When I was a senior in college I found myself in a personal crisis that was the culmination of a loss in the family and an abusive relationship. I was having trouble focusing, difficulty sleeping, and was struggling with depression and persistent pessimism. While skyping with my parents one day, my mom said, “I’m sending you a book that I think will help.” A week later Loving What Is arrived on my doorstep, and I had my first introduction to Byron Katie.
At forty three, Byron Katie found herself with three children and a successful career, but was crippled by severe depression and rage. Her despair was interfering with all aspects of her personal life as well as her own well-being, until it finally reached a peak and she checked into a mental health facility. It was there that she began to examine the inner workings of her mind and emotions, and it was from this self-study that “The Work” gradually emerged.
The Work is a process of uncovering the truth behind our thoughts and learning how to recognize when thought patterns are destructive. As Katie says, “A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering.” For anyone who has studied Yoga, this concept echoes one of the most central components of Yogic philosophy. We are unable to completely stop the flow of the hundreds of thoughts that inhabit our mind each day. However, we can cultivate an ability to separate ourselves from these thoughts and to analyze them without letting them dictate our emotions or our understanding of the world.
One of the most important parts of The Work is the practice of Inquiry, which consists of a series of questions that we can use to examine our thoughts. The best method for practicing inquiry is to write down all the thoughts or beliefs you have that bring you stress, sadness, or anger. These may be criticisms or frustrations with others, unhappiness with situations or life challenges, or self-deprecating thoughts. Each statement is then taken and held up to Katie’s four questions:
1) Is it true?
2) Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3) How do you react when you think that thought?
4) Who would you be without that thought?
These questions allow us to the see that our thoughts are not facts, but instead statements that we have repeated to ourselves over and over again. Perhaps most importantly, we can see the impact that negative thoughts have on our emotions and to imagine a version of ourselves without this negativity. Quite often it is a revelation to consider an alternate reality in which we do not harbor criticism for ourselves or others, and in which we can come to accept the people and situations around us.
Though it may not be a traditional method of practicing Yoga, The Work is an incredible tool that we can incorporate into the cultivation of mindfulness. It allows us take a step back from our thoughts in order to see them more clearly and question whether they are bringing us peace or anxiety. By doing so we come to the realization that there is no good reason to hold on to these negative thoughts, providing space to move a few steps closer to accepting – or even loving – what is.