I came across the work of American self help guru Byron Katie ten years ago. She has published a variety of books which offer a series of simple questions designed to challenge and overturn your perception of any situation you’re struggling with. The questions work by flooding your mind with the ‘fresh air’ of a new (often reversed) perspective.
It’s an appealing technique when you’re in pain. But her techniques always struck me as being like Paracetamol – a short term solution. My old views always came back, dragging their long tail of complicated emotional responses. What’s more, the persistence and tenacity of my habitual thought patterns endowed them, to my thinking, with truth.
Buddhist teaching has suggested to me more recently, though, that there’s probably nothing ‘true’ about my entrenched thoughts and feelings.
With this in mind, last summer I went down to Kensington Town Hall to attend the day workshop Katie holds annually in the UK. In a deserted Sunday morning London, the queue was quite a sight – 800 people, who went on to fill the venue to capacity. I was reminded of the Dead Sea, a place of pilgrimage for Israelis with physical ailments. In Kensington we wore our sufferings mostly on the inside, but the atmosphere of hope, reverence and nervous anticipation was very similar.
When Byron Katie arrived with her husband and squeezed through the queue, many people gasped and one woman whispered, ‘did you feel it?’ This idea made me squirm, but the truth was that I had felt something; her radiance and calm were tangible.
Hate Thy Neighbour
In the packed Hall, she asked us all to fill in a ‘hate thy neighbour’ form. We had to name someone who annoyed us, explain why, and put down in detail what we thought they should do differently. We went into details about the behaviour that we never wanted to endure at the hands of this person again.
She asked for a volunteer to work through the contents of their form. There was no shortage, and a young man was chosen to go on stage and sit opposite her in a comfy chair. He read out what he’d written, and she asked him her four key questions: ‘Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true? How do you react when you believe that thought? Who would you be without the thought?’
Here’s an extract from Byron Katie’s book ‘A Thousand Names For Joy’ that will give you a flavour.
Rather than pick a person to dislike, Peter had chosen something about himself. ‘I’m angry at my reading and writing disability, my dyslexia, because it makes it hard to write, read, communicate, do the Internet, e-mail, work.’
Peter: In today’s world.
Katie: Yes. So “You need to read and write” – is that true?
Peter: Only to communicate with somebody who’s not in the present location.
Katie: “You need to read and write” at all, even for that reason – is it true?
Peter (after a pause): No. Ultimately, it’s not.
Katie: How old are you?
Katie: You’ve been okay for forty-three years.
Peter: I don’t know if I’d use the word okay.
Katie: Well, other than your thinking, how’s your body?
Peter: My body’s great.
Katie: Except for your thoughts, haven’t you done well?
Peter: Yes. But I’ve had all the education possible to try to teach me how to read and write…
Katie: “You need to read and write” – is that true?
Peter: No. I actually do pretty well without it.
Katie: Good to know. Feel that, sweetheart. For forty-three years, other than your thinking, you’ve done fine. Your boots match.
Peter: Actually, I made them (The audience applauds and hoots.)
Katie: People who read and write may have a problem with that (The audience laughs.)
Peter: I know.
Katie: We’re too busy reading and writing (The audience laughs.)
Peter: The thing is, my mind doesn’t work in two dimensions; it works in three dimensions.
Katie: How do you react when you believe the thought “I need to read and write” and you can’t, because you’re dyslexic?
Peter (with tears in his eyes): Ashamed. Embarrassed. Society takes reading and writing for granted. It hurts.
Katie: Give me a peaceful reason to believe that you need to read and write. Or to read or write.
Peter: It would be nice to be able to help my ten year old son with his homework.
Katie: Oh, really? You’ve been spared! (The audience laughs.)
Peter: You’re right.
Katie: It’s like you’re wishing for an additional job. And the reality of it leaves him with something very important; it leaves him responsible for what he learns.
Their dialogue goes on, with some interesting twists and turns, for another eight pages, so I’ll stop there and go back to Kensington, where Katie’s way of bringing alternative views out was – as in the above extract – humorous and bracing.
People took a long time to answer her questions, naturally, and were on stage for between half an hour and an hour, during which time she would often ask the first two questions ten times or more. Eventually the person would tend to drop their voice and say, ‘No. I can’t absolutely know it’s true.’
If that sounds boring, it wasn’t, partly because every person’s case was different and partly because it was impossible to predict what Katie would say. One woman who’d asked to go on stage began a painful story from her seat in the auditorium. She said she’d reached rock bottom and so had her daughter, who was very ill but had no support of any kind in her life.
Audience members gasped as Katie simply cut the woman off. ‘No support?’ she said. ‘What about the chair she sits in; the air she breathes? They support her life, surely?’ ‘Yes but…’ said the woman. ‘Now, we’ll move to that gentleman over there,’ said Katie. ‘Yes, you sir, in the red shirt…’
I don’t know why she moved so swiftly on at that point, nor what governed her selection of people to go on stage, but would guess she needed volunteers who would respond quickly to her material.
Katie’s personal story
Her personal story is compelling. After years of severe depression in her thirties, during which time she’d contemplated suicide and often been unable to leave her bedroom, she woke up one morning in 1986 with a life-changing realisation. ‘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.’ (from ‘A Thousand Names for Joy’)
In other books, Katie details further discoveries, for example the loss of herself as ‘I’ and the sense of herself more as ‘it’. She writes that she had to ‘put on’ a sense of ‘I’ again to be able to deal effectively with the world.
It is like reading a description of Enlightenment. Katie makes no claim regarding this. And while she does seem to be living from a different perspective than the majority of us, I’m not sure we can get there ourselves simply by applying her techniques.
I’m reminded of the advice attributed to the 17th century poet, Matsuo Basho, ‘Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.’
Having said that, Byron Katie’s her techniques can undoubtedly jolt us out of a certain painful narrowness and plunge us into an infinitely more generous view of the world. Perhaps if we repeat that experience often enough, the tight corset of self may begin to loosen.