Working her way into serenity


Byron Katie was in dire circumstances when her method of self-help, The Work, came to her in a flash of insight, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN

‘I WAS a mother of three just trying to keep the bills paid,” says California-based Byron Katie. “That was my focus and it was a lot, the depression and the terror.”

A quarter of a century ago she was living in a hostel, in dire circumstances, having endured years of depression.

Today she is known around the world for a remarkably simple method, which she calls The Work, for questioning our judgments of people and situations.

She will be demonstrating her method in a day-long workshop next Monday in the RDS, Dublin. She has been here several times before.

Her method is based on the premise that “when we believe our thoughts, we are lost in the dream world”, she told me.

“As long as we believe our thoughts, we have no chance.”

At the heart of the method are four questions (see panel).

The first two ask us to believe if we can be sure, absolutely sure, that what we believe is true. The third asks us to consider what it costs us to hold that belief; and the fourth to explore how we would be without that belief.

The way she tells it, the method did not come to her through a slow process of development but rather in a flash of insight in that hostel, where she slept on the floor of the attic.

One morning, awoken by a cockroach walking across her foot, she was plunged into what might be seen as a psychological crisis, a mystical experience or a zen-like awakening in which her old self fell away and the world seemed new and beautiful.

She began to take long walks in the streets or in the desert, talking to strangers. The walks were partly to reacquaint herself with the locality – many of her memories had been washed away in that experience in the attic. She slept for only a few hours a night. It took her three years to begin to settle from the experience.

How come those around her did not have her hospitalised or medicated? “They very easily could have,” she says. “They just didn’t.”

The four questions had come to her as part of her experience in the attic. Gradually other people heard of her and started to visit her. She began to teach her method.

The method, she says, “opens our minds. To believe what you think, you have to destroy the evidence. Inquiry opens the mind to see evidence.”

She proceeds – or seems to proceed – from the basis that our thoughts very often are just not true.

In this, her view is in line with the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy though her method is simpler than the procedures of CBT.

After asking the four questions, people using her method are urged to try what she calls the “turnaround” in which they are encouraged to experiment with a belief opposite to the original one.

So the belief “She doesn’t care about me” can be turned around to “I don’t care about her” or even “I don’t care about me.”

This aspect of the method may feel odd – but it is entirely in line with the traditional psychoanalytic idea of projection, in which we attribute thoughts and feelings to others that we cannot admit to in ourselves.

She sees her method as applicable to everyone because “I am never working with a human being, I am working with the mind.

“This is a fairly gentle process with a lot of humour,” she says, adding “I keep it very simple because people’s minds want to manipulate.”

And what would have happened to her if that cockroach had not taken his morning walk across her foot? “I think I would just have slept on through.”

Byron Katie’s workshop will be in the Concert Hall in the RDS on Monday (18th), doors opening at 9am. Tickets cost €80 at the door


In relation to a thought or belief ask these four questions:

Is it true?

Can I absolutely know it’s true?

How do I react – what happens – when I believe that thought?

Who would I be without the thought?

Turn the thought around to its opposite.

Example: My teenager never listens to me:

1. Is it true that my teenager never listens to me?

2. How can I be absolutely sure my teenager never listens to me?

3. How does believing this thought make me react to my teenager? How does it make me feel?

4. What if I didn’t believe my teenager never listens to me? How would I feel then?

Turnaround: Turn the thought around to, for instance, “I never listen to my teenager.” Think of examples of this.

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