By Byron Katie
At the age of 43, Byron Katie was paralyzed by depression, rage, and paranoia, but that dark time gave rise to a transformative process she calls “The Work.” The Work consists of four key questions that dissect the things we believe and hold them up to the light of reality. Through this course of inquiry, Katie believes that anyone can be released from the suffering that is holding him or her captive. “People who have been practicing inquiry for a while often say, ‘The Work is no longer something I do. It is doing me,’” writes Stephen Mitchell in the introduction to Katie’s book. “They describe how, without any conscious intention, the mind notices each stressful thought and undoes it before it can cause any suffering.”
Before people can truly undertake The Work, they must believe that the capacity for their happiness lies exclusively within themselves. Those who pin happiness and peace to other people or circumstances will struggle to resolve the chasm between their thoughts and reality. As Katie explains, everything in our lives can be defined as one of three kinds of business: mine, yours and God’s. The only way to achieve harmony is to focus only on your business, leaving the things others can control in their court and surrendering the things that only God can change. When a person recognizes every stressful feeling is being propped up by an untrue thought, he or she can commit to exposing that untruth and replacing it with reality. That process lays the foundation for doing The Work.
Asking the Questions
Katie’s four questions sound simple, but working through them honestly in the interest of dismantling the lies we believe can be hard work. Katie asserts that the more dedicated we become to regular inquiry when things cause us to suffer, the easier The Work will become. Just as we automatically pull our hand away from a hot stove, she says, those who practice the work will learn to quickly eliminate untrue thoughts by inquiry, returning to harmony and happiness. Katie strongly recommends doing The Work by writing out thoughts on paper, to encourage honest response. The four questions, with a brief explanation of each, are:
1. Is It True?
After writing down everything you feel about a painful situation, relationship or feeling in your life, the first question demands a reality check. This question asks for thorough investigation of what is true, as well as an accounting of whether this business belongs to you, someone else, or God. If you search your heart and conclude that the statement that is causing you pain is true, you answer question two. If you conclude that it is not true, you move to the third question.
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
This deeper level of searching asks the inquirer to find proof of the thing she believes, to dig below the surface to unearth the unseen factors that could have influenced the thought. If a thought is, in fact, true, it will be able to stand up to the scrutiny of further examination. This step also creates space to ask, “what does this truth tell me about myself?”
3. How do you react when you think that thought?
In response to this question, the inquirer is asked to make a specific and comprehensive list of how the thought makes him feel. What emotions arise? How do you treat the person, the other people involved with the situation when you think the thought? This question also asks if you can think of a reason to drop the thought, or a stress-free reason to keep it.
4. Who would you be without the thought?
The notion of releasing the thought leads seamlessly to this fourth question, which offers the prospect of freedom from a thought grounded in fear or falsehood. As Katie writes, “reality is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.” In this final exercise, you are asked to imagine yourself in the presence of that situation or relationship, free from that stressful thought. It concludes in an invitation to decide if life feels more peaceful with or without the thought. Finally, The Work encourages you to craft one or more turnarounds to the original thought – an invitation to believe the opposite of what you once thought was true.
Doing the work in every part of life
When a person becomes familiar with the four questions and is capable of placing negative thoughts under the scrutiny of The Work, the questions create a framework that can transform difficult situations in virtually any area. Katie details strategies for applying The Work to the negative thought patterns that develop in love, sex and relationships, health and death, parents and children, work, and money. She even includes guidelines to help children incorporate The Work into their lives when they are young, saving themselves from the baggage that could come from years of negative and unproductive thinking.
Like developing an exercise regimen, working through Katie’s four questions is a difficult discipline when you start, but it becomes a natural part of your routine if you are committed to The Work. Like physical exercise, Katie believes firmly that The Work can transform a person mentally and emotionally – rewiring their brain to eliminate painful or deceptive thoughts. She writes: “I am a lover of what is, not because I’m a spiritual person, but because it hurts when I argue with reality. We can know that reality is good just as it is, because when we argue with it, we experience tension and frustration. We don’t feel natural or balanced. When we stop opposing reality, action becomes simple, fluid, kind, and fearless.”