Twenty-nine years ago, at the bottom of a 10-year fall into depression, rage, and self-loathing, I realized something amazing: that when I believed my thoughts I suffered, but when I questioned them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being.
It’s not reality that makes us suffer; it’s our thoughts about reality. I discovered that we can put any stressful thought up against four simple questions and a turnaround, and meet that thought with understanding. It’s the truth that sets you free — not the world’s truth, not anyone else’s truth, but your own truth.
The Work is a way of identifying and questioning the thoughts that cause all the suffering in the world. The first step is to write down your judgments about any stressful situation in your life, past, present, or future — about a person you dislike or worry about, a situation with someone who angers or frightens or saddens you, or someone you’re ambivalent or confused about. Write your judgments about that person down, just the way you think them. Be harsh and childish, and write in short, simple sentences. (You’ll find a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet to download and print at thework.com/do-work, along with complete instructions on how to do The Work.)
Once you’ve filled in a Worksheet, put each statement on it up against the four questions of The Work, then turn the statement around. The four questions are:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?
Turn the thought around, and find three genuine, specific examples of how each turnaround is true in your life.
1 and 2 Ask yourself if the thought is true. For example, “He doesn’t care about me” — is it true? Don’t ask if the thought matches what you’ve been told or have learned. Don’t consider the way life is supposed to look. (He didn’t put down the newspaper when you came into the kitchen; he didn’t call to tell you he’d be late; he walked out the door without saying goodbye. Yes, but can you be sure that any of this means that he doesn’t care about you?) Don’t consult the part of you that knows what the answer should be. The question is, does the thought match what you know inside? Does the thought resonate with your deepest sense of reality? Can you absolutely know that it’s true that he doesn’t care about you? (Your answer to the first two questions should consist of one syllable — either “yes” or “no.” If your answer to the first question is “no,” go on to question 3.)
3. Explore how you live when you believe this thought. How do you react, what happens, when you believe the thought “He doesn’t care about me”? What does it feel like to believe it? How do you treat yourself and others? How do you treat him? Take your time with this process. Do you react with sadness? Depression? Anger? Do you withdraw from him? Do you try to win him over? Do you judge yourself and feel like a failure? Do you light up a cigarette or head for the refrigerator? Be as precise and detailed as you can be.
4. Explore what life would be like without the thought. Use your imagination to give yourself a glimpse of who or what you would be if you didn’t believe this thought. Don’t look for a better thought to substitute for the painful one. Just live for a while in the space that opens up when you view your situation without the old thought. Pretend that you don’t even have the ability to think the thought. What would that be like? Look at him in your mind’s eye without the thought, “He doesn’t care about me.” Maybe you’ll simply see a man who is deeply absorbed in reading his newspaper, who loves his wife but doesn’t want to shift his attention to her right now. Maybe without the thought, “He doesn’t care about me” you’ll find it easier to take pleasure in his pleasure.
5. Turn the thought around. Consider opposite versions of the thought. If a certain turnaround doesn’t make sense to you, don’t bother with it. Turn the original statement around any way you want to until you find the turnarounds that penetrate the deepest. Turning around, “He doesn’t care about me”:
I don’t care about him. (When I feel hurt, I withdraw or I get angry, and I don’t care what he feels.)
I don’t care about me. (I don’t care about myself when I go to war against someone I love. I take away my own peace of mind, I put myself in a hostile situation, I create an enemy for myself, I give myself a lot of stress and sadness. This is when addictive behavior such as bingeing, smoking, or overeating begins to kick in.)
He does care about me. (He may love me and still speak harshly to me. He may love me and still want to ignore me or leave me.)
Ask yourself if any of your turned-around versions seem as true as or even truer than your original thought, and if they do, find three genuine ways in which each of them is true in your life.
Turnarounds can dramatically set you free from a thought, especially if you’ve loosened your belief in it by following the earlier steps.
Judge your neighbor, write it down, ask four questions, turn it around. Who says that freedom has to be complicated?