Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

You Don’t Have to Believe Your Thoughts

Byron Katie's "inquiry" can help you question the validity of stressful thoughts

For many years, I was an expert at making myself miserable by taking a neutral thought, turning it into a stressful one, and then spinning that stressful thought into an even more stressful story—one with little or no basis in reality.

In my book, How to Wake Up, I call this tendency “storytelling dukkha” (dukkha being the word that the Buddha used to describe suffering, stress, and often, just plain unhappiness).

 

To illustrate my expertise at this, here are two neutral, fact-based thoughts:

“I'm meeting a friend for lunch today.”

“I have an appointment with a new doctor next week.”

Each of these thoughts states a fact, free of emotional content. But then, driven by worry and anxiety over my health, I’d turn them into stressful thoughts:

“I wont have a good time at lunch.”

“The doctor’s appointment won't go well.”

(An aside: Stressful thoughts are not reserved for those with health problems. Before I got sick, I could easily worry and fret about my family, my job performance—you name it!)

Back to my examples. Having turned each of the neutral thoughts into stressful ones, the storytelling would begin:

“I'll stay at lunch much longer than I should, but I won’t tell my friend that I need to leave and then I’ll be mad at myself for not speaking up.”

“The doctor will think my illness is all in my head, and he won't want to treat me.”

As Buddhist teachers like to say, the suffering is in the stories.

Byron Katie
In this article, I want to share a practice so powerful that I devote an entire chapter to it in my book, How to Be Sick. It’s a technique developed by a teacher (who’s not Buddhist) named Byron Katie. She calls it “inquiry” or “four questions and a turnaround.”

At the outset, it helps to recognize that the mind is going to think what it’s going to think. Trying to control the thoughts that arise in your mind is a losing battle. What matters to your well-being is not which thoughts arise but how you respond to them. If you can learn to respond skillfully, you’re much more likely to keep a stressful thought from turning into a full-blown stressful story.

Here are Byron Katie’s four questions—questions to ask yourself when you recognize that you’re caught in the net of a stressful thought:

1. Is the thought true?

2. Am I absolutely sure that it’s true?

3. How do I feel when I think the thought?

4. Who would I be without the thought?

Before addressing Byron Katie’s fifth step—the turnaround—I’ll apply her four questions to the two stressful thoughts in my example. In writing this, I’ll answer the way I would, but as you read it, try thinking of how you’d answer each question. I’ll start with the upcoming lunch with my friend.

1. Is it true that I won't have a good time at lunch? 

“Yes, I think it’s true.”

2. Am I absolutely sure it’s true that I won't have a good time?

“Hmm. I guess I’m not absolutely sure.

Sometimes just seeing that you're not absolutely sure that a stressful thought is true is enough to keep you from turning it into a stress-filled story.

3. How do I feel when I think that I won't have a good time?

“I feel even more worried about going to lunch.”

4. Who would I be without the thought that lunch won’t go well?

“I’d be a person living in this moment, with a chance to enjoy the day I'm in instead of being lost in worry about something in the future.”

Now I’ll try the same technique with the doctor’s appointment.

1. Is it true that the doctor’s appointment won't go well?

“Yes, it’s true. They never do.”

2. Am I it absolutely sure it’s true?

“I suppose not. Perhaps I was exaggerating a bit when I said, ‘They never do.’”

3. How do I feel when I think it won't go well?

“I feel scared that I’ll be disregarded again.”

4. Who would I be without the thought?

“I’d be a person living in the current moment instead of being scared about something in the future.”

Letting my response to Question #4 sink in is always helpful, because it switches my focus to the present moment. If I stop here though, I’m likely to drift back to stressful storytelling, so it’s important to move on to Byron Katie’s turnaround.

Here, you turn the stressful thought around—change it—in a way that works for you individually (there’s no one “right” turnaround). Then the instruction is to come up with three reasons why this new thought might be true.

I’ll start with that lunch. Here’s my turnaround: I will have a good time at lunch with my friend.

What are three reasons why this might be true?

1) Maybe I’ll have the discipline to leave when I need to.

2) Maybe I'll feel good enough to stay for longer than I expect.

3) Maybe she’ll have another obligation coming up and won’t be able to stay long herself.

Coming up with multiple reasons for why I might enjoy lunch drives home the point that there’s no reason to believe the stressful thought that I won't enjoy it. This enables me to just wait and see how the lunch goes.

Now, to that doctor’s appointment. My turnaround: The doctor’s appointment will go well.

What are three reasons why this might be true?

1) The doctor might be good listener.

2) He might not qustion how sick I am.

3) He might be honest with me about what he can and cannot do to help.

The turnaround helps me to see that it makes no sense to decide ahead of time that the appointment won’t go well. After all, if my stressful thought turns out to be true and the appointment is a disappontment, it won’t be because of my worrying and stress-filled storytelling about it!

Byron Katie’s “four questions and a turnaround” is a valuable tool for everyone, whether chronially ill or not.

It's such a relief to learn that we don’t have to believe our thoughts.

© 2013 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

You might also like "How Distorted Thinking Increases Anxiety and Stress."

My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. To receive an email the next time I post, click here. I'm active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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