[Note from Timothy: The following is a very insightful and useful expansion and adaptation, by dear friend John Prendergast, of The Work, originated by Byron Katie, for helping anyone, especially therapists and their clients, to release negative self-judgments and open up to the spacious Awareness that is our Real Nature or True Identity. John Prendergast, Ph.D., is a longtime psychotherapist with a large private practice, an instructor at CIIS graduate institute in San Francisco, senior editor of the two-volume Nondual Wisdom & Psychotherapy book series, and seven-time convenor of the annual conference of the same name. Email: johnprendergast@comcast.net]

Deconstructive Inquiry into Negative Self Judgments

(c) Copyright by John J. Prendergast, Ph.D. (Revised 2007)


The following method is an adaptation of Byron Katie's "The Work". Please see her book, Loving What Is (Harmony Books, 2002) and her website at www.thework.org for a complete description. Katie's method arose directly out of her spontaneous and tumultuous awakening and took several years to fully develop. The heart of her approach is to question the reality of our thoughts, particularly our judgments of others. She encourages people to write down their judgments according to a structured protocol, ask four questions about these judgments and then reverse them and see how they apply to oneself. She composed a little saying to describe the process, which she admits, "isn't Rumi": "Judge your neighbor, write it down, ask four questions and turn it around."

Over the years, I have attended several long workshops with Katie, witnessed her lead hundreds of people through "The Work", and done the written work many times myself. I find it quite useful and profound, particularly in the field of relationship. In trying to apply it to my private practice with clients, however, I have found that it works better with some important modifications. Since it can be a lengthy and complex written process, I have also significantly shortened it.

First, I have noticed that my clients tend to get more stuck on their self-judgments than their judgments of others. While Katie recommends first focusing on the judgment of others, I focus on self-judgments since all judgments of others are ultimately rooted in self-judgment and all relationships with others start with our relationship to our self.

Secondly, I include body sensations and feelings, something that Katie does not focus on. While nearly all disturbing feelings and sensations originate in our conscious and subconscious thinking, I have found it important to include all dimensions of our experience when doing inquiry. The body has a way of keeping us on track with our deepest truth.

Thirdly, I introduce several preliminary steps that invite clients to witness a thought as an object and then turn their attention to awareness itself before they question the validity of their beliefs. There is a stepping back from a belief before there is a stepping into a belief. There is an inquiry into the storyteller as well as the story. This tends to invoke a wider and deeper kind of knowing - a spacious heart wisdom.

Finally, I encourage an attitude of innocent curiosity so that there is no sense of pressure to come up with the right answer. "The Work" can sometimes get very pushy ("Can you really know that it is true?"). Power dynamics can interfere with the innocent inquiry into the truth by engendering resistance or compliance. I rarely follow all of the following steps sequentially when I work with clients. Sometimes it is enough to ask one question, or just uncover a core negative belief. It is important to be creative and flexible and to make this inquiry process your own. After all, it is not written in stone. Having said this, it is also quite useful to go through this entire protocol more or less intact and get a sense of its full transformative power. So be creative, spontaneous and enjoy yourself!

The Protocol

1. “Notice a distressing self-judgment, feeling or sensation.”

Comment #1:

a. If the client is aware of only the belief, invite him/her to also be aware of the feeling and the sensation that go with it. b. If the client is aware of only a feeling, invite him/her to be aware of the belief and the sensation. c. If the client is aware of only a sensation, invite him/her to be aware of the belief and the feeling.

Comment #2:

We are inviting clients to gather the basic elements of their experience - thoughts, feelings and sensations - with an emphasis on the thoughts. It is not necessary to have all of the elements, however, in this case we need at least the self-judgment in order to proceed. It is very helpful to sense the body while identifying a disturbing thought. We will return to the body sensing at the end of the protocol (step #8).

2. “Focus on the self-judgment. Just notice it as a thought.”

Comment: Here we invite clients to step back from their self judgments and to see them as objects. Some people call this stage the "observing ego". This can be a novel investigation for some clients, particularly non-meditators. Thoughts are not generally considered to be "things". You can coach clients by suggesting that they see the thought as a sentence projected on a screen or written on a blackboard in front of them or by hearing it spoken as a phrase.

3. “Notice that something is aware of this thought. What is your sense of this awareness?”

Comment: This "pointing out" instruction, inspired by [Indian sages] Nisargadatta Maharaj's injunction to focus on the "I-sense" and Ramana Maharshi's self-inquiry (“Who am I?”), is designed to directly invoke that background awareness or openness that is the source of thought. This is a powerful, delicate, surprising, and sometimes disorienting question for clients who have never turned their attention to the apparent "experiencer". More contemplative clients will quickly drop into a bigger sense of space. Others may not understand the question or report another image, thought, feeling or sensation.

Example: "I see a little girl." If this happens, explain that this is an experiential rather than a mental inquiry. It is about their felt-sense, not some idea about their experience. Point out that something is aware of this particular thought (or image, feeling or sensation) and ask again, "What is your felt sense of this awareness?" Take your time and go slowly. If clients become stuck or frustrated, let go, normalize that it can be a confusing question, and move to the next step (#4).

If clients say, "me" or "I am," say , "Yes, and what is your sense of this me or this I am?"

If they say, "I don't know." Say, "Exactly! There is a sense of not knowing. Tell me more about that sense."

Sometimes the whole sense of there being a problem falls away at this point as the thought is seen to be what is it - a mental construct without any inherent validity. What is left is a sense of spacious openness. If there is a big opening; take your time and encourage your clients to relax into it before you go on. The rest of the inquiry process may become irrelevant at this point.

(I find that pointing attention to the sense of awareness is much more accessible than asking, "Who or what is aware?" which tends to invoke a more mental response.)

4. “From this sense of (use client's description, i.e.: space, openness, not knowing) bring your attention to the original thought and innocently ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’ Let the question go, wait quietly, and notice what comes to you.”

Comment: Here, the normal protocol of Byron Katie's "The Work" begins (in a modified form), yet usually from a bigger sense of space and a more attuned heart wisdom than ordinarily practiced. We are inviting a different kind of knowing to emerge with this question, something other than the ordinary (conflicted, judging) rational mind. We are not looking for a particular answer. We are inviting genuine curiosity. Accept whatever comes. Once clients answer in a way that feels true to them encourage them to be with their answer and let it in. If clients answer that they believe their negative judgment, don't challenge or argue with them. Just say, "okay, fine" and go to the next step (#5).

5. “What is the effect on yourself and others when you hold onto the belief that (restate their original belief)?”

Comment: We are investigating the impact of the negative self judgment. Take your time to explore each facet of the question - the impact first on oneself and then on others. Very surprising insights can arise at this point. The effect of judgment will always be separation within one self and between one self and others. It is important to note that it is our attachment to beliefs, not the beliefs themselves, that is problematic. Once we no longer believe our story, it loses its power and eventually falls away. It is enough to see the false as false. The truth takes care of itself. It does not need to be asserted and it cannot be ultimately denied, although the conditioned mind will try its best to do both!

6. “Who or how are you without this belief?”

Comment: This is a variation of the classic question, "Who am I?" Take plenty of time here and allow the experience to sink in. Notice that this question is posed in the present tense, a change from Katie's "who would you be without this belief?”

You can make this question more specific by asking your clients to imagine themselves in a specific situation or with a specific person without their old story. For instance, "What is it like right now to be with David without holding the belief that..."

7. “What is the exact opposite of this belief? (pause) Is it as true or more true?”

Comment: This is what Byron Katie calls the "turnaround" or "reversal". Feel free to use those terms, if you prefer. I find that the above formulation ("exact opposite") works nicely. Keep it very simple. For example, "I am unlovable" becomes "I am lovable", or "I am ugly" becomes, "I am not ugly". But be flexible. "I am beautiful" may have more impact. If clients find that the opposite of their negative belief seems less true, don't argue. It usually means that there is an underlying belief at work (often around safety) that has yet to be examined

Since this inquiry assumes that no concept is ultimately true, we don't need to become attached to the opposite of a negative self-judgment. Affirmations may arise, but they are not emphasized. It is enough to see that a polarity of our cherished belief may well be as true as the original. This helps the mind to see its limits and to let go.

An additional interesting question to pose along these lines is: “What happens when you allow both beliefs to be there at the same time?” This can help catapult fixated attention into the background openness that is free of any polarized position. The ancient tantric practice of Yoga Nidra works with this principle. [See the extensive work by transpersonal psychotherapist Richard Miller on Yoga Nidra, which he is widely applying to cases of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other conditions, especially through his process of iRest (Integrative Restoration); www.nondual.org/sitemap.html.]

8. “Notice how your body feels. What do you experience?”

Comment: We come back to the body at the end of this process and offer clients a chance to compare their current felt-sense of themselves with their original feeling. It also helps them to feel the impact of their thinking. If there is continuing distress and time permits, you may begin another round of inquiry which will often focus on a related or even deeper negative self-judgment. Sometimes an original self-judgment will give way to a deeper one mid-way through a cycle. I continue with the new one when this happens.

Once you get the hang of this process, you can guide a client through these steps within 15-20 minutes. It is good to leave some time at the end of the session to debrief and get feedback. This inquiry usually is a gradual process of seeing through layers of the self-world view. Clients begin to internalize the various steps and spontaneously apply them to their experience as it arises in the moment.