One Belief at a Time

“A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It is not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.” – Byron Katie

belief
Dysfunctional Beliefs

Beliefs help us navigate the gray areas of life when there is no right or wrong answer. When they put us in harmony with ourselves and others, they are functional. When they routinely create stress and suffering, they are dysfunctional

The authors of the original mindfulness manual offer guidelines on which thoughts fit which category. But, instead of asking us to accept these guidelines as truth, they ask us to test them like scientists and find out for ourselves.

Rationalizing Not Rational 

Unfortunately, once we hold a belief, we become lousy scientists. Our minds become spin doctors looking for every shred of evidence supporting our belief and disregarding everything that doesn’t.

Nobel Laureate: I’m a failure.

Journalist: What do you mean? You just won the Nobel Prize.

Nobel Laureate: I fooled them this time, but I’m still a failure.

We may not be rational, but we’re all expert rationalizers.

Have You Read? 

“Have you read Byron Katie?” a woman at Social Club asked me.

“No, what does he say?”

“She.” 

“Okay, what does she say?”

People ask me all the time if I’ve read _________. Countless entrepreneurs have repackaged the various wisdom traditions over the millennia and sold kernels of truth under their brand. (Full disclosure: my brand is moving from depression to well-being.)

When the name Byron Katie kept popping up in conversations, I decided to look at her sales pitch.

Byron Katie’s Pitch

It’s slick.

It’s portentously called The Work.

Her slogan is: 

Judge your neighbor. 

Write it down. 

Ask four questions.

Turn it around.

Her scientific method for testing beliefs is filling out one- and two-page worksheets printable from her website:

Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet 

and 

One-Belief-at-a-Time Worksheet

Sounds too simple, right?  

Judging Our Neighbors 

If The Work is this simple, I should be able to refute it by the end of this blog post. 

Katie suggests that since we have much more practice pronouncing judgment on others than on ourselves, we should start by judging our neighbors.

I’ll start by judging Byron Katie with the One-Belief-at-a-Time worksheet. 

One-Belief-at-a-Time Worksheet

The Work – A Written Meditation

Instructions: On the line below, write down a stressful concept about someone (alive or dead) whom you haven’t forgiven 100 percent. (For example, “He doesn’t care about me.”) Then question the concept in writing, using the following questions and turnarounds. (Use additional paper as needed.) When answering the questions, close your eyes, be still, and witness what appears to you. Inquiry stops working the moment you stop answering the questions.

I have a low opinion of charlatans, so I’ll use that belief.

Belief: Byron Katie is a false prophet for profit.

Ask Four Questions

1. Is It True?

I suspect that it’s true. It’s highly unlikely that she’s a genuine prophet. I’ll say yes. 

2. Can You Absolutely Know That It’s True? (Yes or no.) 

Well, I’m still filling out the sheet so I haven’t proved it yet. No.

3. How Do You React, What Happens When You Believe That Thought?

I feel sorry for the gullible people she fleeces.

a. Does that thought bring relief or stress into your life? 

I feel judgmental about the avarice of charismatic leaders and pity for their prey.

b. What images do you see, past and future, and what physical sensations arise as you think that thought and witness those images?

It bothers me how some charismatic leaders spend their money in misanthropic ways. Tony Robbins bought a massive beachfront mansion in Fiji to get away from people. 

I recently watched Wild Wild Country on Netflix about the Osho followers in Central Oregon. Osho wore a million dollar watch and had over 90 Rolls Royces. 

I feel a tightening in my chest area when I think about this kind of conspicuous consumption.

c. What emotions arise when you believe that thought? (Refer to the Emotions List, available on thework.com.)

I prefer to keep my emotional labels simple, like pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. High or low energy. But, I’ll play along and choose faultfinding from the judgmental category.

d. Do any obsessions or addictions begin to appear when you believe that thought? (Do you act out on any of the following: alcohol, drugs, credit cards, food, sex, television, computers?) 

My aggravation isn’t so strong that it provokes a coping mechanism. 

Whoa: I think I just found a weak link in the emotions list. Aggravation seems a more accurate label than faultfinding.

e. How do you treat the person in this situation when you believe the thought? How do you treat other people and yourself?

I have a level of disgust and disregard toward the person. My feeling for their prey leans toward condescension. As P.T. Barnum said, “You can’t cheat an honest man.”

f. Who would you be without the thought? Who or what are you without the thought?

If Byron Katie’s worksheets actually help people investigate their beliefs, I would be thankful. I would add The Work to my toolkit. I would recommend her work to people who could benefit from it. If I had to choose an emotion from the emotion list, I would go with grateful under the loving category.

Turn the Thought Around

Possible Turnarounds. 

1. To the self. 

I am a false prophet for profit.

2. To the other. 

I am falsely judging Byron Katie.

3. To the opposite.

Byron Katie is not a false prophet for profit.

Three Specific Examples

Then find at least three specific, genuine examples of how each turnaround is true for you in this situation.

For each turnaround, go back and start with the original statement. 

Byron Katie is a false prophet for profit.

1. I am a false prophet for profit. 

In my advertising days, I got paid for some concepts that were less successful than I predicted they would be.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is currently acknowledged as the gold standard for helping people between major depressive episodes prevent relapses. While adding these tested mental well-being exercises should make healthier responses to stress more common, I haven’t tested this with clinical studies.

I would like to earn some money by turning these posts into a structured course so that I can continue to do them. I don’t see myself buying a fleet of Rolls Royces or a private island, but I can’t be sure that I won’t.

2. I am falsely judging Byron Katie. 

In filling out this worksheet, I haven’t encountered any claims that this is the key to wealth or success or eternal salvation, so it’s possible that Byron Katie isn’t positioning herself as a prophet.

The worksheets and a $0.99 app are available on her website, so it’s possible that she’s motivated by something other than profit.

I did a quick Google search on Byron Katie critics. Psychotherapists say that The Work is not a substitute for psychotherapy, but Katie doesn’t claim that it is. A site called Christian Answers is strongly opposed, but many Christians view mindfulness meditation as the work of the devil.

3. Byron Katie is not a false prophet for profit.    

The authors of the original mindfulness manual advocated cultivating awareness of dysfunctional beliefs and replacing them with their opposites. This is easier to do on paper than in our heads.

The approach is consistent with an idea that occurs in most wisdom traditions: we tend to criticize others for flaws that we are blind to in ourselves.

The authority figure who convinced me to look into Byron Katie is the eastern scholar and translator Stephen Mitchell. He was so impressed with how Byron Katie’s work fit in with the tenets of the wisdom traditions that he married her.

Ten Minute Exercise

I find that the principles behind the worksheets are consistent with traditional mindfulness techniques. The major innovation is writing thoughts down instead of watching them in the wilds of the mind.

But, please, don’t take my word for it. Do try this at home.   

It took me longer than ten minutes to fill out a worksheet, but you can download either the Judge-Your-Neighbor or One-Belief-at-a-Time worksheets and watch the video on how to fill them out.

For further evidence, I recommend the book Loving What Is by Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell. Check your local library if you’re skeptical about the “profit” part.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.