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 10 of Byron Katie’s inquiry process: turn it around to myself

I’ve asked the four questions about my judgment “my father didn’t care about me”.

I continue the inquiry process about this painful thought, which I’ve already established isn’t true, by turning it around. There are three turnarounds in The Work. The first one asks me to turn the statement around to myself.

“My father didn’t care about me” gets turned around like this:

I didn’t care about me.

How did I not care about myself?

Katie asks for at least three instances of each turnaround, but even more important is that the turnarounds penetrate and set you free.

  1. I did not ask my father for more attention. How could he have known I wanted it if I didn’t say so? I didn’t care about myself enough to make this request. I didn’t even give him a chance to respond (or not).
  2. I kept my feelings completely to myself. I did not tell anyone that I was unhappy about my relationship with my father. I was clueless about what I could have done about it, and I assumed others would be clueless too. That might not have been the case. This is a new realization.
  3. Because my father didn’t care about me and I was therefore unworthy, this low self-esteem spilled over into other areas of my life. I can see that now with hindsight. I was rather troubled back then and did not pursue living up to my full potential. I did not believe in myself or my abilities back then. This realization is also a new insight.

It takes self-respect to ask for attention, to tell someone when feeling troubled, and to deal with a problem before it grows.

Next: turning it around to the other.

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 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.