I first discovered Byron Katie while on retreat in Greece with Serenity Retreat . Or rather I should say that Byron Katie found me. I noticed a book sitting beside me on the bench. ‘Hey, whose book is this?’ I asked, but nobody claimed it. ‘Looks like it’s meant for you,’ said Kim Bennett, the retreat leader, with a knowing smile.
The book was Loving What Is, and the author was Byron Katie, an incredible woman who has been teaching what she calls “The Work” since 1992. Its aim is to free people from stress, frustration, anger and sadness.
It grew out of Katie’s own depression and suicidal despair. In 1986, when she was 43, Katie checked herself into a halfway house. A week later she had a life-changing experience – an enlightenment, if you like. ‘I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered,’ she says. ‘But when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that.’
The Work is simple, deceptively simple. The first step is to identify the thoughts that are causing you stress. It could be anything – from people who annoy, upset or confuse you, right through to huge global issues that freak you out. Katie invites you to write down the thoughts and stories that run through your head, being as petty and judgmental as you possibly can be. ‘Point the finger of blame at the people you’re jealous of, people you can’t stand, people who have disappointed you,’ she says.
Then she invites you to meditate upon what you’ve written down. The format couldn’t be simpler – just four questions. Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true? How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? Who would you be without the thought?
It marked a distinct turning point for me. I had wasted so much time making assumptions, making judgments, blaming other people. Yet as soon I turned the spotlight of inquiry on their behaviour, I realised that I had absolutely no right to judge. All those irritating, ‘bad’ qualities? I shared them. I was simply looking at my own shadow. All that fear, depression, anxiety? I was stressing myself out about things that were either long gone or might never happen.
Recently I was sent a copy of Katie’s new book, A Mind at Home with Itself – Finding Freedom in a World of Suffering (Rider, £12.99). It was a timely nudge as little anxieties had been creeping back in. Was I going to have enough money? Would my son get the grades he needs for university? Also big fears around violence, bigotry, ecological disaster starting rearing their heads.
As I read, I remembered how to free myself. It’s not always easy, as the truth can often be hugely painful for the ego. As Katie says, ‘Here’s the bottom line: suffering is optional. If you prefer to suffer, go on believing your stressful thoughts. But if you’d rather be happy, question them.’
I highly recommend all of Byron Katie’s books. However what I really love is that the Work is available for everyone, for absolute free, on her website . Is that true? Absolutely!
This first appeared in Natural Health magazine.