Don’t Believe Everything You Think (Suffering is Optional)

When you walk down the street having a conversation with yourself, people look at you funny.

The irony of this situation is that everyone talks to themselves all day long. You just don’t verbalize this dialogue, so it isn’t heard by others.

The conversation takes place in your head, and you call it “thinking”.

Lost in Thought

The human mind is constantly processing the world around it. Each day is a non-stop barrage of thoughts, questions, and observations.

If you’ve ever sat in meditation for 10 minutes, you’ve experienced that thoughts arise (and pass) quickly. Even when you don’t intend for them to.

If all of these thoughts were empowering, non-stop thinking wouldn’t be an issue! But far too often, thoughts lead you astray, bring you down, or obstruct your ability to do things that you care about.

Many types of thoughts prevent you from living your best life.

For example…

  • Fearful thoughts narrow your thinking and prevent you from taking action.
  • Stressful thoughts create discomfort in the present moment.
  • Anxious thoughts create unpleasant feelings about the future.
  • Distracting thoughts pull your attention away from things that matter to you.

You can’t always control when these thoughts will surface. But you can develop strategies for responding to them in a way that doesn’t bring you down.

The fundamental truth that gives you these powers is that your thoughts are not always true, so you don’t have to believe them.

Don’t Believe Everything you Think

While it’s true that you experience each of your thoughts, they don’t always represent what’s true about the world.

Most of the time, your thoughts are just a story you tell yourself to make sense of the world. It’s all based on your interpretation of the world around you. Not some universal truth about reality.

But when you hold on to your thoughts as if they are the utmost truth, unpleasant feelings are sure to follow.

To avoid this scenario, you can equip yourself with the tools to deal with these thoughts more effectively.

Suffering is Optional (Two Strategies to Let Go)

Some thoughts appear in an instant. Others are reoccurring, and represent a longer-standing narrative in your mind.

Given the differing nature of thoughts, it’s helpful to equip yourself with multiple strategies to process them.

  1. Using Mental Noting to let go of temporary thoughts in the moment
  2. Using The Work to let go of more significant, recurring thoughts that cause suffering

1) Letting go of Temporary Thoughts in the Moment

One minute you might be feeling down about a challenge at work, and the next minute you’re laughing at the joke of a friend.

Examples like this highlight how all thoughts, and their respective mental states, are temporary.

This fact gives you the power to avoid getting swept away by negative thoughts as they arise.

One strategy to do this is called Mental Noting. It’s a technique derived from insight meditation.

With Mental Noting, you gently “note” thoughts or sensations as they arise in your mind by giving them a simple 1-word descriptor. (e.g. warm, tense, anger, etc.)

Noting what arises in your mind has a host of benefits. It helps you stay present and see the contents of your consciousness more clearly. This creates space between you and the thoughts you experience, which gives you more power to act with intention.

How to put “Noting” into Action

  1. Observe what arises in your mind, be it a thought or sensation.
  2. Note the thought with gentle curiosity, giving it a one-word descriptor. (Along the lines of, “Ah, I see: Fear.”)
  3. Let it pass by. Resist the urge to latch on to the thought or feeling. In time, it will fade as the predominant sensation, and you can let it pass by.

Noting is like observing clouds as they pass. The opposite is grabbing on to every cloud as if it was yours, and defines you.

Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace, uses the metaphor of “brushing a crystal glass with a feather” to describe the technique of Mental Noting.

You aren’t pinning the thought down, or pushing it away. Instead, you’re lightly acknowledging it’s presence so you can let it pass by.

(And before we continue, I wanted to let you know that I curated a pack of free guided meditations that you can download and take with you wherever you go. Just enter your email below to access the download.)
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2) Letting go of Recurring Narratives

Everyone experiences recurring thoughts that create dissatisfaction at some point in time.

Oftentimes, these are “should” thoughts. (e.g. “The world should be different,” or “My significant other should act in a different way.”)

Thoughts like these are persistent. It can feel like your mind is a broken record, coming back to this stressful thought over and over again.

“The Work” of Byron Katie is a process of inquiry that helps you identify and question the thoughts that cause you the most suffering.

The gist of The Work is simple: Believing your thoughts often leads to suffering. This means suffering is optional, because your thoughts are not always true. You can choose not to get swept away by your thoughts.

Or, in her own words:

“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.”
—Byron Katie

So, what actually is The Work?

It’s a straightforward approach that breaks down into two parts:

  1. Four questions of inquiry
  2. Three turnarounds.

Part 1: Four Questions of Inquiry

Start by locating a thought that is causing you suffering in some way. If you’re having troubles with another person in your life, Katie’s “Judge Your Neighbor” worksheet is a good way to locate these thoughts.

When you’ve identified a thought that creates suffering for you, proceed with the following four questions:

  1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to question 3.)
    As we addressed previously, most thoughts are just stories. They aren’t universal truths of the world. This question forces you to consider that reality in a specific context.
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
    You might feel insistent that this thought is true! If it really does feels true at first glance, inquire again. Can you really know that it’s true? Be honest with yourself.
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
    Examine what you do to yourself by choosing to hold on to and believe the thought. Does the thought create peace or stress? What emotions and physical sensations arise when you believe this thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?
    Consider what it would be like if you let go of this thought that brings you down. How would you feel?

Part 2: Three Turnarounds

The Turnarounds help reveal the contradictory nature of our stories about other people, and how our judgements are also true, or truer for ourselves.

By understanding this, it makes it easier to let go of these disempowering thoughts.

There are three types of turnarounds: to myself, to the other, and to the opposite.

For the sake of example, let’s say you were feeling upset with your friend Jane, and had the thought “Jane should be nicer to me.”

Now, turning that statement around in three ways, consider how the following are as true, or truer.

  • To myself: “I should be nicer to myself.”
    How often do you get down on yourself, criticize yourself, and prevent yourself from being happy?
  • To the other: “I should be nicer to Jane.”
    How often do you react to Jane’s actions in a way that isn’t kind?
  • To the opposite: “Jane should not be nicer to me.”
    Might you have acted in a way that makes it reasonable to understand Jane’s actions?

Seeing that the thoughts which cause you suffering are not the truth helps you let go of them, so you can focus instead on loving what is.

See Your Thoughts for What They Are

All thoughts are temporary, and most of them aren’t universally true.

Although this can seem sad or uncomfortable, in reality it’s empowering.

This principle gives you the power to take control of how you respond to your thoughts as you go through life. It helps you let go of thoughts that bring you down, so you can cultivate greater peace and joy.

Start by noting thoughts and feelings with gentle curiosity as they arise. And when you find yourself face-to-face with a more intense thought or interpersonal conflict, use The Work to see more clearly.

When you stop believing everything you think, you give yourself the opportunity to be more proactive, and live the life you want to live.


Notes

  1. For more on The Work of Byron Katie, go to TheWork.com or check out her bestselling book, Loving What Is. (Book / Audiobook) The audiobook contains live inquiries, which are extremely helpful to understand The Work more deeply.
  2. Katie and her team have created a number of free resources for learning about, and doing The Work. Access them here.