Yesterday I sneaked a preview of one of the videos of a future class with Martha, where she talks about coaching clients through the Square One phase of the Change Cycle, the death of the ego constructs that precede any rebirth or transformation in life. One of the main approaches she uses during this phase is The Work by Byron Katie. I spent some time on YouTube watching The Work in action, and listening to Katie talk. Martha said during the video that this is a very powerful but also very sophisticated technique, and should be used “like a scalpel” – in other words, with care, expertise, and precise intention. On the surface, it is just a simple series of four questions asked to examine any thought that is causing suffering in your life:

  • Is it true?
  • Can you be absolutely certain that it’s true?
  • How do you react, what do you feel, when you believe the thought?
  • Who would you be without the thought?

The final step is to turn the thought around. Take the original thought (“Paul doesn’t listen to me”) and turn it to the other (“I don’t listen to Paul”), to the opposite (“Paul does listen to me”), or to the self (“I don’t listen to me”). Then find three genuine examples of how the turnaround statement is true in your life.

I tried “mentally” doing this exercise, and nodded with recognition when I first read this simple list of instructions. So I didn’t really think much of it. But now that I’ve encountered it multiple times and listened more deeply to it, I’m beginning to realize that it’s a form of “mental massage”. Martha describes it as a way of forcing the brain to form new synaptic connections and associations between thoughts and feelings. It’s a form of deliberate practice for the brain and emotions, in other words.

Which explains why my “silently” doing The Work “in my head” – without writing it down or saying it out loud – had no effect on me. Just recognizing it or agreeing with it does not serve its purpose of changing your self-limiting beliefs. Just saying “I get it” or “I can do that” is not the same as actually doing The Work. Just wanting to change is necessary but insufficient to actually effect change.

The other revelation that surfaced after listening to Katie’s talks and watching multiple sessions with real people is that our thoughts are not the problem. Believing our thoughts can be a problem. Recognizing that thoughts come and go all the time, but that we don’t have to believe them, is the enlightenment that is possible if you do The Work deeply and constantly. I noticed it in just a flash this morning, when I started doing yoga and the thought came to my mind that “I need to put away the papers on my desk”. I almost stepped off my mat to start putting away those papers! Meaning, I actually believed that thought in that moment! Instead of just recognizing it as something that flashed through my mind – that’s what minds do ! – I was about to let that thought dictate my actions and take me away from the yoga practice I’d just started. It was a mini-moment of awareness. I kept going with my practice, and the thought had passed. The next moment had arrived, and a new thought was ready to take its place (this time, it was, “I want to drink a soy chai latte”). I kept doing my yoga.

The Work is a way of being with our painful thoughts – acknowledging them, massaging them, examining the pain they cause us, and then revealing to ourselves, through our own genuine truth finding, the groundlessness of even our most painful beliefs. Katie says, “Too often we see our negative thoughts, and we want to shut them down, meditate them away, medicate them away, eat them away, credit card them away, drink them away, drug them away. But thoughts don’t go away. They keep coming. And we’re left with the effects. They’re still there because we haven’t dealt with them.” But The Work is like unconditional love for your thoughts. By questioning them with genuine curiosity and without judgment – taking the time to do this without avoiding or denying them – we learn to meet our thoughts with unconditional love. Until we can meet all of our thoughts – stressful or not – with unconditional love, we cannot meet another person with unconditional love.

It’s especially mind-blowing for me because my whole life has been about getting educated – thinking, training my brain to establish deep grooves of knowledge, memory, connection. I think this heavily rational background will serve me because I’m familiar with my own mind. I spend a lot of time with it. I’ve been doing mental gymnastics my whole life, except I’ve been practicing the same routines trying to score the perfect 10 in the Olympics. My mind is familiar territory and has served me well in many ways. I’m grateful for that. But The Work now gives me a way to identify and loosen some of the equally solid connections that cause me to feel stress, pain, and suffering – meaning, those thoughts that are resistant to reality in the present moment. Developing flexibility of mind is the point of The Work – it’s like yoga for the mind.

Katie said during a 2007 talk in Israel: “Life happens. It’s what you are believing about life that is terrifying you.” If you have lived in a state of suffering for your whole life, and then you open your mind to the possibility of living without suffering, it can be terrifying to consider these questions. Who would you be without that story of suffering?

This is the essence of what is going on in Square One of the Change Cycle. Dropping old stories and making space for new ones to write themselves. The next question is, how do we move from the state of acceptance and “loving what is” (the real) into the state of taking actions that move our reality toward what we imagine it could be (the ideal)? Let me get through this square first…

I’m just beginning to grasp why Martha respects The Work as if it were a surgeon’s scalpel. More to come!