When we arrive home after a few days or weeks away, someone in the family will inevitably say “AJ” as they walk in the door. There is a particular odor that we all associate with the previous owner and even though we’ve lived here for 8 years, the distinctive smell remains. We only notice it after we’ve been away. Otherwise we don’t notice it because we’ve become so used to it. I guess that’s why it’s sometimes easy to miss your own body odor. You’re used to it, and it’s impossible to get away from yourself for a few days even if others wish you would…get away.
Some of the thoughts in your mind are like a lingering odor. You are so used to them that you don’t even notice that you are living as if they are absolutely true. You take them for granted without question, unless you arrive back after a mental getaway, sniff at the edge of your consciousness and see your thoughts in a new light.
There are many ways to look at your thoughts in a new light, and most personal growth systems offer techniques to challenge unquestioned beliefs. Both personal development leader Byron Katie and the philosopher Michael Foucault who died in 1984, devised a series of questions to do just that. They are an odd couple, with no obvious connection to each other except that their questions share a strange synergy. Katie’s questions are coming from a personal perspective, and Foucault’s questions are coming from a social perspective.
Here are the questions alongside each other-
What is the truth? Who can tell the truth?
Can you absolutely know it’s true? What is the truth about?
What self belief does the truth lead to? What are the consequences of the truth?
Who would you be without the truth? What is the relationship between the truth and social authority?
The Personal Dimensions of Truth
Katie calls her work The Work. It goes something like this.
What is your truth? X doesn’t care about me because he doesn’t listen.
Can you absolutely know it’s true? It feels true, but then again he did hear me last week when I told him about my fear and he seemed to care then. There could be many reasons why he seems distant, and they might have very little to do with me. I get mixed messages from him, but I really don’t and can’t know what’s going on inside his head or in his life. I don’t know for sure that he doesn’t care.
What self belief does the truth lead to? Thinking that X doesn’t care about me makes me feel rotten. The less I feel his care, the more I strive to earn it. It makes me feel unworthy of care from anyone. Ultimately it reminds me of my own self loathing.
Who would you be without the truth? I would be liberated without the thought that X doesn’t care about me. I would spend less time second guessing his thoughts and feelings, and more time healing my relationship with myself.
With this approach, you can change the story, and turn around some of the painful thoughts. The turn around here is that I care about myself, I listen to my feelings and if X listens to me it’s a bonus. I can enjoy the moments where I feel cared about, and I’m not devastated when I don’t feel cared for because I don’t expect my self worth to be filled by other people.
I appreciate the simplicity of Katie’s approach and use versions of it often in my own life. However it’s not always as simple as that. Sometimes there are related issues.
The Social Dimension of Truth
Some of the truths you tell yourself grow out of your relationships; with parents, children, teachers, the media, the government or social norms accepted without question. In Foucault’s case, he wrote a lot about sanity, prisons and sexuality. As a prisoner, your view of the world is formed by your relationship with the penal system. Prison is not just punishment. It also creates a belief that you are constantly being watched. Mental health and sexuality are defined according to the categories given to you by society, eg gay, straight, insane, schizophrenic etc. If your truths don’t match the categories, you feel pressured to conform your truth to match society.
Who can tell the truth? All truth is formed in a context. When you claim your power as a fearless truth teller, you realize that you don’t have to be or do what other people expect of you. You tell your own truth AND it can change over time and in different circumstances. You tell your truth in the context of your various roles in society, which create your unique insight.
What is the truth about? Truth always has a trajectory. Society usually decides the direction of truth- for example women are this way and men are that way. Decide on your own story. Claim your gender, sexuality and personality without apology and without society’s biases.
What are the consequences of the truth? Foucault famously said, “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” Your truths have consequences in the world beyond your mind. They affect other people’s truths and the systems that we are all related to. Live mindfully. Are your truths nurturing the sort of environment where diversity and authenticity can flourish for you and all others?
What is the relationship between the truth and social authority? The 1990s song from the Disposable Heroes of Hypopricy said, “Television- is it the reflector or the director? Do we imitate it, or does it imitate us?” Is society the way it is because of our collective truths, or are our truths formed by society? Likely a complex mixture of both. Choose to focus on self determination. If they give you lined paper to write on, write sideways. Be the best version of yourself, a perspective that includes the good of others.
Nothing But the Truth
Katie keeps the process grounded in personal responsibility and reality as it is rather than the stories that aren’t serving you or those around you. Foucault also focuses on personal responsibility but offers some broader perspective to the personal dimensions of Katie’s work. Together they offer some key questions for checking in with your assumptions and habitual thoughts.
A concluding quote from Katie-
“A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts, but our 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.”