Finding the Turnarounds

Yesterday I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my most dearly admired spiritual teachers, Byron Katie. She’s the founder of a four-question method for alleviating suffering called “The Work,” which she teaches around the world to anyone who’s interested — from prisoners on death row to corporate heads to people on both sides of the Israel/Palestine border.

Whenever I describe “The Work” to my Buddhist friends, they think she must be Buddhist, because of how masterfully it distills the thousands-of-years old teachings on attachment as the root cause of suffering. Whenever I describe it to my philosopher friends, they think she must be a Spinoza scholar, because her book Loving What Is so excellently describes his concept that a joyful mind understands that everything that exists must exist – and that happiness comes from embracing this fact without resistance.

The beautiful thing about Katie, though, as she is called, is that she is relatively unconcerned with proving this or that philosophy correct or incorrect. If I brought up Spinoza or Buddha in relationship to her teaching, she might say, “That could be true!” And then she’d laugh. As far as the title Loving What Is goes, she said yesterday, “Well, you don’t have to love what is, of course – life just hurts when you don’t.”

Katie found “The Work,” or it found her, when she was lying on the floor of a halfway house because she felt too unworthy to sleep in the bed. She experienced a flash of insight that her thoughts might not be true, and joy and happiness lit her up. She has been teaching The Work pretty much steadily ever since. In short, she is essentially an ordinary person with an ordinary insight.

Still, it is hard not to worship her. Watching her do “The Work” with people is so powerful — people with cancer are suddenly embracing their life exactly as it is. Mothers who have lost their children find a tiny bit more ability to bear their loss. And Katie doesn’t wave any magic wands or bestow any sage advice – she just walks them through the four questions in response to their stressful thoughts: Is it true? Can I absolutely know this is true? How do I act when I believe this? Who would I be without this thought? Seeing people leave her side feeling so much obvious relief and peace, it’s hard not to ascribe Katie herself with some magical power.

When I talked to her yesterday, though, she didn’t seem to be much interested in any worship, and I mean that in the nicest way. The teacher’s pet in me was on in full force; I’ve been a devotee of hers and “The Work” for a decade. Still, what I experienced was someone I couldn’t impress and didn’t need to — someone who truly loves everyone equally. She just beamed unconditional acceptance and friendliness through the phone, without a single hint that she cared whether or not I was the president of the United States or someone who has just come off a killing spree.

I thought it would be blissful to talk to her. It was actually a little unsettling, because all of my habitual strategies fell flat. I thought I would feel happy if I could make her laugh, or have her say “good question!” or some such thing, but there was nothing I needed to do. She thinks highly of everyone. We were already there. There was nowhere to climb with her.

It wasn’t until later, realizing this, that the bliss arrived. That’s what unconditional regard feels like. Wow.

It’s taken me a day or so to absorb the experience and get over the feeling that I failed somehow, but I am starting get that it’s possible to have a conversation or relationship that exists utterly outside the scale of success and failure, good impressions and bad impressions, right and wrong. Katie showed that it’s possible to just be present without judgment, and to love without condition – even someone you’re just meeting briefly on the phone. If I do nothing else with my life, I hope I can give that to someone, anyone, at least once. That feeling that there is nothing to do to impress me or disappoint me. That you, hey you, I love you – just because you exist.

Courtney Helgoe is an Experience Life senior editor.

To listen to Courtney’s interview with Byron Katie, register for our free “A Healthy Revolution: The Virtual Conference.