June 11, 2006

I'm in Love!

With this woman.

Byron Katie is an authentic homegrown American spiritual genius out of Barstow, Arizona. Raised in ordinary circumstances, she became successful in real estate, married twice, and raised a couple of kids. In her thirties she became severely depressed, a state that lasted ten years. She suffered from bouts of rage that terrified her children. Agoraphobia set in; she stayed in bed for weeks at a time, neglecting to wash or bathe, and eventually checked herself into an eating disorders clinic, the only facility her insurance company would pay for. At the clinic, her anger was so frightening to the other patients that she was placed in a separate attic room, where she slept on the floor because she felt unworthy of a bed. About two weeks later, she woke up one morning in a state of unalloyed clarity and joy. She felt that she was no longer herself and that she wasn't separate from anything in the universe. An "it," or perhaps a larger "I," was looking out through her eyes. And she understood that all suffering comes from thoughts.

Returning home shortly afterward, her state of joyous understanding endured. She reconciled with her astounded family. She spent a good deal of time in the nearby desert, sitting in the wind. Word of her awakening spread locally and people began coming to her with questions about their lives. When they told her of their perceived problems, she would ask, "Honey, is that true?" and lead them to see that their sufferings were built on misconceptions of what ought to be or of what was being done to them.

Over the next two years, she formalized her approach into a list of four questions, amazingly simple, :

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?

The four questions are followed by a "turnaround" in which you reverse the terms of the thought. For example, "He's mean to me," might become "He's not mean to me," or, "I'm mean to him," or "I'm mean to myself."

Writing down the answers and the turnaround, dwelling on them to see what emerges, is a profound meditation that leads one to uncover the projections, the blamings, and the fictions that one lives by. The approach is completely nonjudgmental: one doesn't try to eradicate the thought, one simply acknowledges it and, eventually, even comes to be grateful to it.

Katie calls this process of inquiry The Work. One does it over and over again, on any issue in one's life, and it keeps generating joy and clarity. And from what I've read, the more one does it, the deeper and subtler one's insights become and the more automatically fruitful the process becomes. Apparently Katie lives at some level of impersonal unity with the cosmos where questions of identity, of life and death, hardly matter anymore. Most people, operating at a more mundane level, use The Work for its psychotherapeutic benefits, the changes it can create in their self-identified lives.

The approach is so simple, many people are suspicious of it. How can four rather obvious questions change misery into joy amost overnight? Can the change really last? Isn't there some sort of flim-flam, some guru effect, going on?

Well, Katie has a powerful personality, and I think that was responsible for both the depth of her crash and the height of her rebound. Her enthusiasm and personal presence -- which, while consistently loving, can also be tough and no-nonsense -- are major factors in her material success. But I also get the feeling that her material success is genuinely a side issue for her, that if she hadn't achieved it, she would still be asking those four questions to any individuals who sought her out, and to herself.

I'm convinced that the technique works, because I've tried it over the past few days. It's premature to say how deeply or permanently I've changed, and I don't know if I'm qualified to judge anyway. But I know I've gained insights into my unproductive mental habits, insights that might have taken me months or years to achieve in therapy, if ever.

And I know that I intended to keep up with The Work to see where it takes me. There are elements in it of cognitive therapy and elements that accord with Buddhist psychology, but Katie, arriving at these ideas on her own, has instinctively stripped away the clinical and cultural frills (or perhaps didn't have them to strip away in the first place) and presented only the core, the pith, the essence. The reason the Work is so ridiculously simple on the surface is that she's gotten rid of the decoration.

Katie's 2002 book, Loving What Is, encapsulates the approach so fully that it is all the equipment you need to pursue The Work on your own. No teacher is called for. She says, "You are the teacher." You can also learn the gist of The Work for free through her website, which offers useful printouts and worksheets, a schedule of Katie's many public appearances, and offerings of intensive weekends and week-long programs, at which Katie herself presides. Busy nonstop, and having turned her simple questions into a highly successful commercial enterprise, Katie is remarkably available to answer queries and participate in periodic free conference calls.

In the world out there, The Work is classified under "Self-Help" and therefore crammed together with scores of other glitzy, self-promotional techniques promising happiness to the anxious American middle class. Glitz and self-promotion aren't absent from Katie's business, but one senses an authenticity underneath: a pragmatic directness flowing from the joy of real knowledge. You can spend lots of money on The Work if you want to, but Katie is glad if you don't spend any.

When the student is ready, the teacher arrives, the saying goes, and if I'm not ready now, I don't know when I ever would be. And while I might say that the teacher is Katie, she would say it's me.

If there is anything problematic at all in your life -- a job, a relationship, a health issue, money, anything -- I suggest that you look up The Work.

I thank Dilys at Good and Happy for posting about Byron Katie so often that I finally had to check it out.