Monday, 26 February 2018

Byron Katie's Four Questions

Being angry can be like a drug. It floods us with cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine (stress hormones), heightens our heart rate, increases our blood pressure and breathing, our body temperature goes up, our brain focuses and concentration sharpens. What a rush! However, long term, feelings of outrage, anger and frustration are simply not that good for us. Each time the hormone flood fractionally increases our risk of all sorts of diseases.

Byron Kathleen Reid, known as Byron Katie, is the creator of a thing she terms "The Work". This is basically a set of questions which you ask yourself - reflect on - to work out how to let thoughts go which are part of your 'story'. By that, I mean part of the narrative we all tell about ourselves: the stuff that becomes true by telling and retelling. I am not going to get into the whole 'power of positive thinking' metaphysics that comes pre-packaged with this type of self-help work: you can read more on that here. Byron has a useful tool, essentially a stripped down cognitive therapy technique.

Apparently Byron was a very angry woman for a decade, ended up in some kind of half-way house, and one day woke up there laughing instead. She had experienced a mental shift which had enabled her to look at life with a completely different perspective. Since then she has become a self-help guru and author of New Age books.

(I don't know much about the lady personally, but having known a number of people who have gone through menopause with a incandescent, throat-ripping-out anger, I wonder if she was maybe early starter for 'the change'.)

Byron has simplified cognitive therapy to allow devotees to control recurring ideas and false or inflated feelings. We undertake what she calls 'the work' by asking ourselves four questions about those recurring thoughts, and writing down the answers:
  1. Is it true? Is this written as absolute truth from where we stand? Factual? Sure?
  2. Can you absolutely know it’s true? Think really deeply about how we know this is true. Are we really, really sure? What if we told that story to the other participants? Would they all think it was true as well?
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe the thought? We are back in that space, re-experiencing it. What are we feeling? How are we treating the other participants? How are we treating ourselves? We have to be specific in recording as much as we can.
  4. Who would you be without the thought? Now, this is a really interesting question: how much have we invested in this, and how much of this idea has become who we are? Step back and think how we would act with those other people if those feelings were no longer there. How we would feel? Do we like ourselves better with the thought? Or without it? Which way is kinder? Which way is more peaceful?
In reviewing our answers to these questions, we can decide if our outrage has substance, or if we just need to calm down and let it go. Byron calls this the 'turnaround': letting those thoughts go, while keeping our identity. We drop the drama, change our story, and be healthier without those stress hormones charging around. 

This framework forms a set of rhetorical lenses to view our recurring mental processes from different angles, as Byron is really assuming at the outset that we are hanging onto something that really doesn't matter. The questions are not a cure-all for pyshcological or mental illness, just a way for us to view our anger or outrage differently.

Don't assume 'the work' will fix everything, but give it a try as a self-help tool. 



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