Do you believe your thoughts? If you’re anything like me, you probably do – especially the ones you think and obsess about most (i.e. the negative, critical ones). However, what if our thoughts aren’t true? In many cases, they’re not – they’re just stories we’ve made up over time and continue to perpetuate with our thinking, speaking, and acting.
This past weekend, my wife Michelle and I went to a day-long workshop with teacher and author Byron Katie. The workshop blew us both away. Katie (as she goes by) created a simple, but profound inquiry process more than twenty years ago called “The Work,” which consists of four questions and a “turnaround.”
To utilize “The Work” you identify a specific negative thought (a complaint, a judgment of another person or situation, or something you criticize about yourself) and then ask these four questions:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
After you have investigated your statement with the four questions, you’re ready to turn around the concept you’re questioning. Each turnaround is an opportunity to experience the opposite of your original statement and see what you and the person, situation, or characteristic you’ve judged, actually have in common.
A statement can be turned around to the opposite, to the other and/or to the self. You then find a minimum of three genuine, specific examples of how each turnaround is true in your life.
For example, let’s say you have an issue with your friend Joe. Your statement might be, “My friend Joe is too critical of me.” If you turn this around, it could be: “My friend Joe is accepting of me,” or “I am too critical of Joe,” or “I am too critical in general.” Then you’d look for multiple examples of where each of these “turnarounds” are true in your life.
The idea with this process isn’t to make yourself wrong or to live in fantasy land, it is to consciously question “reality.” Most of what we deem to be “real” (especially when it causes us to suffer) is made up of negative ideas, beliefs, judgments, and thoughts that we’ve come up with as a defense or justification. By questioning our “truths,” we expand our thinking and begin to see new possibilities. In other words, by not believing everything we think, we take back the power we often give away to our mind.
As I sat in the workshop and listened to Katie work with people one-on-one about some very intense circumstances and situations (grief, abuse, mistrust, guilt, conflict, and more), I was amazed by the freedom they were able to experience by simply inquiring into their negative thoughts and questioning them with an open mind.
It made me realize how many of my own judgments, complaints, and self criticisms go unchallenged and how I let my mind simply take over and run the show in certain areas of my life (especially the most “stressful” ones).
Not everything we think is true, thank goodness! The more willing we are to challenge our own thoughts and beliefs, the more peace and freedom we can create and experience in our work, our relationships, and our lives.