April 29, 2007

Writer Without a Story: Who Is Byron Katie?

Funny question. I hear her replying, “The one holding this cup of tea right now,” or, “Who knows?”

All I can tell you is who I heard and saw. At the beginning of each day’s session, without any introduction, Katie walks in and sits in a large gray easy chair on the little stage. There is a folding screen behind her, a large vase of sunflowers, and a small table with a pitcher of hot herbal tea. She appears to be in her mid-60s, about five feet five (165 cm), with short silver hair worn in bangs, and makeup. Rectangular rimless glasses when she needs to read something. She dresses in soft, good-quality natural fabrics, often of purple or pink-beige, and favors large shawls. Her voice is clear, direct, accentless, becoming slightly scratchy if the day has worn on. She does not seem affected in any way.

The bangs give an impish quality that balances her quiet forcefulness and occasional sternness. She smiles and laughs at the same times you or I would, she can be spontaneously funny (she can also laugh at herself, as we saw during a graduation parody performed by the staff), and she’s warm when greeting individuals or groups, but she’s not a smiley-face; she has serious work for us and for herself. She speaks in well-thought-out sentences, some of which sound like things she has said often before (and in many cases are familiar from her books) and which she repeats because they are, for her, bedrock truths. At other times, she says things off the cuff that are startling in their aptness. She responds readily to every question and seems unconcerned whether her answers will please us or not.

Although she never raises her voice and is always a model of courtesy and empathy, at times I think I sense a bit of annoyance in her (this is a projection on my part -- because everything is) when people don’t get it or when they don’t follow the simple directions in an exercise. She can be hairsplitting about the words she has said or the words she has heard a student say. I sense that aspect of her as annoyance but not impatience: she will let you keep on not getting it. She can question a student sharply in exploring the student’s self-justifying stories. She doesn’t buy into victimology. She needs the truth.

“I’m not nice,” she said at one point. “I love you.”

Sometimes tears come to her eyes (I was sitting about twenty feet away) when discussing a student’s pain or sharing pain from her own life. She is evidently exceptionally capable; it is difficult to imagine her at a loss when confronted with any question, person, or situation; yet when she needs time to think of a response she shows it, leaning forward in her chair, brow furrowed, lips tightened, beginning a word and then stopping it. This isn’t hemming and hawing, it’s an open display of a thought process. The furthest thing from floundering: confidence in one’s working-through.

She reveals a surprising amount about her past, sometimes in brief asides and sometimes in full-length anecdotes. She is apparently willing to admit to any sin, any blemish – and she has revealed some doozies. During one session she told us, in detail, exactly how badly she had treated her daughter just before her (Katie’s) 1986 awakening. Then she asked, “Roxanne, honey, will you stand up, please?” Her daughter, we learned at that moment, was in the audience. And Katie asked Roxanne if she would like to give her version of the incident, and Roxanne did, and they discussed it candidly in front of 300 people. Whether they have done that at other Schools or not, I don’t know.

Katie has also told us of times when, heeding her own truth, she behaved towards others in ways that are not conventionally nice. Her cousin called her up one night and told her he was pointing a pistol at his head and would pull the trigger if she didn’t give him one good reason to stay alive. Katie thought and thought about it, the telephone silence growing. Finally she told him she couldn’t think of a reason. Her cousin told her she was the first person he’d called who’d given an honest answer, and I gather he didn’t pull the trigger. But of course, as Katie reminded us, he might have.

During the school, news of the Virginia Tech massacre filtered in. Someone mentioned it in the group session and Katie asked what had happened. A student explained it in a sentence or two. Katie nodded a few times, taking it in, not altering her slight smile, as if to say, Yes, this is what happens. I'm not sure whether she had heard the news already or not.

She sends volunteers to do The Work with sufferers in trouble spots, such as New Orleans after Katrina. She has spent a lot of time bringing The Work to prisoners, meeting them in person, especially at San Quentin. (One of her prison students told her that he and his fellow Katie-ites have to very careful not to hug each other in the yard.) She makes clear that for her, the penultimate goal in spreading The Work is to end war. (What the ultimate goal is –- well, that's my interpretation.) She said, “It’s a peace movement. And it’s a secret.”

This brings up Katie’s view of ethics, which differs from the conventional view in some ways and which is, as far as I can tell, thoroughly consistent and grounded in a sort of Buddhist sense of unattached compassion, an unblurred, unsentimental vision of peace. My own vision has not arrived there yet, and I would like to experience it.

She says she has not had a negative thought in twenty years: they’re all positive. In other words, the negative ones are positive too.

What if your plane crashes on the way home from the School, she surmised. “What is the worst that could happen? On the way down, you’ll be thinking.”

Toughness is one of her most evident and surprising qualities, and in this respect I think her own legend and her promotional materials (and two of the three book jacket photos) don’t do her justice. There is a tendency to think of her as a savante naïf who came out of nowhere after a gratuitous revelation in 1986, having received her method in one stroke like Moses on the mountaintop, as if God had pressed his thumbprint upon her forehead. And there’s a side of her that seems to fit that description. After her awakening, she had to relearn many of the simplest acts of everyday social living. Her daughter had to instruct her not to go outside in pajamas. One day she walked into an unlocked house in her neighborhood and sat there, silently smiling, while the puzzled occupants walked around her, stared at her, and finally escorted her out. She would wander into the desert for sustained periods, and when she left her house in the morning, carrying no money or identification, her husband Paul would stick a piece of paper with her address on it into her pocket.

And the claim that she was not versed in psychology or religion is believable to me. At the school, she was unfamiliar with the terms “OCD” and “seasonal affective disorder” when students mentioned them.

Nevertheless, she is clearly a person of high intelligence, supremely poised and competent, worldly and untarnished. She is involved moment by moment with the backstage running of her school and other operations, an enormously complex task which, although refined over the years, is always evolving. A staff member told me this morning that the exercise handouts we received during the sessions were being revised by Katie and her chief assistant, Lesley, in response to the ongoing work of the students, minutes before being photocopied.

She reminds me a bit of G. K. Chesterton’s fictional detective, Father Brown, the unassuming little priest who has seen everything and knows all the sins of the human race and unties people’s knots by telling them startling things that should have been obvious. Except that Katie is at the same time her own fallen parishioner. Unlike Father Brown -- or what we see of him, anyhow -- Katie has untied her own knots in the most painstaking way. She told us that after her big 1986 awakening everything remained the same except that she knew her suffering was caused entirely by her thoughts. After that, the release from suffering took a year of constant self-questioning. She likes to say, “I don’t call it The Work for nothing.” And she makes clear that she developed her method and carried on decades of work in pursuit of her own salvation.

Katie seems ceaselessly energetic yet effortlessly still. When she led our opening meditation each morning, her live image, projected onto two screens flanking her, appeared to be a still photograph -– and then, a couple of minutes later, she would slightly adjust her position.

Such stillness in a person who went from the Barstow real estate market to…to wherever she is. The staffers I questioned for further insights into her personality couldn’t help me, except to say that she seems to be exactly who she seems to be at any moment, and to be totally that and nothing else. What must it feel like to be that? Or to be married to her? (Hi, Stephen!)

I hope I will have many years to learn more.