Recently a dear friend, who also happens to be a cloistered nun, wrote me this: “Live the love, not the problem.” This was after a particularly heavy rain in New Brunswick, which caused a terrible leak in the guesthouse at their monastery, and a costly repair.
I understand this advice because I’ve lived it, having at one pivotal point decided that I was worth choosing different, better-feeling thoughts about a difficult situation. So, I can vouch for the immense difference your mental outlook has on your physical reality. I truly believe that “living the love, not the problem” is possibly one of the most sage pieces of wisdom any of us could adopt in order to live a happier, healthier life.
Living this wisdom is ongoing and can be applied to any situation. It’s no coincidence that Byron Katie calls it “The Work”. Katie, a modern-day American writer, was able to turn her entire life around just by experiencing the same reality differently. By literally choosing different thoughts about what she was living, she surfaced from a deep depression and has gone on to help hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
In a nutshell, the core of Katie’s teachings are that our deepest suffering is not in the situations themselves, but in our thoughts about those situations. “Suffering is optional,” says Katie. “Whenever we experience a stressful feeling—anything from mild discomfort to intense sorrow, rage, or despair—we can be certain that there is a specific thought causing our reaction, whether or not we are conscious of it. The way to end our stress is to investigate the thinking that lies behind it.”
There is great freedom in realizing that not all our thoughts are true and also that we are not our thoughts. Katie talks about the “stories” we tell ourselves. And that’s just what they are—imaginings—and often not based in reality at all. We’re so creative!
Think about the times when someone has been curt in an email, sounds “off” on the phone, or flies through your work space without acknowledging you. Most of us immediately jump to a conclusion about what’s going on and usually the story we tell doesn’t serve us. “She’s mad at me. What I do wrong? Was it that thing I said last week? I knew I shouldn’t have told her that.”
“A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.”
The Work is composed of four questions, which you can pose about any situation where you are feeling discomfort. For any thought you have about a situation or a person, ask yourself these questions:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react when you think that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
If we take the example of someone in your life who seems “off,” it’s easy to see how asking even the first of these questions could quickly derail any hurt or anger. We can’t ever possibly know what is going for another person. They might be suffering from an illness, have a family drama, or just had a tough talk with their partner or their boss.
As someone who used to be tortured by my own thoughts and judgements, believing they were true and believing they were me, I can vouch for the peace that comes from questioning the validity of what goes on in our heads.
Do any of these thoughts ring a bell?
- My ship sailed long ago. I missed the boat.
- I can’t seem to get unstuck in my life.
- If so-and-so didn’t act like that/do that, I could be happy.
If so, it might be worth asking yourself Katie’s questions, and see what happens. I highly recommend her book: Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life.
For myself, I know two things now that I didn’t for most of my adult life. One is that the thoughts that make me feel awful must be carefully looked at. And the other is that I have the power to change those thoughts. Not only can I realize that the “stories” I choose to tell myself are often fiction, but I can also choose where to train my eyes and my heart, where to focus.
“Reality is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.”