A few years back, I read a little-known book by Neale Donald Walsch called Questions and Answers on Conversations With God. In it, a reader asks if the author knows any way to speed up one’s process of reaching enlightenment—you know, kind of like a shortcut. Not surprisingly, Walsch says that he does. He advises the reader to write down in great detail what her highest and grandest vision of herself would look like—then to begin to act as if that was who she was right now.
I thought this was great advice, and since I’d never actually made a list like this before, recently I decided to give it a go. Then, I decided, I’d assess which of the changes I could take on, and which I would have to save for later.
Here is what I wrote.
I am a woman who:
•Smiles when she looks in the mirror.
•Does not criticize herself or others over superficialities.
•Does not believe she is superior to others.
•Does not have any negative thoughts at all; is relentlessly optimistic.
•Takes full responsibility for her choices.
•Is honest with others whenever possible, and always with herself.
•Wears only comfortable clothes.
•Does not spend a great deal of money, time or attention on her physical appearance.
•Spends time every morning in prayer and meditation.
•Frequently practices the activities that she’s passionate about.
•Takes her time. Enjoys the small moments of her day. Does not rush. Pays attention to people. Does not crowd her schedule.
After completing the list, I looked it over, and realized something: I was already most of the way there. I also realized that everything on the list–every last thing–was achievable, not just for me, but for anyone.
Sometimes, spiritual-minded people like us start to get mired in self-doubt. We hear about a new spiritual practice, a new technique, and we think, If only I could do that, I’d get enlightened. Today, I ask you to consider not where you’re going, but where you’ve been. How far have you already come on your spiritual journey? I encourage you do make a list like mine, then appreciate how close to your highest self you already are.
Are you a good mother? A good partner? A good friend? Do you practice kindness, give to charity?
My guess is that you do.
And so, maybe–just maybe–we’re further along than we think. Maybe enlightenment isn’t the mystery it’s made out to be.
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.
A few years back, I got an unexpected, though common, gift. That gift was simply an Inkling.
I’m not sure who gave it to me, exactly. Maybe God or my Higher Self, or maybe just age and wisdom. Wherever it came from, this inkling—this distinct feeling in my gut—was that soon, I’d come across an excellent job opportunity, and I was supposed to take it. Along with this thought came the phrase “one year.”
I considered the idea. But I’m a stay-at-home mom, I reasoned. I had this all figured out.
And yet, over several weeks, the feeling persisted, so I stored the idea in a safe place in my mind.
Soon after that, at my first child’s six-month checkup, the doctor and I were discussing working and I told her I’d finally made the difficult decision to sacrifice the extra income and stay at home. She nodded approvingly.
“I stayed home with my baby for one year,” she said. “That was just about right for me.”
When she said this, the words sounded different than words normally do. They stood out, became almost three-dimensional. I knew what was happening: I was getting another Inkling.
Dawn will be a year old in November, I realized. Maybe that’s when this job opportunity will come.
A few months later, my husband heard about an excellent weekends-only position, and he encouraged me to apply. I hadn’t told him anything about my prediction, and I still didn’t; I just let him convince me.
“The job is perfect for you,” he said. “I mean, it’s nothing you’ve done before. But you could learn. And you could make a lot of money. It couldn’t hurt to try it out.”
As he spoke, that feeling returned.
“Do you think I could really do it?” I asked.
“I really do,” he said, though he was fully aware of my inexperience in this field.
“Who is going to teach me what I need to know?” I asked.
He said he would, and soon after that, we began.
This happened in September or so, and knowing that I had until November to learn everything I needed to know, progress at first was slow.
Then November came. Sometime in the middle of the month, my husband got a call from his job agent.
“You know that job that your wife is going to interview for?” he said. “Well, the salary just doubled.”
Here’s the thing: The pay was really good before. Now they were considering adding a few extra responsibilities—rolling two very part-time jobs into one slightly less part-time job. When my husband told me what he just heard, I almost didn’t believe it. And yet, somehow, I did.
“There is bad news, too,” he said. “Now you have competition.”
See, my ace-in-the-hole before was that no one else really wanted a two-day a week, weekend-only job. With the pay increase, they surely would. I had to start taking this interview a little more seriously.
The weeks that followed took on a quality that I can only describe as cinematic. All day, every day, the number that represented the amount of money I’d be making per year if this interview went well looped through in my mind. And all day, every day, I studied.
After re-reading the books the agent provided me with and taking two or three times as many notes as I had the first time through, I still felt unprepared. I asked my husband if there was anything more I could do or read. He didn’t think there was, but I knew better. With two weeks left before the interview, I went to the library and checked out two armloads of books. I didn’t just study computer security, though; I studied all of the basics of computer science: the way operating systems worked, computer networking and more. Each morning after changing the baby and making my coffee, I sat down at my reading station in the playroom and took up where I left off. And other than a walk or two and a Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house, that is where I stayed—for an entire week straight.
The following week was much more relaxed. I spent the time reviewing my notes (the third or fourth iteration as I added to them and rewrote them during the course of my reading and my long explanatory conversations with my husband, who was more useful to me by far than any book). I peeked at the subject heading of a page, then attempted to recall out loud everything that was written on that page. By the day of the interview, I felt that I was not just prepared—I was overprepared.
And as it turned out, I was right.
The interview took place on a weekday between Thanksgiving and Christmas when it is very cold and foggy outside and everything takes on that special holiday quality, even mundane activities related to work. Two days earlier I had selected the perfect outfit: not too dressy, not too casual, not too black. I had also tried on the nicest pair of pants I own, the ones that are sometimes (okay, most of the time) just a little too tight—and they fit perfectly. They looked on me just like the saleslady would’ve wanted them to.
And then there was my hair. Being of the medium length and fast-growing variety, my hair is most often either too short (right after the haircut) or—seemingly just a few weeks later—too long and starting to get shabby. The week of the interview, however, I was smack in the middle of one of those rare moments when it was as Goldilocks would have celebrated it.
It was just right.
And so, I looked good. I was mentally prepared. I was fairly confident—though nervous, I wasn’t actually shaking. I knew that a big part of pulling this off would be to give the solid impression that I did not doubt myself in the slightest.
And that is what I did.
When the interview began, I channeled all of my nerves out of my brain and face, right down into my neck. In so doing, I injured my neck. But my facial expressions were calm and relaxed, and my answers were, too. Once in a while, after a particularly hard question, an alarm would go off in my head that went something like: “You don’t know the answer. You don’t know the answer.” But remembering that poise was more important than anything, and that whatever happened it was okay and would work out in the way is was meant to work out, I squashed those alarms in my head with a quickness. Then I remembered the answer.
The only question I flubbed was the last one, and by then I had already subtly complimented the person I knew would be my immediate supervisor twice and made the whole room (there were three interviewers) laugh at least once.
Leaving the room, I knew I had done well.
When it was over, I went to my car and waited for my agent to meet me there. He took a long time. Finally, he did arrive. Then he asked me how I thought it went.
“I aced it,” I said, stretching my neck in every direction, wondering how I could injure it so painfully while barely making use of any muscle in my body except those that allowed me to sit up straight. “It was almost too easy. I wish it had been harder so that the other two candidates would have less of a chance.”
“Well, that won’t be a problem,” my agent told me. “They’re not going to interview anyone else. You got the job.”
It was five days before my neck returned to normal.
At the steakhouse where my husband, my agent and I went after the interview to celebrate, the agent told us that the second part of the job may or may not come through, depending on a couple of internal decisions yet to be made. He also said that due to my inexperience in the field I barely squeaked by in the interview, and that they were hiring me on a trial basis.
Hearing this, I smiled. “I’ll do great,” I told him. “And I’ll get that extra pay as well.”
And that is what I did.
Later I realized that the week that I started my intensive study for the interview was the week that my baby turned one year old.
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.
There is no cure for depression. At least not one that works for everyone. Medication works a bit, and exercise helps a ton. But none of these things–even lots of meditation–won’t get you all the way.
However, in my experience, there are cures (note the plural): complex, sometimes time-consuming combinations of factors that can work together and give you relief.
Here’s my depression success story and the particular combination of coping mechanisms that work best for me.
Once upon a time, I was four years old. And even then, I was the serious girl. Nothing wrong with that–my mom called me “sensitive” and my dad said I had a “cute, worried expression.” But right before their eyes, and without any of us knowing it, I started, slowly, to withdraw. In the second grade my best friend moved away, and I had very few others as backups. I became shyer and shyer till, caught in the coming-of-age pre-junior high school years (fifth and sixth grades), I was really suffering. I hated how I looked. I had no close friends. At recess I hid in the bathroom or under the schoolyard stairs. I didn’t want anyone to see me sitting alone, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone and face rejection.
In Junior High School, I realized I had a problem. It wasn’t their fault that I was shy; it was mine. I went to a new school, made the same mistakes, and the outcome was the same, too. In the eighth grade, I hid in the bathroom every day, and though I made a few friends, they weren’t close. One day I read an article in my aspirational reading of choice–Seventeen magazine–about a girl who realized she had depression. She said that she figured it out after while riding a city bus, she burst into tears for no reason.
That’s ridiculous, I thought. I do that all the time. It sounds pretty normal to me.
But the thought sunk in, and soon after that, I realized I was depressed, too.
My first attempt at overcoming depression was a spiritual one. As a fundamentalist Christian, I knew the answer to all pain, all difficulties was faith. I also knew that I wouldn’t feel better until I got on the right path, and stayed there. If I only prayed enough, read the Bible enough–really committed to God–I would feel the love and job of knowing him. And the depression would be gone.
The plan didn’t succeed.
High school passed in perfectionistic frustration. Then college, then a few lovely years after graduation. My determined mindset helped me get rid of my shyness completely, and pursue a few other goals successfully. I got a job I love–waitressing–as well as a college degree and a house. And I started liking myself a lot more–even how I looked. I gained confidence, but my ultimate goal still eluded me–that of fully overcoming depression.
I still haven’t fully overcome it.
And yet, I have overcome a lot of it. Most of it, in fact. And I did it in two major ways. First, I dealt with the basics: I got a job, independence, a few friendships, a place to live. After that, I started refining my methods.
Here is my daily recipe for my mostly happy, sometimes joyful, and always deeply grateful state of mind.
I exercise most days for at least forty minutes. Sometimes, I exaggerate. Like the other week when I told my friend exercise is a cure for depression. It’s not. And yet, it sort of is. Because without my long walks, I’m not sure I’d be able to stay mentally healthy. For me, this is the absolute number one technique I recommend to overcome depression–even more so than spiritual practice. My personal habit is to take long walks with my kids. I often carry the baby and push the two-year-old on the stroller while my five-year old follows on his bicycle.
I get outside for at least an hour most days. Rain or shine, outside time is a must. I feel better almost as soon as I step out onto the porch. I take the kids to the park or we walk to the store or to a play area. In fact, I almost never drive a car, even though I have one.
I meditate briefly each day and pursue other spiritual practices. My meditation practice consists of repeating a loving mantra several times for several minutes, or just allowing myself to sit still and notice the thoughts that come, then refocus on my “inner body”–the sensations I feel in my hands and feet and breath. I also try to consult my inner guidance on a daily, sometimes hour by hour basis as I consider what to do next, or what decision to make. This helps me greatly. Finally, when a thought comes that is particularly stressful, I journal it, Byron Katie-style. For more information on all of my spiritual practices, see my Spiritual Practice Success Stories and Depression Success Stories on mollieplayer.com.)
I limit my junk food intake. Healthy food tastes good, too. It really does. I don’t limit fat and I focus on protein and vegetables. (I allow myself a few treats, too.)
I have hobbies I truly love: reading, writing, and gardening. The value of having at least one endless project cannot be overstated. I love feeling productive, and all three of these hobbies feels valuable and fun. I get the pleasure of the activity itself, plus the knowledge that I’m doing something worthwhile. If you don’t have a job, at least get a difficult, long-term, highly involved hobby.
I keep my house clean. For me, cleaning is relaxing. It gives me a sense of control and order. I love home organization, too.
I only wear clothes that feel good on my body and that I feel I look good in. This is huge, and took me a long time to learn. I hardly ever wear those “cute” clothes that other people say look good on me. I wear a uniform every day: black pants, a crisp T-shirt and maybe a sweater.
I keep my weight down. For me, feeling bloated causes anxiety. Though I don’t necessarily think extra weight looks bad on other people, I choose to do what it takes to keep my weight down (i.e. diet). For me, the tradeoff is worth it.
I take medication. Does it work? Yeah, a little. This is especially important and helpful in the winter.
I work hard. I stay busy. Staying busy is huge. Huge! The days fly by, and in the evening you can look forward to a TV show or a good book knowing that you did your work for the day already.
I do work I love, namely, writing and being a mom. For people with depression, work enjoyment is even more important than for others. I don’t make a ton of money, but I wouldn’t trade my work lifestyle for anything.
I spend time with good friends several time per week. Ah, friendship. This is a hard one for me. I’m a busy mom, after all. But I fold my friendship time into my mom time with lots of play dates, and once a month we have family friends over for dinner. Such an uplifting experience.
I don’t overschedule my days. I try to take things at my own pace, and the pace of good parenting. If you are prone to anger or anxiety, overscheduling is a huge problem. Though I love to keep busy, I choose projects that I can do at my own pace and on my own schedule. I only schedule one outing per day with the kids, and I make it a life rule to rarely leave the house in the evening. (Family time!)
I try not to yell at anyone. Conflict is such an emotional drain. Most of my relationship difficulties are handled in a calm, low-key manner. I just hate being in a fight.
I prioritize sleep. I don’t have a TV or computer addiction. In fact, addictions of all kinds scare me. I watch TV a few times a week, and go to bed at the same time my kids do. For alone time, I get a babysitter three times per week.
I try to do all the little “shoulds” we all have for ourselves, while also trying not to do too much. It is a balance. Such a tricky, precarious balance. But I’ve found that for me, there’s no way around it.
So, the list is long, I know. Maybe even a bit intimidating. Depression is such a huge, demanding thing.
There are no easy answers. But there are answers. And hey–that’s better than nothing.
Besides, all this self-improvement stuff? It doesn’t just keep my depression at bay. It makes me a better person, too. Most of it is stuff even someone who doesn’t have depression would benefit from. The main difference is that I feel I have no choice. Drop the ball on any two of these, and rough days are ahead. It’s not a self-pity thing; it’s just true.
I do remain hopeful that one day, my depression will be healed entirely. It happened to my dad and many others. Either way, I (mostly) accept myself right where I’m at. This is my life, and it’s a good one.
The first time I read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, I thought it was total crap. Okay, maybe “total crap” is an exaggeration. But definitely impossible, impractical and, worst of all, unpleasant. Not thinking about the future? Just paying attention to the Now? Sounds like the fast track to loserhood.
As a person struggling with depression and using any non-substance-based strategy I could think of to manage it, the advice sounded particularly terrible. I could do without past obsession pretty well–never’ve been much of a grudge-holder. But I needed–depended on–obsessing about my future. The future is when I would have everything I wanted: kids, a house, a great career. My plans for things to come and my determination to work hard towards them were pretty much what I lived for.
Stop thinking about the future? Stop thinking at all? Won’t that take away my hope, my reason for living?
The second time I read The Power of Now, I understood the concept a bit better. Oh, I don’t have to stop thinking entirely. I can think without being neurotic, and with long breaks. That actually sounds pretty cool.
Maybe I’ll try that someday. First, I have stuff to get done.
The third time I read The Power of Now, I finally had a breakthrough. The book taught me how to meditate, and how to absolutely love meditating. And now, it’s one of my very favorite books.
That’s another story, though. For today, we focus on this whole fascinating not-thinking thing, particularly whether or not it can help with depression.
Some people call it no-mind meditation, and I don’t think I’m the only one who’s ever cursed Eckhart Tolle or another teacher for telling her to try it. Being completely “present,” without plans or goals, as Tolle calls it, doesn’t come naturally to us human-types. In fact, it goes against pretty much our entire biology.
We think. We assess. We assume. We make decisions. Sometimes all in less than a single second. It’s one of our strengths and one of our weaknesses. But apparently, we can learn to overcome it.
But do we want to? And if so, how much thinking is the right amount, especially when you’re trying to overcome depression?
There’s no one right answer, but here’s my experience.
Achieving or attempting to achieve the so-called “no-mind” state helps us greatly. It makes us happier. It definitely eliminates depression. The problem: oh my goodness, it takes a lot of time. Unless you’re committed to Buddhist-like meditation sessions on a daily basis, your results may be very slow to come.
I love meditation. I definitely like to take breaks from thought, and when I have obsessive or anxious mind patterns, I realize it’s time to chill a bit. I clear my head by repeating a calming mantra, doing The Work or doing a “brain dump” on paper, and these techniques usually work pretty well.
But soon after that, I’m back to thinking.
And I’m okay with that.
Don’t get me wrong: on a bad day, I could use a lot more of this no-mind stuff. But on a good day, a lot of my thinking isn’t so terrible. It’s not the anxiety-producing stuff we all know is unhealthy. It’s just thinking–just plain old planning, reading, writing and working. Sometimes I even manage pleasant, pointless pondering. Today, for instance, I found myself lost in contemplation about the economics of private dentistry practice. Important? Not really. Interesting? Just a bit. Stressful? Well, not to me. On a good day, a lot of my thinking is like that. It’s not particularly harmful, or particularly anything.
It’s just thinking.
Of course, I also do the did-I-say-something-wrong what-does-she-think-of-me-now type stuff. But when I catch it, I’m often able to refocus pretty well.
One fine day, I’d love to experience the state of no-thought Tolle talks about. But I don’t plan to meditate for thirty years to get there.
Final thought: I’ve read all of Tolle’s books, and I couldn’t recommend them more highly. But I’ve also listened to the audio recordings of many of his conferences, and I can’t say the same. At the beginning of each, he makes a statement to the effect of, “I didn’t plan what I’m going to say today at all.” Yeah, Tolle, I get it; you’re inspired, “in the flow.” The words don’t matter as much as the spiritual energy you impart. But that doesn’t mean they’re useless, and it doesn’t mean thinking and planning is useless. Your conference speeches could do with a tad more forethought. (But you’re wonderful anyway, and thank you, thank you, thank you.)
I love advice. Love getting it. Love giving it. But there’s a problem with advice: We often don’t take it. And usually, it isn’t because we don’t want to, or don’t intend to. Usually, it’s because we forget.
Think about it: How many times have you read a parenting book or a marriage book, then followed its suggestions to the letter—for about a week? After that, our resolve blurs. We focus on other things, and our best intentions move into our peripheral vision, or even into the background.
Which is where my resolution solution comes in.
Often, when there’s something about my life I’d like to change, I first write down all of my related goals. The process of writing and thinking them through clarifies my intentions and makes my lessons more concrete and practical. It also stores them in my subconscious.
Nothing revolutionary so far. Here comes the real trick: I set the list of resolutions aside. A list that long does me no good; there’s no way I’m going to reread them every day. I put them in a place easily remembered and located later, when I’m struggling to carry them out—in my case, in a special file on my computer. Then I distill down the resolutions into a few concrete actions—just one or two. And I add them to my Monthly Checklist. I give myself an X every time I complete one of the actions, and by month’s end, I can see and appreciate my progress.
My Monthly Checklist isn’t your ordinary checklist. It’s an ongoing to-do list, one that incorporates all–and I do mean all–of my personal and professional goals, including writing, parenting, educational, marriage, exercise, spiritual, friendship goals and more. (Yeah—my checklist is really, really long.)
So maybe it’s corny. But it works; I swear it does. The checklist keeps me accountable, and reminds me of what I am working towards.
My goals don’t live in the back of my mind somewhere anymore. They live with me, and I interact with them several times each week.
Here is a partial example of my list. This one is from December of last year:
One day of meditation: 30x –
One glass of water drank: 30x –
One exercise session: 20x –
One reading time with kids: 10x –
One family chore time: 4x –
One TV show or total break time: 4x –
One random act of kindness: 4x –
One podcast or audiobook for kids: 2x –
One hour of educational music for kids: 2x –
One dinner with friends: 1x –
One family meeting: 1x –
My Monthly Checklist is my secret weapon. Seriously.
A month before we had our second child, my husband and I bought a house. We’d looked for eight months for the right one and when we finally found it we were very glad we’d waited.
It was perfect.
The neighborhood is modest and quiet and all grown over with trees. The location is central–just a short drive to anywhere we need to go. And the house, itself, is just our style: three bedrooms, two baths, one story, with vaulted ceilings, hardwood floors and a very simple charm. Though when we initially envisioned our future home with four kids running around in it we thought we’d need to upgrade, ever since moving in I’ve told my husband that I don’t care how many kids we have and who has to share a bedroom.
I never want to leave.
Anyway, the house wasn’t cheap. And neither are the many bills that come along with home ownership. And neither was the new car that we bought right after that. And so, when the baby was born I decided to continue working part-time.
A few months into motherhood, I got a great freelance gig. It was just the kind of thing I love doing—a corporate blog—and I could work mostly from home. At the time, I figured it was probably a law of attraction thing—the right gig at the right time, and all that.
But that was before I got fired.
Why did it happen? Well, to make a long story short, my client was more conservative than I was—way more conservative—and didn’t like the risks I was taking. So they decided I just wasn’t a “good fit.”
And that was how that went.
Normally when something like this happens, I don’t worry about it very much; there are always other clients, other projects. This time, though, it was different. This job felt so perfect for me and I thought I was doing such good work, I thought. Why didn’t this work out?
And then I thought about it some more.
I remembered the difficult phone interview when my phone wouldn’t work right and I had to drive to a nearby park and call them back. I remembered how hard it was to say goodbye to my then-five-month-old, and my uncertainties about our nanny.
And I remembered the voice inside my head saying, I just want to be a mom.
One night shortly after getting fired, my husband and I went to dinner for our anniversary. I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate, but I went anyway, more out of a feeling of duty than anything. As we sat there waiting for our food I told Jeff that something felt off to me lately, but I didn’t know quite what.
I looked around the restaurant. There were three small babies nearby—one at the table behind Jeff, one at the table behind me, and one at the table next to us. Suddenly, I had a realization.
“Jeff,” I said. “I want to fire the nanny.”
Jeff was surprised. “Are you sure?” he asked.
“No, I’m not sure. I love working. But–I don’t know. Something is feeling off. No matter what I do, how well my work day goes, all I can think about all day is my kid.
“We don’t need the money, Hon. He should be with me.”
“Okay,” said Jeff. “If that’s what you want to do.”
And that’s when I noticed it: a sense of peace. A radiating calm. It came over me suddenly, and I laughed out loud.
“I feel so much better now,” I said. “Wow. That was a relief. I haven’t felt this good in weeks.”
My higher self had finally gotten my attention.
For the rest of our date, Jeff and I enjoyed ourselves greatly. Afterwards we took a long, aimless drive and just talked.
It was a wonderful anniversary after all.
Here is what I wrote in my journal several months later:
Lonnie is over five months old now, and I find that I don’t want to write my books anymore, and I still don’t want to have a nanny, and all I freaking want to do is to stare at my baby’s face while he nurses, while he sleeps, while he cries, and to rock him and to hold him and to tell him that everything is going to be okay.
Last night, I slept from midnight until almost nine thirty. Every time Xavier awoke or stirred, I rolled over and did the most beautiful thing in the world: I fed my baby. Then I fell back asleep. There was one diaper change around seven, easily accomplished. My husband slept next to us peacefully.
It was a glorious night.
I love being a stay-at-home mom. So much more than I ever thought I would. We go to parks. We take long car rides and do car naps. Sometimes after the baby falls asleep, I just pull into a parking lot and read a book.
And I’ve never been this important to anyone before—never. Not even close.
It feels really, really good.
And even though later I got a part-time job, and even now I still work a bit most days, it still does.
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.
Okay, so far nothing I’ve said contradicts Byron Katie’s advice in any way. But now I’m going to take a sharp left turn–commit Byron Katie sacrilege. I’m going to share my own version of the revered Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet. Not only that: I’m giving it a new name.
Here, a more complicated but more thorough worksheet for The Work that incorporates all of the tips and tricks in this compilation.
Filch as desired.
A Complete Revised Worksheet for The Work of Byron Katie
There are three main steps to The Work of Byron Katie. First, find the thought that is causing you pain. Then question the thought as directed. Then turn the thought around–find evidence for it’s opposite and discover what it’s trying to teach you about yourself.
Step One: Find the Painful Thought
Painful thoughts are thoughts that judge a person or a situation unfavorably, causing negative emotion.
First, identify who or what you judge to be your problem.
Is your problem (apparently) an undesirable situation or event, or is it the undesirable behavior of another person? Move to the relevant section below. (Note that if the thought appears to be about yourself, it can and should be reworded to be about a situation instead. For example, “I am lazy” can be “I have a problem with laziness” and “I feel depressed” can be “I am experiencing depression frequently.”)
Thoughts Concerning a Situation or Event
1. What situation or event angers, confuses, saddens, or disappoints you and why?
I feel (emotion) because (situation).
2. How do you want the situation or event to change? What would you prefer instead?
I want (action/change).
3. What is it about this situation or event that you don’t ever want to experience again?
I don’t ever want to experience (emotion and/or action).
4. What does this situation or event say about you? What is the hidden meaning behind it?
This situation shows that I am (descriptor). This situation means that (hidden fear).
5. What difference would it make if you got what you wanted in this situation or event?
If I got what I wanted, I would feel (emotion). If I got what I wanted, I would experience (result).
6. What is the worst thing that could result from this situation or event?
Due to this situation, I could experience (result).
7. If your emotion about this situation or event was a small child, what would it be screaming out?
My (emotion) would be screaming out (unrestrained illogical conclusions).
Choose the thoughts from your list above that deeply resonate and do steps two and three with each.
Thoughts Concerning Another Person
1. Who angers, confuses, saddens, or disappoints you and why?
I feel (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).
6. What is it about this person’s actions that you don’t ever want to experience again?
I don’t ever want to experience (emotion and/or action).
7. What does this person’s behavior say about you? What is the hidden meaning behind it?
This situation shows that I am (descriptor). This situation means that (hidden fear).
8. What difference would it make if the person acted the way you wanted them to?
If (person) acted as I prefer, I would feel (emotion). If (person) acted as I prefer, I would experience (result).
9. What is the worst thing that could result from this person’s behavior?
(Person) could cause (result).
10. If your emotion about this person was a small child, what would it be screaming out?
My (emotion) would be screaming out (unrestrained illogical judgments and descriptors).
Choose the thoughts from your list above that deeply resonate and do steps two and three with each.
Step Two: Question the Thought
Slowly, carefully answer the following questions about your painful thought, whatever kind of thought it is.
1: Is it true?
2: Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3a: How do you react—what happens—when you believe the thought?
3b. Can you find one stress-free reason to keep the thought?
4a: Who would you be without the thought?
4b. Can you find a reason to drop the thought?
Step Three: Turn the Thought Around
Finally, find evidence for the opposite of your statement and discover what your negative beliefs can teach you about yourself.
1. Turn the thought around to the opposite. For example, “Melody is rude” becomes “Melody is not rude.”
2. Turn the thought around to yourself. For example, “I am rude.”
3. Turn the thought around to your thinking. For example, “I am rude in my thinking.”
4. If the thought is about another person, turn it around by switching the names. For example, “Melody is rude to me” becomes “I am rude to Melody.”
5. If the thought is about another person, turn it completely to the self. For example, “I am rude to myself.”
6. If the thought is about another person, turn it completely to the other person. For example, “Melody is rude to herself.”
7. If the thought is about another person’s negative quality, turn it around by finding similar qualities you see in yourself. For example, “I am selfish when I . . .” or “I am impatient when I . . .”
8. If the thought begins with “I don’t ever want to,” turn it around by replacing that phrase with both “I am willing to” and “I look forward to.”
9. For each turnaround that resonates, find three pieces of evidence for the truth of the thought. For example, “Melody is always nice to my children,” “Melody is always nice to her children,” and “Melody was nice to our waitress.”
10. Finally, ask yourself how the experience or situation might be the universe’s way of bringing about your your highest good. If you do nothing else on this worksheet, ask this question.
“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.
Up first: Tips and Tricks for The Work of Byron Katie.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about The Work so far this year, it is that The Work works. There’s just one problem: you have to do it right. I mean, I hear the point Byron Katie often makes that the process is a simple one–just four questions and some turnarounds. But within the confines of that seemingly straightforward process lurk unexpected ambiguities, 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.
Next up: “Tips for Using the Four Questions and Turnarounds” and “A Complete Revised Worksheet for The Work.”
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.
Mollie: I want to talk to you about a huge topic, depression. So many people experience this, some for many years. I have struggled with it my entire remembered life, and am currently seeking total recovery. My first question is, what is depression, exactly? What causes it?
Anonymous: Depression is caused by pushing down your energy, suppressing it.
Mollie: What is the primary technique you recommend for overcoming depression?
Anonymous: Meditation is essential. The kind I practice is dynamic meditation, which incorporates physical activity and helps us expand our energy. This expansion and release can help with depression.
Mollie: Some people say it helps to welcome the depression, to allow it rather than to fight against it. What do you think? Does this work? Or should I just ignore it, not give it a voice? For me, it always seems to get worse when I focus on it, but maybe I need to do so anyway as a first step towards acceptance?
Anonymous: Don’t suppress it. Give it a voice, but don’t give the labels and thoughts that accompany it a voice.
Mollie: So I should meditate on the depression?
Anonymous: Don’t meditate on depression. Meditate on what we call depression–the physical and other sensations you are experiencing in that moment–without labeling it. Don’t make it into something. Don’t put mind on it. The mind is creating the depression, and the mind is trying to get rid of it? No. That can never work.
There’s a saying I like: Not knowing is the most intimate.
Mollie: So do you think that if I do what you’re saying to do–meditate on the primary feeling of the depression, without suppressing it–that I will eventually overcome the depression?
Anonymous: I believe that this and active meditation can help people in your situation. But ultimately you need to do what works for you.
Meditation teacher Osho once said, “If you don’t feel much better after having meditated regularly for a time than you did when you started, your meditation practice isn’t working.” When I heard that I remember thinking, “What do you mean? Of course my technique is working. I feel better–a bit.” Later I understood what he meant.
Don’t stick with a practice for thirty years hoping that one day you will start feeling what you want to feel. Try something else.
Mollie: What if I can’t find something that works? Should I just accept that I am a depressed person right now, and make peace with it? Sometimes I’m able to do that.
Anonymous: I would tell you to work toward true acceptance, which comes when you disidentify with the mind. Not mere acquiescence.
Acquiescence is not acceptance. Acceptance is open arms. A full embrace. It is the knowledge that this condition or situation is an absolutely essential part of your healing. If your life was totally working the way it is right now, you wouldn’t be seeking the way you are right now.
Nothing fails like success.
Mollie: So, this disidentifying with the mind stuff. Can you tell me more about that?
Anonymous: The mind is an optical illusion. It feels like there’s a thinker, a mind, but really there are just thoughts. The mind is not real. You are real.
Mollie: What does it feel like to lose your mind identification?
Anonymous: It feels like you’re floating. You’re not pushing, you’re not pulling. But as long as you’re identified with the mind you are not floating. You are pushing and pulling.
Mollie: So the mind is this huge, powerful force that works against our emotional well-being nearly every moment of our waking lives. This just seems seriously unfair. Why does it have to be this way? Why does life have to be so full of pain?
Anonymous: Because it is. And so, you have two choices. You can choose to be a victim. Or you can choose not to be. You can believe that life is working against you. Or you can believe that you are just unconscious, and the Universe is doing everything it can every single day to wake you up.
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.