A well-written, sympathetic introduction to Byron Katie and her work.
Misery loves company, which is why, on a recent Chicago morning—feeling like the world's biggest failure—I found myself in a frigid convention hall with 200 other wisdom-hungry souls praying, if not for salvation, at least for a dose of sanity. I'd been through an abysmal divorce—the kind that makes you wish you'd become a monk—when a friend suggested I sign up for a weekend self-help seminar led by a teacher named Byron Katie. For the past 20 years Katie, 63, has been showing seekers like me how to lead stress-free lives using a technique she calls The Work.
Admittedly wary after years of reporting on the pop-psychology circus, I was intrigued by Katie's rep as a tough-minded button pusher in the often soft-headed field of self-help (Time voted her one of its Spiritual Innovators for the 21st Century). My friend had another term for it: psychological shock and awe.
At the stroke of nine Byron Katie strutted onstage in a chocolate silk-pants ensemble, a shawl thrown dramatically over her shoulder, Doris Day-pretty, perfectly coifed, self-assured as a lion tamer.
"Our most intimate relationship is the one we have with our own minds," she said. "I was in terrible shape till one day I realized a simple thing. When I believed my own thoughts about myself, I suffered. When I didn't believe them, I didn't suffer. Everything changed for me after that day."
Katie paced the stage, grinning and nodding. "Thoughts are like children," she continued. "They're gonna scream till we pay attention. When we do, and put these beliefs to certain questions, thoughts we've believed 40, 50, 60 years—the worst, stressful thoughts—get popped. It takes a lot of courage. But isn't it time to get real? Haven't we conned ourselves long enough?"
Katie held up a pink worksheet: "Are you ready to do The Work?" The motley group, ages 18 to 80, hooted and hollered. The exercise involved making a list of our greatest shame points—the poisonous self-judgments we reveal to no one—and then applying The Work. "Be brutal!" Katie pushed. "If we don't question what we believe, we're destined to live it out."
The Work, as I knew from reading Katie's most recent bestselling book, I Need Your Love—Is That True? (Harmony, 2005), involves four questions you ask about a painful belief: 1. Is it true? 2. Can you absolutely know that it's true? 3. How do you react when you think that thought? 4. Who would you be without that thought?
At the Chicago seminar, an affluent-looking, silver-haired fellow became a classic case study for The Work. He grabbed the microphone, and in a low voice said, "My father never loved me."
Katie gazed at him like a hawk scoping a rabbit. "Excellent," she responded, and then fired the first of her four questions. "Now, is that true?"
The unloved son nodded emphatically. "Can you absolutely know it's true?" Katie asked.
"Well," he said. "That's how it feels."
"Of course it does," Katie agreed. "Now, how do you react when you think that thought, sweetheart?" She's known for scattering endearments like candy to children.
"I feel miserable."
"And who would you be without that thought?"
"A lot better off, I know that."
"Can you turn it around?"
A look of annoyance flashed over his face. "What? He does love me?"
Katie steepled her fingers below her chin. "Okay…but can you think of another turnaround?"
Now he appeared baffled. Then his eyes lit up. "You mean…I don't love him?" he stammered, as if this thought had never occurred to him, but saying it, the truth rang through.
"Very good," Katie said, nodding. "Now," she added, "can you give me three examples of where your lack of love toward your father was clear?"
"I distance myself from him," he began. "I get furious at him for how he treated my mom and my family. I just can't forgive that."
"Good, sweetheart. What else?"
The man gripped the chair and confessed that he'd never really, truthfully, liked his father in the first place.
Katie held out her arms, embracing the pop of another victim's tale of woe. Half-stunned, the man took his seat. "Remember, the mind is a child," she repeated. "It believes what we tell it. Our lives become hell through our self-created stories. But we each have the power to stop the abuse."
My seatmate elbowed me, knowing why I was there. My wedding ring was still stuck on my finger.
"There's so much courage here," said Katie. "It always amazes me."
The Work came to Katie through a life-threatening crisis. Born Byron Kathleen Reid in 1942, the headstrong second daughter of a homemaker and a railroad engineer, she had a run-of-the-mill upbringing in the Mohave Desert of southern California. After a shotgun wedding at 19, she spent the '60s, and most of the '70s, raising her three kids and becoming a local real-estate mini-tycoon.
What happened next knocked this feet-on-the-ground lady sideways. Divorcing her husband at 33, Katie slipped into a downward plunge of rage, paranoia, and suicidal depression. Morbidly obese, she became agoraphobic and for two years could hardly leave her bedroom, often unable to bathe or brush her teeth. "I had plenty of money, a beautiful home, three kids who were healthy," she has said. "I felt ungrateful and confused. I was dying."
Katie moved to a halfway house-like facility. Relegated to the attic—the other women were afraid of her outbursts—Katie fell asleep one night in 1986 never expecting that when she woke the next morning, she would experience a stunning, out-of-nowhere shift in consciousness that would not only heal her but lead to discovering the four simple questions of The Work.
She returned home at 43, completely at peace. "I realized that my thoughts were creating my suffering," Katie has written matter-of-factly. Gradually she began to do The Work with neighbors who wanted to know how she'd changed so remarkably. She received invitations to speak. Asked whether she was enlightened, Katie waved such nonsense aside. "I'm someone who knows the difference between what hurts and what doesn't."
Yet for all her success, Katie's tough love message—"All suffering is optional," she claims—rubs many mental health professionals the wrong way. "To assume that simply by asking four questions and turning a thought around you can address the complexity and seriousness of traumatic issues—such as rape or incest, for example—misses the mark," says Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Ron Alexander, Ph.D. Her cruel-to-be-kind approach and categorical rejection of victimhood are what rankles critics most. A meditation teacher who prefers to remain anonymous suggests that The Work "has no heart in it."
Watching Katie myself, however, I never doubted the full involvement of her heart. While it's true she refuses to coddle whiners, her aggression seems the exasperation of someone watching people hurt themselves unnecessarily in a manner she barely survived herself.
When I met with Katie a few days later in a Manhattan hotel room, along with her husband, Stephen Mitchell, a distinguished writer and translator, she elaborated on this point. "Imagine if your energy were not being taken up with stress, what you'd be capable of!" she said, glamorous in another flowing, silky ensemble. "We're all so busy being miserable, depressed. But the mind that has questioned itself looks forward to life. Do I choose to live in a way that's most fulfilling for me, or am I going to prove that I'm the primo example of suffering, and here's why we should all be miserable?"
Without intending to, Katie had just punctured the central balloon of my own divorce melodrama.
"Suffering over things that have happened to us is nothing more than an argument with the past. Your father may have slapped you when you were three, but you've done it now a million times."
The face of my ex flashed before me. I was the one holding the whip.
"On our deathbeds, we're still saying that he or she ruined my life," Katie exclaimed, pouring a cup of tea. "People say life is a dream. Well, let's question the nightmare and have a happy dream! Retiring from stressful thoughts could be the most important retirement there is."
A week later I wrote my ex a long-overdue letter abdicating my wounded position, confessing to my own conjugal errors, and sending wishes for friendship. Dropping the envelope in the mailbox, I realized that nothing had changed except the conviction that I was right and my version of our debacle was the true one. My depression began to lift, and I was reminded of something Katie had told me before leaving. "Reality is always much kinder than our thoughts about it," she said, tightly squeezing my hand. This seemed, for once, absolutely true.
Reprinted from AARP The Magazine, May/June 2006.
Copyright AARP 2006.