An interview with Byron Katie.
Byron Katie was a real estate agent in Barstow, California much of her adult life. She lived the American dream of brand new, shiny things. She bought and sold houses, raised and screamed at children and was so deeply depressed she wanted to kill herself.
She spiraled down for nearly a decade, so entrenched in rage and self-loathing she often couldn’t leave her bedroom. All this changed one morning in February 1986. Katie woke on the floor of her room in a rehab center in a state of pure illumination. Self and other appeared to have dissolved. A cockroach crawled over her foot but she had no name for the cockroach, no name for the foot. She walked out of that room and not long after developed a process of inquiry called the Work that slashes through the delusion of suffering like a laser. She’s been slashing through delusion ever since.
Judge your neighbor
The Work is a deceptively simple series of questions in what Katie calls the Judge Your Neighbor worksheet. On the worksheet, she invites you to be your most petty, your most unevolved self. You answer questions about the things that infuriate or hurt. You judge wantonly—your mother, your father, your abuser, your President. And then you ask if the things that you’ve written are true. Can you absolutely know why she didn’t call? Can you know the man that bumped your shoulder in the street was a racist? Can you know your mother didn’t care? This kind of inquiry puts the ego on trial. In sitting with the Work, we see the iron threads of our own story and how swiftly they become a noose around our necks.
The judgments that we try so hard to tamp down (as if we could keep the children of our minds quiet) hold the key to our illumination. Only in shining the light on our own darkness, our jealousies and brutalities, can we begin to undo them. Duality exists in darkness. Katie’s work brings that darkness to light and in that light, it evaporates.
On a Monday morning mid-August, I spoke by phone with Katie about her September visit to Utah. She was eating lunch with her husband Stephen Mitchell, with whom she’s coauthored several books including the forthcoming A Mind at Home with Itself. Mitchell is a well-known poet and translator of seminal works including the Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh and the Bhagavad Gita, among others.
In A Mind at Home with Itself, Mitchell translates the Diamond Sutra, a book that dates to 868 A.D—600 years before the Gutenberg Bible. The Diamond Sutra is a Sanskrit text translated into Chinese. Written by an anonymous monk long after Buddha’s death, it takes the form of a conversation between the Buddha’s pupil Subhati and his master. Mitchell did the direct translation and Katie illuminated it with stories and examples from the work she has done with people around the world.
Mitchell tells me the central insight of the new book is the generosity that naturally arises with the realization that self and other are an illusion. I tell him that I get this intellectually but when my President tweets, when people use cars as weapons during political protests, any realization goes out the window.
“Intellectual understanding isn’t worth much and has little impact on the way in which we live,” Mitchell says. Daily practice is how we move what starts as intellectual understanding into a knowing that’s so deeply felt, nothing can move it from center.
Questioning your thoughts
The Work is a daily practice. “I ask people to identify a situation—perhaps an argument with someone,” she says. “I ask them to get really still and then, on a Judge Your Neighbor worksheet, identify and write down what they were thinking and believing in that situation.” You judge your best friend for not calling. You judge your mother for not accepting you. You judge the people who carry guns. And then you ask four simple questions. You turn your answers around.
“I work with them to question those thoughts,” says Katie. “And then we turn those thoughts around to opposites. The Work is a way to identify and question the thoughts that cause all the suffering in your world.”
Most people find the process more difficult than it first appears, as the ego rises up like a smoking dragon and tries to convince you that you are right.
Katie often refers to the four questions and turnaround as a meditation. “The Work is mindfulness. It’s a practice of listening and asking. For example, ‘He hurt my feelings.’ You ask the question, ‘Is it true?’ and then you drop into silence and watch the answers that are shown to you. I love asking ‘is it true’ because I am looking for anything that would disprove that. I’m meditating in that mindful opening and allowing the question to reveal itself in the stillness. In the stillness, the mind comes home to itself.”
I ask her to elaborate.
“It’s the end of war with the self—the mind with the mind. War looks like this: ‘There’s something wrong with me.’ ‘He hurt me.’ ‘Life isn’t fair.’ The mind just scrambles around with itself. ‘What do I do now?’ ‘How could he have done that?’ The thoughts create a past and future world that the mind bounces around in.
“If I look up and there are dishes in the sink, I just do them. It’s so simple. Before the Work found me, I’d think, ‘Why didn’t he do the dishes? How could he be so thoughtless?’ The kitchen sink became the enemy.
“There’s no fear and no enemy when the mind is at home with itself. You wake up and think ‘I’ll walk’ and you walk.”
At the time of this interview, I am suffering with what had just happened in Charlottesville—all the alt-right, White Nationalist brutality. “I feel anguish. How can I not be at war with this kind of bigotry and injustice? Isn’t it just sticking my head in the sand?”
“I would identify what I’m thinking and believing about those people—the alt-right and white supremacists. I’d meditate on those thoughts because when I turn it around, that tendency in me slowly ceases to be present. If I take care of the hatred and prejudice inside myself, there’s so much room for compassion,” Katie says.
At this point, Katie asks me to feel all the prejudice and hate, the fury that I imagine inside the man who drove the car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Feel what it feels like to hate. Get inside that car. Hate hurts the hater. When I take care of those things inside of me, I no longer have to fight. The power is in understanding. In understanding, we have more power than any war or battle,” she says.
“If I walk into a KKK meeting, I’m not there as an enemy. I’m there to learn and grow and understand that kind of thinking. With that information, we can have amazing talks. I can come and go from every meeting—unless they bar the door—and I’m fascinated why they think the things they do. The advantage of a questioned mind is that everything I think about— there’s some of it in me.”
When my interview with Katie and Michell ends, I reflect on the time I spent with them last December at Katie’s annual New Year’s Cleanse—three days of working with Katie and several hundred others, on our own fears and the beliefs we held about those fears. There, a woman wanted to work on Trump. She wanted him assassinated. She wanted him out of office. We all leaned forward, convinced of our suffering, plagued with fear at what this man called President could do. And the process that unfolded released all of us. Like the master she is, Katie revealed the violence of our duality. Republican and Democrat dissolved. Self and other dissolved.
I left there knowing that I had a practice for life. The Work is a practice that brings me home to myself and brings me to love. And when I do the Work on the world and the politics that hit a high pitch around me, I find the place of center. And the joy in that place of center is not complacent. It’s the most powerful form of activism I know.
Melissa Bond is a poet and tech writer living in Salt Lake City.
Byron Katie will be in Salt Lake City on Saturday, September 23, 10am-5pm at the Grand
America Hotel, 555 S. Main St.
Registration and resources: