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How a Self-Help Guru Is Born

Once Depressed, Overweight and Volatile, Byron Katie Awoke One Morning to the Sensation of a Cockroach Walking Across Her Foot--and Found Herself Transformed By

November 24, 2002|Allison Adato | Allison Adato last wrote for the magazine about actor and producer Rob Reiner's efforts on behalf of the California Children and Families Commission.

Two questions in the interview consume me. Although being a reporter gives one license to ask just about anything, these two questions knock around my head, unable to escape my mouth. The first feels superficial, but I have to know: How does this woman achieve such perfect fingernails? They are natural, unadorned, tapered to exquisite ovals. The second question would make me appear uninformed. For some time now I have been talking to her, to others about her, and observing her at work. Yet still I want to ask, "What is it you do exactly?" Finally I blurt out a wimpy, deflected substitute: "When people ask you what you do, what do you tell them?"

The woman fixes her aquamarine eyes on me, smiles and says, "I clear people's minds." She illustrates the statement with a flick of those fingernails, as if brushing crumbs from a tablecloth.

Since 1992, Byron Katie, 59, has traveled the world clearing minds en masse. She is not a therapist, a counselor or a religious leader, though her work--which she simply calls "The Work"--suggests elements of all these professions. She gives an average of three free workshops per month, teaching people her method to end emotional suffering. She instructs them to write down their troublesome thoughts: My mother should love me more. My wife shouldn't cheat on me. I need to lose weight. Then they apply to each thought the following four questions: Is it true or can I really know that it's true? How do I react when I think that thought? Can I find one peaceful reason to believe that thought? Who would I be without the thought? She then engages what she calls "the turnaround," flipping those initial statements to see if their opposites don't feel equally, if not more, true: I should love my mother more. I shouldn't cheat on myself. I don't need to lose weight.

Resting on this minimalist method of inquiry and linguistic reversals, her philosophy can be used, say proponents, to overcome troubled family relationships, problems at work, even the trauma of rape or the grief of losing a loved one to terrorism.

While Katie is tentative about saying that her method is for everyone, the promotional literature for The Work isn't shy about making claims. Her intensive school, which she holds in various places around the country, is billed as "not only a way to find freedom, it's a fast way. In just over a week, the school changes lives radically and permanently."

The number of people who attest to this statement is growing. Over the course of a decade, The Work has spread from Katie's hometown of Barstow and spawned both a nonprofit organization (The Work Foundation) and a for-profit branch, Byron Katie International, which has ocean-view offices in Manhattan Beach and an outpost in the Netherlands. It is accepted as continuing education units for social workers, nurses and marriage counselors by those professions' respective governing organizations. Her ideas also are spreading through the sale of videotapes, audiotapes and a Web site that is translated into languages including Italian, Dutch, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish and Macedonian. In California, she has garnered an eclectic celebrity fan base that she says ranges from actor Richard Chamberlain to the anger-rock bands Slipknot and Korn. She has held private workshops for donors such as Norman Lear's wife, Lyn, who introduced The Work to 50 women friends, and former Warner Bros. Records exec Jeff Gold, who shared it with his industry pals.

Last spring, Harmony Books--an early publisher of Deepak Chopra--released Katie's "Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life," which booksellers could display somewhere between "self-help" and "New Age." The book is a collaboration with author Stephen Mitchell, whose own works have topped the spirituality list. Mitchell, 59, is a translator of religious texts from the "Bhagavad Gita" to the "Tao Te Ching" to "Genesis." A widely respected pan-religious scholar, he might be a good person to assess the rise of Byron Katie--were he not her collaborator and her husband of the last 18 months.

The word "guru" comes to mind. But, says Mitchell, "Gurus are a dime a dozen. There are people saying, 'Live in the now' or 'There really are no problems.' It's nothing like what Katie's doing."

So what is she doing? And how does a woman with no psychological, theological, spiritual or therapeutic training, and who once earned her living as a landlady, get taken seriously as a self-help authority?

It helps, for starters, to have a cockroach walk across your foot.

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