The more I examine the life of the mind, the more I recognize the pure innocence of what we refer to—sometimes disparagingly—as the ego. The ego is that which gives us an identity as an "I." We wake up in the morning and the ego's job is to create a world and establish its place in it. "I am still tired." "I have to go to work." "It's going to be a busy day for me." "I wonder if the kids are still asleep." "I'm still upset about our argument last night." "He was wrong (and therefore "I" was right)."
The I-identified mind (which is a story about who we are, rather than the truth of who we are) is like an organism separate from the body. Like any organism, it seeks homeostatis: a stability of its "normal" condition, equilibrium. "I" needs to know that "it" is okay.
In its innocence, the ego which identifies as an "I" may attach to a belief that results neither in equilibrium nor in peace. To the unquestioned mind, habitual thought patterns may at first seem safer than any alternative. Since the ego needs to be right in order to exist, it may fight for this false homeostasis at all costs. When this happens, a belief, no matter how upsetting, becomes hard to shake. In spite of the problematical nature of the thought, we may experience that it serves us...or that it used to.
That is why, in Transformational Inquiry, we don't try to drop or replace a thought. Only an ego thinks and believes, and as long as we believe we're an "I," there is no bypassing thought. "I have no thoughts" is still a thought! So instead of denying our thoughts, we engage with the ego-identified mind so as to unravel thought at its source.
When the process of inquiry becomes alive in us—which can happen very quickly—sometimes it is difficult to see why we would have ever held a stressful thought to begin with. When I am facilitating The Work of Byron Katie, I ask a two-pronged question: "What do you get for holding this belief? What is the payoff?" In general it's very easy to answer the first part of the question: "I get anxiety, I get to feel separate, I get to be superior, I get to experience war in my relationship." These are the "negative payoffs." The mind is not always so open to the "positive payoffs," or perceived benefits, of attachment to a belief.
When this happens to me while self-facilitating, I find it useful to ask myself a few more questions around my attachment. It has been my experience that stressful thoughts are usually fear-based: clinging to them provides a thinly protective membrane from which I may not be quite ready to emerge but which keeps me from experiencing reality directly.
As we question our beliefs we may recognize that there is no benefit to holding the belief and if so, that's wonderful. However, if the belief still feels sticky, I want to go deeper: any resistance to answering the question "What is the payoff?" is simply the ego-organism asserting its need for homeostasis! The cost of holding the belief is I get to stay in an artificial equilibrium, a facade of safety.
Byron Katie has said that there are only two kinds of fear; the fear of losing what you think you have, or the fear of not getting what you think you want. If there is stuckness regarding the question "What is the payoff," and I suspect the inability to answer is fear-based, I will move towards this question: "What is the worst thing that could happen if I no longer believed this thought? What is the fear that keeps me clinging to it?"
Deepening Transformational Inquiry: "It's not safe to disagree."
Have you ever been afraid to disagree with someone in your life? If so, please take the trip with me back to the place in your past (it might be five decades or even five minutes ago) where you held this belief.
Let's say I work for someone with a short fuse or who likes things to go her way (who doesn't?) and I think the thought, "It's not safe to disagree with her." (Not a stretch; I could go back to at least 10 working relationships where I felt this way, beginning 30 years ago with a job I held at the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library the summer before I left for college.)
After I question the validity of the thought (Is it true?) and see how I live out of the belief (I avoid her, I kow-tow to her publicly, and secretly or not so secretly, I resent her for having this perceived power over my financial life, career success and "homeostasis" in the office), I ask myself whose business I'm in when I believe this thought (hers, because I'm presuming she'll erupt if I disagree).
Next, I ask myself, "What do I get for holding this belief? What's the payoff?"
The more obvious answers are: I get fear, separation, a reason to hate going to work in the morning. Or, the payoff may not be so obvious, other than "I get an excuse to eat chocolate in an attempt to soothe my jangled nerves." So I move to "What's the worst thing that could happen if I no longer believed this thought?" Well, I would not keep my opinions in check, and then she might fire me." (There's an old saying: "Tell your boss the truth, and the truth shall set you free.")
Why would I fear being fired? What do I have to lose? Her approval, my family and friends' approval, my paycheck, my standing in the community?
There are a whole lot of assumptions operating here: the assumption that someone will be angry with me and that this is not okay; the assumption that disagreement always results in banishment; the assumption that if I disagree, I will be cut off, shunned, alone, without support. I may look at how old this belief is: when did it first occur to me? Early childhood? Who was I trying to appease then? (Mom, Dad, the neighborhood bully, my older cousin, my first grade teacher, the family friend who was molesting me.)
Now I can see that there are perceived payoffs for thinking this thought: if I don't disagree, I get to stay in a no-conflict zone...for the moment. And of course, there is plenty of internal conflict, so this isn't really working for me. What else do I get? Support, which I think I could lose (a paycheck, health insurance). Approval, which I believe I need (friends who see me as responsible and mature; a family that gets upset when I'm not making money and now feels relieved; a boss who sees me as cooperative, reliable and easy to get along with and who may give me a raise and promotion). If nothing else, I think holding the belief lets me keep an identity that gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. ("I" have a job, "I" have a purpose.)
With further inquiry I may come to see that my "benefits plan" comes at too great of a cost. This is fabulous information; it frees me up to live in the present moment, a.k.a. the real world as opposed to the anticipated, unquestioned and therefore scary world of the ego's creation.
At the same time, I can sit with that ego-driven polarity of mind as if with a frightened child or a well-meaning if overprotective parent who just needs some reassurance that all is well. It is not the enemy; quite the contrary. It has simply been trying to protect me. With the clarity that comes from inquiry, I don't have to disown it; instead I can hold it by the hand, listen to all of its concerns, thank it and love it for its innocent good intentions.
What are your payoffs? And are they worth the cost?
©2006 by Carol L. Skolnick. All rights reserved.