byron katie
Photo: Julian Dufort
In her darkest hour, Byron Katie—now a spiritual mentor to millions—discovered that life isn't half as painful as we make it. With the help of four simple questions, she shows Caitlin Flanagan how to stop suffering and start getting real.
In the summer of 2008, I was diagnosed with a metastatic recurrence of the breast cancer I thought I'd seen the last of five years earlier, when it had been a relatively laughable stage III. (In case you're not familiar with cancer staging, I'll quote Emma Thompson in Wit: "There is no stage V.") I heard the doctor say "liver," I heard the doctor say "lung," and both words sounded so much like death that for a while I couldn't hear anything else. When I went for chemo, I didn't bring photographs of my two young sons the way I had the first time through. I couldn't bear to look at their faces as I was failing them. It was a summer of darkness and dread.

And then one day, for no discernible reason, it occurred to me that instead of continuing to sit in bed bald and weepy, maybe I should try to cheer up. It was such a crazy idea, I decided to go with it. Being at that moment of limited resources—a TV remote, a laptop, and a can of Ensure—what I did was patch myself through to

I came across three videos of Oprah interviewing a 60-something woman with short white hair, extraordinary violet eyes, a mesmerizingly calm and benevolent manner, and the strange name Byron Katie. At the age of 43, Katie, as she is called, had had a life-changing realization about the importance of living in the reality of the present moment. All the suffering that goes on inside our minds, she told Oprah, is not reality. It's just a story we torture ourselves with.

The last thing a cancer patient with tumors in her liver wants to hear is that her suffering exists only in her mind. But Katie had something else to offer, too, or so she said: a simple, completely replicable system for getting rid of the thoughts that make us suffer. "All war belongs on paper," she told Oprah, and then she explained how to go to battle: You write down each and every stressful thought, and then ask yourself four questions about it.

Is it true?

Can I absolutely know it's true?

How do I react when I believe this thought?

Who would I be without the thought?

Afterward, when you have completely wrestled the thought to the ground, you replace it with a "turnaround"—an opposite thought, one that is "as true or truer" and that doesn't cause you suffering.

I grabbed my journal and got to work. Almost immediately I felt a shift; it was as though, at least for a few moments, my problems started to ease. Yes, it was true that I'd been diagnosed with stage IV cancer. On the other hand, if you pushed me—did I absolutely know I had cancer?—I had to admit I didn't. I was in the middle of chemotherapy, after all—for all I knew, it was working beautifully. The thought that I had cancer made me feel terrified and immobilized. Without that thought, I was free—I was just myself, sitting on my bed with the windows open, completely alive and enjoying the breeze.

I got pretty far that first day or two, asking the questions, following them up with a turnaround, and feeling better each time I did, but I had a hunch that I was going to get only so far on my own. There was something eating away at me that I couldn't even identify, let alone question. And this is when things got a little bit crazy, because after seeing how much I'd changed my mood by simply writing some questions and answers, it seemed that the next thing to do—the only thing to do—was sit down with Byron Katie and talk to her in person.

The morning in a Los Angeles halfway house that changed Byron Katie's life
Byron Kathleen Reid grew up in and around Barstow, California, in the barren high desert 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The town is famous mostly for being a place you pass through on your way to and from somewhere else, principally Sin City. ("We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold" is the famous first sentence of Hunter Thompson's book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Katie's father was a railroad engineer, her family moved back and forth between Barstow and neighboring Needles, and her childhood was unremarkable. When Katie—a pretty, intellectually uncurious California girl with a pile of tawny hair—arrived in Flagstaff to attend Northern Arizona University in 1960, she was not in possession of a burning desire to make her academic mark.

She fell in love, dropped out before the end of freshman year, and married her boyfriend. They had three children, but the union faltered, and they divorced. Three years later, Katie bounced into another bad marriage. Once again stuck in Barstow, she began to sink into a pit of addictions, anger, overeating, and misery that led her to near constant thoughts of suicide. She was, seemingly permanently, in hell.

In 1986, out of options for what to do with herself, Katie got her husband to drive her to a halfway house in Los Angeles, where the other residents were so terrified of her rages and sulks that they refused to share a bedroom with her, insisting she sleep alone in the attic.

Her self-esteem so low that she didn't believe she deserved to sleep in a bed, she chose instead to bunk on the floor, and it was there—hunkered down in an attic, seething with loneliness and confusion—that Katie went to sleep one night, hours away from what would be her awakening.

If you've ever had the experience of waking up in an unfamiliar room, when, for a few disorienting seconds, you can't for the life of you place where or even who you are, then you know what happened to Katie the next morning—with one exception. For her, the sense of "I" didn't immediately click back into place. The data didn't upload. Maybe it was a neurological event, maybe it was enlightenment, but one thing is certain: The burden of her self-identity was lifted.

A cockroach crawled across her foot that morning in the halfway house, and she woke up—or, as she says, somewhat confusingly—"it" woke up. Not "it" as in the cockroach; "it" as in the pure consciousness inside her own head. Katie had the sensation of seeing the world through perfectly neutral eyes, with none of her own backstory attached.

"There was just awareness, no story. It"—that pure, unencumbered consciousness—"had never seen anything before. It had never been born before." (It was the kind of revelation that's usually accompanied by the munchies.) "I realized," she says, "that the mind projects the whole world."

What she means: There is reality, and then there is the movie your mind projects about that reality. There is the dress, and there is the movie that tells you how you look in the dress. Your mind projects the movie that tells you that you're about to be fired or that you've ruined a friendship or that you have no sense of style.

That morning in the attic of the halfway house, Katie realized that we all have full permission to walk over to the movie projector and yank the plug from the wall. "There are two ways to live your life," she says. "One is stressed-out, the other is not. One hurts, one doesn't. Either way, you're living it. Look, if you're having a nightmare, don't you want to wake up? That's what I'm inviting people to do—wake up to reality."

"Everyone wanted to know what she'd done to become so suddenly joyful, so able to live in the moment and embrace life"
People in Barstow noticed the transformation as soon as Katie came home. Everyone wanted to know what she'd done to become so suddenly joyful, so able to live in the moment and embrace life. Whatever it was, they wanted some, too. So Katie started talking about the four questions she asked herself when she had a problem—and in those conversations were the seeds of what would eventually become an empire. She began inviting people to spend time with her so they could observe her way of life; soon, small groups of students were gathering in her home. After she was invited to speak to a gathering of psychologists in the Berkeley area, the small groups turned into growing crowds of followers, at seminars devoted to what came to be known as The Work of Byron Katie—the deceptively simple and wildly successful method of dealing with life's emotional pain that is based on her four little questions.

In service to The Work, which by now has been embraced by millions, Katie, at 67, follows a schedule that would crush most people half her age. ("Once you get rid of all the stressful thoughts, there's so much energy," she says.) She travels the world teaching and speaking about The Work (between now and October she'll be in New York, the Netherlands, England, Germany, and Massachusetts). She writes best-selling books on The Work (six, so far; the first, Loving What Is, published in 2002, has been translated into 28 languages). Because she finds The Work so well-suited to augmenting the 12-step recovery process, she runs a 28-day residential program called Turnaround House (catering to addicts and anyone with "deep-seated self-defeating behaviors"). She does endless pro bono sessions, in particular at prisons. And she never tires of dealing with a public that seems to feel she owes it the sort of loving-kindness most of us reserve for our intimates—an assumption Katie herself happens to share completely.

Although Katie charges a fee for personal consultations, her Web site includes all the materials needed to do The Work, free of charge. It also features videos that show her guiding people through The Work. Sometimes these people's problems are so dire and their wishes so plaintive that her questions—though asked in the most gentle, coaxing way—can seem cruel. "Is that true?" she keeps prodding men and women who have admitted a tormenting fact about their lives. "Is that really true?" Yet, invariably, with Katie's help, these people appear to find their burdens suddenly, almost miraculously lifted.

And that is why, nearly two years ago, being in need of a miracle of my own, I found myself driving to Byron Katie's house in the horse country of Ojai, California, about an hour and a half northwest of my home in Los Angeles. I went with a friend, and we made good time up the coast. The day had an air of inevitability, even magic. (When you're 46 and cancer-ridden and screaming "road trip!" every ten minutes en route to seeing a guru, it's easy to get carried away.) Then we arrived at the white house situated in a vast Elysium of orchards and gardens and protected by a large wrought iron gate—a house built in a style that could be called unpretentious California ranch, but on a scale such that its four-car garage did not seem outsize—and the weirdness of what I had set in motion hit me.

As I waited for Katie in the sweeping, light-filled foyer after her husband let me in (her doting third husband, Stephen Mitchell, a best-selling writer and translator), I couldn't help thinking, "So it's come to this: The drugs didn't work, and now I'm seeing some kind of faith healer." A very well-to-do faith healer with a thing for white. Everywhere I looked, I saw white. Not like the big white light you're supposed to see at the end, but the white everyone warns you not to buy furniture and rugs in because it will get filthy. But this wasn't filthy; it was radiant. Windows, light, beauty.

"I just sat there and sat there and sat there—and then kaboom in my mind like you cannot believe: I realized that Katie had nailed it."
And then—there she was, coming toward me, smiling. The video hadn't lied: Her eyes really were the violet of Elizabeth Taylor's. She wore Eileen Fisher clothes the way they were made to be worn (in deference to physical reality, in celebration of older-woman sensuality). Even though we'd never met, her smile made me feel like she'd been waiting forever to see me again. "Hello, sweetheart!" she said, and hugged me. I'm not a hugger, but I went along, ducking my head shyly and smiling at the floor.

I followed her down a long white hallway into a sitting room next to her bedroom, and I accepted a glass of cool water, and then I told her what was happening to me. Or rather, I read aloud from the manifesto of suffering I'd written in anticipation of this moment. I read about having cancer, and how I had two small children who needed me, and why my particular diagnosis was very bad, and how the chemo was exhausting, and how superscared I was, having no idea if the treatment was going to work, and how I hated being bald, and on and on and on.

When I finally gave her a chance to talk, I figured she was going to try to make me feel less scared about my prognosis, or convince me that even as a baldy I could feel beautiful. Instead, totally out of left field, she said, "Your children need you. Is that true?"

I looked at her like she was out of her freaking mind. "Yes!" I said. "They're 9 years old! They're little boys! They just finished fourth grade!"

To which she said, easy as pie, "Uh-huh. Your children need you—is that true?"

Now I was getting angry. I wanted to walk out of there, but I said, "Yes, it's true! My children obviously need me"—you freaky kook lady, whose check I'm gonna cancel the second I get out of here!

And she said, just as calmly as if she were asking where I'd bought my sweater, "Where are they right now?"

"They're with their dad," I said. "My husband."

At which point a tiny glimmer of light came on in my head, but I was so not going to notice that glimmer because no way was I going over there. Then she said, just as placid as could be, "Is he good with the boys?"

Of course, I took it hook, line, and sinker: "Oh, yeah, he is the best dad in the world, and he does so much with them, and the three of them have a great relationship—you cannot imagine. He should get dad of the year."

And just as matter-of-fact as ever, she said, "Your children need you. Is that true?"

I just sat there and sat there and sat there—and then kaboom in my mind like you cannot believe: I realized that Katie had nailed it.

It wasn't the cancer, or the chemo, or the baldness that was keeping me in hell—it was the terror of thinking that if I didn't make it, my boys wouldn't either. But they would. They would! If, in fact, I didn't make it, my boys would be okay. Their dad would take care of them. And all our relatives. And everyone at church. They'd be fine. They could and would make it without me if they had to.

"That's right, sweetheart," Katie said simply when I blurted all of this out. "How narcissistic to think they couldn't live if you didn't live."

She had found the thought I hadn't had the nerve to look at on my own—the thought that was so huge and scary, I couldn't even see it. She'd found it not because she knew me better than I knew myself, but because she sat with me and listened. She was present. She was in the moment—which is exactly where The Work has enabled me to stay (enjoying my life, my husband, my boys, instead of drifting in a sea of existential dread). And if you had been sitting in the garden outside Byron Katie's open window that summer day, overhearing first my fear and then my shock and then my confusion and then my anger, you would also, finally, have heard my laughter, all thanks to the question that by now has changed my life.

"Oh, honey—is that true?"

Caitlin Flanagan is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic; her book Girl Land (Little, Brown) will be published next spring.

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