The Wright brothers often took two different sides of an argument, debated the subject, then switched sides and debated the opposing argument. As Orville Wright put it, “Often, after an hour or so of heated argument, we would discover that we were as far from agreement as when we started, but that each had changed to the other’s original position.”
As we go about our day, we all are constantly interpreting the world around us to give our stories meaning. Often we can witness exactly the same events as someone else and yet arrive at completely different conclusions. How is that?
The stories in our head are a concoction of biases, childhood experiences, misinterpreted facts, and much more. A lot of suffering can result if we hold onto these stories too tightly and are committed to being right.
Almost all the challenges we experience arise from us believing we are right about the way we perceive situations, one another, or ourselves. To understand this, pick an issue that you are wrestling with in your life. When you look underneath, can you see your desire to be right about that issue?
In 1986, Byron Katie was coming out of the depths of a debilitating ten-year-long depression with a life-changing realization:
I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always. - Byron Katie
In other words, what was causing her depression was not the world around her, but what she believed about the world around her. Katie went on to create The Work, a simple framework for turning around beliefs in order to alleviate suffering.
Instead of hopelessly trying to change the world to match our thoughts about how it “should” be, we can question these thoughts and, by meeting reality as it is, experience unimaginable freedom and joy.
There are four questions you can ask yourself to help turn thoughts around:
- Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to question 3.)
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
For example, let's take the belief that "John doesn't appreciate my input" and go through the four questions.
Is it true?
"Sure, I remember he interrupted me mid-sentence last Tuesday."
Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
"I guess there's no way for me to know his true feelings."
How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
"I feel angry. My chest tightens. It ruins any meeting that I'm in with John. I've been fuming about this all afternoon."
Who would you be without the thought?
"My mood would be lifted. I'd be a lot happier. I'd be able to collaborate with John again and appreciate some of the qualities I love about him."
So you see, instead of hopelessly trying to change the world to match our thoughts about how it “should be,” we can question these thoughts and, by meeting reality as it is, experience freedom and joy.
The next step is the turnaround. The idea here is to see that the opposite of your story is at least as true as, if not truer than, your original thought.
- John doesn't appreciate my input.
- Turn it around to the opposite: John appreciates my input.
- Turn it around to the other person: I don't appreciate John's input.
- Turn it around to yourself: I don't appreciate my own input.
Often we find that deep-seated anger with others is rooted in things we hate about ourselves; it's a projection. Regardless of the cause, these beliefs are causing us suffering. Realizing that you can turn that around will set you free and create lasting shifts in your thinking and your perception of yourself and the world around you.
Beliefs are very powerful, and negative ones can lead to a lot of suffering. By turning them around, you can alleviate your own suffering and then problem-solve from a place of playful curiosity.
Treat The Work as a meditation. It’s about awareness; it’s not about trying to change your mind. Would you rather be right or be free?
A great way of seeing the power in these simple questions is to take some real-world examples. Byron Katie has recorded a set of YouTube videos with her taking her guests through each question.
One such example is “my wife wastes her days.” A husband takes issue with the way his wife spends her time with the kids; he feels like he slaves away at work all day, and when he gets back home, he finds that his wife has wasted her day.
Byron: Is it true? Husband: Yes, from my perspective it is.
Byron: Can you absolutely know that it’s true? Husband: No.
Byron: How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? Husband: I resent her. I feel like I'm working my tail off and I feel like she's a child; I'm picking up after her.
Byron: Who would you be without the thought? Husband: She's beautiful. I'm excited to see her. She's probably been doing cool, creative stuff with our boys. I'd be honoring all the things she does for our world during the day. She does things for us all day.
Byron: So with the thought, you're angry and resentful. Without the thought, you're connected, grateful, appreciative. So how does your wife's day have anything to do with your problem? What you're believing in the moment is the obstacle you're holding between you and your connection with your wife. Beliefs are very powerful. You think the thought, it keeps you blind to your love with her, your connection with her, and everything she does give for your two children in your life.
Byron: So that thought, turn that around. Husband: She maximizes her days. I waste my day.
Byron: As far as I'm concerned, a day spent in resentment is a day wasted.
The purpose of The Work is to become curious about all the possibilities of life. We find that this is done most effectively if you remain unattached to any outcome. This is not about valuing one thought above another, but it is about staying truly open to the exploration.