Byron Katie, the Inquirist
An interview with with the founder of The Work and author of numerous best-selling books Byron Katie.
Elizabeth Marglin interviewed five spiritual teachers who will change the way you think about spirituality. Here is her talk with founder of The Work and author of numerous best-selling books Byron Katie.
Reality is always kinder than the story we tell about it. —Byron Katie
EM: How did you become involved on the spiritual path?
BK: In 1986, as I lay sleeping on the floor of the halfway house (I didn’t think I deserved a bed), a cockroach crawled over my foot, and I woke up. All my misery, all my delusions, were gone. I woke up with no I, no world, and laughter just pouring out of my mouth. There was nothing but a joy that has never left me, not for a single moment. I realized that when I believed my stressful thoughts I suffered, and 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.
On the spiritual path, there is much talk about the lover and the beloved, and the separation of the two as the cause of suffering. How do you define the beloved?
In reality, there is never any separation. The only separation possible is when you believe your thoughts. When you’re a lover of what is, everything and everyone you see becomes the beloved. Inside and outside always match—they’re reflections of each other. The world is the mirror image of your mind.
What is the main way you bring your students home to themselves and to their world?
I don’t bring them home; they bring themselves home, with inquiry.
As to how I landed on the four questions, they were what I experienced in that first moment on the floor. When I woke up to reality, I woke up to The Work; actually, I woke up as The Work. I saw in that clarity that there was no me and no other (that is question four: “Who would you be without that thought”). I saw that when I believed my thoughts, an entire world and even a Byron Katie appeared to exist (that is question three: “How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?”). The world of suffering was born the moment I believed my thoughts, and when I didn’t believe, all suffering was gone. I saw that nothing I believed was true, that no thought was true, and that was questions one and two (“Is it true?” “Can you absolutely know that it’s true?”). I saw that everything I had believed had opposites that were at least as true, and these were the turnarounds. In an instant, I saw the cause of my suffering, and The Work shows this to everyone else as well.
What is your signature teaching style?
I try to be as clear and simple as I can. There is also a major dose of humor, it seems, since people tend to laugh quite often. Humor comes naturally, and rightly so, as how can what doesn’t exist point to existence without finding humor in it?
What is a practice you recommend the most?
The Work is meditation. It's a practice, and it takes stillness to really experience what meets the four questions. If people ask the questions intellectually and don’t understand that the practice is to notice, listen, observe what arises from within and continue to wait for the response, they’re not doing The Work. I invite people to slow the process down and give themselves the gift of not knowing.
What’s the biggest shift that’s taken place in your teaching? What’s the current edge in your work?
The biggest shift has been in my ability to articulate this awareness that never changes. My communication was a bit wild at the beginning. I have learned to be clearer. And I’m always trying to be even clearer. But there have been no shifts in my understanding. It was complete in that first moment.
As to new ways, in the last few years I have been offering the No Body intensive in addition to the School for The Work. The School allows people to lose their identities, safely, by filling out Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheets and then questioning those judgments and turning them around; the No Body addresses identity directly. It lets people kiss every thought, and the whole imagined world, goodbye. It pulls the rug out, kindly, from under everything people cling to. The parallel to this event is my new book, “A Mind at Home with Itself,” which is structured around the Diamond Sutra: “Develop a mind that abides nowhere.”
What is the deepest lament/misunderstanding/distortion you see in spirituality today?
I don’t know what you mean by “spirituality.” I see only people who are suffering from their own thinking. When people believe their thoughts, I understand; it doesn’t ever disturb or frustrate me. And if they want to end their suffering, I am there to help them. I do The Work with them because they ask me; they think they need it, and that’s what I gave to myself, so of course I give it to them. They are my internal life. Responding to them is an act of self-love. It’s perfectly greedy. So their asking is my asking. I help them clarify their minds by seeing that mind doesn’t exist and world doesn’t exist. The ultimate clarity is to realize that there are no thoughts and you’re not the one thinking them.
What is the most common trap of the spiritual teacher?
The teachers who thinks of themselves as teachers, the want-to-be teachers, the ones who are invested in it—they’re trying to teach the students what they themselves need to learn. If I identify myself as a teacher and see my students as any less than teachers, I’m reinforcing what I think I know. The teacher who is always a student, who lives with an open mind, is free to continue expanding his or her consciousness. For the true teacher (that is, the true student), teacher and student are always equal.
Can surrender be taught?
Yes, but only you can teach it to yourself.