The guru of happiness comes to Tel Aviv
An encounter in Tel Aviv with Byron Katie, who says her role in life is to teach people how to stop suffering
Byron Katie, 69, is an author, mentor, spiritual teacher and CEO, who has developed a method of what she calls self-inquiry, called The Work of Byron Katie. According to her website, “The Work is a way of identifying and questioning the thoughts that cause all the fear, violence, depression, frustration and suffering in the world.” Her best-selling book “Loving What Is” has been translated into 29 languages. Katie has taught her method at free public events around the world and recently spent three days in Israel.
Tell us about the moment when your life changed.
Byron: “I suffered from severe depression for over a decade. My condition deteriorated steadily. I was suicidal. During that period I was no longer at home, I was in a halfway house for women, and even there I was considered a lost cause. I used to sleep on the floor next to the bed, because I believed that I didn’t even deserve a bed to sleep in. And then, one morning, a cockroach crawled onto my leg. I looked at it, and suddenly I awoke from a kind of hypnotic trance in which I had been all my life. Suddenly I was able to see everything.”
What did you see?
I understood that my suffering stems from the fact that I believe my thoughts. And suddenly all the darkness disappeared, and was replaced by an awareness of that.
Please explain that.
When we believe in our thoughts, when we tell ourselves a story, we suffer. “My husband doesn’t respect me.” “I should be thinner.” Those are stories. When there’s no story, there’s no suffering.
Often depression led me to lie on the floor. And I got nothing out of that. Except for a big mark on my back.
In effect, I experienced one moment of total clarity. Have you ever felt that way? One moment of clarity?
Maybe for an instant.
That’s the difference between my moment of clarity and yours. I also found the way to remain awake and lucid − the solution to the problem. I changed overnight. It was an entirely different person in a familiar body. It was hard even for my children to recognize me. And all I did was question my thoughts. Anyone who sits down and writes his thoughts on paper and questions their source can receive that moment of clarity. He can also prolong it.
I feel sorry for the newspaper that will have to tolerate my thoughts.
For me that experience is totally different. I meet my thoughts with understanding and acceptance. I check whether or not they’re correct.
What does one actually think about when one isn’t preoccupied with obsessive thoughts?
Oh, it’s all right not to think.
Is it possible?!
Yes. I haven’t had a single thought for 26 years. I have only understanding. It’s somewhat complicated to understand that. I’ve hardly ever spoken about it. You’re in a state of total peace of mind. A kind of nirvana. Yes. And it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to love all your thoughts and it’s wonderful to live in a world where everything is beautiful, and everything is correct and everything is right. The way I experience life, the universe, is wonderful. Everything is in place. It’s like a dream.
I can’t even imagine how that feels. Can you try to describe it to me?
Can you think of one moment when everything in your world was perfect and precise? Maybe you laughed hard that moment. Think perhaps about the feeling when you’re on a roller coaster in an amusement park, in a kind of free fall, when everything is liberated.
Is that how you feel all the time?
Yes. Something like that. Or simply serene.
Are you ever upset or mad?
How is that possible?
Look, so far I haven’t experienced anything like that. But I’m open to such an experience. It’s very liberating to live in the world where I live. A world where there’s no right and wrong, just or unjust. Everything is right. Everything is in place. There’s no possibility of making a mistake.
But are there no absolute truths? Or facts? Objects that are not the products of your mind? How do you question them?
No, the real things. Reality is not only what takes place in our minds.
Reality is only what takes place in our minds. What we believe is true turns into our reality.
So there are no facts in the world. Everything is subject to doubt.
Something becomes a fact only when we believe in it. And when we cast doubt and examine it, the fact changes. I examined and checked this truth all over the world, in many languages and cultures, and it remained the same.
What about God?
I think that God is what I call “our true nature.” When we distance ourselves from our true nature, we live with difficulty. But when we live our true nature, there is no duality. There’s nothing negative. Everything is positive. We feel that we have found God.
This isn’t your first time in Israel. Over 10,000 Israelis are learning your method, in Israel and worldwide.
Are you aware of what took place here last summer? The social protest?
In brief: The structure of the Israeli economy and many additional factors have led us to a situation in which the middle class is gradually sliding toward poverty. People work full time and are unable to support their family. For the first time they took to the streets in order to protest.
First, I think that the protest must take place. I believe that this difficulty will enable you to achieve movement to a different place. I really love the fact that people are able to express what’s bothering them. Look, even if I lose everything I have − my home, my property, if my husband and my children abandon me − I’ll still feel that I have everything. I’ll still be a happy person, because I love everything I think. But that doesn't mean that I won’t join a protesters movement.
Yes. I can be 100 percent free, and understand many things that are foreign to most people and still protest. Freedom doesn't mean that I am inwardly prevented from standing up for what I believe to be right. And genuine. And compassionate. There’s enough money in this world economy for everyone, if only we understood why and how to distribute it. But meanwhile, as long as we’re not sane when it comes to kinder ways, we can find freedom only from within. I invite anyone who doesn’t believe me to put this statement to the test.
Your method is very similar to a Socratic dialogue or Buddha’s teachings. Were you familiar with either of them before your discovery?
No, I’ve never read any such text. And I think that it was really the greatest gift. I had an amazing spiritual teacher: depression.
The method is likely to sound simplistic, but it has been adopted by psychologists and psychiatrists all over the world. When you try to get to the bottom of it, it turns out that it’s not simple at all.
It’s simple but it demands genuine integrity. It’s very foreign to human nature.
Your schedule is crazy. You’re meeting me for a conversation although in an hour you have to be at the airport. What’s your motivation? Why do you continue to work so hard after so many years?
I don’t work hard. I love people and I care. I see myself in them. They’re all me. I remember how it felt to be depressed and confused, and I want to share what I have, I want to help. I managed to cleanse my mind, but when I look at you and see that you’re confused, that’s mine too. I don’t see other people as separate entities.
Your book is called “Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life.” But we insist on loving what others have. Why do we always want what we don’t have?
Because we believe our thoughts. We could all love our lives and be happy with our lot, if we didn’t believe our negative thoughts.
But this constant search for what isn’t, the desire for something you don’t have, is a mechanism that is shared by all of humanity. Why?
The mind wants to exist for its own sake, it wants to live. Its way to live is to find something that will be an object of desire. Something to hold on to. That’s also why the moment we get what we want, we’ll immediately want something else.
People come to you with very bleak stories of abuse, rape, bereavement, even murder. Do those stories shake you up? Do you feel sorry for them?
No. Never. I know that they’re perfectly all right. They only believe their thoughts. You can examine your life for a moment. If you set aside the things that you think and believe in, isn’t your life good? Aren’t you all right?
And that’s what I know about everyone. Everyone is safe. Everyone is all right.
But that’s not true. There are hungry people in the world. There are people who suffer from pains, illness, abuse.
Hunger or pain is also a state of consciousness. It’s very hard to hear, maybe even infuriating, but there’s nothing in this world that isn’t a state of consciousness. I don’t really expect people to understand that, or to think it’s true, but I know for certain that it’s true.
I’m not sure I understand. Hunger is a physiological mechanism. A message from the nervous system.
True. And yet, if I believe that I’m hungry, I believe that I need food. How do I react when I think that thought? I’m liable to seek desperate solutions, maybe even cruel and violent ones. Let’s say we’re both hungry, and I have one piece of bread. I understand that all I do is believe my thoughts, and you believe that you’re about to starve if you don’t eat. I’ll give you the bread, because I’m all right with or without it. You don’t have to steal it from me or to plead with me, all you have to do is ask.
In that case, according to you all the problems that we’re dealing with are nonexistent.
True. There’s only one thing that’s hard. Physical pain. And even physical pain is a projection of the mind. We’re not sufficiently developed to control it.
What do you like to do when you aren’t working? What do you enjoy?
And what else?
More quiet, more serenity.
Do you like being alone?
Very much. Very much.
In the monastic, reclusive sense?
No. In the simpler sense. I have a lot of work, I run quite a large business, I’m the CEO of my company, I have a lot of people working for me, I’m very active, and I travel all over the world a lot. I’m now starting a big project, the Institute of The Work, a virtual university where The Work will be accessible to everyone, and they can experience it every day.
Time Magazine called you “a spiritual innovator for the new millennium.” Does that do anything for you?
No. So somebody said something? Who said it? Why does it make a difference what he said?
Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire program to an interview with you. At the end she said that she has never met anyone like you.
Ah, there are so many amazing people in the world. They’re simply not onstage. So many people who are raising families and living their lives. Those are the real heroes for me. The people who are simply living their lives.