Most of the unhappiness in our lives comes from worry and anticipation of negative future events rather than the events themselves. Conversely, most of our happiness arises when we simply stop telling stories about what things mean, what the future will be like, and why that ought to make us unhappy. When we deal with reality as it is, rather than applying our interpretations and thoughts to it, we are able to be happy regardless of the details of our life situation.
A resource that is enormously helpful for helping us step out of the way of our repetitive and punishing thoughts and stories about the world is the process of inquiry known as “The Work”, discovered and developed by Byron Katie (a.k.a. Byron Kathleen Mitchell, or more simply just “Katie”).
The core of The Work consists of four questions that the practitioner answers in writing. These four questions are directed at a thought or set of thoughts that are associated with negative feelings – e.g. consider the hypothetical thought “Lewis should behave more kindly to me”.
The questions, with possible answers to the thought above, are listed here.
1. Is it true?
Of course it’s true – he treats me badly and no one should have to put up with his anger and moods.
2. Can I absolutely know that it is true?
I would certainly like him to treat me better, but I can’t know for certain that there is a universal law that says that he must treat me better. Therefore, I can’t absolutely know that it’s true that he should behave more kindly.
3. What happens – how do I react – when I believe that thought?
I feel stressed and sad. I replay the incidents in my mind where Lewis shouted at me and treated me disrespectfully. I feel angry and frustrated.
4. Who would I be without that thought?
I would feel free from stress and tension. I would be in a relaxed and tranquil mood. I would be just a person sitting in a chair, quiet and at peace.
These questions chip away at our unvoiced assumptions that our thoughts are always right and true, and should be believed. By interrupting the process of reflexive thinking and recognizing when certain thoughts lead to unhappiness and stress, we cut the mental cord that binds such unhappy thoughts to us, and give ourselves permission to let go of them naturally.
In this framework, thoughts of “should” or “shouldn’t” are just stories that happen to be contradictory to reality, and coincidentally cause stress to the thinker. When we analyze our stories through these questions, we are able to let go of counterproductive and needless thoughts that cause us to suffer.
Next, we perform a “Turnaround” of the judgment that we just analyzed with the four questions. The intention of the turnaround is to take what we have written about someone or something else and see if it is equally applicable to our own self and our own situation.
Tee turnaround is applied to (1) the self, (2) to the other, and (3) to the opposite. In the example above, these would be the following.
self – “I should behave more kindly to myself”
I don’t treat myself very kindly when I upset myself by replaying in my mind all the times the Lewis shouted at me.
other – “I should behave more kindly to Lewis”
Am I a perfect person who always treats Lewis with complete kindness?
opposite – “Lewis should not behave more kindly to me”
The reality is that Lewis behaves no more and no less kindly to me than he does.
By finding three real-life examples for each turnaround, we are able to reflect back at ourselves (with kindness and understanding) the judgment that we have cast outward at others, and realize free into the thoughts that cause us to suffer.
In Katie’s words: The power of the turnaround lies in the discovery that everything you think you see on the outside is really a projection of your own mind. Everything is a mirror image of your own thinking. Once you have learned to go in for your own answers and opened yourself up to the turnarounds, you’ll experience this for yourself. (Loving What Is, p. 97)
This is timeless wisdom that is reminiscent of Buddhist teaching, but has some common ground with every spiritual tradition. Additionally, the Work has a lot of common ground with orthodox cognitive behavioral therapy, as outlined in books such as “Feeling Good” by David Burns. In CBT, the self-practitioner learns first, to talk back to their negative thoughts, and ultimately, to understand that those thoughts aren’t necessarily true, nor are they the only way to view things.
The process of “The Work” is so simple – why not give it a try on some thoughts that are bothering you and test it for yourself? Be sure to write down the questions, your answers, and your turnarounds. It’s easy to short-circuit the process when you do it inside your head.
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