Roger Nairn of “The Solution Podcast” interviews Byron Katie. He begins by asking, “What was it that you saw in the world that needed a solution?” “My life was filled with depression, and I didn’t have an answer,” Katie says. “Then there was a moment when the answer just came to me. Even though I knew that depression was the problem, I didn’t understand that what I was thinking and believing was the cause. I had to work in slow motion to identify each belief that was causing a disturbance in my mind and then question that belief. That was my solution to the problem.” Katie then takes Roger through the four questions and turnarounds of The Work on the belief “He betrayed me” and clarifies how The Work as meditation moves us beyond the ego and into wisdom. “What sort of results should people who do The Work hope to achieve?” Roger asks. “The answer to all their problems,” says Katie. “When our mind is clear, wisdom has room to live. When I’m believing things onto the world, where is there room for wisdom?”
Byron Katie Mitchell (everyone calls her Katie) discovered the gift of The Work in 1986. She has been traveling around the world since 1992, offering The Work to millions of people at free public events, in prisons, hospitals, churches, corporations, battered women’s facilities, universities and schools, at weekend intensives, the nine-day School for The Work, and her 28-day Turnaround House. She is the author of Loving What Is, I Need Your Love-Is That True?, A Thousand Names for Joy, and A Mind at Home with Itself.
We are all innocent. The only thing we are guilty of is believing our unquestioned thoughts. —Byron Katie
Can you be both a bestselling author and a radical spiritual teacher? Apparently so in the case of Byron Katie, whose new book asks readers to question fundamental assumptions.
There are basically two types of spiritual writers. The first are the “skeptic guides”: relatable stand-ins for the reader, like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love or Dan Harris in the #1 bestseller 10% Happier. These people start out neurotic and normal, and take readers on their journey to something slightly less neurotic (and less normal).
The second type is less common: someone who has basically jumped off the deep end and is writing from a position of something like enlightenment, liberation, whatever. A lot of these people, we suspect, are frauds. But some—Eckhart Tolle, Oprah’s guru; the ’60s icon Ram Dass—seem, upon close inspection, to be the real deal. Which, you know, only makes us more skeptical.
Byron Katie—who combines the cutting wisdom of a Zen master with the look of a less-made-up Paula Deen—is in the second category. Katie herself hit bottom in 1986: a massive depression, suicidal despair, the inability to function as a mother, wife, or anything else.
And then something happened. Katie is too wise to call it “enlightenment” (it’s a truism that the more someone uses words like that, the less they’ve experienced it) but it was some kind of… shift.
As she describes in her new book, A Mind at Home with Itself, written with her husband, the poet and translator Stephen Mitchell, Katie suddenly realized that the multitude of thoughts and assumptions she was carrying around just weren’t that reliable. And when they were held a little more lightly, all those clichés about the present moment—radiant, pure, no problem, compassionate—came true.
“My depression had nothing to do with the world around me,” Katie writes in the book’s first chapter. “It was caused by what I believed about the world. I realized 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.”
Recently, over tea at a New York City hotel, where Katie was staying during her book tour, I asked her how she does it. How does she manage to be both uncompromising in her own perspective—more on that in a minute—and a bestselling writer?
“Because this stuff works,” Katie told me. “It doesn’t take a teacher, doesn’t take another human being to do it. It’s 100 percent free.”
The “stuff” Katie was referring to is a deceptively simple technique she calls “The Work.” In The Work, you take a particularly nettlesome thought—my spouse is unkind, my job is unfulfilling, the world is a mess, whatever—and inquire into it. Do you really know that it’s true? What would you be like if it weren’t? What would it be like if you “turned it around” on yourself?
On paper, these questions may seem banal. In practice, they lead to a kind of radical skepticism about your own opinions and preconceptions that can be extremely clarifying. Once our interview was over, I did The Work with Katie on my envy of other writers, and basically started crying in that midtown hotel. She legitimately had me realize that I was happier with my life than I would be with theirs. For a minute anyway.
Or, to take another example, Katie said, in most of our relationships, “You really are who I believe you to be—and this is always false. That’s why inquiry is so important. We’re never dealing with each other—we’re dealing with our own internal lives.”
I pointed out that to many of my skeptical journalist colleagues, not to mention my “social justice warrior” friends, there’s something selfish about all this “get happy” stuff—maybe something narcissistic, puerile, mushy-headed.
“I love skepticism,” Katie said. “I think it’s very helpful.”
“The Work is the essence of skepticism,” Mitchell chimed in. “If skeptical New Yorkers would take their skepticism further, and inward, they would see that what they think they know, they don’t really know.”
“The truth is, Katie is a radical teacher, disguised as a nice lady who calls you ‘sweetheart.’”
I countered that, living in New York, knowing stuff is the name of the game: which subway to take home, how much a Snapple costs at a bodega, how not to get taken advantage of on the street…
“And why am I so frightened?” Katie interrupted.
Well, I said, this a tough city.
“I know!” Katie replied. “I left my purse at a coffee shop or something years ago, and I walked out. Then I remembered and came back for it, but it was gone.”
But then Katie said something I didn’t expect. “My mind immediately started working on what they would do with my credit cards, and my money, but then I thought that they would see my children’s picture—and I thought of the joy, you know, that that can bring to anyone.”
“I remember you talking about the gift that the person could give to his girlfriend,” Mitchell added.
“Or the food for a child,” said Katie. “Or alcohol, whatever—we need what we need when we think we need it.”
Wait, so she had her purse stolen, but was really feeling joy and compassion? Really? This, I said, sounds radically different from the lives most people lead. Is it even compatible with a normal life?
“For me it’s a matter of do people suffer in it, or not,” Katie said. “I haven’t talked to anyone that is doing The Work that feels like he must do anything in particular with his life. We question everything.”
Even, apparently, how much it sucks when someone steals your stuff.
But wait a minute, I said. Some ideas are important—like “racism is bad,” for example. Do we really want to question that too?
“Yes,” she said, “because you’re more likely to understand the racists. You’re more likely to have sane discussions. You’re more likely to grow, listen, expand, and find common ground.”
“One effective kind of questioning,” said Mitchell, “would be to inquire into a statement like, ‘I’m angry at racists because they are ruining the country,’ or something to that effect. The fact is, that thought—even though it comes from a place of justice and compassion—is a thought that can cause tremendous stress and once you investigate it you find some very interesting creatures that live in the dark under that thought. And it’s to the benefit of everybody to be a little clearer about it.”
The truth is, Katie is a radical teacher, disguised as a nice lady who calls you “sweetheart.” For example, consider the passage in A Mind at Home with Itselfwhere Katie says, “It’s all a dream—all of life, everything. Nothing ever is; nothing ever can be, since the very instant it seems to be, it’s gone. This is truly hilarious.”
This isn’t the cuddly spirituality that, say, Eat, Pray, Love offers for mass consumption. It’s almost shockingly uncompromising, albeit delivered in kind and reassuring tones.
But, I asked, if I’m feeling spiritually happy about getting robbed or racists ruining the country, aren’t I being irresponsible, given how privileged and fortunate I am?
“Isn’t it odd how people combine those two things [happiness and irresponsibility] when it’s just not so,” said Katie. “You know, the Dalai Lama has such a sense of humor. He’s such a good, clear man, it seems, and so bright.”
We sat there for a moment, perhaps reflecting on the horrors that the Dalai Lama has seen in his life, how much responsibility is on his shoulders, how his people are the victims of the largest ethnic cleansing operation on the planet right now.
Or maybe that’s just what I was thinking. Maybe Katie was just enjoying the moment.
Midway through A Mind at Home with Itself, Katie addresses the “enlightenment” question head on. “People used to ask me if I was enlightened,” she writes, “and I would say, ‘I don’t know anything about that. I’m just someone who knows the difference between what hurts and what doesn’t.’”
Byron Katie is a speaker and author, and the creator of The Work, a system that promotes generosity, selflessness and harmony. This extract of her new book A Mind at Home with Itself shows The Work in action:
You’ll notice that Katie is very free in her use of terms of endearment.This annoys some people (not all of them New Yorkers); one reader of Loving What Is grumbled that if she wanted to hear a woman calling everyone “sweetheart” or “honey,” she would go to a truck stop in Oklahoma. To her, these endearments sounded conventional and insincere; for Katie, they are the literal truth. Everyone she meets is the beloved.
Lilou: People are really going through hard times with depression and suicide, etc. What is your perception of this?
BK: People are projecting the past and the future in their minds. When you imagine what the future will be, fear is created. Now is the only time we can really live in.
I always say, that if you want a little fear and terror, get a future. I invite people to put their thoughts on a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet. The power of The Work is the answers that arise from the individual doing The Work. As we tap into that knowledge inside us, we find freedom. That’s why inquiry is so powerful. The Work is a beautiful way to peace, and it doesn’t require a teacher.
Lilou: I hear that you received The Work in a moment, kind of like Eckhart Tolle.
BK: The valuable thing about that moment for me was: I saw that when I believed my thoughts I suffered, and when I didn’t believe them I didn’t suffer. I’ve come to see that this is true for every human being. In that moment, it was very clear to me, but when I tried to tell people about it, there was no way it could be described. So the questions take people into that experience.
Lilou: How did you work out this radical shift in yourself with your family?
BK: Well, I had been agoraphobic. After my eyes were opened to reality, my family wondered “Who is this high-functioning and non-reactive woman? What is living in that body we call our mother?” They were constantly waiting for an angry reaction that never came. It was very confusing for them. I invited them to say whatever they wanted to say. They began to introduce me to my old self. That’s how I kept one foot in what I call the dream-world, without being the dream.
Lilou: How do we know if we’re taking the right actions in life?
BK: There’s no argument in your mind. If you choose to turn to the left, or to the right, or do nothing, the worst that can happen is what you’re thinking and believing. All the while you’re on the perfect path.
Lilou: So you’re saying that reality is this movie we’re in, that we’re living, and creating, and everything is right there, as we project it.
BK: Yes, in the moment. The images in our minds, and the thoughts we’re believing about the images, the way we define what we see–all this is happening in the moment. Believing that we’re that image can be terrifying, but if you’re witnessing the images out of a clear mind, they can be incredibly loving, dear, and enlightening.
Lilou: You have that grace and you can describe it, and we want to live there. It seems permanent with you. Some people experiencing The Work have it on and off, so it’s a continuous exercise.
BK: The Work is a practice , and I recommend that people do it every day. I invite people to identify any thought that causes them stress, to write it down, and to question it. Each time people do that, they become clearer, kinder, more loving human beings. And their whole world begins to shift. The world is internal. As the mind shifts, the world shifts. Thoughts create the world, as you perceive it. As the mind continues to question itself, it falls in love with itself and begins to project a beautiful world. This is the opposite of denial. It’s seeing out of your true self. If you see the world as a frightening place, don’t try to change it, look to your own mind.
Lilou: How do we get from the four questions to a nine-day intensive program, your School for The Work? The questions are very direct and simple.
BK: No one needs to come to the School to set themselves free. I make this opportunity available to people who want to immerse themselves in inquiry. It’s a very powerful experience, and almost everyone who comes walks out a transformed person. I hear this over and over. During these nine days, I take people through every possible source of stress, including fear and terror, the physical body, prejudice, gender, sex, communication, relationships, the things they are most ashamed of, and God. The curriculum is nothing short of radical.
Lilou: To find equilibrium in all areas: Is that what we’re supposed to do? Are we supposed to do The Work on all areas for true happiness?
BK: Yes, because ultimately every area has the potential to cause problems–in other words, to give rise to the unquestioned thoughts that cause our suffering. We have a continuation of the School through the Institute for The Work of Byron Katie. It’s an aftercare program that allows people to sit in The Work as a daily practice and as a community that is meditating on those questions.
If I asked you which you would rather have- happiness or success- what would you say and why? And please, don’t give me what you think is the politically correct answer.
Here’s an interesting thought for you to consider: what if you don’t have to choose one or the other? What if you can be happy and as successful as you want/think you can be? Does that sound radical and crazy, or totally possible to you?
The truth is we often believe we have to be accomplished and get to the “top” then we can finally be happy. I know, and work with, many accomplished people who are not happy. So I’ve found that we have it backwards: We first need to be happy, then and only then, we can be successful, however you define your own success.
I was a happy, practicing lawyer until I realized that we didn’t have the best image as lawyers. I became fascinated with this issue and wanted to turn it around for lawyers. I also then realized that my natural gift was in personal brand management- that’s what makes me happy as a human- and guess what else? It also makes me successful, too.
Here’s the dilemma. I’ve discovered most of us don’t even stop and consider this distinction, let alone get to the possibility of “having it all” by being happy and successful. I believe it is because we have developed by being conditioned by society (your family, friends, etc.) to THINK this way.
Who would you be without your story? An interview with Byron Katie, founder of The Work.
Byron Katie, founder of The Work, has one job: to teach people how to end their own suffering. She has been bringing The Work to millions of people for more than twenty-five years. Her six books include the bestselling Loving What Is, I Need Your Love—Is That True? and A Thousand Names for Joy. The Work of Byron Katie is a way of identifying and questioning the thoughts that cause all the fear and suffering in the world. In this one-day workshop, Katie’s hope is that you experience the happiness of undoing those thoughts through inquiry and allow your mind to return to its awakened, peaceful, creative nature. The Work consists of four questions and the turnarounds, which are a way of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. When you question a thought, you see around it to the choices beyond suffering. I was very privileged to interview her. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!
Sunita Sehmi: Tell us about yourself.
Byron 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. 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.
“I think Byron Katie is just a real thing. I love her to death. She’s pure and her intent is only to serve and she brings people back to reality so quickly. Teaches them not to believe their limiting thoughts and to question them and find the real truth.” —Tony Robbins