Author, speaker and spiritual teacher Byron Katie was a mother and real estate broker in the 1980s who found herself spiraling into a severe depression. In 1986, after nearly a decade of struggling with depression, alcoholism, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders, Katie checked herself into a halfway house and rehabilitation center for women.
It was there that Katie had an awakening and became filled with happiness, clarity and calmness that changed her life forever. She says she realized the cause of her intense suffering and depression “was not the world around her, but the beliefs she’d had about the world.” Time magazine calls Katie “a spiritual innovator for the new millennium.”
Born Byron Kathleen Reid in Texas, in 1942, she was raised in a small desert town in California, in the years following World War II. Her homemaker mother and her father, a railroad worker, saw Katie grow from a quiet, thoughtful little girl into an aggressive, competitive teenager who sought to be the best in everything she did. A top beautiful, energetic, and fun, student, she played piano and sang in a regional choir.
At 19 she married Robert, her high school sweetheart; two sons and a daughter soon followed. Robert and Katie formed their own company as equal partners. When her marriage, like many, met with difficulties, Katie, a perfectionist and high achiever, suffered the belief that she was not enough. She began striving for the usual symbols of happiness and security — money, beauty, talent, and success.
Katie invested their mutual earnings in real estate and by the 1970s, Katie had become a millionaire; she now had her long-sought success. Katie was doing big business, raising a family, living high. But it wasn’t enough; nothing pleased or satisfied her. In her increasingly frustrated and ultimately futile search for happiness through money and power, Katie had “bullied, intimidated, and badgered” anyone, even her husband and children, to get her way.
But in the midst of having everything and seeking more, her passion had turned to desperation. Her marriage with Robert became a battle of wills, her family life a series of skirmishes. They were all casualties, especially the children. “If I didn’t get my way,” Byron Katie said, “I would leave the house and take the children with me.”
The third time she did this, her husband got involved with another woman. This was a time of darkness for Katie and for her children, but the seeds had been sown long before. For years she had held back the darkness and emptiness with food, alcohol, tobacco, and constant striving. But her strategy took its toll; her progressive disintegration led to rages, alcohol abuse, and paranoia. At one point she bought a gun and kept it loaded under her bed. Finally, even her children feared her. When her marriage ended in 1976, Katie and the children wound up penniless in California.
Then, in 1979, she married Paul, an old friend fifteen years her senior. Katie and Paul began buying, fixing up, and reselling old houses and were soon quite wealthy — Katie still had the knack. Once again she had money, friends, a thriving career, and a family she loved. But the meaning had drained out of her existence. She felt herself dying inside.
Depression Sets In
Paul, a good man, had married Katie on her way down. He’d seen a couple of friends have nervous breakdowns but he’d never witnessed anything like his wife’s terrifying descent. Katie had once taken on the world, charmed people, closed deals, made money. Now, afraid to leave the house, she went weeks without bathing, changing her clothes, or brushing her teeth.
She spent days in bed — drinking, smoking, raging, popping codeine, eating ice cream by the gallon. Her weight shot up to over two hundred pounds. Her torment and her rage were unrelieved: “Nothing felt good, nothing made me happy, nothing brought me peace. In the end I was obese and starving….I was in so much pain and the pills weren’t working. I was insane, a dead woman still breathing.”
Darkness Meets Light
Katie spent many years lying on the bed, her unchanged clothing often plastered to her body and her unwashed hair matted to her head. Her husband took Katie, now 43, to a halfway house. She lived in the attic, sleeping on the floor; all she wanted was to die. Then one morning Byron Katie woke up reborn.
Morning dawned, and Katie stirred, lying on the floor. She opened her eyes and saw a cockroach crawling across a human foot. She did not, in that moment, know what a foot, or for that matter what anything, was. All was a mystery.
Yet the sight of the insect, the foot, the leg, and the room filled her with delight and awe. She was a newborn, gazing in wonder at life. “It was the most amazing thing,” she recalled. “I looked at the foot and the leg and I had never seen anything so beautiful and marvelous. It was the same with the floor, with the cockroach, and with the light, seeing it for the first time…and the unfolding of it was so incredible…total, total joy.”
Overnight, Katie had moved from suicidal despair to ecstatic freedom. The madwoman had vanished. In her place appeared a beautiful changeling, an innocent child.
No one, least of all Katie, understood what had happened. Her daughter Roxann at first believed that her mother was playing a trick. Yet she saw a different person come home. “Her face was changed completely,” Roxann reported. “Her eyes were cleared. She was not the same person.”
Katie’s daughter feared the return of the madwoman she had known. But what had happened to Katie persisted and only deepened over time. Her past behind her, she now lived in the eternal present. For a time, Roxann led her mother, still absorbed in a childlike state of awe, around by the hand.
Katie would spontaneously hug people on the street — friends, strangers, the homeless — with equal delight. Surprisingly, many let her, perhaps sensing her unconditional love and acceptance.
For seven years after the awakening, inner revelations came to Katie, and she tried to put them into words to share with others, but she had leaped across a chasm of consciousness, and no words seemed capable of building a bridge for those who couldn’t see to the other side.
She said of that time: “I was wild with love, mad with love.” But words couldn’t convey it. She had to live her realization to sustain it.
Katie’s thoughts returned, of course, as thoughts do — and with them judgments, fears, and expectations. At such times she felt herself slipping from the freedom of her awakening into the mind of suffering.
But whenever this happened, she worked her way back by a compassionate vigilance, inspecting the thoughts, beliefs, and false assumptions that separated her from others and set her against life. Doing this “Work,” as she called it, returned her gracefully to the pristine awareness of her original awakening.
Says Katie: “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but 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. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment.”
In sessions of her widely popular self-awareness program “The Work”, Katie’s method asks four questions intended to help people identify stressful thoughts and to inquire into them, finding their own truth and understanding of their own situation. The questions asked of a thought are:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
The follow-up step to these four questions is called “turnarounds” in which various opposites of the original thought are experienced – it is essentially a way of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. One thought at a time, one transforms the way one experiences life, and through this process, Katie gives people the tool to set themselves free.
Katie’s approach offers a pragmatic and simple way of getting people to take responsibility for their own problems. Says Katie: “It’s a way to cut through everything. It puts responsibility back on the person looking for their answers, not the world’s answers.
For over twenty years, Byron Katie has been traveling the world teaching “The Work” — the fruit of her past struggles, her extraordinary awakening, and her continual surrender to life as it arises, moment to moment. She teaches her method to people at free public events, in prisons, hospitals, churches, rehabilitation centres, corporations, shelters for survivors of domestic violence, universities and schools, at weekend intensives, and at her nine-day “School for The Work”.
Says Katie: “I just know that people want to be free,” she says. “And if I have something they believe will help them, then I give it in the same way I got it.”