Doing the Work with Byron Katie

2. emotive self-care 5. cognitive self-care self-care books Jan 31, 2016
doing the work with Byron Katie

In 2016 I attended one of Byron Katie's mind-bending workshops. That's when I really started believing in The Work

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If you're not familiar with Katie's work, I highly suggest her book Loving What Is,* especially if you're struggling to move through one of life's heavier moments. 

It's one of the only books I held onto when I downsized my life and lived in a van a couple of years ago. I still reference it now and then whenever I feel overwhelmed and lost.

A Method of Inquiry

Katie developed The Work, which is a unique method of inquiry, during her “ten-year-long downward spiral” into depression. Through that experience, she discovered that her thoughts were the cause of her suffering, and she now believes that suffering is optional.

In her book, she explains it this way: “The Work reveals that what you think shouldn’t have happened should have happened. It should have happened because it did…”

Her belief that “the truth is whatever is in front of you, whatever is really happening” is hard for most of us to accept because we’ve created our own truths and beliefs over the course of many years -- and we guard them closely.

The process of inquiry consists of four simple questions:

  1. Is it true? 
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? 
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without that thought?

The Workshop

I arrived at Katie's workshop to find nearly 800 other people filling the sanctuary at the Center for Spiritual Living in Seattle.

Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who felt drawn to this topic.

The stage was simply set: a plush chair along with a couch and some pillows, a coffee table, and an end table that was decorated with a beautiful bouquet of flowers.

A few men peppered the audience, most of whom appeared to be accompanied by a female companion, but the overwhelming majority of attendees were women. Brightly colored personalities chattered in anticipation as we waited.

A woman behind me complained, “Places like this should make rules about how many seats you can save!” Everyone seemed to be looking for the best seat to watch Katie in action. Another woman sat quietly crocheting in her seat. Staff members began distributing tissues throughout the room, prompting the man seated next to me to comment, “Their tissue budget must be pretty extensive.”

I wasn’t surprised because I personally sobbed like a baby after reading Loving What Is,* and I used a whole box of tissues myself.

Reframing Thoughts

The next step is where you get plowed by a Mack truck.

When you reframe your thoughts, turning them around to their complete opposite (and making yourself responsible for the thoughts) your ego goes into panic mode.

According to Katie, “You see who you are by seeing who you think other people are.”

The fourth question teases out what we want and need from other people, but according to Katie, this is our own prescription for happiness.

When we confront our thoughts, challenging our strongly-held beliefs straight on, it can be scary. Our mindset -- what we think -- has the power to dictate so many things in our life, including how we show up to take care of ourselves.

After taking the stage, Katie began opening us up to the world of inquiry, asking a few questions to prepare us for what was to come.

She asked us to imagine that we'd just taken a bite out of a lemon. Most of us immediately began experiencing the sourness of the lemon that didn’t exist, and we began salivating as if we had taken a bite – except we hadn’t. We’d only imagined we had. And it was our imagination that was the cause of our suffering.

The Work, she explained, is meditation and it requires stillness. It takes daily practice.

If you’re having trouble fully grasping the concept, you’re not alone. It takes time. Many people in the audience shared that they'd been doing the work for years. In fact, one man shared that after doing The Work for many years he doesn’t think all at that much anymore, which concerned him.

Katie’s response? “Some people would call that peace, sweetheart.”

As we began The Work ourselves, Katie instructed us to close our eyes and begin remembering a specific situation where we'd been angered or hurt by someone. Conjuring these difficult thoughts from the past can be painful, and in a matter of minutes I could already hear someone behind me blowing their nose.

“No one can hurt me; that’s my job,” explained Katie. She sees thoughts as children. Instead of fighting with them, she has learned to sit with them, be patient with them, and get to know them.

She believes that “If you’re not experiencing heaven, your thoughts are the cause.”

Doing the Work

Throughout the day, several members of the audience were invited to the stage to begin doing the work with Katie. From a man who was upset about his wife not cleaning the kitchen, to several people who had been victims of sexual abuse or other inequities, to a man who lost his son to suicide – all of these experiences were equally traumatic to the person experiencing them.

These brave souls were willing to share their painful stories with complete strangers because they believed The Work could help relieve their suffering. Katie’s process reminds us that it takes effort and energy to hold onto hurt and anger, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can redirect that energy and put it to better use. When we can let go of debilitating thoughts, we can love more deeply.

Even so, her process wasn’t well-received by everyone in the audience.

Sometimes the turnaround statements are hard to digest, especially when they involved a victim taking personal responsibility. And even though that responsibility is merely for their thinking about what happened (not the actual thing that happened), it's still difficult to hear out loud.

I heard gasps within the audience, observed hands covering open mouths, and saw many heads shaking vehemently in opposition.

One woman was so ignited with anger that she stood, shouting the “f” word, and shaking at Katie in disapproval. Katie simply sat quietly, allowing the woman to express herself, and then asked the audience how many identified with what the woman had just said.

About 100 hands went up. She said, “I understand what you’re saying, and frankly I’m always surprised half of the audience doesn’t walk out.”

The Work isn’t called work for nothing.

She explained that “discomfort is a place of transition. It’s where we must come to move ourselves through the rubble.”

This kind of reaction seems normal when you consider that most of us have become deeply entrenched in our thoughts and beliefs. These are our truths, and through these truths we create our identity.

We are whatever we think and believe we are.

That’s why it can be especially unsettling for those who haven’t had much exposure to The WorkDistinguishing between our thoughts and reality is messy. Despite the mixed reactions to the process, I noticed that few people, if any, left early.

By the time the conference ended, the faces around me were painted with both exhaustion and relief. But it was clear that this was just the beginning. The Work requires work. But it’s worth the effort because peace is what lies on the other end of our suffering.


Have you done "The Work"? Share in the comments below.

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