Sometimes the greatest gifts are in our own backyard. I discovered this recently upon learning that a Kindergarten teacher at my children’s school was teaching her class to use The Work of Byron Katie in managing daily challenges. The Work is a process of inquiring into one’s own thoughts. Inquiry, while logical and deductive, contains an air of magic in its unflappable ability to right unskillful thinking patterns.
If you have ever questioned one of your own cherished ideals or values, one that you have held with conviction, analyzed it to the narrow tip of its existence, and then asked if it was really true, then you have embarked on the work of inquiry. And you will know that discovering that what you’ve always believed to be true just might not be provides a feeling of unparalleled freedom.
The work of inquiring into our thoughts and living in the reality that follows is about, first, becoming aware of a belief or judgment we hold; next, it’s about asking four questions; and finally, it’s about turning the belief or judgment around in various ways to open up the mind to different truths that exist.
Here’s a simplified example of how the teacher at my children’s school uses The Work with her students. It’s simplified because, in doing the work, it’s important that the participant be present and able to emotionally feel the answers to the questions, and not only logically answer. This takes time.
Let’s use an example of a student we will call Ben. Ben, upset: “Nobody likes me.” Teacher asks the first question: “Is that true?” Ben, vehemently: “Yes! I have no friends! No one wants to play with me!” Teacher asks the second question: “Ben, there is no one who likes you at all, you haven’t a single friend, and no one has ever wanted to play with you. Is that absolutely true?” Ben, less certain: “Well, I don’t know, maybe sometimes.” Teacher: “Ben, try to think, is it a yes or no. Can you be absolutely sure that at no time no one has ever liked you?” Ben: “Well, no, because yesterday Anna played with me, and today David shared his Lego with me.” Teacher asks the third question. “So how does it make you feel, and how do you act when you believe that thought that nobody likes you? “ Ben: “I get mad. I go off by myself. I cry. I don’t ask anyone to play with me. Teacher: “To look at it another way, then, how would you feel if you never had the ability to believe that thought that nobody likes you, how would you have acted today?” Ben: “I’d be happy. I’d play with people. I’d smile at people. I wouldn’t be crying.” Teacher: “Can we turn that thought around? What would be the opposite of nobody likes me?” Ben: Somebody likes me.” Teacher: Can you give me three examples of somebody who’s liked you? Ben: My grandma likes me, my mom likes me, and I know you like me.” The teacher then helps the student to turn the thought around to the self. Teacher: “Ben how do you feel about you?” Ben: “Well, I like me too.” Teacher: “Isn’t it awesome to know that as long as you like you, then somebody likes you, and it can never be true that nobody likes you.”
This is a version of inquiry that a kindergartener can manage, and it’s an almost identical version to the structure of questions that are no less powerful decades later in life. The Work challenges us to inquire into taken-for granted ideas of ‘truth’ such as: I must find my purpose; I should not have made that poor stock investment; I am responsible if my children do not succeed; my boyfriend should not have left me; my mother should let me make my own choices; my father shouldn’t try to control me; my spouse should be more healthy. When we start inquiry we begin to really look deeply into ourselves and realize the extent to which our unquestioned beliefs dictate our choices, and bring us either distress, or happiness. We realize that unquestioned adherence to ideas is a stressful experience that does not place us in reality but instead in versions of living that leave us with an uncomfortable feeling that something is just not right. When we question our beliefs, and they hold up to inquiry, we begin to live in, and accept reality, which is right where we are, today.