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“Who Would You Be?” vs. “Who Are You Without That Thought?”

Last updated on June 7, 2021

lily of the valley
Who would you be if you were this lily of the valley? Now, get even closer, be the flower: who are you? Describe it.

Two Ways to Ask Question 4

If you look at the One-Belief-at-a-Time Worksheet, you will find two variations for question 4 of The Work of Byron Katie.

1. Who would you be without the thought?
2. Who or what are you without the thought?

Which One Is Better?

The mind loves to compare. So, naturally it starts to think, “I want to use the best variation.” But without this thought, I would just be trying them both on and finding out for myself what works best for me.

Here’s What I Find

Variation 1, “Who would you be without the thought?” is best for getting me into the mode of exploring something new. When I ask myself, “Who would I be without the thought?” there is no threat to what I believe. It’s clear to me that it is pure imagination… who would I be? It’s safe to only imagine what it would be like. 

This is a really important step for me when I’m questioning a thought that I’m attached to. I don’t want to give up the thought and this question reminds me that I do not have to give up the thought. I’m just imagining what it would be like without it. 

This way, like a kid playing pretend, I can try it on and imagine what it would be like without any risk. The wording, “who would you be?” is very important for me to remind myself that I’m just pretending. It allows me to explore with less resistance.

Why Is There a Second Variation?

Variation 2, “Who or what are you without the thought?” is slightly different. There are two changes to the wording:

1. “Who are you?” instead of “Who would you be?”
2. “What are you?” instead of “Who are you?”

Let’s look at each one separately.

“Who are you?” Instead of “Who would you be?”

Unlike, “Who would you be?” the phrase, “Who are you?” assumes that you are already there. There is no gentle transition from who I was believing my thought to who I would be if I didn’t believe the thought?” It does not say, “Hey, remember, we’re just pretending here! Don’t forget that we’re imagining what it would be like.” 

When it asks, “Who are you?” it assumes you made the journey successfully into the land of pretend. So it doesn’t spell it out explicitly. Instead, it asks the question as if you are already in the world of imagination. 

And it invites you even closer: “Now that you’re imagining what it would be like, imagine yourself actually there. Who are you? Imagine yourself standing in the situation where she interrupted you. And imagine that you didn’t have the thought, ‘She is mean.’ Who are you? Describe it.

Obviously, “who would you be?” and “who are you?” are asking the very same thing. But the wording of “who are you?” may hold you slightly closer as you answer the question. Personally, I don’t use “who are you?” as much because “who would you be?” works just as well for me. It’s just a matter of personal preference. 

Who are you?” Instead of “What are you?”

The other change in wording for variation 2 is using “What are you?” instead of “Who are you?” This again is a matter of preference. For some people, this allows them to get closer to what they are experiencing when they describe it in words. 

Sometimes, who I would be without a thought is not a “who” at all, but a “what.” Without that thought I simply am. I am at peace, I am aware, I am connected, I am compassion itself. “Who” may feel foreign here. “What” may simply fit the experience better. That’s why this wording is an option.

Again, it doesn’t matter what wording you use. The heart of the question is the same. So try them both out and see what works best for you in different situations.

Two Flavors

In summary variation 1, “Who would you be without the thought?” is a great reminder that this just an exercise of imagining. It is a nice transition that bridges the real world where I believe my story and the pretend world where I’m imagining that I don’t believe my story.

Variation 2, “Who or what are you without the thought?” is an invitation to be in the pretend world fully and to describe the experience as if you are actually there, even if it turns out that you are not a “who” at all but rather just a “what.” 

With either variation, this question invites us into the unknown to explore with a wide-open mind.

Join me for nine weeks of diving into The Work of Byron Katie as we uncover many nuances to this beautiful process of self-inquiry. Consider taking The Work 101.

Have a great week,

“Close your eyes and wait. Imagine yourself just for a moment without the thought. Imagine that you didn’t have the ability to think the thought as you stand in the presence of that person (or in that situation). What do you see? How does it feel? How is the situation different?” Byron Katie, Loving What Is

Further reading: Lack of Specificity Makes Question 4 Harder

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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