Byron Katie: I can’t feel your pain

I can’t feel your pain. That’s not possible. If someone hits you and I believe that I “feel” it, I am projecting what that must feel like, and that is the pain I feel. I’m remembering the time when someone hit me, and I feel my own story. In reality, there’s no pain for me. There aren’t two of us in pain; there’s only one. Who would I be without my story? Pain-free, happy, and totally available if someone needs me.
– Byron Katie

I went to a TRE workshop last year where some of the psychologists / therapists talked about taking on their client’s pain, and having to protect themselves against it. To my relief (since he reflected my thoughts and experience!), D.B. cut through and said it’s all yours. It’s the same with thoughts about taking on someone’s “bad energy”. For me, this type of thought still sometimes comes up around tension. I think he/she has inner tension, it influences me/taints me/is transferred to me. And all that’s happening is that I create tension in me through being unclear on and believing those thoughts.

Here are some of my thoughts for later inquiry:

Psychologists should know better. They are ill informed. They are not skilled enough. They are not clear enough. They shouldn’t be allowed to work with clients.

He is in inner tension / struggle. He makes noise, and that means he is in inner struggle. Inner struggle is bad. His inner struggle taints me. His inner struggle is transferred to me. His inner struggle disturbs my peace. It’s my peace.

6 thoughts to “Byron Katie: I can’t feel your pain”

  1. BK has this wrong, at least from a neuroscience standpoint. Look up “limbic resonance” and also “mirror neurons” as they relate to theories of empathy. 🙂

    That said, it is most useful to address and focus on what is happening in this body, my body, me.

  2. Thanks, Stephen. I am aware of that research, and don’t see The Work and neuroscience in opposition.

    It’s a quite interesting topic to explore. Here are a few things that come up for me:

    In general, when there is a bodily response to a situation, the response is triggered by cognition. This is where the old analogy with the rope comes in. If I walk on a path, see something, and think it’s a snake (and believe thoughts about what it means), fear kicks in. If I see the same shape, and recognize it as a rope, fear does not kick in. (This actually happened for me a few weeks back.) There has to be a basic cognition – labeling, interpretation – to trigger a bodily response to a situation.

    It’s the same with limbic resonance and mirror neurons. There is (a) cognition, a labeling and interpretation, (b) this triggers a bodily and emotional response – including from limbic resonance and mirror neurons, (c) the experience of this is in turn labeled and interpreted, (d) and this may be recognized as all happening within me (as Byron Katie shows) or there may be a thought that I am experiencing the pain of someone else (a projection).

    In a very literal sense, if I have the thought that I am experiencing your pain, I am experiencing my own pain, and it’s my thinking that triggers it. That’s what Byron Katie points out here.

    It can also be helpful to make another distinction here. When I tell myself someone is suffering, there are two possibilities. (a) I may experience suffering myself, by believing my thoughts about what’s happening. Or (b) I may come from clarity, remember and understand how it is to experience suffering that way, and act from kindness, free from own suffering. Both can be seen as empathy, with the first having own suffering added onto it and the second more clear.

  3. Hi MOE,

    Your experience is your experience, so run with that as much as you would like. However some of your claim is not supported by the neuroscience. Specifically “In general, when there is a bodily response to a situation, the response is triggered by cognition” is not accurate. The somatic proceeds the cognitive. We learn to influence the somatic through the cognitive, as you describe well on this site and with The Work, but the fight-flight response is pre-verbal and limbic … not of the cortex, largely. The cortex inhibits the primal response; it does not generate it.

  4. Thank you. I am familiar with that view, and I think what appears as different views may not be so different. It may be more a question of how we use the words cognition and thought.

    When I use those words, I think of them including pre-verbal cognitions, and also the most basic labels – such as man, chair, snake, rope, and the most basic interpretations such as fear, safe. And I know many think of cognition as conscious/intentional cognition, and thought as verbal thought.

    This is how I see it:

    If I am heavily sedated and a bear comes into the room, I assume there would be no bodily response in me since there is no cognition of the bear.

    Any bodily response would require (a) awareness of the bear, and (b) a labeling of it as a bear, and (c) an interpretation of it as dangerous. Of course, the labeling and interpretation happens very quickly and usually subconsciously (it appears automatic), and yet, it’s a cognition that in turn triggers a bodily response (fear, fight-flight-freeze).

    It’s the same with the rope and snake example. When I walked on the path in dusk this summer, saw a shape on the path, and initially thought it was a snake, there was a physiological fear response. As soon as I realized it was actually a snake, the fear response went away. And if I had recognized it as a rope right away, there wouldn’t have been a fear response at all.

    I completely agree that the fight-flight response is pre-verbal, and it still seems that it requires some very basic cognition for it to be triggered. If not, how is the initial information transmitted to the nervous system?

    (Also, in my experience, with very deep and precise inquiry, this very basic cognition does change. It’s not automatic in it’s essence, even if it may appear so. But that’s another topic.)

  5. Hi MOE,

    If you define your terms as you have, then I largely agree. I would say, though, that “cognition” is the work of the cortex (thinking). I would say that “subconscious” or “unconscious” is limbic and brainstem (somatic, pre-verbal).

    If you are heavily sedated that means that either (1) sensory processing (somatic, non-cognitive input data) is distorted/muted (I don’t see the bear, I don’t hear the bear, I don’t smell the bear b/c I am in a stupor or passed out); and/or (2) cognitive processing is distorted/muted (I don’t think there is danger b/c of the bear). If the drug evokes only #2, the body would mobilize (hr increase, etc.) or freeze as soon as an arm gets chewed. No “thinking” would be needed for this.

    Science supports this progression: sensory data invokes subconscious (brainstem) homeostasis response (these nerve impulses run faster than cognitive ones) -> limbic system (one could say) somatically assesses and mobilizes “unconscious” response based on somatic memory (trauma creates distortion) -> cortex “decides” action, maybe by (1) running with cognitive distortions, increasing unhelpful/unnecessary somatic activation or (2) doing BK’s work to influence somatic experience through voluntrary/conscious action … aka inhibits primal (brainstem) and learned (limbic) unconscious action. Of course, the reality is that all this wiring is very integrated, but to say the cortex drives the train or comes first is a mistake.

    My hand pulls awa from flame before I “tell” it do do that. I can learn (cortex), though, to keep it in flame … and the yogis might even learn to not be burned (cortex influencing primal homeostasis brain).

  6. Thank you 🙂 Yes, I suspect we (mostly? largely?) agree, and that the confusion is mostly about wording. I also agree about what you say about the cortex and the response to physical trauma.

    Where it’s a bit difference is where you write sensory data, I would include very basic (preverbal) images providing a label (bear) and interpretation (danger). This level is mostly un/sub-conscious and seems automatic, and yet in my experience it’s possible to bring it to awareness and investigate it in different ways. I assume this is a cortical influence on some more basic/primitive processes, as you suggest with your flame example.

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