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Does The Work Point Us Towards Going into Denial?

Last updated on June 7, 2021

3 peaches on a plate
You can’t deny the simple fact that there are three peaches on a plate. But you can still question even this fact. Who knows what you will find? You may get confirmation of the fact when you do inquiry, or you may find something unexpected. It’s worth exploring.

Someone Had a Great Question Recently

A participant in The Work 101 recently asked this question which I quote in full: 

“I am wondering about The Work’s value in questioning certain say “realities”, like death of a loved one, disease or diagnosis, etc. I heard Byron Katie do the work with someone on the thought “I have HIV”. This was a stressful thought for him. Byron Katie guided him through the 4 questions and turnarounds, and the turnaround was “I don’t have HIV”. For me this seems like denial of a hard fact. 

“Or Todd, I’ve heard you do the work with someone on “My mother died”. Sure it feels better to not think that you have HIV or to not think that your mother died, but these things are. I understand the “thought” about it is what we’re questioning and not so much whether there is HIV in me or mother is no longer physically here, but that does not change those facts. Any advice on how to think about this?

“Secondly, along these same lines, I think what is stressful about these thoughts is not that these are realities of nature, but that we infuse these things as bad. Like, “(It is bad that) My mother died” or “(It is horrible that) I have HIV”. If I can identify and include the implicit message within these types of thoughts, I guess what Todd you’re calling the interpretation, then I can see how to work with it. If not, it just seems like denial. If this is a valid point, then why wasn’t this step to identify the interpretation taken in the examples I gave above about HIV and mother died? Or am I missing something here?” 

Here Is My Response

You’ve basically uncovered two different ways to do The Work on something:

1. Question the fact itself 
2. Question the emotional interpretation

I used to always question the fact itself, and I got really good at finding the wiggle room even with hard-core facts. It’s amazing when you go through this process how often a hard fact is both true and not true. 

I usually would land on this balance: a coexistence, if you will, of opposites. “My mother died” and “my mother did not die.” Same with “I got HIV” and “I didn’t get HIV.” There are always two sides to even a factual thing if you really look.

But Your Caution Is Very Important Too

I also feel it is very important not to go into denial by using The Work. I’m not trying to fool myself with The Work, I’m looking for another way to see the same situation that is less stressful for me, but still true. That’s where I sometimes arrive at both things being true. 

More often than not, when I question a solid fact, my examples are soft examples. “My mother didn’t die because she is still alive in my heart,” for example. It is true, but in a different way. But even a soft example such as this can be very helpful.

There Is Not Just One Truth

I think one place we often get hung up is with the idea that there is ONE truth. We are trained to think objectively, and we look for one truth that we can all agree on. 

But The Work is mainly subjective. I’m looking for a way within myself to see it differently. Sometimes seeing “my mother is alive in my heart” can ease a huge feeling of loss on the subjective level. Who cares if it’s not true on the physical level? It still has its value experientially. 

And what shifts one person may not shift another. That’s why The Work is always a personal process. I have to move my own heart using evidence that is genuine for me.

Questioning Facts vs. Questioning Interpretations

It can be fun to question hard facts. You never know what you’ll find. But the question you bring up here is also why I usually now question my interpretation of a fact more often than the fact itself. 

It seems to get to the core of what is bothering me more, and it is easier to work and turn around. So I could work my interpretation that “It’s terrible that I have HIV,” for example, instead of questioning the fact, “I have HIV.” Or if I’m using the Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet format, I might write, “I’m angry at my mom because she abandoned me” (instead of writing “because she died”.) 

This is why I love brainstorming before writing a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet. It helps me to find a list of my interpretations first so I can choose one interpretation to write on Line 1 of a worksheet. (If you want more details on how to do this, use my “Getting Closer” template for writing a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet which is included in The Work as Meditation Start-up Kit.)

You can also use the prompt, “…and it means that…” For example, “I have HIV and it means that I won’t be able to live a normal life.” Now I’m questioning “I won’t be able to have a normal life” (my interpretation) rather than the fact, “I have HIV.” I often find this to be more productive.

I Encourage You to Try it Both Ways

Just explore. And trust your integrity. Don’t let the turnaround trick you into going into denial.  Listen to your own inner intelligence. The turnaround is just there as a pointer. 

Sometimes, when questioning a fact, it can be amazing how what you thought was hard evidence-based truth was not so solid at all. And other times, just throwing a shadow of a doubt on a hard truth can free the heart, even though it is still 99.9999% true, and everyone would agree about it.

The Work is just about loosening my grip on my story of my suffering. Anything that accomplishes this opens the heart. But you are in the driver’s seat always when you do The Work. It all must be tested against your heart, and your integrity. You can’t pull the wool over your own eyes (it is not freeing), nor is The Work wanting you to do that.

Join Us for The Work 101 in September

The next offering of The Work 101, my 9-week online course. If you would like to go deeply into the practice of doing The Work, I’d love to have you join us.

Have a great week
Todd

“A powerful way of prompting yourself is to add “and it means that _____” to your original statement. Your suffering may be caused by a thought that interprets what happened, rather than the thought you wrote down. This additional phrase prompts you to reveal your interpretation of the fact. The answer to the prompt, for the purposes of inquiry, is always what you think your statement means. 

” Let’s say you wrote, “I am angry at my father because he hit me.” Is it true? Yes: you are angry, and yes: he did hit you, many times, when you were a child. Try writing the statement with your added interpretation. “I am angry at my father because he hit me, and it means that _____.” Maybe your addition would be “and it means that he doesn’t love me.” 

“Now that you know what your interpretation is, you can take it to inquiry. Write down the new statement, and apply all four questions and the turnaround. You may come to realize that it’s your interpretation of the fact that is causing you stress.” Byron Katie, Loving What Is

Further reading: Taking Time to Identify What Is Really Bothering Me

About the author

Todd Smith has been doing The Work of Byron Katie on an almost daily basis since 2007. He is just as excited about this simple process of self-inquiry today as he was when he first came across it. He also enjoys writing about The Work, and training others in the subtleties of this meditative process. Join Todd for The Work 101 online course, private sessions, virtual retreats, and his ongoing Inquiry Circle group.

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