find out?”

“He did it at school. I think in the bathroom. His friend ratted him out, and the teacher called me. We’re going to have a conference.”

“I’m sorry, Chris,” I said. “This is horrible.”

“I know. And I thought we were doing so good.”

I was following the Friendship Rule Book, trying to be sympathetic. But for reasons I didn’t fully understand, mostly what I really felt was anger.

Of course he smoked, I wanted to tell my friend. You nagged him about it so many times. Then when he started hanging around that guy, Tracy, you didn’t do anything about it. He’s not in sports or clubs. What did you expect would happen? He’s bored and feeling rebellious, and you don’t take him places to meet new friends. Of course he’s going to do stuff like this.

“Did you hit the roof like you always said you would?” I asked, just to keep the conversation going.

“No. I just grounded him. Not sure what else to do at this point. I know yelling won’t help.”

A short time later, after we hung up, I tried to return to my book but I couldn’t focus. Hmmm. I’m really upset, I realized, putting down my Kindle. Why am I feeling this way?

Because Christine is a terrible mother, the answer came. And then, Bingo. There’s a judgment. Game on.

I got out of bed and went to the office for my notebook. Sitting at my desk, I wrote it all out. I asked the four questions and created my turnarounds, and by the time it was over, I not only had a more objective view of the situation and of my friend, I had a better attitude in general.

The stress lifted. The anger was gone. I was able to get back to my book.

That felt good, but then something else happened that surprised me even more: I started having spontaneous loving thoughts about Christine. One of the characters in the book I was reading had blond curly hair that made me think of her, and every time I did, the judgment was gone. In its place was a simple sweetness I’m not normally prone to. I found myself sending loving thoughts her way to comfort her through her difficult time.

And the change in perspective didn’t end that night. Several times during the week that followed, I noticed a slight difference in my thoughts about other people, too. There was a new understanding in the way I viewed others around me; as the saying goes, everyone’s fighting some kind of battle, and I was able to keep that in mind even during mundane moments.

It was such a small thing, really, that led to the change–just a moment of anger and a bit of self-reflection. Even so, somehow by freeing myself of that ugly, harsh criticism that day, a profound inner shift occurred.

Somehow, my subconscious got the message.

It was my most significant experience with The Work this month, but it wasn’t my only success. Here are a few other thoughts I was able to turn around during my first official month of mental detox:

  • I should always be accomplishing something.
  • I shouldn’t indulge in enjoyable activities too often.
  • I shouldn’t multitask when with my kids.
  • My kids aren’t getting enough attention.
  • Life shouldn’t be too easy.
  • I can’t ignore my kid while they’re throwing a tantrum.
  • There are so many annoyances to deal with all day long.
  • I am so sick of hearing crying.
  • It’s basically my job to be annoyed.
  • I’m not getting enough writing done.
  • I want more computer time.
  • I’m not spiritually advanced enough.

There were many more, of course, some too personal to confess here. Every time I worked on a thought–even if only in my mind, as during a walk–I wrote it down. For fun and for journalism, I kept a running tally on the number of beliefs I dealt with, and this month the total came to 34 (though I did only part of the process, not a full worksheet, on many of these).

About half of the time that I worked on a statement, I noticed a change (if only a slight one) in my mood or attitude right away. About a quarter of the time, I noticed the change only later, after encountering the person or situation again, and about another quarter of the time, I noticed no change at all. In these cases, I did what Katie says to do and worked on the thought again (and maybe again after that).

My most important takeaway from my first month (plus my previous month after first learning of the technique): The Work really is better for depression than anything else I’ve tried. Better than CBT. Better than meditation.

The Work is special somehow.

Byron Katie has said that meditation is great, but not if after the meditation you just return to your old thoughts. I see her point; I’ve known people who have meditated for years and seen great benefit, yet those benefits have come to them very slowly. Maybe I’m impatient, or just too American. But I don’t want the slow starvation of my ego. I want the surgery. I want to cut out my negativity, dump it in the trash and sew myself back up.

It’s cancer, man. I’m not playing around.

That said, it’s worth mentioning for the purpose of this serial that I am continuing my longtime meditation practice (described in The Power of Acceptance) this year. It’s easy–just a mantra that I can say anytime, anywhere. I can’t do The Work all of the time, but I can do that. I’m also occasionally listening for moment by moment guidance from the Divine, a technique I wrote about in You’re Getting Closer, the first book in this series. As corny as it sounds, both of these spiritual practices hold a special place in my heart; I’m picky about this stuff, and when I find something I love, I keep it. That said, I’ve always harbored a desire to find what I call my One Great Spiritual Practice–a go-to process that helps me feel better every single time.

Sometimes, I wonder if The Work will be it.

Let’s Face It: We All Want to Feel Good (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Five)

On the list of my most memorable life experiences is a rather unexpected entry. I was in high school, and it was a week like any other boring, school-and-TV week, except for one thing: how I felt. I’d just returned from a Christian youth retreat (yes, another retreat) during which I’d spent three days on a spiritual high that resulted in a recommitment to my faith. It was an awesome time with friends, but the best was yet to come: for seven straight days following the event, I was truly at peace. As I moved through my routine, I was quieter, more withdrawn. But in a good way, like my ego was on vacation. I became an observer of my own life. I was just . . . blissed out. It felt a lot like falling in love, but without all the nerves.

It was the best feeling I’d ever had.

Which is why these days, when I look back on my time as a Christian, I don’t question my self-awareness (much). If that had been you–if you felt what I felt when I prayed back then–you may have been a believer, too. I mean, sure, experiences like these may not be evidence of the Divine–just evidence of heightened emotion. But I don’t think so. Even today, I think they are spiritual.

Fast-forward to now. It’s August, twenty-three years later. I’ve completed the first month of my one-year inquiry resolution (which I’m now calling My Byron Katie Detox–like it?). When a week or so ago it came time to question my first spiritual principle, namely, spirituality is good, I thought I already knew the answer. Of course it is, I told myself. At least, it can be. Even religion is good–for a while. It gives us purpose. It gives us hope. And it helps us . . . well, feel good.

And let’s face it: we all want to feel good.

But it wasn’t just the emotional benefits of spirituality that I reflected on before I began my work. There are a ton of practical ones, too.

In the best-seller that laments the loss of human connection in modern society, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam writes that churchgoers are “. . . much more likely than other persons to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups; professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary art, discussion and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and other miscellaneous groups.” Many studies show that religion benefits the non-religious, too, by lowering crime- and health-related costs dramatically. People who attend services have stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure. They drink, use and smoke a lot less. They get more education, give more to charity and take less than their share of welfare and unemployment benefits.

In America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists, sociologist Rodney Stark makes similar points, and adds that religious people add significantly to our nation’s GDP. But an even more interesting argument in favor of religion comes from James Hannam, who says that the historical contributions of religion have been vastly underreported and underrated. In The Genesis of Science: How The Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, he writes, “The Church has never taught that the earth is flat and, in the Middle Ages, no one thought so anyway . . . No one . . . was ever burned at the stake for scientific ideas . . .” On the contrary, “Until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research.”

There’s more, but suffice it to say that if you were ever ashamed of Christianity’s scientific contributions, don’t be. This and other major world religions have helped us make a lot of intellectual progress.

Which is why when this month I took the belief “spirituality is good” to inquiry, I was a bit surprised by what I found.

A Byron Katie Worksheet

Month Completed: June

The Statement: Spirituality is good.

The Questions:

Is it true? Yes.

Can I absolutely know it is true? No.

How do I feel when I think the thought? I feel justified in my beliefs. Maybe a bit superior. I feel a bit guilty for not spending more time in meditation. And I feel grateful to have spiritual tools to use when I need them.

How would I feel if I were unable to think the thought? I would feel free of my own expectations to continue spiritual practice throughout my life. I would feel that spirituality may be good for me at times and not others, and that spiritual tools are just that: tools. Nothing to feel guilty about not using.

The Turnarounds: Spirituality is not good. Spirituality is bad. Non-belief is good. Spirituality isn’t good or important or healthy for everyone, just for some people, some of the time. I see truth in these statements when I remember my agnostic and atheist friends who get along fine without spirituality, and when I remember the harm that spiritual beliefs often cause.

So again, is it true? No. Not entirely. Religions often fail us, and in pretty major ways. We’re always making stuff up, getting misled.

In short: Spirituality is good? Hmmm. Not so fast.

When it comes to belief, the normal human tendency is to throw blankets on everything. We like simplicity. We love generalizations. And we really, really love being prescriptive. After looking at this belief, what I realized is that for me, spirituality really is good. But there’s a softness to the edge of that statement that wasn’t there before. Sure, I’m a New Agey type, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I understand that God-philosophizing doesn’t work for everyone.

A final thought this month, before closing out this section: In spite of my healthy realizations and my enjoyment of The Work, a good bit of skepticism has crept in. How can nothing be true? I find myself thinking with some frequency. Maybe in an ultimate sense nothing is true, but subjectively, it has to be, right?

What does this process look like , then, when dealing with more concrete, substantial thoughts? Stuff that’s harder to deny the reality of? Will The Work work on those, too?

We shall see.

Of Course, It Happened in Southern California (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Four)

Of course, it happened in Southern California. Where else would something like this happen? A wealthy middle-aged woman. A mid-life crisis. Extreme depression. A rehab clinic. Then, an awakening, New Age-style, and a spiritual phenom was born.

The story had all the makings of a movie–a TV special, if nothing else–but this wasn’t a screenplay. This was real.

The year was 1986. On the floor of a halfway house, having lost all hope of happiness, Byron Kathleen Reid woke up–in more ways than one. The details are few and impossible to fully explain, but in that moment, the story goes, Katie lost herself. The sense of who she was when she fell asleep the night before was gone, and all she was aware of was joy.

She laughed. She laughed some more. She no longer knew anything for sure, but she didn’t care.

She was completely happy.

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? And of course it must have been. But given the choice, how many of us would willingly sacrifice everything we know about who and what we are just to feel at One with the Divine? I think I would. But I’m not sure. Maybe I’d rather wait till I die.

After all, I’m a mom of three kids. I’m a writer. I’m my husband’s wife. Someone with a wonderful, full life. And according to Byron Katie, and a lot of other great teachers, too, in order to become enlightened, I have to let all that go.

I have to choose to know almost nothing.

I don’t know how long Byron Katie truly knew nothing. A month? Several months? Several years? But little by little, she was taught the way things work again–what it means to own something, for example. Now she straddles both worlds–the known and the unknown–though she’s never forgotten which her real home is.

But back to that floor. Because it was there that Katie suddenly understood the source of all suffering, and conversely, the key to happiness. Suffering comes when we believe our stressful thoughts, she realized–and not a moment before. By questioning all thoughts that cause us pain, we find there’s nothing real to them; they’re just thoughts. As a result of this inquiry, pain goes away.

If you’re familiar with The Work, I regret boring you, but I do feel the need to explain it briefly here.

According to 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.”

I’ve mentioned the questions before, but in the interest of completeness, they are:

  1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

And the turnarounds are what they sound like: statements that mean the opposite of the stressful thought. The idea is to find several of these and see if there’s some truth to them that you’ve previously missed.

The technique is deceptively simple; there is an art to it, for sure. For instance, when doing the Work on the thought “I feel depressed,” I realized “I am depressed” or “My thinking is depressed” works better. Feelings are feelings, and we can’t really argue with them. It’s the belief behind the feeling (“I have depression” “I am depressed,”) that needs to change. An even better choice: Add “. . . and it means that . . .” to the end of the statement. “I am depressed,” then, becomes “I am depressed, and it means that I’m unable to hold a job.” This is how we get underneath the surface.

Many more specifics in later serial installments (including a Q and A section, a Tips and Tricks section and more), but if you want to jump in right now, watch at least a few YouTube video examples of The Work.

In these videos and in her books, Katie guides people through The Work, and as she does so she gets pretty creative. It’s a skill, for sure, which is why it’s so awesome that TheWork.com coordinates with trained practitioners who are willing to offer their services for free. Please make use of this resource, found on thework.com/en/certified_facilitators. I have, and I will again. Also, do see the full description of the process on thework.com/en/do-work.

Okay, then. Introductory explanations: check. Let’s get back to my personal experience of The Work.

I Just Wanted to Love My Mother (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Three)

When I was in Junior High School, I had one of my first conscious experiences with what I now call the Divine, and predictably, it happened at a retreat. (Those places. They know what to do.) It was a Christian thing, one of those pray-all-day gatherings at a large conference campground featuring a cabin for every family and clean, hot showers.

Luxury, really. Luxury made to feel rustic.

We were there to hear God, so I shouldn’t’ve been surprised when I did. And yet, I most definitely was.

Prior to my moment of clarity, I’d been finding the experience rather . . . underwhelming. Lots of speeches and long, drawn-out meals with strangers. I distinctly remember participating in a friendly debate the evening of the meeting in question about the rapture. So far, it had been the highlight of the trip.

After dinner we gathered in the main conference room yet again, and about two hours into the service, it happened. I looked over at my mother and in the brief moment that followed I went directly from annoyed boredom to deep emotion–no transition.

It was her face. There was a look. It was sadness–real pain. Church has a way of helping our vulnerabilities rise to the surface–I guess that’s why we like it–and as I watched she started sobbing, then knelt down next to her chair. Immediately, my defenses collapsed; how could they not?

I really, really loved my mother.

I knelt down, too, and reached out for her. We held each other tightly for a long time. I said all the things I should’ve said so much more often: how much I loved her, how sorry I was for the times I’d hurt her. We cried.

Then the night ended, and it was over. And that’s when the interpretations began.

In the Christian circles we moved in at the time, it was popular to create tiers–levels of closeness to God. It was a game we played; after all, we were going to church multiple times a week. All that praying had to be getting us somewhere. For us, it wasn’t enough to say we felt a sudden realization of love; love is great, but anyone can feel that–even nonbelievers. No; what I experienced had to be, must be, religious in nature—something only Christians can experience. My mom even had a term for it, which she told me at breakfast the next morning. It was “the baptism of love.”

“Last night, you received the baptism of love,” she pronounced, but it didn’t make me feel special. There was a look in her eye that said, “You’re different now. I respect you more because you experienced this.”

I really didn’t like that look.

She went on. “This is the true salvation. It’s beyond the simple John 3:16 prayer. You were saved before. Now, you’ve been chosen.”

I nodded, understanding, but I didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted her to forget it ever happened. I wanted to remember the experience my way: an innocent, loving moment without strings.

I just wanted to love my mother.

But I didn’t. I mean, I did–I did love my mother, and I trusted her opinion. I believed her when she told me I was meant to be “used by God,” and so, from that day on, I started my journey to discover what the hell that meant.

It was a very long journey.

I won’t go into the messy consequences of this self-aggrandizing belief. I’ll merely say that through the rest of my school-aged years, I wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around. I had few friends and none that weren’t equally religious. And for good reason: I was a judgmental jerk.

And that’s the way it goes when we recall the experiences that shaped us, isn’t it? Nothing is as straightforward as we’d like. That night at the retreat I felt the most compassion I’d ever felt in my life. And the next day, it turned into pride.

The results of this spiritual experience weren’t all bad, of course. Most of them were pretty positive.

That summer on, through the end of high school, I tried as hard as I could to be a good person. I went to church twice a week. I devoted myself and my future (Christian writer? Missionary?) to the saving of souls. I learned about honesty, failings and forgiveness. Then there was my real talent, one perfectly suited to a spiritual type: when it came to self-improvement, I was relentless.

At the time, if pressed, I would’ve admitted that my faith sometimes made me a poor confidante. But I would’ve also said it made me a better person. Looking back, not much has changed; my brand of belief is different–I’m no longer a Christian–but I still think that spirituality is good.

Mostly.

“Spirituality is good.” It’s the longest-held and most fundamental tenet of my personal faith. But does it stand up to inquiry?

Before I delve into that central question, though, a bit of Byron Katie background seems appropriate.

I Really Like My Rock Collection (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Two)

Everyone just leave my boobs alone, Goddamnit! That was the thought I was having several times a day. Of course, when I sat down to confront my problem, Byron Katie-style, I wrote something a bit more restrained.

I hate breastfeeding, I wrote. I’m sick of it. It bugs me. I hate the boredom, the discomfort. The whining for “boo-boo,” “boo-boo.”

It was June, and I’d recently given birth, and my barely-turned two-year-old nursed, too. At the time, breastfeeding was–no exaggeration–a part-time job. More than thirty hours a week I was spending with a person (sometimes people) fully attached, often doing nothing but waiting to be done.

Which is why after discovering The Work it was one of the first thoughts I brought to the method; it seemed like a pretty good test. CBT couldn’t touch it. At least that’s what I believed. And I doubted The Work could, either. But I’d just read another book of Katie’s, my third, I Need Your Love – Is That True?: How to Stop Seeking Love, Approval, and Appreciation and Start Finding Them Instead, and cover to cover, it was super inspiring. So one afternoon I got my pen and paper, and after writing down my negative feelings on the subject, I answered the four requisite questions.

Is it true? Yes. Obviously. Duh.

Can you be absolutely sure it’s true? Uh, I guess not.

How do you feel when you think this thought? Terrible. Trapped. On the verge of a scream.

How would you feel if you couldn’t think the thought? Well, I guess I’d feel … fine?

And then I turned the statement around to the opposite and found examples to confirm.

I love breastfeeding, I wrote. I don’t hate it at all. Look at all the benefits it provides my kids. Not to mention the benefits to me–all those burned calories while just lying on my side, doing nothing. And when the baby cries, it always makes her feel better, which of course makes me feel better, too. Plus, what other activity in my life will I ever do that is this easy and yet this important? It’s, like, the best-ever excuse to be lazy.

Then, as Katie does in several examples in her book, I returned to the first question: Is it true?

Well, no. I mean, not entirely.

Hmmm. That’s interesting.

Later that day, I thought about the exercise and checked in, asking myself if anything felt different. It didn’t, I concluded. I felt just the same. But then something strange happened: nothing.

The following morning when Jack, the two-year-old, woke me while groping for my breast, I didn’t feel the extreme annoyance I usually felt.

In fact, I didn’t feel much at all.

Holy crap. I smiled. Holy crap. I think it worked. I didn’t think it’d really work. But it did.

After this experience, my interest in The Work quickly increased, and soon I found myself substituting my CBT practice with the new method. Every few days or so, I’d jot down the thoughts that came to mind, then select the most troublesome to move with through the process. Here are just some of the feelings and ideas I successfully distanced myself from during that first incredible month:

  • I’m bloated.
  • I should go on a diet.
  • David should have [fill in the blank].
  • My friend should not have [fill in the blank].
  • I can’t sleep.
  • Caring for a baby is too hard.
  • All parenting is too hard.

To say the least, dealing effectively with these thoughts rather than letting them run amok was an improvement. So it wasn’t very far into July before I started hatching a plan.

That plan: this book. This serial. This story. About doing the Work for a year. Not much more to it than that–no detailed list of rules. Just dedicating myself to the practice and seeing where it takes me. Along the way, I’ll question my current life philosophy, too, since without that intention I’d likely focus only on the day-to-day stuff. I want to see big changes, big shifts, major differences in perspective.

I want the Work to be the game-changer I’ve been seeking.

Here are my six basic spiritual beliefs, which I will write about at length in this serial.

  • Spirituality is good.
  • People are holy.
  • Life is a game. There are no rules.
  • God is reality.
  • People have power.
  • My religion is peace, pain, hard work and appreciation.

I know. Scary, right? This is good stuff here. I like every single one of these. I’ve come to each of them like a child comes to a rock lying on the beach: I pick it up, turn it around in my hand. I notice the color, the uniqueness, even the flaws–but they don’t seem like flaws to me. After a moment of inspection, I might throw it back, but more often than not, I don’t. I put it in my rock bag and refuse to leave it behind, though on the car ride home it already seems out of place.

Beliefs are interesting. They’re important. They stabilize us. They help us relate to other people. We like our rock collections. We really, really like them. We carry them wherever we go. Sometimes, when we find other people whose rocks look a lot like ours, we even meet every Sunday for a while to describe them.

Rock collecting is a wonderful hobby. Spirituality is a noble practice. But do we have to take it quite so seriously?

Do our beliefs have to be so darn firm?

Which brings me to the first Byron Katie quote of the series–one that I’ll probably revisit later on.

“God is everything, God is good … Ultimately, of course, even this isn’t true … All so-called truths eventually fall away. Every truth is a distortion of what is. If we investigate, we lose even the last truth. And that state, beyond all truths, is true intimacy. That is God-realization. And welcome to the reentry. It’s always a beginning.”

The quote is from the second book I read of Katie’s, Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. It was co-written by her husband, Stephen Mitchell. The sentiment is puzzling, yet it rings true to me, especially since it echoes the Buddhist view of ultimate truth. I start with it this year for several reasons.

The first is that if Byron Katie is known for one thing, she is known for eradicating belief. To her, belief is dangerous. Undesirable. Scary. Belief is the root of all suffering, of every problem we have. Which is why her four questions encourage us to question our thoughts so relentlessly.

If you’re not familiar with this teacher, the above probably sounds a bit strange. Don’t worry. Hang in there. We’ll get to your questions. For now, let’s move on to the second reason.

The second reason the quote is so appropriate here at the starting line is that it makes me wonder what my time with The Work is going to bring. If nothing is true, really and ultimately true, where will that leave me by year’s end? Will inquiry excise my favorite, most comforting beliefs–steal my precious rock collection like a school bully? Or will my spiritual beliefs hold up, at least for now, and continue to help me get through this earthly adventure?

The final reason I chose this quote first is that it’s Katie’s direct answer to the first of my seven beliefs, namely, spirituality (God) is good.

Sure, she says. Sure, you can think that. But ultimately, no–spirituality isn’t good.

Like everything else, spirituality is nothing.

Welcome to the rabbit hole that is Ms. Byron Katie.

All this said, I don’t regret—not for one moment, not for one second—any of the years I spent as true believer.

It was the start of everything to come.