“Watch out - she move fast!” warns her assistant Tania in hushed tones, and boy she’s not exaggerating. Byron Katie - spiritual teacher, Oprah favorite and author of the international bestseller “Loving What Is” is blink and you miss her gone.
In February 1986 Byron Kathleen Mitchell (Katie) - an All American mum of three children and on her second marriage was suffering from a crippling descent into rage, despair and clinical depression. Her suffering was so deep she checked herself into a halfway house for women with eating disorders (the only place her insurance would cover) and slept on the floor each night as she felt unworthy of a bed.
One morning she was pulled out of sleep by a cockroach crawling over her foot and (in an experience that mirrors descriptions of enlightenment on the spiritual path) realized that everything had changed. She had awoken to a mind empty of thoughts to discover that all of her suffering had disappeared and that a creature of absolute delight and joy was looking through her eyes and out at the world.
It came with a life changing realization.
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"I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer... Freedom is as simple as that... I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment."
She developed her process of deconstructing her thoughts into a form of self enquiry called “The Work” which has eased the suffering, depression and pain of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.
Byron Katie is radiantly beautiful in a way that I imagine only those who are no longer troubled by the workings of their mind can be; a puff of white hair frames her heart shaped face, brilliant blue eyes sparkle with love and delight, and yes…she moves like the wind. When she’s ready to leave a room she’s out of the door and down the hall whilst everyone else is still picking up their handbag. I’m guessing it’s that one part sugar to two parts spice, kindly fairy god mother with a dash of iron that allows this elegantly trim 73 year old to stand and command a stage for the best part of 8 hours in a 200 people strong workshop in Mexico City. She’s also found time for me in her forty minute lunch break and is currently managing a hectic travelling schedule taking “ The Work” to cities around the world.
Ladies, meet the remarkable Byron Katie.
WW: Katie thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, we’re at the workshop of The Work in Mexico City - I’m going to dive right in because I know that we don’t have a lot of time…so just understanding a little bit about your background, you were suffering for quite a long time?
BK: (Nodding) Deep depression, more than a decade and very very painful, I felt so estranged from my children and my life.
WW: And in that time were you seeking help for the depression? Or taking medication?
BK: No I was trying to self manage. It became deeper and deeper until it became clinical depression and it escalated into agoraphobia.
There was a moment I was sleeping on the floor and a bug crawled over my foot and it woke me up. And all the depression was gone. It was just completely gone, it was another world and what I learned from that moment in time was that when I believed my thoughts I suffered and when I didn’t believe them I didn’t suffer. And I’ve come to believe that’s true for every human being. So when we come to question these judgements that run through our head, these judgements that are so painful and mean minded- we assume “he this, her that…” when we question this we open to a world…there are terms for it like self realization, peace, love understanding and connectedness. It’s an amazing world when we’re present to it.
WW: And do you describe what you had as enlightenment, yourself as enlightened?
BK: No I don’t describe myself that way. The truth for me is I know the difference between what hurts and what doesn’t and I’m extremely grateful. So I am enlightened to what is true for me and what is not and enquiry ( “The Work”) is the way I stay clear. I question any judgements that I may hear someone say I don’t just immediately believe it. Inside of me I have this mechanism running because of the practice of using these questions that is automatic. If someone says“he doesn’t care about me” I don’t assume that to be true any longer and it makes me a better listener. I don’t have to say “oh no after all you’ve done for him,”’ I don’t have any of that. My life is about listening and staying connected and it’s a beautiful way to live.
WW: I have a question about depression because I suppose it’s something I’ve struggled with myself and still do sometimes, and the first is - I see these entrenched beliefs coming up that I’ve become aware of so its not just thoughts that are racing through my mind in the moment, its about entrenched beliefs about myself - but the enquiry seems to focus on judging other people first?
BK: Well no it really is about judging yourself, because if someone says: “My brother says he never wants to speak to me again” I don’t just assume it to be true but If I believe it look at how depressing that would be, and times that by hundreds and thousands of judgements we make in a day, and that’s depressing. So we notice our emotions andlook at what we are thinking and believing andnotice what we’re thinking and believing when we’re experiencing those emotions.
That’s depressing to notice the emotions and depression and heart ache, to notice those and to question them.
WW: So there’s an importance on feeling the emotions as well then? Because I think sometimes when I’m doing “The Work” it somehow becomes a bit of a mental exercise when I’m writing something out.
BK: No this is meditation, its contemplative, you look, ask and look at a situation in your life and look at your judgements on that situation and then question them one at a time, write the question down. The first question is: Can I know it’s true?
For example taking the judgement/ statement: Her brother doesn’t care about her.
(First question) Can I know it's true? ….Yes she says so and yes she believes it.
(Second question) But can I absolutely know it's true? Can I believe this about her brother, that he doesn’t care about her just on her say so?
(Third question) How do I react and feel, what happens, when I believe that thought? I haven’t even met her brother and I don’t like him... I have a resentment against someone I’ve never met and that’s crazy - but worse its depressing because it builds up and builds up throughout the day.
(Fourth question) Who would I be without the thought? When she tells me that? I’d be open I’d be listening I’d be connected to her and her pain and sorrow and there to help rather than to enforce upon her that there is something wrong with her brother. And that her pain is justified, but I can be there for her and put my arm around her and have tissue - and I don’t know anything more powerful than- connection and human kindness.
WW: I think the resistance that comes up me for me when I’m doing “The Work” is that there’s a part of me that wants to hold onto anger or grievance with someone almost as a form of protection.
BK: Well that’s fine, we’re just working with one judgement at the time, we’re not working with this whooooole thing and do them one at a time. Just start with one judgement - work it through, then go to the next one. It’s a practice you might take an hour a day working on one judgement for three days, but you’re talking about your life here, you’re talking about your happiness here, this is not a little thing.
If I can’t find a way out of that hell I was in, it just means I’m stuck forever. But what I discovered on that floor, what was shown to me- and that I’m passing on is that people are losing their depression all over the world as they sit in this practice of The Work.
WW: And does it work when I’m at my lowest? I’m thinking about my depression when I’ve felt at my lowest it feels like a physical pain with no energy and I can’t get up?
BK: Well try it- can you get still with one judgement and just sit in it and meditate with one judgement and those questions and let me know!
WW: Ok (laughs)
BK: If you’re mind is open to it, it works.
WW: Well you say we need to have an open mind, but sometimes that’s the hardest thing right?
BK: Well an open mind isa state of grace, I think it’s a great gift, an open mind. But anyone can learn to meditate. And that’s difficult for people because it means getting still. The Work is getting still and meditating on a situation, a moment in time when we’re judging and that takes stillness. It really is just sitting with your eyes close, getting centered, holding that judgment in front of your face in your mind’s eye and questioning it.
WW: Mmmm, I think you say in your book “Loving what is” you say there is nothing that we can do that doesn’t help the planet, is that right?
BK: I think probably what I meant, and something you read was “If I’m married for example and in an abusive relationship and maybe he hits me” then he shows me who not to live with. So he has shown me a kindness of who not to live with, and if my mind is “Oh I love him and oh he’ll change” you know I may be right but I know one thing for sure, he hit me and maybe I’m someone who said “I would never live with someone that physically abuses me.” We can love someone without living with them, we don’t have to be resentful or hateful or dislike someone to leave them. We can love them with all of our hearts and leave them.
WW: So doing “The Work” and accepting what is isn’t about condoning or accepting poor behavior towards us.
BK: It couldn’t be because that would be inviting the world into more craziness, “The Work” is a call to peace.
WW: And do you believe that by doing "The Work" on ourselves internally, collectively that can shift the amount of violence in the world?
BK: When you shift your whole word shifts - it become kinder. Everyone is responsible for the way that we see the world, I’m responsible for the way I see the world and if I don’t love the world then I question my judgements about the world and then I see a kinder world.
WW: You talked earlier in the workshop today about a time when you were in hospital for surgery and had to decide if you wanted to be resuscitated should it be required and you couldn’t decide so in the end your husband had to step in…!
BK: Well I couldn’t decide - I just couldn’t honestly answer the question, who did they want to resuscitate?What identity were they going to resuscitate? So I couldn’t honestly answer the question!
WW: Is that a fear for some people?
BK: It’s a horrible fear for some people unless they question their judgements about it. It’s not something I planned certainly. But my doctor wanted to me to live, she said “no one dies on my watch!” she’s a friend of ours and she’s so funny! So she certainly… if I wasn’t going to make a decision she was going to make one. And my husband was there and he said “I noticed she’s not answering the question so I’ll answer it for her so yes resuscitate her!”
So that was ok with me too. But you know I think I said it today, if I died how would I know? What am I saving? What identity am I saving?
When I looked back at all those years of depression I was so suicidal, because I didn’t know how to deal with my mind. Those images of past and future, and the moment we believe a thought and that’s depressing.
WW: Past regrets is something I’ve found debilitating...
BK: So another way of saying that is judgements on the past, so itemize those judgements as they rise and they’ll show you which ones to do “The Work” on; so just have fun in your beautiful self. It's important to me that your listeners and readers know that the work is available to download for free on the thework.com and you can find it in most libraries and on YouTube.
WW: Do you still practice “The Work” yourself everyday?
BK: It’s ongoing I just call it noticing, noticing, noticing... the judgements that come through. In the example we used about the woman with her brother (“my brother doesn’t care about me”) It’s a silent “ is it true?” I don’t even know I’m thinking it, but I know when my connection is broken... the connection withmy heart - so in that I don’t know I’m connected with her, and I’m very open to her brother as a man that cares about his sister, or who doesn’t care about his sister. I. Don’t. Know.
WW: So our connection to ourselves and each other comes from our hearts you believe?
BK: Well the heart is a term for me that represents our true nature, and our true nature is pure love, pure kindness, pure service - just pure. And anytime we go against our heart, a judgement goes against our heart, we feel it.
WW: Because it’sour natural instinct?
BK: Well a judgement is the opposite of what our true nature is. To question it is to bring us back into our hearts. And it’s lasting when you question something, it changes your whole world when you really sit in it.
WW: So for women who are completely new to The Work they can download it free from the website thework.com. And anyone can do it by themselves is that right, they don’t need to be with you in person?
BK: Yes that’s right they don’t need a teacher and we also have certified facilitators if they get a little stuck and need help - all these facilitators all over the world in all these languages are on thework.com and there’s a free helpline too that is 24 hours a day.
WW: Katie thanks so much for your time.
BK: You are welcome thank you for finding ways of serving your listeners and helping them deal with their wonderful lives and minds.
IF YOU'D LIKE TO START A DAILY MEDITATION PRACTICE - JUST POP YOUR NAME AND EMAIL ADDRESS IN THE BOX BELOW AND I'LL SEND YOU MY FREE 7 DAY HEART MEDITATION COURSE TO GET YOU ON YOUR WAY!
Do you suffer from depression or anxiety? Have you ever tried The Work, do please share your experience, thoughts and any other feedback or insight you've gained from The Interview in the comments below, I'd love to hear more from you :)
The Work is a method of self inquiry that consists of deconstructing the mental thought patterns and stories that we tell ourselves with the use of four simple questions. We begin by writing out the judgement that we are holding about someone or ourselves (it is, however, recommended we begin by "judging our neighbour" rather than starting with ourselves.)
(For example) Her brother doesn't care about her.
Then we ask the four questions - getting still and asking the first question and listening for a truthful answer in our body.
- Do I know that this is true? If we can only answer yes to question 1 we move onto question 2.
- Can I absolutely know that it's true?
- How do I react and feel, what happens when I believe that thought?
- Who would I be without the thought?
The Turn Around: Then turn around the statement and rewrite the statement as if it were written about ourselves, and then rewrite it again doing a 180 degree turn to the extreme opposite. In this way we examine whether other statements are true or truer for us than our original thought.
For example the statement/judgement Katie uses in the interview
Her brother doesn’t care about her
She doesn’t care about her brother
Her Brother does care about her.
(statement/judgement) My mother should have been more loving to me
I should have been more loving to my mother
My mother shouldn’t have been more loving to me.
As Katie mentions in our chat "The Work” four questions, worksheets and exercises can be downloaded for free at thework.com. There is also a free 24 hour helpline and the contact details of trained facilitators worldwide on the website. Demonstrations of Katie doing The Work with participants can be found on YouTube. The book “Loving What Is” by Byron Katie is available on Amazon, in all good book stores and in libraries.