This morning I listened to a podcast created by author and speaker Byron Katie about overcoming our fears. I realize that writing about fear isn’t always popular. In fact, some people are adamant that they don’t have any fear to begin with. But I’m convinced that much of the current anger, outrage, hatred, and denial coming out of the news, on social media, and in conversation, is grounded in fear. So, when Byron Katie applied her “work” on a willing participant in the aforementioned podcast around the subject of current events, the foundation of fear was evident. I found her solution helpful. And perhaps because it so applied to some of my own shadow thoughts, I thought today was a perfect opportunity to bring them out in the open.
You might be surprised to hear that I have fears—after all, I do my best to stay positive and aware of the good on a regular basis. But it is also distinctly human for each of us to experience fear. Of course, what we do with that fear—retaliate, deny it, or seek to transform it—is entirely up to us. That’s where a solution like Katie’s comes into the equation.
I’ve written about Byron Katie and her “work” in previous posts but never in direct relation to fear. Katie (she goes by her last name) experienced a transformational experience over 30 years ago when she was in her early 40s. At the time she was living alone, isolated from her children and husband, deeply depressed, suicidal, and addicted to alcohol and pills. In complete despair she lay on the floor of her attic apartment, unbathed in unwashed pajamas, believing she was so pathetic and unworthy she didn’t even deserve a bed. Then for no reason at all, one morning she awoke and saw a cockroach crawling over a foot. Her foot. At that moment she was filled with awe and wonder at the exquisite beauty and joy of it all.
Through the years I have read of others who have experienced a similar sort of transformation. While I’ll admit that a couple of times I felt close to that inner euphoria myself, like most people, few among us are able to sustain that level of awareness for any length of time. For Katie it was profound. Her sense of “newness” was so overwhelming that she had a difficult time functioning as an adult. Her past seemed to dissolve, and her future was non-existent. All she was left with was a reality filled with love. Anyone who has read Eckhart Tolle will be familiar with the idea of the freedom to be found by living completely in the now.
Gradually Katie discovered that if she slipped into thinking certain thoughts she suffered. But as long as she released those thoughts, she returned to feelings of joy and unconditional love. She says, “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.”
As she tried to explain the simplicity her awareness to the growing number of people who were drawn to her outpouring of love in every moment, she eventually came up with a simple practice. Her method teaches people to challenge the thoughts and beliefs that cause their suffering. She isn’t trying to change minds—or get people to deny or pretend things are happening. Instead, she guides people to a level of consciousness about the origin of their thoughts and where they lead. She calls that process of inquiry, “The Work.”
So, what does any of this have to do with fear? This morning’s podcast concerned a person named Nancy who was filled with fear and suffering about the current political situation in our county. Specifics aren’t really necessary because all anyone needs to do is turn on the television news to discover daily events causing terror in our country –and thereby fear in our minds. Katie then guided Nancy through “The Work” to analyze what she thought, felt and believed about that news. It wasn’t difficult to see how many of Nancy’s thoughts were like my own. Nancy’s fears were similar to my own. And much of Nancy’s suffering mirrored my own. And I’d bet money there are lots of others in the world who are equally suffering with exactly the same thoughts.
In case you are wondering, the process of inquiry that Katie offers is freely available on the internet. She also has a number of published books which explain the process. But one of the easiest ways to get a sense of Katie and her questions is to listen to her many podcasts or videos. Basically, The Work boils down to four brief questions that seem almost ludicrous in their simplicity. They are:
- Is it true? (yes or no)
- Are you absolutely sure it is true? (yes or no)
- How do you react (what happens) when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
I said they were almost ludicrous, didn’t I? The thing is, once you use one of her worksheets and go through each question with her gentle probing, you uncover all sorts of things. Primarily, you discover how your beliefs and thoughts about events and people are the actual cause behind your need to fight, worry about, and fear. In fact, all of that fighting, worry, and fear in our mind is really what is happening right at that moment. We are so convinced we are right and justified, that we never stop to question where those beliefs and thoughts are coming from. More importantly, there is no one doing it to us. We are doing it to ourselves.
Let me give you a good example. Nancy specifically explained that she was terrified that the current President would create a nuclear war. Katie asked, “Is it true?” Now many of us might insist that Nancy is correct. Instead, Katie asked her to close her eyes and imagine herself standing within that question. In other words, what exactly did Nancy see and feel as she claimed that statement to be true?
Interestingly enough, what Nancy reported was that she visualized every horrible image in her mind related to nuclear war—and every single one of them was from the past. The pictures in her head were things she’d seen on TV, in a magazine, the internet or read somewhere—and they were deeply frightening. But—not one of it was real today.
Those memories came from the past. All of them. They were not reality. The particular narrative of nuclear war was in Nancy’s mind—nowhere else. It was then that Katie asked Nancy one of the sub-questions she often uses. That question is: “If the president isn’t creating a nuclear war in this moment, who is?” The clear answer was that Nancy was the creator (in her mind) right there and then.
I think one natural response to learning that most of our fears are just in our mind is one of righteous denial. After all, we can’t just ignore what is happening and pretend it isn’t real, can we? Katie counters that with the awareness that the only real “reality” is what is happening right now in the present moment. Everything else is just a story protecting our beliefs. A story that leads us to suffer—OR a story that leads to awareness, unconditional love, and peace of mind. After all, even vindicated suffering is still suffering. Unfortunately, I’m reminded of the statement, “Most of us would rather be right, than happy.”
Another question that pops up in response to Katie’s questions is: “People can’t just sit back and do nothing! We have to do something about XYZ or it will get worse.” Katie’s response is similar to that of other teachers like Eckhart Tolle or Abraham-Hicks who respond in a similar way about acting in the present moment. They teach that it is only when we come from a space of awareness, peace, and unconditional love that are we able to be most effective and counteract some of the fear and hatred we hope to overcome. What we give out comes back to us—regardless of how righteous and justified we think we are. When our guiding motivation is peaceful and pure, then we will know what to do and our actions will be the most powerful and effective.
In case you are wondering, I am a student of this, not a teacher. Just this morning I did something that appeared to disappoint Thom and I could tell he wasn’t happy about it. My first reaction was to justify myself to feel better. After all, think of all the things I do for him on a regular basis! In my mind, I wanted to make him wrong for feeling the way he felt and tried to console myself by righteously thinking of how he was wrong, and I was right. Then I remembered listening to Katie and her questions to Nancy. The truth is, my own thoughts about the situation created my suffering—not Thom. And what is the reality? My present moment reality is that I am sitting here working on this post on a beautiful day and all is well—I just have to remember it.
Like seeking happiness, freedom from fear is mostly an awareness of choice in the moment. I can make myself miserable and terrified—OR I can make myself peaceful and aware. I can allow that inner peace and awareness to guide me in my actions—or I can allow my fear, worry and insecurity do it. I think we all can guess which is a better choice.
Most of us are familiar with the acronym for FEAR which is “False Evidence Appearing Real.” But most of us forget that idea when we are gripped by something we feel is out of our control and potentially frightening. Even those of us who agree with statements made by Martin Luther King, Jr. that says, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” are guilty of thinking we must fight hate and fear with all our might. Instead, if we do that, we are just giving fear and hate a home in our minds and heart.
Katie continually clarifies it by saying, “A teacher of fear can’t bring peace on earth. We have been trying to do it that way for thousands of years. The person who turns inner violence around, the person who finds peace inside and lives it, is the one who teaches what true peace is. We are waiting for just one teacher. You’re the one.”
I’m not certain I am the one or you are the one. But I do believe that freedom from fear starts with me. How can I advocate for peace, happiness, love, and harmony if I can’t achieve it myself? How indeed? Instead, it is likely SMART for each of us to closely examine whether we are letting our reoccurring thoughts and beliefs terrorize us and those around us—OR are we projecting the peace and love we want to see in the world? The choice, as always, is up to us.
Okay, your turn. Are you familiar with the work of Byron Katie? What do you think of it, and why? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.