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.
I met my husband, David, on my first night in Seattle, after moving here to start my freelance writing career. On our first date we went to a coffee shop, then to a restaurant, then to a beach, then to another restaurant, then to a park, and since that night I’ve never been alone.
From the start of our relationship, everything was easy—talking, not talking, going places, staying home. It didn’t just feel good to be with him; it felt right.
I had never felt that way about a partner before.
There was only one problem: David was an atheist. And dating him made me question my faith even further. How can I marry someone who isn’t going to heaven? I wondered. Someone who will teach our children there isn’t a God?
It was a tricky situation, but not an unexpected one.
Many years–crucial years–had passed since those lovely evening talks with my dad, and many more lessons had been learned. In college I let go of the belief that the Bible was the literal truth and that it contained no mistakes. And in the years since, I started questioning the idea of Hell, too. I’d also stopped attending church regularly, and on the rare occasions on which I did, it no longer felt like it used to feel. It didn’t feel authentic.
And now I had David. And so, after five years in that nebulous non-practicing state, it was time to figure this religion thing out. So, I returned to church. I joined a Bible study. More important, I started asking questions.
Maybe I went to the wrong church. Maybe I asked the wrong questions. Whatever the case, I didn’t like the answers I got. After a while, I started feeling it: awkward tension. Judgment. Even fear from people who barely knew me.
A few months later, I stopped going to that church, and the battle between religion and boyfriend came to an abrupt end.
My boyfriend had won, and easily.
I’m still not sure if it was dating David that caused me to give up on Christianity for good.
But it definitely didn’t hurt.
A year into my relationship with Dave, we took a bus to Bogota, Colombia, our seventh city in as many weeks. We were on an extended backpacking tour of South America, and it was a rough patch–several months in, with both my tolerance for foreign discomforts and my Spanish skills strained to the breaking point.
As our bus neared our hostel, I had to negotiate yet another Spanish conversation involving complicated (okay, not that complicated) directions. I was hungry and tired and way out of my language depth. And so, right there on the bus, I lost it.
Tears don’t come easily to me. When minutes before arriving at our stop I started crying in front of this stranger, it took me by surprise. I was embarrassed, but the teenager who’d been helping me—one of those kids you just know has a very proud mom somewhere—was amazing. He looked at me with the most understanding eyes. No awkwardness. No awkwardness. David said, “She’s tired,” and the man nodded and said, “Yes, I know.” When we got to our stop, he got off and walked us to our hostel.
Before going in, we sat on a nearby bench to rest, and David held me a while without saying anything. I still wasn’t ready to talk, but I felt much better.
My mini-breakdown was over.
David and I liked the hostel we’d found—in fact, it was our favorite of the trip so far. We decided to slow our pace a bit, stay for at least a week, and spend more time hanging out there rather than traipsing the streets, crazed tourist-style. We cooked all our meals in the hostel kitchen, ate in the large shared dining room. We talked to fellow travelers, read a few books.
It was the respite I needed—until it wasn’t.
On our second evening there, Dave and I got into a fight with a stranger about politics.
I’ll spare you the details. Here’s what you have to know: Dave isn’t shy, and neither was she. Also, she was a feminist and didn’t appreciate—okay, hated—everything either of us said about gender differences.
Yeah. It was one of those conversations.
The conversation involved both of us, but it was mostly Dave’s argument (and it’s worth noting that he never raised his voice or even got upset, and I admired him so much for that, and still do). So, after a while, I left him to it and went back to our room to take a break and journal. The heightened emotions I’d been experiencing of late, combined with my physical exhaustion and the adrenaline rush from the conversation, necessitated some quiet alone time. I started writing.
I wrote about how even though the past year, my year with Dave, had been the happiest of my life by far, I was a little lost, too. Was I still a Christian? Was I still spiritual? If not, what was I living for? Our future family? My career? Nothing in particular?
I thought about Dave defending our traditional she-cooks he-works relationship to the woman in the other room and her shocked, judgmental reaction. I thought about how much my love for Dave had given me already—how much it had changed my life to be his partner. Other than my short marriage to my first husband, I’d been single nearly all my life till then (thirty years).
Finally, I had someone to love, and it was so nice.
I loved the companionship, the feeling of being loved, but more than all that, I loved being needed. I loved making David’s dinner, getting him glasses of water without being asked, scratching his back, listening to his stories.
I just really loved loving him.
And that’s when it dawned on me. Oh. Oh, wait. Maybe that’s my purpose in life. Maybe I don’t need to be spiritual anymore—not if I don’t want to be.
Maybe I just need to love.
Here’s part of my (admittedly dramatic) journal entry from that night:
“Religions fail. Utopias fail. Ideas and ideologies fail. Even friendship fails. I will just try to live well.
“In fact, that’s my new philosophy—my new purpose in life: to live well, no matter how different from other people that is.
“I don’t need a religion. I don’t need a theology. I don’t need to understand everything or even to try to understand everything. And I definitely don’t need to be perfect.
“I just need to take care of myself and the people I love. And for me, for now, that is enough. In fact, it’s more than enough; it’s all I can do.”
Echoes of Dad’s advice from over a decade prior. And yet, this realization went beyond simply loving and accepting myself. In that moment, without knowing it, I came upon a whole new-to-me fundamental spiritual belief, the second of my list of seven.
It is that life is a game.
Admittedly, it was several years before I found the words for this philosophy. But that moment at the hostel is when it became part of me. When I decided not to float anymore, to pin down the meaning of my life, what I was really doing was finding a new game. For two solid decades, my game had been religion, and that wasn’t cutting it anymore. I had to live for something, though. Everyone has to live for something.
Everyone needs some kind of purpose.
The quest for ultimate truth? Naw. Too frustrating. People who make finding it their purpose get closer than the rest of us, but I don’t think they ever grasp it. Money wouldn’t do. Service was close. But love—well, that felt more doable. So, that’s what I’d be about. Loving David. Loving people. That, and working really hard.
The process is simple. It’s just four questions and the turnarounds. How many times have I heard you say this, Katie? Yet you know as well as I do that these aren’t just any four questions. And truth be told, there aren’t only four of them, either.
There are lots more.
In the many demonstrations of The Work that I’ve come across, Byron Katie often clarifies and enhances the process with additional questions and techniques. It’s okay, though, Katie. You’re allowed to reinforce your teachings. We appreciate that The Work is simplified for beginners, and we’ll handle the more intricate instructions as we feel ready.
With that, here are some of the follow-up questions Katie often uses, plus other 200-level techniques I like.
Tips for Using the Four Questions and Turnarounds
1. Take your time. When asking whether or not the thought is true, get quiet. Meditate on the thought for a moment. Does your deepest intuition tell you the thought is true? Or is there a “no” that comes up, even if you don’t logically know why it does? The same goes for the other questions and the turnarounds. Be open to whatever ideas come up. As Byron Katie says, “The Work is meditation.”
2. As I said before, use the Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet (or my revised version). They’re full of helpful enhancements to the process, including a list of the three main ways to turn around a statement.
3. Follow up the question “How do you feel when you think that thought?” with “Can you find one stress-free reason to keep that thought?”
4. Follow up the question “Who would you be–how would you think and act differently–without that thought?” with “Can you find a reason to drop that thought?”
5. Turn each statement around to the self, to the other, and to the opposite. All thoughts can be turned to the opposite. (“Melody is rude” becomes “Melody is not rude.”) Thoughts about other people can be turned to yourself (“I am rude”). Thought about relationships can be turned around by switching the names. (Melody is rude to me” becomes “I am rude to Melody”). Thoughts about relationships can also be turned completely to the self (“I am rude to myself”) or completely to the other (“Melody is rude to herself”).
The Worksheet also lists two additional ways to turn around a statement. For “I don’t ever want to” statements, try substituting “I am willing to” and “I love forward to.” In this way, “I don’t ever want Melody to be rude to me again” becomes “I want Melody to be rude to me again” and “I look forward to having Melody act rude to me again.” Byron Katie explains these turnarounds like this: Negative thoughts are good for us. They bring us back to The Work. Also, it is very likely that even if you never experience the situation again, you will relive it in your mind many more times. By allowing that and dropping resistance to it, even welcoming it, your fear is lessened and you become open to the lesson the thought is trying to get across.
6. Don’t try to force a turnaround to feel true if it doesn’t. Try the possible turnarounds one by one and see how they fit, and if one doesn’t feel accurate or helpful, just move on to the next. No hard feelings.
7. Enhance the turnarounds with evidence. Turnarounds aren’t just the thought flipped around. They also include any other thought that provides evidence for the turnarounds. For example, “Jack is a nice person” will bring up examples of nice things he does or has done.
9. When you can’t find good turnarounds regarding your behavioral actions, find the turnarounds in your thinking instead. For example, when turning around the statement “Melody is rude” try “I am rude to myself in my thinking” or “I am rude to Melody in my thoughts.” The very thought of the damage Melody seems to be doing in her behavior is doing damage to you. You can also try substituting “rude” for another similar quality you see in yourself, such as “I am judgmental toward Melody” or “I am unloving toward Melody.” Notice how similar you are to the other person.
“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 maybeif 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?