The biography of a woman who inadvertently used clinical depression for sadhana and wound up as a spiritual teacher.
The sudden transformation of Byron Katie serves as a remarkable testimony to the powers of spiritual resurrection that live in each of us.
Born Byron Kathleen Reid in Breckenridge, Texas, in 1942, she was raised in the small desert town of Needles, California, in the years following World War II. Her mother said that she was named Byron for money, after a wealthy relative offered financial support if the child was given his name, and Kathleen for love. Growing up, everyone called her Katie. Her homemaker mother and her father, a railroad worker, saw Katie grow from a quiet, thoughtful little girl into an aggressive, competitive teenager who sought to be the best in everything she did. A top student, she played piano and sang in a regional choir. Beautiful, energetic, and fun, Katie was voted first runner-up for queen of her high school prom.
At nineteen she married Robert, her high school sweetheart. They moved to Fresno; two sons and a daughter soon followed. Robert and Katie formed their own company as equal partners. When her marriage, like many, met with difficulties, Katie, a perfectionist and high achiever, suffered the belief that she was not enough. She began striving for the usual symbols of happiness and security — money, beauty, talent, and success.
Katie invested their mutual earnings in real estate. Within a few years, she and Robert owned shares of numerous buildings in Needles’s business district. They bought a grand riverfront house and threw lavish parties attended by an elite and influential local crowd. By the 1970s, Katie had become a millionaire.
Katie now had her long-sought success. She was doing big business, raising a family, living high. But it wasn’t enough; nothing pleased or satisfied her. In her increasingly frustrated and ultimately futile search for happiness through money and power, Katie had “bullied, intimidated, and badgered” anyone, even her husband and children, to get her way.
But in the midst of having everything and seeking more, her passion had turned to desperation. Her marriage with Robert became a battle of wills, her family life a series of skirmishes. They were all casualties, especially the children. “If I didn’t get my way,” Byron Katie said, “I would leave the house and take the children with me.”
The third time she did this, Robert got involved with another woman.
This was a time of darkness for Katie and for her children, but the seeds had been sown long before. For years she had held back the darkness and emptiness with food, alcohol, tobacco, and constant striving. But her strategy took its toll; her progressive disintegration led to rages, alcohol abuse, and paranoia. At one point she bought a gun and kept it loaded under her bed. Finally, even her children feared her. When her marriage ended in 1976, Katie and the children wound up penniless in Barstow, California.
Then, in 1979, she married Paul, an old friend fifteen years her senior. When Paul was nineteen and Katie four, he had paved the street where she lived. She still recalled being captivated by his laughter; she had loved him even then. Katie and Paul began buying, fixing up, and reselling old houses and were soon quite wealthy — Katie still had the knack. Once again she had money, friends, a thriving career, and a family she loved. But the meaning had drained out of her existence. She felt herself dying inside.
Paul, a good man, had married Katie on her way down. He’d seen a couple of friends have nervous breakdowns. But he’d never witnessed anything like his wife’s terrifying descent.
Katie had once taken on the world, charmed people, closed deals, made money. Now, afraid to leave the house, she went weeks without bathing, changing her clothes, or brushing her teeth. She spent days in bed — drinking, smoking, raging, popping codeine, eating ice cream by the gallon. Her weight shot up to over two hundred pounds. Her torment and her rage were unrelieved: “Nothing felt good, nothing made me happy, nothing brought me peace. In the end I was obese and starving….I was in so much pain and the pills weren’t working. I was insane, a dead woman still breathing.”
Her children spun off in their own mad directions, fleeing their cyclone mother raging on her bed. Paul became Katie’s primary caretaker — her buffer to a world she now feared. During the first seven years of their marriage, Paul suffered four heart attacks; the strain of caring for his wife came close to killing him. Katie spent the last two of those years lying on the bed, her unchanged clothing often plastered to her body and her unwashed hair matted to her head.
In 1986, after his fourth heart attack, Paul took Katie, now forty-three, to a halfway house. She lived in the attic, sleeping on the floor. All she wanted was to die.
Then one morning Byron Katie woke up reborn.
The bare facts of this event cannot begin to convey its impact or explain its occurrence. Morning dawned, and Katie stirred, lying on the floor. She opened her eyes and saw a cockroach crawling across a human foot. She did not, in that moment, know what a foot, or for that matter what anything, was. All was a mystery.
Yet the sight of the insect, the foot, the leg, and the room filled her with delight and awe. She was a newborn, gazing in wonder at life. “It was the most amazing thing,” she recalled. “I looked at the foot and the leg and I had never seen anything so beautiful and marvelous. It was the same with the floor, with the cockroach, and with the light, seeing it for the first time…and the unfolding of it was so incredible…total, total joy.”
The world was new. Katie had awakened from “an ancient dream.” Whatever had previously obscured her view of life’s in-herent perfection was gone. Now, from moment to moment, she saw and joyously embraced reality exactly as it was. Everything she gazed upon, within and without, glowed with radiant life.
We may never know what catalyzed this simple yet absolute turnaround in perception and consciousness. But one thing was certain: Overnight, Katie had moved from suicidal despair to ecstatic freedom. The madwoman had vanished. In her place ap-peared a beautiful changeling, an innocent child.
No one, least of all Katie, understood what had happened. Her daughter Roxann at first believed that her mother was playing a trick. Yet she saw a different person come home. “Her face was changed completely,” Roxann reported. “Her eyes were cleared. She was not the same person.”
Understandably, Roxann feared the return of the madwoman she had known. But what had happened to Katie persisted and only deepened over time. Her past behind her, her future yet to unfold, she now lived in the eternal present. Her contact with everyday reality — with people, objects, and situations — though at times bewildering, continued to fill her with joy.
For a time, Roxann led her mother, still absorbed in a childlike state of awe, around by the hand. Katie would spontaneously hug people on the street — friends, strangers, the homeless — with equal delight. Surprisingly, many let her, perhaps sensing her unconditional love and acceptance.
For seven years after the awakening, inner revelations came to Katie, and she tried to put them into words to share with others: “…there is only love…there is no time…unlearning is everything….” But she had leaped across a chasm of consciousness, and no words seemed capable of building a bridge for those who couldn’t see to the other side. She said of that time: “I was wild with love, mad with love.” But words couldn’t convey it. She had to live her realization to sustain it.
Katie stopped trying to tell people what they hadn’t asked to hear and began to simply love — to love those she had known, those she had harmed, and those she now met — no longer expecting them to understand, to be good, to love her back, or to be anything other than who they were.
Living the truth had nothing to do with changing other people. Who they were, and what they did, was their business. Her only business was to love them unconditionally. By living in this way, Katie gradually regained the trust of the family she had nearly destroyed, and helped to heal them.
One night six months after her awakening, Katie experienced a kind of spiritual agony from the tension of trying to live and love in a world that did not yet understand or accept who she was. An old woman appeared to her, sitting in a chair beside the bed, “a wonderful, voluptuous old lady with her hair tied in a bun.” Katie merged into this lady, and found herself looking out through ancient eyes. In this altered state, she saw herself and Paul, lying on the bed, as two primal beings who didn’t yet realize that they didn’t have to suffer. Life itself was unfolding perfectly.
For the next seven years, the marvelous old woman appeared to guide Katie:
What I’ve come to know is that I projected the lady…like a movie…as a result of painful limitations I was experiencing in this dimension. We give ourselves exactly what we need. We supply our own medicine….Today I don’t wait for angels. I am always the angel I have been awaiting, and so are you. It’s not out there, it’s in here….Some people would project Christ, others Krishna….I projected a fat lady with a bun on her head wearing a paisley dress — that’s who I could trust. Now I trust All. I woke up knowing that God is everything….There is no exception in my experience.
Katie’s thoughts returned, of course, as thoughts do — and with them judgments, fears, and expectations. At such times she felt herself slipping from the freedom of her awakening into the mind of suffering. But whenever this happened, she worked her way back by a compassionate vigilance, inspecting the thoughts, beliefs, and false assumptions that separated her from others and set her against life. Doing this “Work,” as she called it, returned her gracefully to the pristine awareness of her original awakening.
The Work became her constant practice.
Through this process, and her unconditional acceptance of life, Katie made peace with each moment — and with every event past or present. “All that I went through — every breath,” she said, “was what it took for me to finally wake up. All teaches love in the long run. All needs are supplied….Every experience of life is for this.”
Byron Katie went on to travel worldwide teaching the Work — the fruit of her past struggles, her extraordinary awakening, and her continual surrender to life as it arises, moment to moment.
Reprinted from Bridge Between Worlds: Extraordinary Experiences That Changed Lives.
Copyright 1999, 2009 Dan Millman and Doug Childers
Dan Millman is a former world champion athlete, university coach, martial arts instructor, college professor, and author of many
books including the best-selling
Way of the Peaceful Warrior.
His website is here.
Doug Childers is a ghost writer and book doctor. His website is here.