“The only thing that is ever born is a thought. The only thing that ever dies is a thought. Thoughts rise and fall. Thoughts come to pass, not to stay. The worst thing that can ever happen is an uninvestigated thought appearing now.” Byron Katie
Byron Katie is one of my favorite spiritual teachers. She had been severely depressed for years when one morning in 1986 while lying on the floor in a halfway house she was struck with a realization that the world around her had never made her suffer, but rather that it was her thoughts about the world and people that had made her suffer. She woke up to see a cockroach crawling over her foot and in that moment something happened. She says that she felt like all darkness had been lifted from her and in that place there was light and love:
“For the first time in my life, I was seeing without concepts, without thoughts or an internal story. All my rage, all the thoughts that had been troubling me, my whole world, the whole world, was gone. There was no me. It was as if something else had woken up. It opened its eyes. It was looking through Katie’s eyes. And it was crisp, it was bright, it was new, it had never been here before. Everything was unrecognizable. And it was so delighted!”
Some call this moment enlightenment or self-realization. It definitely marks the end (or death) of the old self as Katie describes it here (“There was no me”) and a rebirth of something that can never be put into words. People were so attracted to Katie after this experience that they started gathering in her house asking for advice on how to achieve that state and resolve suffering. She invited them to question their stressful thoughts and beliefs. And that was the start of The Work, a simple yet powerful process of inquiry that teaches you to identify, question and undo the thoughts that cause all the suffering in the world.
So what does the Work have to do with this concept of die before you die? The ego is the false self that is made up of all the stories we have about ourselves, about others and the world. In the process of questioning your thoughts, ego naturally dissolves and once you unravel all the stories, what remains is your true nature, pure awareness or consciousness. One of the key questions in The Work is, ’Who would you be without your story?’ This is an interesting question, as it is inviting us to experience ourselves without our thoughts or without ‘ourselves’. A story can be something simple like, ’I am a mother’ or something more complex like, ’I am embarrassed because he put me down in public’. Whatever your story may be, the original, root story contains just one word – ’I’, and then all the other stories are just built off of the belief in that one.
Some wise people say that we are not born into this world when we come out of our mother’s wombs, but rather that it happens when the ’I’ is born, that is, a sense of a separate self that we believe ourselves to be. Our parents innocently bring us into this dream world teaching us words and language and yet we all forget that words are not it. I can, for example, call one object ‘a tree’. I can investigate it further and name its seeming parts. I can even go even deeper down into reality and name something ‘an atom’ but if I were really honest, I would have to admit that I don’t know what anything is in essence, seeing that a word can never touch that. I can call an object a thousand of names and yet no name can express the truth of it. The ultimate reality is unknowable; however, the mind is all about knowing and labeling – that is how it lives actually.
Living exclusively identified as the ego-mind robs life of its freshness and mystery. We see everything through the learned patterns, expectations, projections and memories. I am not seeing the world as it is, but rather as my mind is. We have a sense of restlessness searching for something that is not to be found in this mentally constructed world. And as we lose ourselves into labels and ideas, we forget who we are. The unreal world of seemingly separate objects and names becomes real, while the real world fades away from our awareness (but it never truly leaves us).
The Work of Byron Katie asks you to question what you believe and it can go as deep as you want it to go. This whole mentally constructed world may disappear together with ‘you’ in it. ‘That is a tree’, can you know that this is true? Can you absolutely know that it’s a tree? After doing The Work for some time, my honest answer is always ‘no’, I can’t absolutely know anything. That which we call ‘a tree’ may as well be God appearing in that shape and color and serving us tirelessly each moment like everything else does.
When I first started the spiritual journey, I didn’t know that it would lead to deconstruction of everything I hold dear and everything I thought right. It all started innocently enough, reading self-help books, exploring Eckhart Tolle and practicing presence, trying to make my existence more comfortable, happy and peaceful, working on my emotional reactions and always trying to be a good person. These are the things that we as separate people generally tend to do. Trying to manage, manipulate or fight our way back into safety, trying to improve our odds against others, and trying to improve ourselves and become somebody better. And so life is a struggle. You are one against many. You are always in the search mode as something is always missing. You are not quite there yet.
Deep down people have this running suspicion about themselves; something feels partial and often phony if you take yourself to be just this thought-based creature. This means that you are forever hungry and searching to complete that partialness. But it can never happen as long as your gaze is pointed outward, as long as you seek something from the world to fill yourself with. In order to discover your true nature, the old ego identity has to die. It is like a transformation of a butterfly. The cocoon needs to break for the butterfly to grow into its full potential, just like the ego, this mental construct, has to collapse for us to discover true wholeness and integrity. The unshakable yet formless presence of who we are doesn’t need any defense against the world, because the world is it too. There is no separation. The famous astronomer Carl Sagan said: ‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.’ Well, that is it! There is no pie without the universe, just like there is no you separate from anything else, from the Totality. Your every breath is supported by all that is, and that breath is not separate from it either.
Many people ask how they can achieve the serene state, how they can ‘die before they die’, so that death is no longer scary but rather just another unknown peaceful moment like any other. Different gurus and spiritual teachers have different answers. I always warmly recommend The Work of Byron Katie because no matter how much you meditate for example, you still come out of it with the same old beliefs and thoughts that you were tripping over before. So you go to the source of it and investigate the thoughts that are the cause of your suffering. And every time you question your thoughts and undo a stressful thought, the world changes. What is within is reflected without. Chaos inside – chaos outside. Peace inside – peace outside. It is like the spell is broken, you no longer believe that Santa is real and you no longer believe that your husband should have a job when he doesn’t have one. So you stop conflicting with what is. Or rather, the portions of you that used to conflict are gone (or we may say they ‘died’). The more you die to the world (your wants, desires, needs, shoulds and shouldn’ts), the more peace there is. More and more, you can just rejoice in the world and the flow of events instead of mentally trying to control it all. You return to the innocence of your early childhood, but this time with full wisdom, knowing that you don’t know. Rich, poor, healthy, sick, alone or with someone – how can I know what is good or bad for me or you, what should or shouldn’t be happening, how the world or anything should look like? I don’t know, as blessings are often hidden from our eyes and we recognize those only years after the event (or immediately if you do the Work!). And then, only God has the grand picture of how it all fits into the Puzzle. Maybe that man needed to spill coffee on you in a cafe so you didn’t run somebody over later on. Who knows? If you think you know, that is hell. If you die into the unknown, welcome to paradise.