November 30, 2006

The Work of Byron Katie and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Comparison

by Jane Bunker, Ph.D. with Carol L. Skolnick, M.A.

As a growing number of therapists, counselors and coaches incorporate the self-inquiry process called The Work of Byron Katie into their practices, the question often arises, "How does The Work compare to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?" There are notable similarities in that The Work, like CBT, is a cognitive restructuring technique. However, unlike CBT, The Work does not seek to replace one thought with another, less stressful thought; it is an experiential modality in which stressful thoughts are identified, expressed and questioned, resulting in an awareness of projective identification.

Here are some fundamental differences between the two approaches.

1. CBT: Achieve specific result
The Work: Discover what's true for the client

If there is a goal in The Work, it is to discover what is true for the client. The underlying assumption of The Work is that all suffering comes from arguing with reality. The secondary assumption is that reality is good. With CBT, the goal is to achieve a specific, client and therapist devised end result (i.e., to be happier, to have a better marriage, to like one's job more, etc.). CBT assumes that reality can be manipulated in order to achieve a particular, more desirable outcome....the secondary assumption here being that reality is flawed.

2. CBT: Necessitates a therapist
The Work: Does not need therapist or facilitator

CBT necessitates a therapist; The Work, which is self-directed, does not require a therapist or even a facilitator. Even if facilitated by a therapist or performed in a group setting, the simple structure of The Work's four basic self-inquiry questions and its reversal technique, the "turnaround," entrusts the process to the client. Administered cleanly, there will be no imposition of therapist's opinion or values in the course of a session.

3. CBT: Replace painful thoughts with "better" ones
The Work: Does not attempt to replace thoughts; painful thoughts dissolve

Both CBT and The Work are clear about the powerful role that thoughts play in human suffering. CBT, however, attempts to get the client to drop these thoughts and replace them with new, more productive, positive ones. In The Work, one part of the mind examines the other. There is no room for the normally defensive, proof-seeking part of the mind to hold on to the identity-defining thoughts that have been contributing to the client's suffering. With the resulting clarity that comes of mind meeting mind, the stressful thoughts serve no further purpose and dissolve on their own.

Also, by directing the client's pain outward on paper, The Work provides an initial vehicle for releasing rather than adding stress, the latter being a phenomenon which may occur in CBT when judgments are aimed at the self.

4. Both CBT and The Work address question 1 of The Work: Is it true? -- to expose the lie of the mind. However, The Work goes significantly further with question 2: Can you absolutely know that it's true? -- by attempting to eliminate even a 1% probability for the "I-know mind" to attach to and thus short-circuit the rest of the process. With questions 3 and 4: How do you react when you believe this thought? Who would you be without this thought? -- The Work offers the opportunity to hold thought up to the light, examine it openly, see the damage it has evoked and what life might be like without it. The subsequent turnaround -- a reversal technique in which the client considers ways in which the opposite of the belief might be just as true or truer -- offers a perfectly timed glimpse of one's own innocent, but complete, responsibilty for one's own happiness, while providing an expanded awareness of what "truth" encompasses. As in advaita vedanta, the Indian school of nondual philosophy, there is a gradual recognition that all experience is projected, and when the "projector" is adjusted, the projection changes.

5. Embedded in the turnaround is the concept of nonduality. All that was directed at the other appears to be true of the self as well. All that was apparently not absolutely true of the other might not be absolutely true of the self either. With The Work's loving, incisive probing, thoughts are eventually relieved of their charge. The safety and comfort of truth discovered replaces the client's need for attachment to identity-defining thoughts, and those thoughts are released in their obsolescence.

©2005 by Jane Bunker, Ph.D. and Carol L. Skolnick, M.A.

Jane Bunker is an artist and a retired psychologist from Santa Fe, New Mexico and Boise, Idaho, whose practice incorporated CBT and other modalities. Carol L. Skolnick is a Santa Cruz, California-based writer, educator, and facilitator of The Work of Byron Katie. Both Jane and Carol are graduates of Byron Katie's School for The Work and have served on the staff of the school.


Robert said...

Hi Carol,

Thank you for sorting this out. I'm a social worker and when I tell my collegues about The Work they often nod and tell me that they understand what it is: it's like the CBT (or REBT). So this helps a bit more to clarify the difference between the two.



jwfbean said...

The assumption that reality is good seems odd. Just because reality is not always changeable and must be accepted sometimes just the way it is, that doesn't mean it's "good".

I must be misunderstanding that assumption, because it seems so utterly strange to me.

Carol L. Skolnick said...


Here is what may be the missing piece for you: reality need never be accepted. However, anything that argues with reality is going to be uncomfortable.

My unquestioned thought: my hip shouldn't hurt. Reality: it does. If I believe what I think - which is, that my body should be different than it is - I now have pain and suffering combined.

If I turn that thought around - "My hip should hurt" - and come up with genuine examples of why this statement is as true or truer, I discover that reality is a lot kinder than my story about it.

Why should my hip hurt? Because that is what is happening now. Why might this be a good thing? Because perhaps it is letting me know of an underlying condition that needs my attention: my spine needs straightening by the chiropractor, or my shoes are wrong and I need orthotics. It could be that there are lessons I need to learn about the benefits of living with limited physical ability, so that I won't waste time feeling sorry for the "disabled" people I work with when they are perfectly fine. Maybe I need to cultivate gratitude for my body, which I have taken for granted. Or if it didn't hurt and I had gone out dancing the other night, I might have been flattened by a car on the way, so this prevented me from leaving the house on a night that I wasn't supposed to be dead yet.

Here's what Byron Katie says about the inherent goodness of reality, excerpted from her book Loving What Is:

"I am a lover of what is, not because I’m a spiritual person, but because it hurts when I argue with reality. We can know that reality is good just as it is, because when we argue with it, we experience tension and frustration. We don’t feel natural or balanced. When we stop opposing reality, action becomes simple, fluid, kind, and fearless."

Katie also suggests not to believe what she says - what you call an assumption - but to test it, since it is easy to do if you use inquiry as an exercise for getting at the truth. "Reality is good" is indeed an assumption if not experienced. You can't believe what you have not realized for yourself.

I can say that reality is good because I've discovered this again and again. I may not be cognizant of this in the moment, if I'm witnessing or experiencing something that feels unfair, painful, or cruel. However, since I began to apply the four questions and turnaround of this simple process of The Work in my life — as long as there has been willingness to know what's real — I have not yet found anything in the world that isn't medicine.