Lessons from the 21-day Byron Katie challenge

The challenge to focus on The Work of Byron Katie for 21 days was worthwhile. I examined a painful thought that has been a thread running through my life, that my father didn’t care about me.

I subjected that belief to inquiry, and it did not hold up. My father did care about me. I know that deeply now. The way he chose to express it — nonverbally, without physical, verbal, or visual signs of affection, without playfulness, and pretty much without much eye contact or much facial expression at all — was not a way I understood or valued when I was young and first had this thought.

I realize now that he showed his caring by simply being there with his family and not somewhere else, supporting me from infancy through adulthood, reading aloud to his children, helping with homework, and creating order through daily rituals (dinner time, bath time, bed time). He wasn’t really that different from many men who were fathers in the 1950s and 1960s — who had been through sobering times (the Great Depression and World War II). He was not frivolous, not expressive, and a man who had lost his own father at age 9.

I took him for granted.

I did this challenge a bit differently than I initially envisioned doing it. I had thought that I would do one worksheet a day, answering the four questions and doing the turnarounds for 21 days.

That would have been extremely time-consuming. My blog posts would have been quite lengthy, and I fear you, dear readers, might have completely lost patience and interest.

So instead, I worked on one issue, my relationship with my dad, which even though he’s been dead for years, I still felt some tender sensitivity and pain about. I liked doing it slowly and deeply like this. Sometimes at Katie’s workshops, there just isn’t time to really go deep with my own stuff. This was satisfying and memorable. I feel like I got the process in my bones and now find myself asking, “Is that true?” and “What happens when I believe that thought?” Just noticing…

I have turned over that rock and examined the ground under it, the creepy-crawlies, the shadow, took a good thorough look, and then put the rock back and moved on.

Of course there are more rocks to investigate, but I can see that each time I do inquiry, the remaining rocks are perhaps fewer, lighter, and smaller.

And wow. Would I ever like to get to the bottom of how I create my own suffering with my thinking! That would require a lot of discernment. Speaking of which, this great quote on that topic came up today on Tricycle Daily Dharma:

The fundamental aim of Buddhist practice is not belief; it’s enlightenment, the awakening that takes place when illusion has been overcome. It may sound simple, but it’s probably the most difficult thing of all to achieve. It isn’t some kind of magical reward that someone can give you or that a strong belief will enable you to acquire. The true path to awakening is genuine discernment; it’s the very opposite of belief. ~ Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche, “The Seeds of Life”

So yeah. Enlightenment comes through examining illusion, that is, using inquiry and discerning the truth. This is how it works in real life.

In filling out the worksheet, I went back to the last years I lived at home, when I was in high school, and how it was then between my father and me. I remembered yearning for his positive personal attention, and it never even crossing my mind to just ask him for it! Because “we didn’t do that in our family,” it wasn’t even in my realm of possibilities back then.

I am so grateful to have busted out of that prison. I’m not sure when that happened.  At some point, I gained the quality of brashness. It usually works, too.

I think it’s a great idea for people to ask for attention when you need it. If the person who is asked can give it, fine, and if not, fine. There are always others, and of course, there’s the self. Doing The Work is a fine way to relate to the self. Quality time.

My relationship with my father, which transcends his death, has expanded. It’s become lighter and broader. I can consider other possibilities for his behavior than the narrow, joyless ones I laid on him.

This opens me up too. My hurting self, the wounded child, has healed (at least about this topic). It’s a memory now, in the past.

After having done the work, it doesn’t matter whether my father did or didn’t have Asperger’s Syndrome. That’s only a concept, just a theory to explain his behavior.

When I ask, “How do I react, what happens, when I think that thought?” I realize that it just doesn’t matter that much to me. I wonder more how he would have reacted had he known, fully aware that whatever I think is idle speculation, just opinion. It was his business, not mine.

I like to think that if he wanted help with it, which he never asked for, I would have gladly been willing to give it.

Just like he would have been glad to give me more attention, if I had asked for it.

People are like that, aren’t we.

Day 9 of The Work: Who would you be without the thought?

The fourth question to ask when you are doing inquiry (i.e., “The Work” of Byron Katie) about a situation that is emotionally painful is this:

Who would I be without the thought?

Applying this question to my statement that my father didn’t care about me is astonishing.

Without the thought, I am free of these painful feelings. When the thought leaves, the feelings leave.

What’s left is an empty openness. I feel it in my chest. There’s a freedom there that wasn’t there before. It’s as if that thought never existed.

Who would I be? Well, I experience myself as more expansive, more open, lighter.

“Who I am” is my identity, composed of my thoughts, emotions, sensations, and emptiness or spaciousness. Who I am is pretty much how I experience myself in each moment. (Everything else is about me, not me.)

What are you experiencing this very moment as you read this?

It’s so easy to think that who I am is my story: “the woman whose father didn’t care about her” or “the woman whose father had Asperger’s” and so many more stories I’ve bought into and perpetuated about myself. Whenever I think a thought that’s accompanied by emotional pain, I can do inquiry, starting with question #1.

Who I am is not my story.

My father is also not who I formerly believed him to be. When I think of him without this thought, a series of images comes into my mind. Without my story and its emotional baggage, they are neutral snapshots: my father sitting on the sofa, my father at the dinner table, my father driving, my father standing outside his office building waiting for his ride home, my father kissing my mother.

These are much kinder images than those of a father who didn’t care about his daughter.

Man, where did that thought ever even come from? Never mind. Who cares? I’m just glad to have busted this painful, limiting story.

To recap, I’ve already asked:

  1. Is is true? (if no, skip to #3)
  2. Can I absolutely know it’s true?
  3. What happens when I believe the thought?

“Who would you be without the thought” can also be asked “What would you be without the thought?” And whatever your answer is, you can ask again, “What would you be without that thought?”

See where that takes you! (It takes me into a vast experience of empty presence where anything can happen.)

Next: the first turnaround.

Day 5: What happens when you believe that thought?

Yesterday was a very busy day. I didn’t have an opportunity to work another question, but I did notice that I was applying The Work.

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a presidential election coming up. There is a lot of talk in the media about it. I notice myself hearing soundbites from the candidates and their supporters or opponents and asking myself, when someone says something disturbing (that is, full of fear, contempt, hatred), “Is that true?” and “Can you absolutely know that it’s true?”

The third question to apply to the statement “My father didn’t care about me” is this:

How do I react when I believe that thought?

Okay, I’m thinking the thought and believing it’s true. Something happens. My state changes. I feel very, very contracted. I feel sad. I feel hurt. My shoulders round into a forward slump. My head drops. I feel heavy, slow grief. I feel like I want to cry.

My self-talk adds, “…and that means I’m worthless, if my own father doesn’t care about me. I feel ashamed of who I am. Something must be wrong with me.”

It also reminds me of other times when I felt hurt that someone didn’t care about me. Images of a few faces pop into my mind.

My dad died years ago, but if he were still around and lucid, given who I am now, I’d want to tell him, “Do you know that for much of my life, I felt like you didn’t care about me?” It wouldn’t necessarily be angry, accusatory, or blaming on my part. He’d be a very old man, after all.

I imagine he’d ask why, and I’d tell him “because you didn’t make eye contact. You didn’t look me in the eye, and I felt like you didn’t really see me, like I was invisible, like you could not ever give me your full attention, and therefore, I was unimportant to you.”

Honestly, I have no idea how a conversation like that might have gone. If he were still around, he would know whether he had Asperger’s Syndrome. Aspies have difficulty with eye contact and social norms. But even if he didn’t have it, that all of his children think he probably did says something about his social skills.

When I think that thought, “My father didn’t care about me,” I don’t like how I feel. I don’t feel much like going out and being sociable myself. It puts me in a funk.

Can you see how I’ve spun off into my own little mental and emotional world here? I’m deep in my story about “my father didn’t care about me.” I am not present.

I’ve already answered question one, “Is it true?” No, it’s not true. But when I try on believing it’s true, I understand that my belief that my thought is true causes me to pain.

Wow. I can really use this tool. Any time I am feeling unhappy or stressed about something, I can investigate what I’m thinking and do inquiry on it.

Before I started writing this post, I gave a massage, and that felt really good. I was peaceful and happy. Now, believing this thought has brought me down, disturbed my peace, brought unhappiness into my day. I’ve entered a world that isn’t real, that’s in the past or the future, that’s anywhere but here, sitting here in my trailer on my sweet new sofa with my laptop, drinking delicious cold homemade pomegranate ginger kombucha, feeling the fan blowing.

A follow-up question to this is:

Can you see a reason to drop that thought? (And please don’t try to drop it.)

Yes. Before the thought, I felt peaceful and happy. After I believed that thought was true, I felt unhappy. Reason enough.

I don’t need to drop the thought. The thought drops me because I know it’s not true.

Another follow-up question is:

Can you find one stress-free reason to keep the thought?

The only stress-free reason I can think of for keeping it is to put it on a shelf in my Museum of Old Beliefs, where it can gather dust peacefully.

Next: the fourth question.

Day 3: Can you absolutely know that it’s true?

Two days ago I started this 21-day challenge of doing The Work of Byron Katie by filling out the Judge Your Neighbor worksheet.

Yesterday I asked the first of the four questions.

Today I’m asking the second question. This is a little tricky. If the answer to the first question is no, you can skip this and go directly to the third question. I answered no.

I wanted to include it in this modeling of the process, being online and all, so for demo purposes, I’m going to re-answer the first question by saying yes, it is true that he didn’t care about me, and ask the second question:

Can I absolutely know it’s true?

(It really doesn’t matter what the answer is to the first two questions. This is just for the purpose of inquiring within about what is true.)

Can I absolutely know that he didn’t care about me? This question asks me to go deeper, to go into what I absolutely know. I wonder what I do absolutely know. It seems like there’s a lot I do not absolutely know.

I could not read his mind to know what he did and didn’t care about. He didn’t say he cared about me in those specific words (that I remember, anyway), and he didn’t say he did not care about me. I don’t know. Feel the doubt?

As far as his behavior goes, I suspect he believed that doing his job as the breadwinner of the family was how he showed that he cared. Hmm. Maybe when he got home from work, he was drained and didn’t have anything more to give.

That’s a new thought.

A way to go even deeper is to add “…and it means that _______” to the statement.

I could say “He didn’t care about me, and it means that something is wrong with me.” Or it could mean that something is wrong with him, or it could mean that he didn’t know how to express his feelings very well, or it could mean that he didn’t know how to relate to me.

Then for any of these interpretations, I could go back to question 1 and ask, “Is that true?” Probably not anything major, maybe — and I feel my compassion for him building. I have a new understanding of him.

A second way to go deeper with this question is to ask if you had that, what would it get you. So I could say, if my dad truly cared about me, I would feel connected.

Then I could go back to question 1 and ask, “Is that true?” Hmm. Not necessarily.

A third way to go deeper is to imagine the worst outcome reality could hand me. What all might happen that my dad didn’t care about me? Hmm. Worst case scenario? I guess that would be that I committed suicide. Is that true? Nope. The worst didn’t happen.

Fourth way: You can also look for the “should” or “shouldn’t.” My father should have cared about me. Is that true?

Well, I can’t make him care about me. It has to come from him. So if he didn’t care, he didn’t care. But shouldn’t fathers care about their daughters? Well, some fathers don’t, and to say they should is to argue with reality. I always lose that argument!

And…to expect someone to care about another all the time is insane. No one could be caringly on another’s mind 24/7 in a sustainable healthy way, when I think about it. You have to brush your teeth and go to the bathroom sometime. 

So maybe sometimes he cared and sometimes he didn’t. It’s not true that he should have cared about me.

The last way to deepen inquiry is to ask where the proof is. Where’s the proof that my father didn’t care about me? What’s the evidence?

  1. He didn’t ever actually say “I care about you” (that I can remember).
  2. Sometimes he withdrew from social contact.
  3. He often didn’t notice what was going on in my life: who my friends were, what I was doing outside of school, what my hopes and dreams were.
  4. He didn’t ask me questions about myself and my life.
  5. He didn’t spend time with just me, getting to know me, having fun, or being closer.

Are any of these proof that he didn’t care about me? Are they true? No.

I hope you’re beginning to understand how this works! You don’t have to go this deep, but it’s good to know you can deepen your inquiry if you want.

Next: my favorite question, #3.

Day 2 of The Work: the first question, is it true?

Yesterday I filled out the Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet. 

Today I start asking the four questions. I apply the first question, “Is it true?” to my statement that my dad didn’t care about me.

Well, no. It’s not true. He did care about me.

He didn’t show that he cared the way I would have liked him to show it, which would have been by making a personal connection through attention, eye contact, hugs, and showing interest by asking me questions like what did I think about something or how my day went.

But you know, I didn’t ever tell him that that’s how I would have liked for him to show he cared. Those were things my mom did. Maybe he thought she did enough for both of them.

Or maybe he had Asperger’s, high functioning autism. He died before it was ever a diagnosis. People with Asperger’s have difficulty making eye contact, making small talk, understanding social norms.

The ways he showed he cared about me was by being a reliable breadwinner, going to work, making the money to pay for our home, car, food, bills, clothing, vacations, and so on. He occasionally made remarks that showed he had been paying attention, though they were so rare, it surprised me when he did. Several times I heard him praise me for the grades I made in school.

In Loving What Is, Byron Katie advises when asking whether a statement is true that you get very still and let the answer come to you.

It doesn’t matter what your answer is. The process works if your answer is yes or no. The point is to discover what is true from the deepest part of yourself. Listen for your answers, not someone else’s answers.

Another way to deepen this question is to ask “What’s the reality of this situation?” If you  think Paul shouldn’t watch so much television, but the reality is that he does, then you saying he shouldn’t is arguing with reality, an argument you can never win. It doesn’t do you any good, and it doesn’t change Paul’s behavior. It only causes you stress.

Katie says,

In reality, there is no such thing as a “should” or a “shouldn’t.” These are only thoughts that we impose onto reality. The mind is like a carpenter’s level. When the bubble is off to one side — “It shouldn’t be raining” — we can know that the mind is caught in its thinking. When the bubble is right in the middle — “It’s raining” — we can know that the surface is level and the mind is accepting reality as it is. Without the “should” and “shouldn’t,” we can see reality as it is, and this leaves us free to act efficiently, clearly, and sanely. Asking “what’s the reality of it?” can help bring the mind out of its story, back into the real world.

Katie also says that there are three kinds of business in the universe, mine, yours, and God’s.

When you think that someone or something other than yourself needs to change, you’re mentally out of your business…. Ask yourself, “Whose business is it how much television I watch?Whose business is it how much television Paul watches? And can I really know what’s best for Paul in the long run?”

This is another way of expressing the message of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Day 1 of Byron Katie’s The Work: filling out the Judge Your Neighbor worksheet

Today I’m kicking off a 21-day challenge to do The Work of Byron Katie. She has invented a method that consists of four questions and three turnarounds that if used on your stressful situations, can transform your pain into inner peace.

My hunch is that if I do it deeply and often enough, it will change my life.

I saw Katie in person in Austin, TX, USA, a few weekends ago. I’ve seen her several times, and each time I get a lot out of doing The Work on whatever my issues are at the time.

Then I forget that I know how to do that!

Because it takes 21 days to change a behavior, I am committing to do The Work every day for that long so that it becomes habit whenever I find myself suffering from my thoughts.

I’ll be using the four questions and three turnarounds on her Judge Your Neighbor worksheet, which you can download and print, if you’d like to do The Work yourself.

I’ll also be consulting her book, Loving What Is, where she elaborates on her method.

Here are the questions with my answers on the worksheet:

  1. Think of a situation where someone confuses, angers, or disappoints me, and why. When I recently saw Katie, she asked if anyone was present who had never had the thought “he (or she) doesn’t care about me.” Not one person raised their hand. This is a distressing thought that everyone experiences at some point.  I’m going to use that thought to do my work.  I am disappointed with my father because he doesn’t care about me. Even though he died in 15 years ago, some thoughts about our relationship are still painful when I think of them.
  2. How do I want him to change? What do I want him to do? I want my father to see me for who I am. I want him to interact with me more, to be responsive. I want him  to show his affection and to have more fun, be playful, lighten up. I want him to give good guidance as a father about living in the world and being successful. I want to be closer to him. I want to feel really cherished. (Tears are coming into my eyes.)
  3. What advice would I offer him? He should enjoy his family more. He shouldn’t just withdraw and sit there oblivious to everything going on around him. He should spend time with just me and give me his full attention.
  4. In order for me to be happy in this situation, what do I need him to think, say, feel, or do? I need my father to think I’m special and tell me so, and why he thinks that. I need my father to feel proud of me and affectionate toward me. I need him to connect to me in a way that feel good to both of us.
  5. What do I think of him in this situation? Make a list. My father is depressed, withdrawn, neglectful, inattentive, dry, serious, selfish, closed off, shut down.
  6. What is it in or about this situation that I don’t ever want to experience again? I don’t ever want to feel so disconnected, frustrated, and helpless about someone I care about.

Okay, that’s it for today. My memories of when I was in high school, those last few years I lived at home, are so strong, I can smell the cigarette smoke in our home.

In my family, it was forbidden to rock the boat, to confront the parents. We all tiptoed on eggshells around him when he was disconnected.

Next: the first question.

The power of asking questions

I was working in the student clinic, doing another intern massage. The client assigned to me was someone I had worked on previously. She works at a desk job.

The first time, she had complained of neck pain, and she had said she didn’t want to be poked with fingers or knuckles. So I rubbed and kneaded her neck quite a bit and didn’t do any of the deep massage strokes that I felt could have been so helpful had she not had this aversion because many involve “poking”.

On the client evaluation, she said I didn’t spend enough time on her neck!

So when I got her again, I was determined to get a better result. I brought her back to the bay and asked her if her neck was still bothering her. She said yes.

I asked her to show me where her neck was hurting and gave a little demo by putting my hand on the back of my neck and asking, “Is it about here?”

She said, “No, more like here,” and she ran her hands across the tops of her shoulders.

Whoa.

Just to clarify, I said, “So you’re not feeling any pain or tightness here?” again with my hand on the back of my neck.

She said no.

And of course, I was professional, but meanwhile I was thinking,

Girlfriend, that’s totally your upper trapezius — the top of your shoulder — and not your neck.

Many people’s knowledge of their own anatomy has big blank areas.

I asked if there was anywhere else she desired special attention. She said her lower back was bothering her. She also said not to work on her abs or her hands.

So I went to work. I spent a lot of time on her back, with focus on her tight upper traps and her sacrum/lumbar area. When I thought I had probably done enough, I leaned down and asked her if that was enough or if she wanted me to work some more on her back.

She said to do what I needed to do. I guessed from that that she assumed that the students in the massage clinic have to follow a routine, and that if she wanted more back work, it was out of the question. Not so.

I told her I could work on her back some more if she liked. I told her I could spend most of our hour together on her back if she liked.

She said she’d love some more back work.

So I worked on her back for about 40-45 minutes of our hour together. I palpated and explored. I repeated strokes, did them slowly, and emulated deep massage with my palms to avoid the poking of knuckles and fingertips.

I pulled her scapula in and up to shorten her tight upper trap and asked her if that gave her some relief. She said it did.

I wrung, lifted and rolled, and kneaded. I rocked her torso. I came at areas from many directions. I even gave her tapotement (like drumming) after asking if she’d like it, which I think is the first time I’ve done it as an intern.

When I finished her back, I redraped it with sheet and blanket and just pressed her glutes and backs of legs and feet. I rocked her body from the heels and had her turn over, asking how she was doing. “Fine,” she said, with a look of bliss on her face.

I like that look.

I pressed the fronts of her legs and tops of feet and rolled her legs, just to loosen up the hips and make the legs feel included as parts of the whole body.

I skipped her abs as requested and just worked on her pecs, giving pressure to her arms so they felt included, avoiding her hands as requested.

Then I did some more upper back work from underneath, rubbed and kneaded her neck, and stretched her neck.

I ended with massaging her scalp and a fulcrum/stretch of the back of her head.

(So okay, I know some of this is massage geek talk, but I’m sure you get the big picture. If not, come get a student massage and see for yourself. $35, no tipping.)

That massage was so off the books from the routines I’ve learned and yet so rewarding because I used my resources to clarify what she really wanted, and then I got to be creative, continuing to ask for feedback and giving her more of what she wanted.

She was very, very happy with it. She gave me a fabulous evaluation, especially for taking the time to really find out what she needed.

The upshot is that questions are very, very powerful tools. If you know what you want but aren’t getting the results you want, ask questions. It’s all in the communication, baby.

There is great personal power to be had literally just for the asking, especially if you ask the right questions, to get the results you want, to get another person to open up to you, to get insight into someone else’s map of reality, to create something that’s satisfying.

It’s so simple, yet almost like a secret. Have you asked anyone a real good question today?