Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj was an Indian spiritual teacher, philosopher and a Guru. One of the most acclaimed 20th century’s exponents of the school of Advaita non-dualism (which says that there is just One Eternal Spirit in existence, and that everything in the Universe derives from it and is an inseparable part of it), Sri Nisargadatta, with his direct and minimalistic explanation, is considered the most famous teacher of Advaita. In 1973, the publication of his most famous and widely translated book, “I Am That”, an English translation of his talks, brought him worldwide recognition and followers.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj came to life on April 17, 1897, at break of dawn to a devout Hindu couple in Bombay, India. He grew up amidst his family of six siblings, two brothers and four sisters, and deeply religious parents. His father worked as a domestic servant in Mumbai and later became a petty farmer.
As a young boy while observing the village life he developed a liking for tending cattle, tilling land and gardening. He particularly liked taking household cattle for grazing far in the open. He spent happy time in the jungle with the young herdsmen of his age.
The mystery of nature always posed him with a problem. How, when there is nothing but soil in the field, abundant grains come out of it? How is it that mangoes come out of the tree? Why the seed of a cashew fruit is outside the fruit when all the other fruits have their seeds inside them?
These and such other mysterious questions tormented his young mind. Adult replies did not satisfy him. The mysterious and wonderful play of nature enthralled his mind and provided him inspiration for love of the Universe. He was from the very beginning of an obliging nature. He immediately responded to a needy call. In times of distress he ran to help them put out fires, pull out a cattle from a well, etc. For this, he made no distinction as between castes.
How did poverty still exist when the world had long been in existence? When the villages were very old why were pathways leading to them so primitive and difficult? When all human beings were similar, why are we regarded high and the others low? Such questions tormented him. If the world existed before I was born, how was it that I did not know that it was there? He brooded over such occult questions also.
In 1915, after his father died, he moved to Bombay to support his family back home, following his elder brother. Initially he worked as a junior clerk at an office but quickly he opened a small goods store, mainly selling beedis – leaf-rolled cigarettes. Owing to his industrious and friendly nature, he started getting stability in business and soon owned a string of eight retail shops.
In 1924 he married and had three daughters and a son.
In 1933, he was introduced to his guru, Sri Siddharameshwar Maharaj by a friend. His guru told him, “You are not what you take yourself to be…”. He then gave Nisargadatta simple instructions which he followed verbatim, as he himself recounted later:
“My Guru ordered me to attend to the sense ‘I am’ and to give attention to nothing else. I just obeyed. I did not follow any particular course of breathing, or meditation, or study of scriptures. Whatever happened, I would turn away my attention from it and remain with the sense ‘I am’. It may look too simple, even crude. My only reason for doing it was that my Guru told me so. Yet it worked!”
Following his guru’s instructions to concentrate on the feeling “I Am”, he utilized all his spare time looking at himself in silence, and remained in that state for the coming years, practising meditation and singing devotional songs.
After an association that lasted hardly two and a half years, Sri Siddharameshwar Maharaj died on November 9, 1936, though by that time he had done his task. Maruti (Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s name at birth) had reached self-awareness. Soon he adopted a new name, “Nisargadatta” meaning “naturally given” in the unfragmented, seamless, solid Awareness.
In 1937, he left Mumbai and travelled across India. Through realising the shortcomings of a totally unworldly life and the greater spiritual fruitfulness of dispassionate action, he eventually returned to his family in Mumbai in 1938. It was there that he spent the rest of his life.
According to Sri Nisargadatta the purpose of spirituality is to know who you are, a viewpoint he expounded in the talks he gave at his humble flat in Mumbai, where a mezzanine room was created for him to receive disciples and visitors.
Sri Nisargadatta stated that our true nature is perpetually free peaceful awareness, referred to as Brahman. Awareness is the source of, but different from, the personal, individual consciousness, which is related to the body. The mind and memory are responsible for association with a particular body; awareness exists prior to both mind and memory. It is only the idea that we are the body that keeps us from living what he calls our “original essence”, the True Self, referred to as Atman.
He describes this essence as pure, free, and unaffected by anything that occurs. He likens it to a silent witness that watches through the body’s senses, yet is not moved, either to happiness or sadness, based on what it sees.
For Nisargadatta, the Self is not one super-entity which knows independently, regardless of things; there is no such super-entity, no Creator with infinite intellect. God does not exist independently from creation. What does exist is the “total acting” (or functioning) of the Ultimate or Absolute Reality along the infinite varying forms in manifestation. This Absolute Reality is identical to the Self.
Nisargadatta’s teachings also focus on our notion of causality as being misinterpreted. He understood that the interconnectedness of varying forces in the universe is so vast and innumerable that the notion of causality, as presently understood, is wasted. The endless factors required for anything to happen means that, at most, one can say everything creates everything; even the choices we make are predetermined by our genetic code, upbringing, mental strivings and limitations, our ethical and philosophical ideals, etc., all of which are uniquely combined to each person and recontextualized accordingly.
This leads to the radical notion that there is no such thing as a “doer”. According to him and other teachers of Vedanta, since our true nature or identity is not the mind, is not the body, but the witness of the mind and body, we, as pure awareness, do nothing. The mind and body act of their own accord, and we are the witness of them, though the mind often believes it is the doer. This false idea (that the mind is the self and responsible for actions) is what keeps us from recognizing our Self. Nisargadatta cautions:
“The life force (prana) and the mind are operating (of their own accord), but the mind will tempt you to believe that it is “you”. Therefore understand always that you are the timeless spaceless witness. And even if the mind tells you that you are the one who is acting, don’t believe the mind. […] The apparatus [mind, body] which is functioning has come upon your original essence, but you are not that apparatus.”
He talked about the ‘direct way’ of knowing the Final Reality, in which one becomes aware of one’s original nature through the practice of meditation. In addition, he proposed to use one’s mental faculty to break from the unreal to the real, and the mind’s false identification with the ego, simply by listening to and constantly thinking over what the master has said, and knowing that “You are already ‘That’”.
Self-realisation had made Sri Maharaj cool towards the ups and downs, the happiness and misery in his life. The loss of a dear daughter, devoted wife and a revered mother during the years 1942 to 1948 and the severe loss in his business did not ruffle him. On the contrary, these shocks hardened his dispassion. Owing to lack of attention, his landed property was literally thrown to the winds. Braving great miseries one after other, he once coolly exclaimed, “Fortunate shall I be, if miseries do befall me.”
Experiencing his spiritual height and powers, his well wishers and devotees started gathering around him. To avoid distraction he used to avoid them. If some one persisted, he cut him short by giving him a short shrift. The well-wishers and the devotees were, likewise, irresistibly attracted towards him. They used to get their spiritual doubts and difficulties cleared by him. Mundane matters were a taboo with him.
He is against using spiritual powers (siddhis) for performing miracles. Most of his time of the day being spent in his shop, the spiritual discussions used to be in front of his shop. Some aspirant or other was always seen standing in front of his shop. To avoid encumbrances he never used to invite others to him or to go to them.
After he retired from his shop in 1966, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj continued to receive and teach visitors in his home, giving discourses twice a day, until his death on September 8, 1981 at the age of 84, of throat cancer.
Many of Nisargadatta Maharaj’s talks were recorded, and these recordings form the basis of “I Am That” and all of his other books. His words are free from cultural and religious trappings, and the knowledge he expounds is stripped bare of all that is unnecessary.
Summed up in the words of Advaita scholar and a disciple, Dr. Robert Powell, “Like the Zen masters of old, Nisargadatta’s style is abrupt, provocative, and immensely profound — cutting to the core and wasting little effort on inessentials. His terse but potent sayings are known for their ability to trigger shifts in consciousness, just by hearing, or even reading them.”
Ram Dass went from being an accomplished academic to counter culture icon, legend in his own time. His practice of spiritual service has opened up millions of other souls to their deep, yet individuated spiritual practice and path. Ram Dass’ unique skills in getting people to cut through and feel divine love without dogma is still a positive influence on thousands of people around the globe.
Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert) was born to a prominent Jewish family on April 6, 1931 in Massachusetts, United States. His father was an influential lawyer in Boston, president of an important railroad firm, one of the founders of Brandeis University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, as well as a major fundraiser for Jewish causes. While Richard did have a bar mitzvah, he was “disappointed by the ritual’s essential hollowness”.
The youngest of three boys, Richard as a child was described as being engaging and loved by all—the family mascot. He considered himself an atheist and did not profess any religion during his early life, describing himself as “inured to religion. I didn’t have one whiff of God until I took psychedelics.”
Alpert graduated from school with high honours in 1948 and then went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree, a master’s degree and a doctorate in psychology from Stanford University. He specialized in human motivation and personality development.
After returning from a visiting professorship on psychology at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, Alpert accepted a permanent position at Harvard, where he worked with the Social Relations Department, the Psychology Department, the Graduate School of Education, and the Health Service, where he was a therapist. He was also awarded research contracts with Yale and Stanford.
Perhaps most notable was the work he did on the exploration of human consciousness with prominent psychologist and writer Timothy Leary, a close friend and associate. Having only recently obtained his pilot’s license, Alpert flew his private plane to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where Leary first introduced him to Teonanácatl, the Magic Mushrooms of Mexico.
By the time Alpert made it back to America, Leary had already consulted with Aldous Huxley, who was visiting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). Through Huxley and a number of graduate students they were able to get in touch with a research chemist, which had produced a synthetic component of the magic mushrooms called psilocybin.
Alpert and Leary brought a test batch back to Harvard, where they conducted the Harvard Psilocybin Project. The pair was later dismissed from the Harvard in 1963; Leary for his overall conduct and Alpert for continuing to fraternise with and give psilocybin to undergraduates. By this time; however, Alpert had already become disillusioned with academia and even described himself as feeling caught in a meaningless game.
The two soon relocated and continued their experiments unsupervised from a private mansion in New York, under the auspices of a private foundation until 1967. Famous poets, musicians came from across the country to be part of what was going on there. Although Leary and Alpert remained life-long friends, the two eventually began to part ways spiritually and philosophically as Leary continued to spread his mantra of “turn on, tune in, drop out”, while Alpert increasingly found his purpose in the Eastern ethic of serving others.
For Ram Dass, psychedelic work turned out to be a prelude to the mystical country of the spirit and the source of consciousness itself. Mind expansion via chemical substances became a catalyst for the spiritual seeking. This naturally led him eastward to the traditional headwater of mystical rivers: India.
In 1967 Alpert traveled to India and once there, a series of seeming coincidences led him to an American spiritual seeker named Bhagavan Das. As he guided him barefoot from temple to temple, Bhagavan Das began teaching Alpert basic mantras and Yoga asanas, as well as how to work with beads. After a few months Bhagavan Das led Alpert to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, or as he is better known in the West, Maharaj-ji.
Maharaj-ji soon became Alpert’s guru and gave him the name “Ram Dass”, which means “servant of God”. Under the guidance of Maharaj-ji, Ram Dass was instructed to receive teaching from Hari Dass Baba, who taught in silence using only a chalkboard. Among other things, Hari Dass Baba trained Ram Dass in raja yoga and ahimsa (non-violence). It was these life-changing experiences in India that inspired Ram Dass to write the contemporary spiritual classic, “Be Here Now”, in which he teaches the harmony of all people and religions.
Back in the West
After his return to the United States in 1969, Alpert founded several organizations dedicated to expanding spiritual awareness and promoting spiritual growth. Since then he has embraced a wide variety of spiritual methods and practices such as meditation and yoga from major ancient wisdom traditions.
In 1974, Ram Dass created the Hanuman Foundation, which developed the Prison Ashram Project, designed to help prison inmates grow spiritually during their incarceration, and the Dying Project, conceived as a spiritual support structure for conscious and dying.
Ram Dass’ interests include the support of psychedelic research, international development, environmental awareness and political action. He has written a number of spiritual books including “Be Here Now”, (over one million copies sold), “The Only Dance There Is”, “Journey of Awakening”, “Miracle of Love”, and “Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying.” His latest book is “One-Liners: A Mini-Manual for a Spiritual Life.”
In February 1997, he suffered a stroke which left him with expressive aphasia, however, he understands his stroke as an act of grace and continued to travel giving lectures, as his health permitted.
In 2004, following a life threatening infection, Ram Dass was forced to curtail travel and focus on recovering his health. He continues to teach through live webcasts and at retreats in Maui, were he now resides.
Ram Dass’ monumentally influential and seminal work, still stands as the centerpiece of Western articulation of Eastern philosophy, and how to live joyously a hundred per cent of the time in the present, luminous or mundane. His work continues to be the instruction manual of choice for generations of spiritual seekers.
When asked if he could sum up his life’s message, he replied, “I help people as a way to work on myself, and I work on myself to help people … to me, that’s what the emerging game is all about.” Ram Dass was awarded the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award in August 1991.
The “Love Serve Remember Foundation” was organized to preserve and continue the teachings of Neem Karoli Baba and Ram Dass, and to work with Ram Dass on his writings and other future plans. The Hanuman Foundation is a nonprofit educational and service organization founded by Ram Dass in 1974, focused on the spiritual wellbeing of society through education, media and community service programs.
The Seva Foundation is an international health organization founded by Ram Dass in 1978 along with public health leader Larry Brilliant and humanitarian activist Wavy Gravy. Ram Dass also serves on the faculty of the Metta Institute where he provides training on mindful and compassionate care of the dying.
Ram Dass is a co-founder and advisory board member of the Seva Foundation, an international service organization. He works with the Social Venture Network, an organization of businesses seeking to bring social consciousness to business practices.
He continues to teach about the nature of consciousness and about service as a spiritual path.
Carlos Castaneda is a figure wrapped in mystery. In a series of books that orbit around the relationship between Carlos and Don Juan, a desert sorcerer with magical powers, his philosophy emphasized power; the power to possess the moment of life we are living, the power to control one’s mind and experience and the power to access the realm of the unknown through spiritual practices.
Carlos Cesar Arana Castañeda was born on Christmas Day, 25 December 1925. He moved to Lima as a young man and studied at the Colegio Nacional de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe and the National Fine Arts School of Peru. He left home shortly after his mother’s death, promising never to return, and kept his promise.
He moved to San Francisco in 1951 and later attended Los Angeles City College (1955-59). He became an American citizen in 1959 and that same year enrolled in UCLA. He received his B.A. in anthropology in 1962 and pursued his graduate studies sporadically through the next decade when he finally completed his Ph.D. in 1973.
In January 1960, Carlos married Margaret Runyan. Even though there are many rumors of a divorce in 1973, they were actually never divorced and were still married at the time of Carlos passing in 1998.
During his studies he published his first three books. Starting with “The Teachings of Don Juan” in 1968, Castaneda wrote a series of books that describe his training in shamanism. The books, narrated in the first person, relate to his experiences under the tutelage of a Yaqui “Man of Knowledge” named Don Juan Matus.
Don Juan was represented as a sorcerer and metaphysical master of the Mexican border who taught a higher reality involving the visionary potentialities of drugs like mescaline. The books caught the imagination of a generation of spiritual seekers who were using various mind-altering drugs and the attention of social scientists who were opting for new theories about the subjective nature of reality.
His third book had been presented as his doctoral dissertation. Anthropologists praised Castaneda, and Don Juan became a cult figure, although this elusive sorcerer seems to have manifested only to Castaneda and remained a mystery man.
His 12 books have sold more than 8 million copies in 17 languages. Critics have suggested that they are works of fiction; supporters claim the books are either true or at least valuable works of philosophy and descriptions of practices which enable an increased awareness.
In all, twelve books by Castaneda were published, two posthumously. Castaneda was the subject of a cover article in the March 5, 1973 issue of Time. The article described him as “an enigma wrapped in a mystery.” When confronted by correspondent Sandra Burton about discrepancies in his personal history, Castaneda responded by saying:
“To ask me to verify my life by giving you my statistics…is like using science to validate sorcery. It robs the world of its magic and makes milestones out of us all”.
The interviewer wrote that :
“Castaneda makes the reader experience the pressure of mysterious winds and the shiver of leaves at twilight, the hunter’s peculiar alertness to sound and smell, the rock-bottom scrubbiness of Indian life, the raw fragrance of tequila and the vile, fibrous taste of peyote, the dust in the car, and the loft of a crow’s flight. It is a superbly concrete setting, dense with animistic meaning. This is just as well, in view of the utter weirdness of the events that happen in it.”
Following that interview, Castaneda retired from public view.
Castaneda withdrew from public view in 1973 to work further on his inner development, living in a large house which he shared with three of his female companions (“Fellow Travellers of Awareness”). The women broke off relationships with friends and family when they joined Castaneda’s group. They also refused to be photographed and took new names.
In the 1990s, Castaneda once again began appearing in public to promote Tensegrity, a group of movements that he claimed had been passed down by 25 generations of Toltec shamans. Soon after, he founded Cleargreen, an organization that promoted Tensegrity, purportedly a traditional Toltec regimen of spiritually powerful exercises.
Castaneda died on 27 April 1998 (aged 72) in Los Angeles due to complications from hepatocellular cancer. There was no public service; Castaneda was cremated. It was not until nearly two months later, on 19 June 1998, that an obituary entitled “A Hushed Death for Mystic Author Carlos Castaneda” was published by the Los Angeles Times.
At the age of 29, a profound inner transformation radically changed the course of his life. He realised that an essential aspect of the awakening process consists in transcending our ego-based state of consciousness – a prerequisite not only for personal happiness but also for the ending of violence on our planet. New York Times writer called Tolle “the most popular spiritual author.” In 2011, critics put him at number 1 in a list of “The 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People”. Eckhart is a sought-after public speaker and teaches and travels extensively throughout the world.
Ulrich Leonard Tolle was born in Lünen, Germany on the 16th of February, 1948. From birth through age 13, Eckhart Tolle lived an unhappy and disturbing childhood in his native Germany. There, his parents fought and eventually separated, and he felt alienated from a hostile school and home environment.
While playing in buildings destroyed by Allied bombs during World War Two, Tolle felt depressed by his experience of “pain in the energy field of the country”. At the age of 13, he moved to Spain until the age of 19 to live with his father. Tolle’s father did not insist that his son attend high school, and so Tolle elected to study literature, astronomy and language at home.
At the age of 19, Tolle moved to England and for three years taught German and Spanish at a London language school for businessmen. Troubled by “depression, anxiety and fear”, he began “searching for answers” in his life. At age 22 or so he decided to pursue this search by studying philosophy, psychology, and literature, and enrolled in the University of London. After graduating, he was offered a scholarship to do research at Cambridge University as a postgraduate student and was admitted there in 1977.
Tolle was depressed for much of his life until he underwent, at age 29, an “inner transformation”, then spent several years wandering and unemployed “in a state of deep bliss” before becoming a spiritual teacher.
One night in 1977, at the age of 29, after having suffered from long periods of suicidal depression, Tolle says he experienced an “inner transformation.” That night he awakened from his sleep, suffering from feelings of depression that were “almost unbearable,” but then experienced a life-changing epiphany. Recounting the experience, Tolle says:
“I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void! I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved. The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or ‘beingness’, just observing and watching.”
Tolle recalls going out for a walk in London the next morning, and finding that “everything was miraculous, deeply peaceful. Even the traffic.” The feeling continued, and he began to feel a strong underlying sense of peace in any situation. Tolle stopped studying for his doctorate, and for a period of about two years after this he became a vagrant and spent much of his time sitting, “in a state of deep bliss,” on park benches in Russell Square, Central London, “watching the world go by.”
He stayed with friends, in a Buddhist monastery, or otherwise slept rough on Hampstead Heath. His family thought him “irresponsible, even insane.” Tolle changed his first name from Ulrich to Eckhart, by some reports in homage to the German philosopher and mystic, Meister Eckhart.
After this period, former Cambridge students and people he had met by chance began to ask Tolle about his beliefs. He began working as a counselor and spiritual teacher. Students continued to come to him over the next five years. He relocated to Glastonbury, three hours west of London, a major centre of alternative living.
In 1995 at the age of 47, after having visited the West Coast of North America several times, he settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he met his wife to be, Kim Eng.
Tolle’s first book, “The Power of Now”, was first published in 1997. Only 3,000 copies were published of the first edition. Tolle recalls : “I would personally deliver a few copies every week to some small bookstores in Vancouver …friends helped by placing copies of the book in spiritual bookstores farther afield”.
In 2000, Oprah Winfrey recommended it in her magazine and soon after it reached the New York Times Best Seller list. By 2008, the book had been translated from English into 33 languages.
Tolle is not identified with any particular religion, but he has been influenced by a wide range of spiritual works.
In 2005, Tolle published his third book, “A New Earth”, which assumed the number one position on the New York Times Best Seller list several times between March and September 2008. By the end of 2008, it reached the list for the 46th time.
The high sales of “A New Earth” in that year followed its selection by Oprah Winfrey for her book club in January. In the four weeks following the announcement, 3.5 million copies of the book were shipped. Tolle partnered with her to produce a series of webinar sessions beginning in May 2008. The weekly webinar sessions included discussions between Tolle and Winfrey, silent meditations, and questions from viewers via Skype. Each webinar focused on a specific chapter of “A New Earth”. The third webinar attracted more than 11 million viewers.
Tolle gives speeches and workshops in English and occasionally in German or Spanish. He also travels for various speaking engagements, such as seminars and retreats. Tolle has indicated that he had no intention of creating “a heavy commercial structure”, nor of setting up an ashram or centre. He believes one “could develop organically” and said “one needs to be careful that the organization doesn’t become self-serving”.
Tolle writes in the introduction to his book, “Stillness Speaks”, that “A true spiritual teacher does not have anything to teach in the conventional sense of the word, does not have anything to give or add to you, such as new information, beliefs, or rules of conduct. The only function of such a teacher is to help you remove that which separates you from the truth … The words are no more than signposts.”
Tolle writes that religions “have become so overlaid with extraneous matter that their spiritual substance has become almost completely obscured”, that they have become “to a large extent …divisive rather than unifying forces” and become “themselves part of the insanity”.
Tolle writes that “the most significant thing that can happen to a human being [is] the separation process of thinking and awareness” and that awareness is “the space in which thoughts exist”. Tolle says that “the primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it”.
At the core of Tolle’s teachings lies the transformation of consciousness, a spiritual awakening that he sees as the next step in human evolution. An essential aspect of this awakening consists in transcending our ego-based state of consciousness. This is a prerequisite not only for personal happiness but also for the ending of violent conflict endemic on our planet.
In his book “A New Earth”, Tolle describes a major aspect of the human dysfunction as “ego” or an “illusory sense of self” based on unconscious identification with one’s memories and thoughts, and another major aspect he calls “pain-body” or “an accumulation of old emotional pain”.
He notes that “one of the key elements is that deep within the mind is absolute stillness in which one can experience ‘the joy of Being'”. He is teaching process, not doctrine or dogma. He is teaching how to see and be present, not what one should see when one is present.
Through his writing and seminars, his simple yet profound teachings have already helped countless people throughout the world find inner peace and greater fulfillment in their lives.
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.”