views (ditthi)

Can Byron Katie help our Buddhist practice?

Byron Katie

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.

Book extract

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?
Peter: Forty-three.
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.

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Mindfulness and wise discrimination

man standing at a fork in the path

You can’t read much about the important quality of mindfulness without learning that it involves being nonjudgmental – that it involves setting aside discrimination and simply accepting our experience.

For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s informal definition of mindfulness (from Wherever You Go, There You Are) reads: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

I use that kind of language myself sometimes, but I also notice that it’s subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, misleading.

Certainly, mindfulness has a quality of equanimity about it. Equanimity is a quality of calmness and composure. To give a negative example, I was recently leading a retreat, and in one meditation session two people ended up sitting just outside the window of the meditation room, having a conversation. I found it very hard not to get annoyed, and to imagine having words with the talkers. So, initially there was something that was unpleasant (noise when I expected quiet) but I reacted to that noise and ended up adding even more pain. The pain I caused myself by brooding over the incident as it happened, ended up causing me far more pain.

I also, fortunately, had more successful meditations where I could sit with physical discomfort, and even the sound of a garbage truck arriving and emptying a dumpster, with not a ripple of reaction crossing my mind. The physical pain, or the sound of the truck, were simply things to notice. Equanimity, which is an important component of mindfulness, is a spacious quality that allows our sense of discomfort to exist without repressing or denying it. It also prevents us from adding to that hurt.

Acceptance is a perfectly good word for describing this quality of equanimity.

But I can’t help feeling that it’s going too far to say that mindfulness doesn’t involve judgment. Certainly, in the spirit of equanimity, we don’t look at our experience and give ourselves a hard time over it. So when we get distracted in meditation are not meant to be mentally beating ourselves up and telling ourselves what a bad meditator we are.

But mindfulness, when it’s fully developed, includes an element of wise discrimination. Accompanying mindfulness is a sense of whether a particular experience we are having is one that we want to put more energy into, or one we want to stand back from and allow to fade away.

In one of the early teachings of the Buddhist tradition we read:

One tries to abandon wrong view & to enter into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness.

Implicit in this is that we recognize when a view (loosely speaking, an idea, a viewpoint, or a thought) is valid or not valid, helpful or not helpful, true or untrue, conducing to pain or to freedom from pain.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we beat ourselves up when we recognize that our thinking is distorted. Beating ourselves up is one of those things we can recognize as unwise, because it leads to suffering.

Mindfulness has a kind of critical edge to it. It’s discriminating. It recognizes the quality of any given experience that we’re having.

Mindfulness recognizes patterns. It can recognize that this particular kind of thinking (angry thinking, “woe is me” thinking) causes suffering, and that that particular mental state (kindness, patience, equanimity) leads to our feeling greater peace and well-being. And so we wisely choose where to put our energy.

Mindfulness is therefore also not entirely about “being in the moment.” Mindfulness is certainly paying attention to what’s going on right now, but it’s also recognizing how “right now” has arisen from “just a moment ago,” and how “right now” is going to affect “just a minute from now.” Mindfulness includes an awareness of process.

So it’s not a question of mindfulness being undiscriminating and non-judgmental in a straightforward way. It’s a question of mindfulness making wise and kind discriminations. Mindfulness makes wise discriminations because it intelligently senses what makes us unhappy and what brings us peace. It makes kind discriminations because in a state of mindfulness we refrain from responding to our experience with anger and frustration.

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Robert Collier: “Any thought that is passed on to the subconscious often enough and convincingly enough is finally accepted”

Robert Collier

All too often thoughts set thoughts in motion with little or no conscious intervention on our part, creating an inner avalanche of ideation. Helplessly caught up in this endless cascade, we are swept away by the stories generated by our hopes and fears.

To change the metaphor, each thought sends forth an echoing cry, like an animal calling for its mate, and this cry penetrates the heart, evoking an emotional response. The end result is suffering, stress, depression, anxiety.

Our thoughts form consistent story lines:

  • “Nobody likes me.”
  • “If only such-and-such a thing would happen, then I’d be happy.”
  • “I just know this is going to go wrong.”
  • “I bet he did that deliberately.”

As we listen, without mindfulness, to these story lines, day in and day out (and at night too, for our inner dramatic arc does not cease with conscious thought) we remain utterly convinced that these stories are truth, not imaginings.

And yet thoughts are not facts, but merely the projections of our hopes and fears. As we develop greater mindfulness we begin to recognize this, to catch ourselves in the act of indulging in a story line whose punch line is an ache in the heart. And we start to be able to let go of these story-lines, realizing that they will bring us nothing good.

A further step in some meditation traditions is to cultivate thoughts that will enhance well-being rather than diminish it. And so, in the development of lovingkindness practice we repeat phrases such as “May I be well, may I be happy,” and in mantra practice we repeat phrases that evoke enlightened qualities of insight, compassion, and energy. Even the traditional recitation of the refuges and precepts can be seen as a way of convincing the mind of the value of committing oneself wholeheartedly to the path of awareness and compassion.

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