One of the authors who has made a big impact on my life is named Byron Katie (everyone calls her Katie). Her philosophy and way of engaging the world has been helpful for me as I have worked to navigate the ups and downs that come with living life. From her writings, I have developed a 3-step process to live a life that is peaceful, honest, and full.
Step 1: Inquiry
The first step is called inquiry. This process is what Byron Katie is perhaps best known for. The process of inquiry is based on the premise that whenever we feel stressed or upset, there is an underlying thought that is linked to it. Often these underlying thoughts conflict with reality. In other words, we think that something in our lives or the world should be different than what it is.
The process of inquiry involves four questions that we ask ourselves, and something called the turnaround.
- Is it true? The first question asks whether the thought is true. It doesn’t mean true in a moral sense, but rather whether the thought aligns with reality. For example, the other day I made the mistake of leaving my garage door open. The next day, our bikes were stolen. I was upset, and the underlying thought was: “They shouldn’t have stolen our bikes.” Is it true? What’s the reality? They did steal our bikes. So, the answer to this question is no.
- Can you be absolutely sure that it is true? Sometimes our answer to the first question is yes. (And that’s totally okay. There are no right or wrong answers here. Just tune in with yourself and answer in the way that you feel.) Question #2 asks whether you can be absolutely sure that the thought is true. Often in life, we aren’t sure if a thought completely aligns with reality. There’s some ambiguity. So, usually the answer to this question is no.
- How do you respond when you believe the thought is true? The third question gets at the cause and effect of our thoughts. When we “buy in” to the thought we are struggling with, what is the result? For example, when I believe the thought “They shouldn’t have stolen our bikes” when the reality is that they did in fact steal our bikes, I get upset, frustrated, and angry. I fantasize about taking revenge on the people who stole our bikes. I experience violence in my mind.
- Who would you be without the thought? The fourth question asks you to imagine that you aren’t able to think the thought you are struggling with. If it were impossible to think the thought, how would you be? For example, if I couldn’t believe the thought “They shouldn’t have stolen our bikes,” I would be more at peace. I would just be a man without a bike. No anger, no frustration, no need for revenge.
- The turnaround. The turnaround asks you to think about whether the opposite of your painful thought might be just as true (or truer). There are a couple of ways to think about the turnaround. One way is to put yourself into the thought. “They shouldn’t have stolen our bikes” becomes “I shouldn’t have stolen our bikes.” It can take a little creativity to see how this might be true, but stick with it. For example, did I have any responsibility for my bikes being stolen? Well, I left the garage door open all night. I shouldn’t have done that. Another way to do the turnaround is to just write the opposite of the sentence. “They shouldn’t have stolen our bikes” becomes “They should have stolen our bikes.” This thought certainly corresponds more closely with reality (because they did steal them). But there might be other ways that this could be true as well. Maybe they were kids who had no money and needed transportation. Maybe the guilt from stealing our bikes will teach them a lesson and turn their life around. Maybe this will allow me to get a better bike. And so on.
The purpose of inquiry isn’t to force you to change a painful thought. My experience is that thoughts come and go on their own—it’s difficult (if not impossible) to force yourself to change a thought. But the process of inquiry enables you to explore your thought to see when your thoughts don’t correspond to reality. It also helps you to separate from your thoughts a bit. Instead of being overwhelmed by your thoughts and believing them automatically, inquiry allows you to take a step back and look at your thoughts more realistically.
Step 2: Honesty
Katie makes a big deal about honesty. We create a lot of problems for ourselves when we aren’t honest with ourselves and others. The process of inquiry directly leads to honesty because we get clear about our own thoughts and feelings. When we are in a place of clarity, then we can be honest with ourselves and others.
Katie tells a funny story about a woman who was furious with her husband because he kept bothering her when she was trying to work. She would take out her anger on her husband, punishing him because she was so annoyed. A big part of her anger was due to her lack of honesty. The woman was unable to say, “I love you and I need to work right now. I would like you to leave the room.” Anger and frustration tend to fade when we are honest about our needs, wants, and boundaries.
Step 3: Do the Dishes
A lot of people worry about making decisions about what they should be doing. Katie says that once you are clear with your thinking, you don’t have to struggle with decisions, because the right thing to do will be right in front of you. When Katie came home from being in an in-patient facility, she remembered walking into her home and feeling overwhelmed. Dishes were in the sink, her kids’ clothes were strewn everywhere, and so many things needed to be done. She didn’t know what to do. Then she heard a voice inside of her say, “Do the dishes.” So, she went to the sink and did the dishes. After she was done with the dishes, she went on to do the next right thing. And by the time the day was done, she had done everything she needed to do for the day.
Katie uses the phrase “do the dishes” to mean doing the next right thing. Actions are important. When we are clear with our thinking, and honest with ourselves and others, it’s important to get active in our life. Try not to worry too much about what you should do. Just look around, and think about what the next right thing is to do. Don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself to find some grand sense of purpose. You can experience a sense of satisfaction and meaning even from doing the dishes.
What do you think of the 3 steps for peace, honesty, and living a full life? Which step do you struggle with the most?