If crazy people can separate from their thoughts, perhaps the rest of us can, too. How much difference is there between the disordered impulses of OCD and the painful, repetitive thoughts many of us carry that make us scared, angry or sad? According to Byron Katie, it’s not the thoughts themselves that hurt us. It’s the fact that we believe them.
Katie, author of “Loving What Is” teaches people not to attach to their thoughts. “Thoughts just appear,” she says. “They come out of nothing and go back to nothing, like clouds moving across the empty sky. There is no harm in them until we attach to them as if they were true. I have never experienced a stressful feeling that wasn’t caused by attaching to an untrue thought.”
I would add that many of our deepest thoughts come from things we heard, experienced or learned as children. We may have misunderstood them in the first place, but they have controlled our lives ever since. They may have become core beliefs, so deep that we aren’t even aware of them. By looking at our thoughts from a distance, by questioning them, we can change the way we see the world.
When I watch Katie work, or read transcripts, the rapid healing people achieve amazes me. In one tape, she talks with a man whose wife has left him and his daughter, to live in Europe with an old flame. He sounds angry, but he looks scared and sad. He makes statements like, “My wife doesn’t accept me for who I am,” and “My wife should see how thoughtful and loving I am.” He worries that his daughter will be traumatized for life. His shoulders are sagging; he often breaks into tears.
For each statement he makes, Katie asks him, “Is this really true? Think about it. Can you know that she doesn’t accept you?” Can you absolutely know that your daughter will be wounded by this? In most cases, the husband has to admit that he doesn’t really know. His daughter appears to be skating through Mom’s absence, actually spending more time with Dad, which they both like.
Katie’s next question is usually “How do you react when you think this thought? Physically, emotionally, what do you do when you think this thought? How do you feel?” This husband, like most of Katie’s clients, admits that he feels terrible with whatever thought they’re talking about. Then she asks, “Who would you be without this thought?” And the answer is usually, “I would be happier.” “I would be strong.” “I would be more loving,” or something like that.
Then she asks clients to “turn the thought around.” There are several possible turnarounds – in this case the husband changed “She doesn’t accept me as I am,” to “I don’t accept me as I am,” and also “I don’t accept her as she is.” He turned “My wife should see how thoughtful and loving I am” to “I should see how thoughtful and loving I am.” And then (after a pause and some tears) “I should see how thoughtful and loving she is.” By the end of the session, he is feeling love for his wife and way more confidence in himself. His posture has improved and he is even laughing at his now disbelieved thoughts.
Katie says you can’t really stop thoughts or control them. What you can do is question them. “I don’t let go of my thoughts,” she says. “I meet them with understanding. Then they let go of me.”
I was totally with Katie up to this point. But she also believes that everything in the world is good. Her philosophy goes back to 18th Century “Optimists” like Liebniz, who said “This is the best of all possible worlds.” There may be some problems, but if God removed those, it would create others that are worse.
Katie goes much farther, though – this is not just the best possible world, but a perfect world. “Everything that is, is right,” as English Optimist and poet Alexander Pope wrote. I can’t believe that, or more accurately, I don’t want to believe it. Torture exists, but it is not right. Destroying countries with radioactive bombs, pouring oil into the Gulf of Mexico, things like that can’t be good, in my opinion. But Katie certainly seems to believe it’s all good. And watching and listening to her, it seems that she lives in heaven. The streets where she walks, and the whole world are Paradise to her.
My friend Jane asked me, “Is [Katie] blissful, or just oblivious?” I couldn’t tell. Maybe it’s not important. She is happy; she is helping others. And this happiness might be available to nearly anyone who wants it. It won’t change the world, but it changes our perception of the world. Heaven may be just a thought away, so why are we waiting on the far shore? I’m not sure; perhaps you can help.
Even without total bliss, I have to admit that stepping back from my thoughts is making me happier. Other people notice it too. When I don’t attach to my own thoughts, it makes it easier to hear other people’s reality, and easier to connect with them. Sometimes it does feel like I’m walking (well, scooting) on the Way of Heaven. And sometimes it doesn’t. But the difference seems mainly in what I’m thinking at the time, and whether I believe it.