The Work: A short review

 Photography by: Matthew Wiebe

Photography by: Matthew Wiebe

I just finished reading the book “Loving What Is: Four Questions that can Change Your Life,” by Byron Katie.

The premise of Byron Katie’s work is this: When we believe our thoughts, we suffer. When we don’t believe them, we don’t suffer. Suffering is therefor optional. But in order to stop believing our own thoughts, it does require work, which is why she calls it The Work. The method of the work is self-inquiry. She teaches it all over the world through her organization Byron Katie International.

“Since the beginning of time, people have been trying to change the world so that they can be happy. This hasn’t ever worked, because it approaches the problem backward. What The Work gives us is a way to change the projector—mind—rather than the projected. It’s like when there’s a piece of lint on a projector’s lens. We think there’s a flaw on the screen, and we try to change this person and that person, whomever the flaw appears on next. But it’s futile to try to change the projected images. Once we realize where the lint is, we can clear the lens itself. This is the end of suffering, and the beginning of a little joy in paradise.” 
― Byron Katie

The Work consists of asking these 4 questions about stressful beliefs:

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

A second part of this work is turning the thoughts around, reversing the subject and object. For example: “My husband should treat me better” becomes “I should treat my husband better” or “I should treat myself better.” Often, what you find, is that the opposite of your original thought is more true. Or you can turn the phrase into the negative: “My husband should not treat me better,” which, I believe, is debatable, since all people deserve to be treated well.

The same message in a different wrapping

When I did The Work on some of my painful beliefs, using the 4 questions, I did find that it worked for me. I did feel happier and less angry or hurt. 

Most likely it’s because premise of The Work is really not that different from other sources of teachings on how we can eliminate suffering by questioning our thoughts, whether they are judgments, beliefs, statements, or ideas. 

Cognitive therapy bases its work on this same premise. Cognitive therapy is summarized as “a type of psychology in which negative patterns of thought about the self and the world are challenged in order to alter unwanted behavior patterns or treat mood disorders such as depression.” Cognitive therapy or CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, is based on the work by Aaron T. Beck.

 Miguel Ruiz

Miguel Ruiz

Further, if you read the books by Don Miguel Ruiz, you will find statements that sound very similar to both CBT and The Work:

“Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.” 

And...

“Lies only exist if we create them and they only survive if we believe in them.”
~ Don Miguel Ruiz

Or you can read the book “Soul Without Shame” by Byron Brown, in which he acknowledges the work of A.H. Almaas, who says: 

“The problem is not that we want to be happy, but that we are going about it the wrong way. When we really see that we are going about in the wrong way, we quit. And then life can unfold on its own. We cannot make it unfold. We can quit our rejection, our judgment, our intolerance, but we will quit these patterns only when we completely and totally see what they are doing — that they are hurting us.” 

Brown opens the book with the sentence: 

“During the many years I have been teaching people how to work with self-criticism, I have witnessed a great deal of suffering resulting directly from the negative ways people treat themselves.”

So, while The Work is really nothing new, it does give one a very easy way to questions one’s beliefs and alleviate suffering. And isn’t that what everyone really desires: freedom from pain, fear, and feeling small? Work with it on your own level, and find your own truths. That’s the most important part.

If interested, you can access the tools for The Work for free from Byron Katie’s website

Healthy skepticism

First of all, let me state that I am often highly skeptical, or rather careful, when presented with “solutions” that sound very New Age and magical thinking. For example, for a long time, I believed that Wayne Dyer was a charlatan, just out to make a buck on others’ suffering. I have softened on this perspective since reading some of his books, because I have found that with all these kinds of people, regardless of their motive, there is still an element of wisdom or truth in their teachings. I would simply warn against believing in any dogma without a healthy bit of skepticism, whether it’s Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, Tony Robbins or others’ personal brand of New Age thinking.

I don’t believe in the extent to which I’ve heard Byron Katie “accepts” violence as the ultimate teacher, and recommends we remove all criticism from our minds because criticism itself is the cause of personal suffering. If I am critical of a behavior that hurts me, other people, animals, the Earth, I do not believe that I need to question my criticism and “turn it around.” There are bad actors in the world and there are terrible things happening. Using The Work to remove our negative thoughts about it would be very harmful, I believe, to our ability to change our world. And it would also be an illusion to believe that everyone in the world would eventually do The Work or be as enlightened as she is and so that alone would remove all evil. 

“Being the change you wish to see in the world” does give us a way to be more responsible for suffering we cause in the world, especially as it impacts oneself and those close to us. Stopping violence does have to start somewhere and in the end, the biggest impact will be when one can stop it within oneself. So in that sense, I think this work can be a good thing. Let’s just not take it too far into the non-sensical. 

For people suffering from mental or emotional issues, including PTSD, it is a good idea to steer clear of any of the “guru” type New Age teachings (see more on why, here). You just don’t know if they will re-trigger trauma or depression.

What I would highly recommend doing, perhaps in addition to The Work, is meditation, which teaches us how to allow thoughts to occur, not to question them, but instead to just notice them. This way, we don’t judge, we don’t change, we don’t try to remove our thoughts. We just become the noticer of the thoughts and don’t attach any real power to them. I outlined similar thinking in my article “Removing Excuses.”