Byron Katie's Solution to Your Turmoil—Work It!

By Cathy Cassata 09/12/14

In the words of the renowned Katie, “I didn’t quit drinking; I did "The Work," and drinking, drugs, compulsive eating, smoking, anger, depression, sorrow, fear, all quit me.”

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In 1986, Byron Katie found herself at the bottom of a ten-year spiral into depression, rage, and self-loathing, until one day she woke up to a state of constant joy that has stayed with her ever since. She realized that when she believed her stressful thoughts, she suffered, but that when she questioned them, she didn’t suffer. The simple yet powerful process of inquiry that was born from this experience is what Katie calls The Work.

The Work consists of four questions and turnarounds, which are a way of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. When you question a troublesome thought, you see around it to the choices beyond suffering. 

For more than 25 years, Katie has been bringing The Work to millions of people worldwide through public events, weekend workshops, five-day intensives, nine-day workshops at her School for The Work, and 28-day residential stays at the Turnaround House.

Katie’s six books include the bestselling Loving What Is, I Need Your Love—Is That True?, and A Thousand Names for Joy.

Katie shared some insights into The Work with The Fix.

Did you experience any alcoholism or addiction among your family and friends before developing The Work?

Yes. Two close family members. As for me, I was suffering so much that I would do almost anything to stop it, though I could never stop it. I drank a lot of alcohol. I smoked cigarettes almost nonstop. My husband at the time brought me codeine pills throughout the day, and I ate them like candy. I began overeating, and I spent more time in my bedroom, watching television, sleeping for twelve hours a day or more. Every night my husband brought me codeine and ice cream. In the end, I was obese and starving. Day after day, I would lie in bed with such self-hatred, so hopeless and suicidal, that I was beyond despair. But suicide wasn’t an option; I thought my children would blame themselves for my death, and I just couldn’t do that to them.

How do you view addiction overall?

In my experience, the ultimate addiction is the mind’s addiction to what it is believing—the unquestioned thoughts that create and safeguard its system of denial. To question the mind is to bring the mind to sanity and alignment with a power greater and kinder than I could give a name to. 

You can experience the power of mind’s denial in a very simple way. Imagine biting into a big, ripe, juicy lemon. Did you picture a yellow lemon? I didn’t mention its color, but you probably imagined a yellow lemon anyway. And notice what happened in you physically. Did you salivate? Did you taste the lemon? Did you feel other physical effects? This is denial of reality and the power of mind that you are up against, as an addict: the power of your own thinking. So the stories we’re believing about the pictures of past and future that arise in our mind’s eye, pictures with meanings attached to them that aren’t even true, leave us as victims who may as well drink (we think). These mind alterations away from reality are happening so quickly that we aren’t even aware that they’re happening, and they lead us to believe in harsh realities of past and future that don’t even exist. If you consider your experience with the lemon and switch the symbol to alcohol, here’s how it happens: When we’re fearful, confused, angry, sad, etc., we’re compelled to drink (or drug, eat junk food, etc). Why? We believe that our stressful thoughts about ourselves, others, and life are true. We believe that that is the way things really are, rather than seeing the difference between beliefs and reality. So just as the mouth watered when we thought of a lemon, there’s an effect when we believe our stressful thoughts and then the image of alcohol shows up in our heads. The moment we see the image and feel the emotions, we have just had our first drink (remember the lemon?), and we begin to seek alcohol. We see the alcohol in our mind’s eye, we see where it is and how to get it, and that becomes the higher power we seek. And we can’t stop after one drink; many of us continue to binge. We lose ourselves and go even deeper into the seemingly hopeless pit of addiction.

But as drug addicts or alcoholics (or any stressed-out person) begin to question their thoughts, they begin to see clearly rather than blindly believing what their mind tells them; they begin to find answers that meet their true longing. When we discover those answers, inquiry becomes our addiction to the world of sane choices; we become addicted to discovering the truth—in other words, to sanity. And sanity doesn’t suffer, ever.

All twelve steps of recovery are included within inquiry, in the most meticulous way. Clarity is freedom, and when clarity becomes our path, we discover self-forgiveness on our own, from within, and we discover forgiveness for others and for the world. It happens without any conscious effort, as the thoughts we clung to so firmly, the thoughts that created our whole identity as victims, fall away by themselves. That leaves us with no cause to drink or use, and it leaves us as kinder, more awake human beings. The world seen through a clear mind is the greatest high; it has no low in it that can’t be questioned and dispelled. I didn’t quit drinking; I did The Work, and drinking, drugs, compulsive eating, smoking, anger, depression, sorrow, fear, all quit me. 

Do you think you would have created The Work if you hadn’t turned to alcohol and ended up in a halfway house?

I can’t say. I can only say that I am grateful to be free of addictive thinking and believing. My thinking was too painful to survive. One of us had to go. I questioned my thinking—all the thoughts that had caused my suffering—and they left me, and in the silence beyond those thoughts I discovered a beautiful world, a friendly universe, and gratefully, one that I no longer had to arrange.

What do you think brought you to the place where your thoughts became clear?

In a moment of clarity, out of nowhere, I saw that when I believed my thoughts I suffered and when I questioned my thoughts I didn’t suffer, and I have come to see that this is true for every human being. The Work allowed me to maintain that clarity, moment by beautiful moment. 

Can you share any personal anecdotes about people being helped?

There are thousands and thousands—millions—of people whose lives have been transformed by doing The Work. You can see some of them discovering a little clarity on the videos posted at thework.com and on youtube. And there’s a whole section of anecdotes in I Need Your Love—Is That True? Here are a few:

Toaster oven

I used to live only to please others; now I do things that I really want to do, not the things I think I should do. For example, I let a church member stay at my house until she found another place. Then, one evening, I found her asleep, drunk, with a frozen dinner in the toaster oven. I realized I didn’t trust her not to burn my house down. So I told her she had to leave. In the past, I would have lived with the fear and hoped she would find a place soon. This time, I just told her what I was afraid of. She quickly found another place she likes and thanked me for being so clear and respectful with her.

Capricious woman

I was living alone and seeing a woman who tended to cancel our dates at the last moment, leaving me forlorn and sorry for myself, like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. I would tell her it didn’t matter and that I was fine on my own. I wasn’t, but I thought she’d drop me completely if I seemed needy. I followed the instructions for inquiry, judged her furiously, wrote it down, asked four questions, turned it around, had realizations, and still felt miserable when she didn’t want to see me. Then one Saturday evening, as I was approaching my empty house, I felt a slight thrill as if I were about to meet someone interesting. I was bewildered for a moment. Had I forgotten about a houseguest? Then it came to me: the interesting person I was about to meet inside my house was the one walking toward it. It seemed like a small thing at the time, but that forlorn feeling never came back. Also, that capricious girlfriend stopped canceling our dates and is now my capricious wife.

Sex partner

I used to think that the only way I could be truly happy is if I found my soul mate. I went through three marriages and three divorces because they were soooo imperfect! Through inquiry I found myself, and I also discovered that each husband was my perfect partner. Each of them had brought me to where I was right now. Another thing I noticed was that I never made love before. I’d always had sex. After applying The Work in my life, I found out how to enjoy everything about lovemaking without thoughts of whether I was pleasing my partner or not, whether I was too fat or too old, and on and on. I discovered that I didn’t need my partner’s approval, and I began to have the best time ever. I remember this very clearly because I cried. I actually felt another person’s body and experienced something I had been seeking during sex all my life. It was so sexy! And to think that all I had to do was question my thoughts, and let them let go of me!

At what stage of healing or recovery would you think to apply The Work?

The moment you notice anger, self-pity, the desire to drink, use, etc. In that moment, identify what you are thinking and believing just before the desire to drink happened. Then fill in a Judge-Your Neighbor-Worksheet (available free at thework.com), and then, one by one, question each thought on your worksheet. You can find complete instructions at thework.com, or one of our Certified Facilitators on the website can help you. Also, we have a free helpline, where a facilitator can help you. We don’t ask your name, where you are from, nothing. We simply give you what we have found for ourselves: a way of ending our own suffering.

What would you like people struggling with addiction to know about your Turnaround House? And is this a place for people dealing with both substance and behavioral addictions?

Turnaround House is not a medical facility or a drug or alcohol treatment center, and I can tell you that behavioral addictions do radically change there, and the change gets stronger and stronger for those who do our full 28-day program. In our program, we question the thoughts that are the cause of our suffering. In our program, people learn how to take on self-inquiry as a daily practice, and they learn how to meditate, do yoga, how to cook, serve others, shop organically, go to 12-step meetings daily, and in turn learn how to live in the world with ease, moment by moment, sanely and happily. We don’t try to change the world, we do The Work and our world changes.

Can you walk me through how someone addicted to a substance might fill out the Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet?

There are video instructions at www.thework.com/dothework.php. The best way to start is to identify a stressful moment, such as an argument with a spouse, family member, best friend, boss, employee, etc., and get in touch with why you were angry and with the emotions you were experiencing during that argument. Then fill in statement 1 on the Worksheet. Continue to picture that moment in time, that situation, as you fill in statements 2 through 6. After that, you question each of the statements on your Worksheet using the four questions and turnarounds of The Work.

Are the turnarounds really about accepting the person for who he/she is and realizing that you can’t change other people?

Yes, and more. You would be amazed at the insights people discover from finding turnarounds and then finding genuine examples of how each turnaround is as true as or truer than their original belief. But I invite people not to go straight to the turnarounds. It’s important to investigate the belief first, using the four questions of The Work. Only after this detailed inquiry do people get the full effect of their Work when they go to the turnarounds. You can find out more about turnarounds at www.thework.com/downloads/worksheets/instructions_for_thework.pdf.

Finding specific, genuine examples for the turnarounds can be hard work, because the ego can’t go there without having its victim identity threatened. It’s convinced that the other person is the cause of the problem. So I sometimes invite people when doing The Work to let go of winning and losing. Would you rather be right or free?

Do you think being “happy” requires “not caring” in some ways?

I care, but I realize that I can’t care about what people think of me. I know the difference between my business and their business. What I think of them is my business; what they think of me is their business. So I’m always left free, no matter what anyone thinks of me. What matters is this: am I right within myself? Have I done all that I can do to correct my wrongs? I admit that I’m happy even when others are not. My happiness is no longer contingent on the happiness of others. If it were, how would true happiness be possible? I’m my own effortless example of how to be happy. 

The following quotation from you was very insightful “Until you can see the enemy as a friend, your Work is not done. This doesn’t mean that you have to invite him to dinner. Friendship is an internal experience. You may never see him again, you may even divorce him, but as you think about him, are you feeling stress or peace?” Is this essentially getting to a point where you look at the good in people? What if someone has done unforgivable things to you, such as abused you? Is there a point where you realize you are happiest without thinking about the person at all?

I find that I think about that person or I don’t. You never know where the mind will travel next. The important point is “What have I done that was hurtful (in my own opinion)? Where did I abuse him and myself?” Let me Work with that before I judge anyone anywhere other than on a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet. All internal war belongs on paper, not lived out and inflicted on the world. When I have forgiven myself, I have forgiven you, and the forgiveness flows over my entire universe and everyone and everything in it. If I have done my Work well, I understand why people abuse others, why they do what they do and say what they say, and I’m never surprised. They’re just like me. I understand, and in that understanding, there is nothing left to forgive.

Can someone with a mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia benefit from The Work?

Yes, and I have seen this many times. We believe our thoughts or we question them; there’s no other choice. It can be difficult to question the world as we understand it to be. But even though it’s difficult, we can begin to wake up to the peace that never dies. We live in a marvelous world, with doctors, medicine, the twelve steps of recovery, inquiry, etc. They all work together for good. Ultimately, nothing in this world is wasted; all is necessary and meant to take us home, back to the heart. Everything in the universe is working for us, without exception—even the pain.

Can children benefit from The Work? Or have you written questions for children?

Yes, children love inquiry. The first summer camp for The Work ended this week. For more, see our newsletter at thework.com. The questions for little ones go something like this. The child may say, “He hurt my feelings.” “Really? Are you sure, honey? How did that feel? Tell me. And how did you feel just before you believed that he hurt your feelings?” Then, for the turnarounds, you might say “Did you feel that you hurt his feelings also, honey? Do you think that he feels the same way about you too in that moment?” Or maybe, “Have you ever hurt someone’s feelings? Me too, I have done that.” And then I would share what it feels like within myself when I did hurt someone else’s feelings, intentionally or not, and how that is really what hurt my feelings and how difficult and upsetting it is. Working with children is just a flow that automatically happens for people who do The Work as a daily meditation practice. 

Can The Work be effective in combination with other forms of therapy and/or medications?

Yes. The Work is about questioning the stressful thoughts that we’re believing, and anything that sets off anger, depression, confusion, sadness, etc.—any mindset that opposes peace of mind. I love this Work combined with the twelve steps of recovery! Daily AA or NA meetings are an ongoing part of the schedule at Turnaround House.

Have there been any studies on The Work?

There have been several, with excellent results. There’s one study going on now in Zimbabwe with people who have struggled with self-stigma because of their HIV. The results were remarkable: 70% or 80% improvement, which was maintained a week afterward and (unlike most tested methods, I’m told) went even higher three months afterward. Valuable stress-reduction methods often register high in some tests and then after three months, when they test the stress levels again, the success rate has dropped. They are finding the opposite with The Work test scores: the scores continue to rise.

Has any rehab organization adopted your work or brought you in to teach it to staff?

Yes, and our Certified Facilitators are actively serving those organizations as well. I suggest that everyone interested in freedom from addiction read I Need Your Love—Is That True? and Loving What Is. Suffering is optional. I love that this becomes dazzlingly clear once The Work has actively entered our lives.

Cathy Cassata is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about addictions to sugar and tanning.

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Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who writes about health, mental health and human behavior for a variety of publications and websites. She is a regular contributor to Everyday Health and Healthline. View her portfolio of stories at https://cathycassata.contently.com. Connect with her on Twitter at @Cassatastyle.