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A conversation with Byron Katie
Byron Katie, in her words, 'awakened to reality' in 1986 and ever since has been touring the world sharing her simple, powerful process of living in the present moment and going with the flow of life: The Work. She has written several bestselling books including Loving What Is, Who Would You Be Without Your Story? and A Thousand Names For Joy (a fascinating account of her day-to-day life blended with excerpts from the Tao Te Ching).
MICHAEL: Can you tell me a little about your background?
KATIE: My background was pure suffering. I was deeply depressed for ten years, alcoholic, obese, agoraphobic, suicidal. I didn’t think that there was a way out. Every day I wanted to die. During the last two years of this, I could hardly leave my bedroom. I slept with a loaded pistol under my pillow. I would sometimes go for two weeks without being able to bathe or brush my teeth, so intense was my self-loathing.
Then one morning in February 1986, out of nowhere, I experienced a life-changing realization. I sometimes call it “waking up to reality”. In that instant of no-time, I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.
MICHAEL: Tell me about The Work, your spiritual method?
KATIE: The Work was born in that first moment of astonished awareness. It’s a way of identifying and questioning the stressful thoughts that cause all the suffering in the world, and anyone with an open mind can do it. It consists of four questions and what I call a turnaround, which is a way of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. You put these questions up against a stressful thought, such as “I’m too fat” or “My husband should listen to me” or “Life is unfair.” The questions are:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3. How do you react when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?
For detailed instructions, I invite your readers to visit thework.com, where there are many free resources available.
MICHAEL: I was first drawn to your work when I saw an interview with Oprah and you told her you hadn’t experienced suffering (sadness, anger or resentment) at all in twenty years… Can you talk a little about this?
KATIE: Yes, it has been quite a while. Once the nature of the mind is understood, suffering can’t exist; it’s not possible. Emotions such as sadness, anger, and resentment are the effects of believing our stressful thoughts. When we learn how to question them, their power disappears. Eventually, if a stressful thought arises, the questions arise at the same instant and the thought unravels before it can have any effect. It’s amazing! When you don’t believe your thoughts, there’s only laughter and peace. There are names for a place like that. I call it heaven.
MICHAEL: Who are your personal favourite spiritual teachers/teachings or books?
KATIE: I don’t know anything about “spiritual teachers,” and I almost never read books.
MICHAEL: What is your daily spiritual practice?
KATIE: I wake up. I brush my teeth. I wash my face. And I let the day unfold.
MICHAEL: Do you do your process The Work on paper or is it automatic for you?
KATIE: It has been twenty years since I’ve had a stressful thought, so there is no longer any need to question my thinking. And of course, I can’t know about the future. But I know that if a stressful thought should come to me, I have the tools for dealing with it.
In the year or so after my experience in 1986, I was constantly writing down stressful thoughts and questioning them as thoroughly as I could. People used to come to my house, because they had heard that I was a saint, a Master, a Buddha. They would say I had something called “enlightenment.” I had no idea what that meant. It sounded like having the flu. When they looked at me with wonder in their eyes, I felt they were seeing me as some kind of freak, and that was okay with me. I knew I was free, but I was still being bombarded by all the delusions that humanity has ever suffered from. It didn’t feel enlightened to me.
For about a year, I had to write down the beliefs that kept arising in my mind. I had to write them down and inquire, in order to hold reality firmly. They came very fast—hundreds, thousands of them. Each belief felt like a meteor crashing into a planet, trying to demolish it. Someone would say, or I would hear in my mind, “It’s a terrible day,” and my body would start to shake. It was as if I couldn’t bear the lie. It didn’t matter whether I or someone else spoke it, because I knew it was all me. The cleansing, the undoing, inside me was instantaneous, whereas when I offer inquiry to people, they’re doing it in apparent time and space—in the density that looks like time and space. But for me, the timelessness was obvious. So, when a belief hit me, I would sit and write it down and put it up against the four questions and then turn it around. That first year, I was writing all the time, crying all the time. But I never felt upset. I loved this woman who was dying through inquiry, this woman who had been so very confused. I kept falling in love with her. She was irresistible.
Most mornings, before or after I went out walking, I would sit by a window in the sunlight and wait for an uncomfortable feeling to appear. If it did, I would be thrilled, because I knew that it was always the result of some thought I needed to clean up. I was this. So I would write the thought down, and there was a lot of humor in the process. The thoughts that I wrote down were almost always about my mother. I knew that if I burned through one delusion, I would burn through them all, because I was dealing with concepts, not with people. They were thoughts like “My mother doesn’t love me”; “She loves my sister and brother more than me”; “She should invite me to family gatherings”; “If I tell the truth about what happened, she’ll deny it and no one will believe me.” That first year, it wasn’t enough that a thought was being met by inquiry, wordlessly, in my mind. The thought had to be written down. You can’t stop mental chaos, however motivated you are. But if you identify one piece of chaos and stabilize it, then the whole world begins to make sense.
MICHAEL: As a byproduct of you living joyfully in the Now, you seem to attract wonderful experiences… some of which could be called ‘miracles’ (for example, your healing experiences detailed in your book A Thousand Names For Joy). Can you talk a little about this?
KATIE: Apparently strange things can happen when the mind understands itself, but these are no more miraculous than the simple act of breathing or walking or eating an apple. If something seems miraculous, how wonderful! But when it’s over, I forget it, because there’s nothing to remember. It’s done. It’s gone, as if it never existed. What’s happening right now? That’s where my focus is.
MICHAEL: Have you got any tips for getting out of cycles of ‘addictive’ negative thinking?
KATIE: The only tip I have is for people to do The Work. These four questions and turnarounds are so powerful! I have seen them work with people whose addictions seem permanent—I am thinking specifically now of a young woman in her early twenties who had been addicted to heroin since the age of twelve. She did the 28-day program in our Turnaround House and got off all medications, caffeine, alcohol, everything. She told me that she is now having the youth that she missed in her teenage years.
MICHAEL: You have a successful marriage… what is your secret to romantic relationships?
KATIE: Once we begin to question our thoughts, our partners, alive, dead, or divorced, are always our greatest teachers. There’s no mistake about the person you’re with; he or she is the perfect teacher for you, whether or not the relationship works out, and once you enter inquiry, you come to see that clearly. There’s never a mistake in the universe. So if your partner is angry, good. If there are things about him that you consider flaws, good, because these flaws are your own, you’re projecting them, and you can write them down, inquire, and set yourself free. People go to
When I tell my husband “I love you,” it’s self-love. There’s no personality talking: I’m only talking to myself. Love is so self-absorbed that it leaves no room for any other. It’s self-consuming, always. There’s not a molecule separate from itself. In the apparent world of duality, people are going to see it as a you and a me, but in reality there is only one. And even that isn’t true. The voice within is what I'm married to. All marriage is a metaphor for that marriage. When I make a commitment, it’s to my own truth, and there’s no higher or lower. “Will you have this man to be your husband?” “I will. And I may change my mind.” That’s as good as it gets. I’m married only to God—reality. That’s where my commitment is. It can’t be to a particular person. And my husband wouldn’t want it any other way.
Unless you marry the truth, there is no real marriage. Marry yourself and you have married us. We are you. That’s the cosmic joke.
MICHAEL: How do we bring the idea of prosperity/materialism together with spirituality—religion seems to have divided these subjects throughout the ages?
KATIE: Abundance has nothing to do with money. Wealth and poverty are internal. Whenever you think that you know something and it feels stressful, you’re experiencing poverty. Whenever you realize that what you have is enough and more than enough, you’re rich.
I love having money, and I love not having it. To me, spending money is nothing more than passing on what didn’t belong to me in the first place. There’s nothing I can do to keep it away, as long as it needs to be passed on. If it doesn’t need to be passed on, there’s no need for it to come. I love that it comes in, and I love that it goes out.
When I receive money, I am thrilled, because I’m fully aware that it’s not mine. I’m just a channel, I’m not even the caretaker. I get to be the observer of it, to see what it’s for. The moment I get it from over there, a need for it pops up over here. I love giving money. I never lend people money; I give them money, and they call it a loan. If they repay it, that’s when I know it was a loan.
MICHAEL: Can you mention some of the ‘miracles’ you have seen in terms of changes people go through? People love to read real-life testimonials!
KATIE: I get the most amazing emails from people who have begun to question their thinking and found that their whole world changes, without any effort on their part. These are people with ordinary lives, or people with extreme levels of stress: drug addicts, schizophrenics, people who are desperate and suicidal. And there is a whole chapter of testimonials in my second book, I Need Your Love—Is That True? Here are a couple of them:
I read your book Loving What Is within the space of a weekend, hardly stopping to eat. On Sunday I began to feel that my wife and children were being suspiciously considerate to me, as if it were my birthday. Finally I asked my wife, “What's going on here? What are you planning? Why are you all being so nice to me?”
My wife stared at me and started laughing. “We’re not doing anything different,” she said. “You’re the one who has changed; you’re the one who’s acting kinder!”
We used to fight over chores. I got really upset that I was always the one cleaning the house, doing the dishes and the laundry, cleaning the bathroom and the toilet, even though I was the only one with a full-time job. This drove me nuts. Soon after beginning to do inquiry as a regular practice, I was cleaning the toilet bowl and suddenly I felt enormously grateful for life. Cleaning the bowl meant that I was a wonderful mother providing food for my daughters and I was cleaning up the food after its transformation in their beautiful bodies. I didn’t care anymore who was cleaning or who wasn’t. I was just following directions, from inside me. After that episode, more and more family members showed interest in cleaning the bathroom. It was amazing.
MICHAEL: What is your opinion on the world today and what do you feel we could do about it?
KATIE: I love the world, because I love everything I think. Of course I love it: it’s the mirror image of myself. As for doing: I do what I know to do, and it is always a joy. I vote in every election, I drive a Prius, my husband and I have installed solar panels, so we generate all our electricity, we give to charities when that feels right.
I’ve heard people say that they cling to their painful thoughts because they’re afraid that without them they wouldn’t be activists for peace. “If I felt completely peaceful,” they say, “why would I bother taking action at all?” My answer is “Because that’s what love does.” To think that we need sadness or outrage to motivate us to do what’s right is insane. As if the clearer and happier you get, the less kind you become. As if when someone finds freedom, she just sits around all day with drool running down her chin. My experience is the opposite. Love is action. It’s clear, it’s kind, it’s effortless, and it’s irresistible.
MICHAEL: What’s next for you… what vision do you have for your next step?
KATIE: I don’t know what’s next. Probably, since I am now sitting at a laptop and answering you, I will go on to the next question, answer it, and then stand up. But I never know what will happen; it’s always a leap into the unknown. All I know about it is that it’s a good thing.
As for visions of next steps, why would I bother with what the mind projects about reality when reality itself is so beautiful?
MICHAEL: Finally, what personal message would you like to give to our readers?
KATIE: If they are interested in peace and feel attracted to inquiry, I invite them to visit thework.com. Everything they need to get started is on the website: complete instructions about how to do The Work, downloadable Worksheets, free videos of me doing The Work with people on a wide variety of topics, from money and relationships to cancer and death. I love that inquiry is so unfailing. With a story about reality, you suffer. With inquiry, the story unravels and you don't suffer. Freedom is possible in every moment.
First published September 2009