On day 31 of my 366-day self-care challenge, I attended one of the most mind-bending workshops of my entire life…and I’m not exaggerating.
Byron Katie developed The Work, 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. She now believes suffering is optional.
In her book Loving What Is, (Amazon Associate Link) she explains “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:
- Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
The next step is where we get plowed by a Mack truck. When we reframe our thoughts, turning them around to their complete opposite – sometimes making ourselves the responsible party – our ego can hardly take it. 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.
I arrived at the 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 had used a box of tissues myself.
When we confront our thoughts and challenge our beliefs straight on, it can be scary. What we think has the power to dictate so many things in our life, including how we care for ourselves.
After taking the stage, Katie began opening up the world of inquiry, asking a few questions to prepare us for what was to come. She asked us to imagine that we had 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 takes stillness. It takes daily practice.
If you’re having trouble fully grasping the concept, you’re not alone. It takes a long time to get it. Many people in the audience shared that they have been doing The Work for years. In fact, one man said he had been doing The Work for many years, and noticed that he doesn’t think 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 had 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, who 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.”
Throughout the day, several members of the audience were invited to the stage to do 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 good use. When we can let go of our debilitating thoughts, we can love those around us more deeply.
Even so, her process wasn’t well-received by everyone in the audience. In fact, sometimes the turnaround statements were hard to digest, especially when they involved a victim taking personal responsibility. And even though that responsibility was merely for their own thinking about what happened – not the actual thing that happened – it was still hard for many people to hear out loud. Within the audience I heard gasps, observed hands covering mouths and saw many people shaking their heads 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 often 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 what we think we are. That’s why it can be especially unsettling for those who haven’t had much exposure to The Work.
Distinguishing between our thoughts and reality isn’t easy.
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. It was just the beginning. The Work takes a lot of — well, work — but it’s worth it when you consider that peace is what lies on the other end of our suffering.