I heard about Byron Katie’s “The Work” from the Tim Ferris podcast episode with Tristan Harris. The conversation on that episode is a bit vague in describing her process, so I wanted to give it a shot on my own.
Get it on Amazon or of course at your local library (affiliate link, no additional cost to you, but a small percent goes back to my writing).
As I understand, “The Work” is a general classification of her method. The core of the method is this:
When you find that a thought is creating pain, anxiety, stress, whatever word you want to use, it’s time to challenge that thought. She outlines 4 questions to do that.
Example stressful thought: “My husband doesn’t listen to me.”
The four questions:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
As I understand it, “Question your Thinking, Change the World” is just one perspective on “The Work”, each of her books expand on these ideas.
The big value of the book is to help people identify and curb defensive tendencies. Personally, I have these tendencies all the time. It may take the form of aligning myself too closely with something and then feeling insulted when somebody combats my perspective. I think it’s worth reading for anyone aiming to challenge their conception of self.
It’s essentially a new age remix of some age old eastern and western philosophies, like if Buddhism met Stoicism on the internet.
The format of the book is a series of somewhat flexibly organized “spiritual” thoughts, with semi-related thoughts grouped together into chapters. This wasn’t my favorite format, but the content was worth sticking with it. My favorite quotes are below sometimes paired with my interpretations.
“It’s not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.”
Katie re-iterates over and over how important constant inquiry is. The idea is that it’s hard to take anything too seriously if we inquire deeply about everything all the way down. It’s similar to the principle of 5 whys, keep asking 1 level deeper question about our thoughts and their associations until you realize that it’s all just fluff, and nobody is to blame.
“Once you’ve walked yourself through the four questions, turn the thought around by finding opposites to the statement you wrote. For ‘My husband doesn’t listen to me.’ turnaround is ‘My husband does listen to me.’ Find three genuine examples of how that statement is true in your life.”
This is a great mindset toggle switch that I’ve been trying to use recently. Just yesterday, our neighbors upstairs were making noise until very late. Instead of thinking “What the hell is going on up there at 2:45am”, I tried to take an alernate approach more like “The person upstairs often has insomnia, and although they would love nothing more than to sleep at a reasonable hour, they end up tossing and turning and eventually getting up and walking around”.
Both cases are stories that I’m telling myself, but the second story causes me to empathize more personally with the person instead of accusing them outright of something that I indeed have no way of confirming. I prefer this “Innocent until proven guilty” mindset.
“You can’t love anyone; you only love your story about them.”
There’s a lot of challenging ideas in this book. One of the most challenging is how we don’t really “Love” our family members in the way that we traditionally think. Katie points out that we are only telling stories about love, and a lot of it is based on expectations of what a person should or should not do.
“You turn into someone you aren’t, and then when they say ‘I love you,’ you can’t believe it, because they’re loving a façade. They’re loving someone who doesn’t even exist, the person you’re pretending to be. It’s difficult to seek other people’s love. It’s deadly. In seeking it, you lose what is genuine.”
This is a big one for me. The idea that when you try to be what another person wants and “seek love”, you turn into someone you’re not. It creates an endless loop of facades. People pleasing pleases noone.
“Defense is the first act of war. If you tell me that I’m mean, rejecting, hard, unkind, or unfair, I say, ‘Thank you, sweetheart, I can find all these in my life, I have been everything you say, and more. Tell me everything you see, and together we can help me understand. Through you, I come to know myself.’”
“If you say one single thing that I have the urge to defend, that thing is the very pearl waiting inside me to be discovered.”
“The difference between pleasure and joy? Ohh… the distance is from here to the moon! From here to another galaxy! Pleasure is an attempt to fill yourself. Joy is what you are.”
“It’s nothing more than a metaphor for your thinking, mirrored back to you. If I lose all my money, good. If I get cancer, good. If my husband leaves me, good. If he stays, that’s good, too. Who wouldn’t always say yes to reality if that’s what you’re in love with? What can happen that I wouldn’t welcome with all my heart?”
If you’re interested in this “Be present” attitude, Stoic and Buddhist philosophy may also resonate.
“How do you live when you believe that your vibrations are too low to heal your body? Masochism. War. Who would you be without that theory?”
I found that this acceptance language a little difficult to stomach at first. I wonder how much would get done if we all had the attitude of accepting things as they are. Would things like political revolutions ever happen? She does address this later to some degree, but it’s still something that I’m meditating on.
“How do you live when you believe the thought that your body should be different? How does that feel? ‘I’ll be happy later, when my body is healed.’ ‘I should be thinner, healthier, prettier, younger.’ This is a very old religion. If I think my body should be different from what it is now, I’m out of my business. I’m out of my mind!”
“Nineteen years ago a doctor removed a large tumor from my face. I had found inquiry—inquiry had found me—so I didn’t have a problem with the tumor. On the contrary: I was happy to see it come, and I was happy to see it go. It was actually quite a sight, and before it was removed I loved being out there in public. People would look at it and pretend not to be looking, and that tickled me. Maybe a little girl would stare at it, and then her parents would whisper to her and yank her away.”
There’s lots of short anecdotes like this peppered throughout the book.
“‘I’m supposed to sleep at three o’clock in the morning’—is that true? I don’t think so: I’m wide awake. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I get very excited. What could be better than sleep? Waking! I love lying in bed in the middle of the night with my eyes wide open, because that’s what I’m doing. There’s no thought that I should be doing anything else. I love all my thoughts.”
“What fun, having nowhere to go but where we really are now.”
I feel like I’m in Alice’s funhouse.
“Our parents, our children, our spouses, and our friends will continue to press every button we have, until we realize what it is that we don’t want to know about ourselves yet. They will point us to our freedom every time.”
My therapist had a phrase that he liked to say to me “Your teacher is right in front of you”. If we constantly inquire about our own reactions, we will learn the most from the people that push our buttons the most.
“You can’t make people happy.”
“Parents can only be wise when they stop teaching.”
“Don’t expect your family to do anything that you can’t do. When you learn it, then you can go teach it.”
“We don’t know how to change; we don’t know how to forgive or how to be honest. We’re waiting for an example.”
“Poverty is internal. Every time you think you know something, you’re experiencing poverty.”
“The thought ‘I have to go to work’ makes your life a war zone. Whereas if you just wake up knowing to go to work, you just go, you go in peace, and work is a pleasure. But when you argue with reality, the beliefs pile up, and the office becomes a sweatshop.”
“Fear is lack of integrity, and the way you know this is that when you’re in a lie, you experience discomfort. Life is simple, until you lose your internal integrity, and then it hurts.”
“The way I live is that I don’t ever have to know anything again—not ever.”
“A feeling is like the mate to a thought appearing. They’re like a left and a right. If you have a thought, there’s a simultaneous feeling. And an uncomfortable feeling is like a compassionate alarm clock that says, ‘You’re in the dream.’ It’s time to investigate, that’s all. But if we don’t honor the alarm clock, then we try to alter and manipulate the feeling by reaching into an apparent external world.”
“Wisdom is simply knowing the difference between what hurts and what doesn’t hurt.”
“Someone gave me a precious gift the other day, and I loved it. But the gift was in the receiving. In that it was over, and I noticed that I gave it away immediately. Its purpose was over. There’s no value to even the most precious object beyond the giving and receiving.”
So that’s it, those are some of my favorite thoughts from the book. If it resonantes at all with you, it’s a short and interesting read and I definitely recommend picking up a copy.