In October, I had the life-transforming experience of going to Byron Katie’s School for the Work. I’ve been wanting to write about it ever since but I’ve been struggling with how to approach the topic. Katie (as everyone calls her) is pretty hard to describe, probably because she is so unlike anyone else. The word ineffable comes to mind.
I’ve heard her described as a spiritual teacher, but I’m pretty sure she’d bristle at that description. She sees herself as more of a student. People have said she’s ‘enlightened,’ but this is not Katie’s language either.
I thought about approaching this by trying to describe the core of her work. Katie simply calls it “the Work” or “inquiry.” I will touch on that below, but I think the only way to get even a glimmering of the Work is to experience it or witness it.
I thought about talking about her philosophy, maybe sharing some of her quotes and expounding upon them. I’ll probably do a little bit of that too, but again, I feel that would just be skirting around the edges of who Katie really is and what she might have to offer you.
I’m going to focus on a third way: trying to describe what the work has meant to me. Katie teaches me how to be a student of my mind. She gives a way for slowing down my thinking so that I can observe my thoughts and all the consequences of thinking my particular thoughts. She opens a way where I can become liberated from the suffering created by thought.
What’s the Work?
Anyone can learn the Work through Katie’s free resources available at thework.com and see it in play on YouTube. The essence of the Work is to take a thought and examine it through the lens of four simple questions and the turnarounds.
1) Is it true?
2) Can you absolutely know that it is true?
3) How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4) Who would you be without the thought?
For the ‘turnarounds,’ the trick is to find the opposites of the original statement. So, if the initial thought was “Paul hurt me,” you might try “I hurt Paul,” “Paul didn’t hurt me,” “Paul helped me.” With each of the turnarounds, you simply explore how they might be true. This is not an invitation to adopt the opposite as some kind of affirmation, but rather to gently explore the possible truth in it.
I find that this process invites me into an ever-deepening unfoldment. It’s like peeling the layers off an onion (and yes, there is crying involved!)
In the Work, we use a Judge Your Neighbor worksheet to capture our thoughts about some situation. Using this construct of judgment allows me to see how I’ve been projecting all my criticisms and concerns about myself onto other people. Katie refers to it as ‘putting post-it notes’ on people. With inquiry, I can take back the post-it notes and examine them for the meaning that I’ve been hiding from myself.
So let’s see how this stuff plays out. I’m going to focus on the turnarounds mostly because I find the most profound insights are revealed in this part. The first four questions play a vital role in unleashing those insights. This whole process is like doing mental gymnastics, and crucial limbering takes place when answering the questions.
Looking for External Validation
Here’s some work I did involving a coach I was working with:
My original thought was, “I need Bryan to be enthusiastic about the exercise.”
For one of the turnarounds, I came up with “I don’t need Bryan to be enthusiastic about the exercise.” Now the challenge is to see the truth in that statement. Here’s what I got: “It doesn’t matter to me what he thinks. In fact, that is one of the things he is always telling me: I shouldn’t worry about what others think. I should use my own barometer.” This is a much more freeing statement. I went from feeling bad that he wasn’t sufficiently enthusiastic about something that I had done to taking back my power to judge for myself the importance of my accomplishments.
The Delightful Illogic of Turnarounds
Oftentimes the turnarounds are a little mystifying and somewhat illogical. For example, when I was working on “I shouldn’t avoid the problems that I’m facing,” I came up with the turnaround, “I should avoid the problems that I’m facing.” Now that sounds like the very thing that I’m trying to address. Why would I want to embrace that? But, going with the process, I found some truth in the turnaround: “Maybe my problems will work themselves out without my intervention and certainly without me worrying about it.” I love this reminder not to worry. This new thought releases the stuck energy that I feel when I admonish myself not to avoid my problems.
When turning thoughts around, we always look at how the statement applies to the self. So, for example, “I want him to leave me alone” becomes “I want me to leave me alone.” In looking for how that is true, I came up with “I want me to stop terrorizing myself with horrible thoughts about how I’m unsafe.” That thought feels great to me. It helps me see my own role in creating suffering. It reminds me how, long after the original event is over, I continue to torture myself by replaying the event in my mind. Katie likes to say “You are always okay other than the thoughts you are thinking.” Indeed.
Just as we turn the thought around to the self, we turn it around to the other. This can be very challenging and on the face of it can start to feel like blaming the victim. But I found tremendous liberation in moving away from victimization and blame. Here’s my original thought: “Ernesto unfairly judged me.” Turning around to the other yields, “I unfairly judged Ernesto.”
Upon reflection, I came up with “I did, I put thoughts into his head without checking them out. I simply drew conclusions without asking him how I could best help. I decided that he didn’t understand and that he didn’t appreciate me. I didn’t understand or appreciate him.”
For me, the true power of doing the Work is a cumulative effect. Repeatedly asking yourself, “Who would you be without the thought?” has the side effect of causing that question to pop up in the midst of thinking some unhelpful thought. The thought gets knocked off kilter and sometimes dissipates. I also start seeing my own projections in my judgments much quicker. Judging just isn’t as fun as it used to be when I understand I am the ultimate target of the judgment.
While the regular insights have kept me engaged in doing the Work on a regular basis, what really motivates is the way it is changing my behavior. I’m less haunted by the specter of “what will they think?” Now I know that whatever they are thinking, it is only really a thought about themselves. Living this realization has emboldened my actions.
I now see that things I’ve been afraid of are only constructs in my mind. I’m finding myself being less superficial with people and more authentic and vulnerable. I’m being honest, opening myself up to others. It’s causing me to take new chances personally and professionally.
On a recent trip back to my hometown, I experienced a profound deepening in my relationships with my dad and my brother. I was able to broach topics with both of them that, to my old way of thinking, were off limits, walled off in some misguided effort to protect my heart. In one case, the sharing that I did was deliberate: I made a plan to reveal something to my brother that I previously felt was none of his business. Yet I knew the mystery surrounding the detail ate at him and caused conflict in his relationship with my parents. I had the key that could dissipate that tension and I chose to use it. For me, it’s an opening salvo repairing to my relationship with my brother. As for the conversations with my dad, these were unplanned — they just came naturally out of the new mind that I am constructing by thinking new thoughts every day.
That is the gift that Katie gives us. Not just the ability to see how our thoughts create our suffering, but the potential for the new worlds that can be created when we shift our thinking. As Katie likes to say, “I didn’t let go of my negative thoughts; I questioned them and they let go of me.”
Our mindset determines everything: how we feel about ourselves, the quality of actions that we take toward our goals, and how we show up in the world. If you’re ready to explore how changing the way you think can change your reality, please visit me online at kiraswanson.com or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to chat.