A thought is harmless unless we believe it
A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts, but our 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.
I first discovered Byron Katie’s “Work” fifteen or twenty years ago. I found it very useful. Then I forgot what I’d learned. Then I discovered it again and forgot it much more quickly. And again and even more rapidly. Goes to show what you can do when you practice.
This time I’m making a backup. That’s what my blog posts are for me, I realized the other day. Every post is a backup of the states of mind that I was in when I wrote them. I can read them later and re-enter that state of mind—or a reasonable approximation—easily. Or if the post is about exiting a state of mind, then I can exit again—quickly.
Here’s the story of my most recent “rediscovery” of Byron Katie. I could start it anywhere in the last 13.75 billion years, I suppose. But I’ll start it on June 26th when I restarted writing my morning pages.
I decided I was going to get back into the habit of writing my morning pages and found it surprisingly difficult. But I kept at it, on and off, all day. After hours of starts, diversions, restarts, abandoned directions, returns, new starts, I found a direction in which I could keep going. I concluded my 750 words that day, headed in that direction. The next day I started by rewriting a summary of my ending thoughts and went on from there.
The idea from June 26th, as I express it now, is this:
“I want to get up every morning with a clear goal (or direction) a plan for moving in that direction, enough energy to begin to make progress in that direction.
“If I have a goal or direction, but no plan, then my goal is to develop a plan, providing I have enough energy.
“If I have no particular goal or direction, then my goal is to choose one, providing I have enough energy.
The next day I considered: what do I do if I don’t have enough energy?
Many starts, redirections, halts, and restarts later, I decided this: it is never true that I don’t have enough energy. The idea “I don’t have enough energy” is a belief. And not a harmless one. And I remembered Byron Katie: beliefs are not axioms or natural laws. They are just beliefs. And they are subject to revision.
The next day I continued.
I considered what to do about that belief—and others like it. Byron Katie has a process for dealing with beliefs that don’t serve us well. It’s outlined in this little book. Find a troublesome belief. Ask yourself these four questions:
Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to question 3.)
Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
When I’ve used this technique in the past, I’ve found that these are the setup questions. The real payoff is the fourth one:
4. Who would you be without the thought?
When I talked to my Mom after twelve years of estranging myself from my family, I said that I had cut communication because “I was trying to hurt her.”
I did it, I said, “even though I knew I would hurt my Dad.”
She said, “You didn’t hurt me. You couldn’t.”
I said, “I know, but I could not have lived with myself if I didn’t try.”
She nodded as though that made sense.
WTF? What kind of belief was driving my behavior? And who would I have been without that thought?
Back then, I had not yet discovered Byron Katie. If I had, and if I’d done my Work, it might have change things. It might have helped me change my attachment to the angry thoughts that drove my behavior.
And boy, was I was attached.
I was prepared to suffer, to cause my Dad to suffer, to deny my kids the benefits of knowing their grandparents and the rest of their family for those beliefs.
Who would I have been without the belief that I “needed” to try to get back at my Mom? What would have happened if I’d asked or been asked that question?
I’d like to hope I’d have changed.
After asking the four questions, the next step is to: “Turn the thought around.”
I see that as a way to restore the ability to take charge of beliefs.
It’s not a matter of getting rid of harmful beliefs—though that may happen, but rather a subject of inquiry. Asking questions. Considering alternatives.
Beliefs are tools that I can use, not forces that control me.
What person does follows from what a person believes.
To change behavior, change beliefs.
And the way to change beliefs is through force or rejection but through inquiry.
So that’s today’s backup.