Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true?

Byron Katie
Byron Katie
Creator of The Work
Author of Loving What Is

Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true?

I love these two questions, which are the first two of the 4 questions that make up ‘The Work’ – a process created by, or through, Byron Katie. So many of the stresses, strains, unresolved conflicts that we experience in life arise because we think something is ‘true’ when in fact it is just a belief that we hold that we have never questioned. We hold on strongly to those beliefs because often they underpin the identity we have created for ourselves and so, if we were to let go of the belief, we can fear losing a sense of who we ‘are’.

And so we hold strongly to beliefs such as “I am……strong, weak, clever, stupid, ugly, beautiful, wise, shallow, tall, short” and often don’t recognise that our attachment, almost our addiction, to our beliefs can be incredibly stressful to maintain in the presence of something that challenges their ‘truth’.

I love that the second question goes further to challenge the idea that something is absolutely true as there are many things we can believe are absolutely true even when  they are not. This post arose from a discussion with my partner Jayne about Quantum Physics on the bus one day… you do…..after we’d seen what I thought was a fairly unconvincing representation of what it implies on a youtube video by someone wanting to use its ideas to promote their personal development business.

It struck me then that we can sometimes read, or hear that scientists ‘discovered’ that the world is made up of atoms, when of course they didn’t discover it, they created the idea to try to make sense of the things we see around us. The idea of atoms is man-created, it is not a ‘fact’, it just happens to work well in explaining various aspects of what we see happen around us. But while it is often the case that our understanding of atoms is the ‘billiard ball’ model of protons and neutrons as different sized spheres making up a bumpy surfaced nucleus with lots of little spherical electrons buzzing around the outside of it, Quantum Physics – a different creation by man to explain the world and its workings – says that atoms are not made like that but can extend as energy fields across potentially infinite space, and so are not like billiard balls at all.

So which is the ‘truth’?

Well of course neither is absolutely true, they are both identities we have created about our world to help us ‘explain’ it. But often you will read assertions that science has ‘proven’ something to be so, when in fact it’s just seemed to be true as far as we can tell so far. The Scientific Method is one of continual revising and reviewing what we experience and testing it against ideas or hypotheses – as a result, what we may think to be ‘true’ at some point in our history, may prove to be incorrect or a ‘less-good’ explanation of our experiences later on.

The billiard ball model of the world was thought to be ‘true’ for hundreds of years until the Quantum Physics explanation for what the world is made up of caused some serious ructions in the world of science. So much so that many of its implications are still not acknowledged even today. I won’t even begin to attempt to expand on that in this post but I’d recommend a book as a starting point called ‘The Tao of Physics‘ by Fritjof Capra, and since he wrote that some 30 plus years ago, there have been plenty of others.

Working on our beliefs….

And so it is with ourselves that we hold our beliefs to be ‘true’ and yet we can be enormously challenged by evidence to the contrary that can confront us in daily life. Byron Katie doesn’t try to propose anything is ‘true’ via The Work, but she says that anything that argues with reality will always cause us stress, frustration, despair and The Work is designed to help us come to a recognition that the stress in our lives is caused by our beliefs about the world and about our experiences of it rather than by what actually happens in it – by what actually is. 

Here’s a small selection of ‘Katie Quotes‘ that may, I hope, cause some challenging pauses for reflection:

  • When I argue with reality, I lose—but only 100% of the time.
  • You move totally away from reality when you believe that there is a legitimate reason to suffer.
  • An unquestioned mind is the world of suffering.
  • No one can hurt me—that’s my job.
  • Sanity doesn’t suffer, ever.
  • If I had a prayer, it would be this: “God spare me from the desire for love, approval, and appreciation. Amen.”
  • You either believe what you think or you question it. There’s no other choice.
  • If I think you’re my problem, I’m insane.
  • When I am perfectly clear, what is is what I want.
  • Arguing with reality is like trying to teach a cat to bark—hopeless.
  • How do I know that I don’t need what I want? I don’t have it.
  • Forgiveness is realizing that what you thought happened, didn’t.
  • Everything happens for me, not to me.
  • Reality is always kinder than the story we tell about it.
  • I don’t let go of concepts—I question them. Then they let go of me.

I’d like to explore some simple concepts that we can see a fair amount of attachment, or even addiction to, in our daily lives via the media, our conversations, our own personal focus, the concepts of age and beauty. Well, I’m going to explore beauty and I’m going to invite you to explore age.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we say, and we often also hear that beauty is something to be attained or pursued. Something about which there is no absolute definition is still so often judged as being absent or present. How is that possible? If we can’t define what it is, how can we say it is present or lacking?  We are told that some women are considered beautiful (and some men of course but it is more frequently a concept applied to women – so perhaps we can question that too!) and yet we also hear that many women (and men) consider themselves not to be so. How can either be possible unless there is an arbitrary belief that either the beholder of someone as beautiful / not beautiful, or the person judging themselves as such is holding on to? What is the benchmark  they are using to determine it and how absolute is it?

This is a great example of where Katie’s questions have application…… Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it is true? As Katie would point out, if a thought or belief we have does not bring stress into our lives and indeed brings us happiness, why would we even want to question it? Just enjoy! But if it brings stress into our lives, she says, it must be arguing with reality. We are trying to hold on to an identity that is unsustainable. Consider the 4 questions of The Work that follow, and perhaps, apply them to a belief ‘I am not beautiful’……

I am not beautiful – Is it true? Yes!!

Can you absolutely know that you are not beautiful? The answer can be Yes or No, Katie does not ask that anyone answers in a way that feels anything other than true for them. Let’s go with “Yes, it’s absolutely true that I’m not beautiful”

The next two questions are:

How do you react when you believe that thought? Consider the impact on your life of believing that you are not beautiful (if you do). The restrictions you place on yourself, the impacts it has on your relationships, or in any other way. Are there any physical impacts you see it as having? Any emotional impacts? etc. How do you react when you believe that thought – I am not beautiful?

Who would you be without the thought? Try considering what your life would be like if you didn’t have that thought? How would you live differently? How differently would you feel? If any of your answers are in some sense identifying a happier, less stressful life, then ask yourself ‘How can your beauty be anything to do with it?’ It is your thoughts and beliefs about your beauty that are causing you the stress, not any ‘absolute’ truth about your beauty. How can there be any absolute truth to that?

So, recognising that it is our thoughts about ourselves and the world rather than any absolute ‘fact’ about it, Katie then asks us to consider the ‘Turnaround’ which is where we simply consider a different perspective. She’s not saying ‘tell yourself a lie and try to believe it‘ she’s just asking us to consider another thought, recognising that a thought is  arbitrary and we may want to hold on to some and not others but if we feel ‘stuck’ with some and they seem to be a cause of stress in our lives then we can consider others after doing The Work’s first 4 questions.

A turnaround might be simply:  I am beautiful – she would then ask us to think of  at least 3 ways in which that could be just as true as our original thought. Another turnaround may be to consider the opposite, for us, of ‘beautiful’…ugly perhaps, and rephrase our belief ‘I am not ugly’……and then look for at least 3 ways in which that is just as true as our original thought ‘I am not beautiful’.

Often the recognition that the turned around thought could be just as valid allows the original thought ‘I am not beautiful’, as Katie describes it, to let go of us. We find as many, if not more, validations of the thought I am beautiful as the original, more stressful belief of the opposite. Katie points out that when we have a belief our mind sees only the proof that it is true and ignores experiences that could suggest otherwise, even though they exist, until perhaps the stress of holding on to the belief becomes so intense we choose to question it. Her explanation fits well with ideas of prejudice and discrimination where we will see in others the manifestations of the beliefs we hold about them much more easily than the behaviours, features and actions that contradict our beliefs.

My proposal to you is to do The Work on any thoughts you may have, if you have them, that ‘I am old’. Or, of course you may have your own stressful thoughts you wish to question. (If you want some further assistance with doing The Work, Katie’s book Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life will show you in much more detail).

Beliefs in Mediation and Conflict Coaching

Holding on to beliefs is particularly noticeable in clients when practising mediation and conflict coaching. One of the things these processes support is an opening up, an exploration of the beliefs people hold about others (particularly in mediation) and about themselves (particularly in conflict coaching). Most unresolved conflicts can clearly be seen to be based on unquestioned beliefs which those in dispute have about each other and their resistance to questioning the beliefs arises because their sense of identity has become so intertwined with them that it feels like suicide to do so.

If I have fought bloody battles against someone because they have bombed my home and my characterisation of them is as a murderer, how could I ever want to acknowledge that they may be a loving father/brother/son with feelings and the capacity to love? And likewise, how easy would it be for them to acknowledge the same about me if I have tried to kill people of their nationality/religion/political view/gang…. etc.?

And we even try to ‘murder’ people with our words in less bloody, but still hurtful battles, with neighbours, colleagues at work, within our families. If we don’t ‘kill’ them and the challenge to our beliefs they represent, we, or our identity, could die instead. This is a commonly unquestioned belief and can be seen to be manifested when the competitive approach to conflict, which can never lead to resolution, is being used.

It has been a life’s work to make our partner wrong. Then when we enter inquiry, we lose. It’s a tremendous shock. And it turns out to be grace. Winning is losing. Losing is winning. It all turns around.  Question Your Thinking, Change the World

When we can seek to create Learning, Connection and Insight – The ‘3-Cheers for Conflict’, any of these will involve the reflection on and questioning of beliefs we have about ourselves, our situation and others. Sometimes we can have so many unquestioned beliefs about our world, ourselves and our experiences of it, we miss the wonder of what is possible through putting all of our energy into ‘maintaining our identity’.

Questioning our beliefs about such concepts as death, food, sexuality, love, work, money, addiction, health….and any others that have significance in our lives….family, partner, marriage, religion……does not mean we undergo some kind of introspective ‘mind f**k’, it means we can come to more of a place of peace with any of them if they presently bring stress, frustration, despair in our lives. Consider any present person, personal issue or situation in your life that feels stressful and reflect on the beliefs you hold about them/yourself/the situation and start by asking:

‘Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true?’



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