The Work: Byron Katie’s Structured, Mindful Tools

As the story goes, one day Byron Katie, who had spent a decade in the depths of depression awakened. She realized that she was trapped by her own thoughts, but that those thoughts weren’t actually “real.” Since then, she’s created a method for helping people take back control of their world by helping them figure out how to work with, not against, thoughts. To me, it’s another form of mindfulness, although that doesn’t seem to be described prominently in The Work, the overall process that she invented. As her site describes it:

In 1986, at the bottom of a ten-year spiral into depression, rage, and self-loathing, Katie woke up one morning to a state of constant joy that has never left her. She realized that when she believed her stressful thoughts, she suffered, but that when she questioned them, she didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Her simple yet powerful process of inquiry is called The Work.

In its most basic form, The Work consists of four questions and turnarounds. For example, your statement might be “[Name] doesn’t listen to me.” Find someone in your life about whom you have had that thought. Then take that statement and put it up against the four questions and turnarounds of The Work.

At its core…The Work is all about transforming–specifically “turning around”–stressful, anxious, or angry (unhealthy) thoughts and emotions (especially, it seems, about other people) into neutral, beneficial, (healthy) thoughts and emotions, but deconstructing them and really stepping back and doing something about them. It’s an interesting way to develop a mindful practice, because it’s very structured and organized (how Western! ;)): it involves completing  a “Judge Your Neighbor” form that helps figure out how you feel about someone or something, and how to create a “turnaround” about that thought or emotion.

judge your neighbor

Click to see the original worksheet on Byron Katie’s website.

Although it’s not stated, many of the concepts involved in The Work seem very “Zen,” for lack of a better word, in that it helps one convert one’s anger and stress into a more positive, healthy feeling. As Byron Katie states:

As I began living my turnarounds, I noticed that I was everything I called you. You were merely my projection. Now, instead of trying to change the world around me (this didn’t work, but only for 43 years), I can put the thoughts on paper, investigate them, turn them around, and find that I am the very thing I thought you were. In the moment I see you as selfish, I am selfish (deciding how you should be). In the moment I see you as unkind, am unkind. If I believe you should stop waging war, am waging war on you in my mind.
— Byron Katie

That’s very Eastern, in my book–I can see the words of Thich Nhat Hanh in this description: the reality that we are the other, and to understand the external, we need to understand the internal, and vice versa. The Work centers on accepting “the other,” with grace and focus. Except, perhaps, for that last bit–waging war is inherently an unhealthy thing, and if one is doing so, it doesn’t mean that you yourself are waging war. In Vietnam, for example, Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh and his monk brothers set themselves on fire to protest the war going on there. They did that as a non-violent  (against others) means to bring attention to the war. There was no “war” in them–only a desire to end the one in their home country! But I digress. The Work is a great way, it seems, for programming your brain to question thoughts that can hijack your life.

I’ve developed a diagram to help determine The Work process (steps / description of the Work from Byron Katie’s Website here:

The Work Process Flow

Byron Katie’s Four Simple Questions (click pic to go to her site)

I admit that I like how Byron Katie simplifies the world, in that, it is very much a mindful approach with a “Western spin.” I think that’s a good thing, because people tend to be afraid of other cultures and ways of thinking, and Ms. Katie is a straight-talker with whom many Westerners can no doubt accept without any trouble. The following are a couple of quotes from Byron Katie’s book, The Little Book: The Work of Byron Katie to show you what I mean.

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. ~ from Byron Katie’s “The Little Book” (available for free here).

I can find only three kinds of business in the universe: mine, yours, and God’s. (For me, the word God means “reality.” Reality is God, because it rules. Anything that’s out of my control, your control, and everyone else’s control—I call that God’s business.)

Being mentally in your business keeps me from being present in my own. I am separate from myself, wondering why my life doesn’t work.

Hard to argue with that view! Wondering if the practice outlined in The Work creates neural network changes wrought by breaking down our thoughts and really investigating how to “turn them around” from negative to positive helps reinforce the pre-frontal cortex, and reduce fight/flight/freezing activity  activity the amygdala. Reminds me of a lot of mindfulness techniques, including but not limited to Rick Hanson’s “Taking in the Good” methodology.

Here are some additional links to Bryon Katie’s site:

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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