NOTE: I've added to this post since I first published it. It occurred to me that some readers might not be familiar with Byron Katie, so I added a little bit of biographical information, as well as additional insights, opinions, and links. ~ CC "...we all want to be special, and hiding underneath this desire is the thought that we also really feel we are special, and we all think we are right. This can be the reason that sometimes we start to believe in our own legend or myth."
~Janaki, former devotee of Byron Katie
This being the fortieth anniversary of the last day of the original Woodstock (and Happy Anniversary to everyone who attended, wanted to attend, or lied about attending), I didn't want to let the day go by without a nod to "the event that defined a generation." There's been way too much written and spoken about it, so I won't add to the fray; all I'll say is that if you didn't celebrate Moon Day by watching A Walk On The Moon, as I suggested here last month, you can observe Woodstock Days with the same flick, because it covers that celebrated event as well. Of course there are other films, both new (Taking Woodstock) and old (Woodstock (1970)), that cover the territory in more detail. I urge you to hurry, though, Dear Ones, because the 1960s' Major Anniversaries are almost over, and the next big fortieth-anniversary observations will be the deaths of Jimi, Janis, and Jim...and then, before we know it, Watergate. Ugh.
So now to the matter at hand.
Over the past couple of years, several people have mentioned to me that I ought to do a blog post about Byron Katie, the sweet-faced, silver-haired perp behind The Work (not just work, mind you, but "The Work").
Many of you have heard of Byron Katie and The Work, but for the benefit of those who haven't, here's a bit of backstory. Born Bryon Kathleen Reid, she was, once upon a time, merely a mom and businesswoman living in the desert town of Barstow, California. But she wasn't happy, and suffered from depression, anger, mood swings, agoraphobia, overeating, addiction to alcohol and codeine, and thoughts of suicide. She was, by all reports, not a nice person to be around.
Then in 1986, while sleeping in the attic of a now-defunct L.A. halfway house where she was temporarily residing to work on her eating disorder, she had her epiphany. (She was sleeping in the attic because the other residents were afraid of her.) As the story currently goes, she awakened one February morn and found that she had been transformed into a giant cockroach. She was lying on her back and had trouble getting out of bed in her strange new body; all she could do was wiggle her six legs helplessly. Wait...that's another story entirely.
The "real" story goes that Katie was awakened by a cockroach running across her feet. That would have made most of us scream and jump out of bed looking for a shoe or a can of Raid, but Katie says that when she opened her eyes, it was as if something else had awakened within her and was seeing the world anew, through her eyes. This new being was "intoxicated with joy," according to Katie. She claims that it was at this moment that the four questions central to The Work appeared in her consciousness. She applied those questions to her own life and immediately felt all of her suffering lift. She now claims The Work can end all suffering.
By many accounts besides her own (most notably, those of a therapist at the halfway house, and her own kids), the person who woke up that day in 1986 was completely different from the rage-filled, mood-swingy bee-yotch who had entered the halfway house. (Katie herself has been quoted as saying she hasn't been angry or sad since 1986.) She attributes the sudden dramatic change to "waking without memories," and claims that she couldn't even recognize her own husband or kids at first.
Subsequent to leaving the halfway house, Katie says she dropped 75 pounds, stopped eating meat (it made her tongue bleed), and began meditating, often sitting motionless for hours, though formerly she'd been a salt-of-the-earth type who had no experience with Eastern traditions. (There has, however, been some speculation that she had exposure to esoteric ideas at the halfway house.) She also took to wandering the streets of Barstow embracing strangers and vagrants (there are a lot of the latter in Barstow), eventually inviting some to her home...and her following grew. Many folks claimed to be healed in her presence, but she said they were healing themselves. Though she rejected many of the labels that others tried to place on her – "mystic," "enlightened," "self-realized" – it was clear that something had been set in motion.
Her kids were puzzled, her husband was baffled, the marriage became strained and eventually broke up. But the seeds of The Work had been planted, workshops were developed, the business grew and grew...and, love her or loathe her, today Byron Katie has an international presence and is truly a force to be reckoned with in the New-Wage/selfish-help bidness. And maybe it's just me, but, despite her apparent humility when it all began, it seems that all of that adulation has gone to her head a little bit.
* * * * *
I'm not the only blogger who has been asked to blog about Katie. Many have prodded Steve Salerno over at SHAMblog to do the same. He has yet to do so because, as he explains...
...If you're going to attack a public figure in a (reasonably) visible venue like SHAMblog, it shouldn't just be 500 or 1000 words of clever, lively snark; it should be a fully researched piece of journalism that could stand up to formal scrutiny, if it had to.
Fortunately, I have no such standards here on this Whirled. I won't knowingly print untruths, and I do nominal fact-checking, but I will print snarky opinions. How clever and lively they are is up to the reader to decide.
There has also been some heated controversy in the past about Katie on the site of another of my blogging mates, Jody Radzik of Guruphiliac fame – most notably here and here.
And the discussion about Katie on Rick Ross's forum, which began in December of 2005, is 238 pages long as I write this, and shows no sign of fizzling out. Here's a portion where participants speculate on the Great Cockroach Legend (as well as that "waking without memory" phenomenon). They raise an excellent point; after all, The Work is supposed to be all about losing your "story," but much of the BK mystique – not to mention her marketing – is based on her story. New-wage marketers, and indeed, hucksters of all types, know that you can never underestimate the power of stories. Rhonda had her Wallace Wattles experience, Werner had his drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, and Bryon Katie has her cockroach in the attic.*
Speaking of stories...
One source quoted at length on the Rick Ross discussion is the long blog of a Dutch writer and life coach who goes by the name of Janaki. Janaki is a former Katie devotee/assistant who was with "BK" in various capacities for about twelve years. Someone sent me a link to her blog several months ago, and I finally got around to reading it. It is pretty straightforward and detailed, and while it is obvious that the blog is a catharsis for the author, it does not seem mean-spirited or snarky; further, Janaki doesn't hesitate to document her own shortcomings and weaknesses that made her especially vulnerable to BK's influence.
In many ways Janaki's story is all too typical, both in her own self-description and that of her fearless leader's behavior. Much of it mirrors what I have either experienced firsthand or have heard and read from former devotees and friends of other New-Wage gurus.
Katie appears to share many traits with those other gurus: most notably, an enormous ego, bordering on megalomania; a gift for manipulating individuals as well as crowds; and a tendency towards passive-aggressive behavior that often leaves even the closest friends or colleagues stunned and reeling, wondering what they did wrong and scrambling to make it "right." For people who have supposedly done so much work (with or without a capital "W") on themselves, and have been through years and sometimes decades of every kind of therapy and workshop on the planet, and who now make their living teaching others how to be better people, some of these gurus are genuine a--holes, if you'll pardon my saying so. Of course the gurus and their followers would just dismiss that opinion as "my stuff." And in a way it is, because (to name but one example) I too can be passive-aggressive. Just ask Ron. The problem is that I don't like that trait in myself, and, even worse, I'm not getting paid for it.
The gurus are getting paid because not only are they easily able to disguise, or at least put a good spin on, their private foibles, but, more importantly, they are adept at convincing the hordes that they are providing something of enormous value. And, "value" being so often a subjective judgment, perhaps they are, for some. I'm reminded of something a wise friend noted in the context of a fairly recent discussion: even the most imperfect, broken, and egregiously hypocritical gurus can inspire hope in many people.
Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes not. All too often, what the New-Wage gurus do is simply inspire a transitory exhilaration. When the high wears off, the seekers scurry in pursuit of the next level or the next guru or teaching, and many use these as steppingstones, hopping from one charismatic personality or teaching to the next one to the next, in order to avoid the mundane or painful reality of their own lives. I am not saying that every "serial seeker" is trying to avoid life; to the contrary, many are trying to confront it head-on, and spiritual shopping is their means of doing so. Shopping around surely beats resolutely sticking to something that's not working for you. But the point is that one can't entirely blame the gurus for taking advantage of a ready market.
At any rate, the traits and techniques of gurus have been analyzed in painful detail by greater and more thoughtful minds than mine. Janaki herself seems to have a pretty good handle on the dynamics of the guru/follower relationship, even though she still seems to be in seeker mode, though in a much less cultish way now. On her blog she refers several times to the unassuming nonduality lecturer Tony Parsons, who actually has some interesting ideas. Be that as it may, she is right on the button about many things, including this passage where, in simple language, she explains what commonly drives guru/workshop junkies:
Most of the people that I know who do The Work, do it to get out of a bad feeling. In other words, to become happy. We all seek pleasure and want to avoid pain. There is nothing wrong with this. It is what we all want, all day long. However, people who keep doing this are noticing that it ultimately stops working, like any other substance that you use to alleviate pain. You need your fix faster and in a higher dosage.At the risk of disappointing a few readers, I have to say that my post here will be neither the comprehensive analysis nor the skewering of Katie that some might long for. But I will share a few things that made me raise my eyebrows while reading Janaki's blog. The first two snippets are from Chapter 10, "Working for Katie":
I was in need of making money and I found a well paying job. I told Katie that it was becoming very difficult to combine making money and doing all the work for the Foundation. She offered to put me on the BKI [Byron Katie International] payroll. I agreed and then panicked. The next day, I went to her room and read her the one liners I had written. One of them was: ‘if I start to work for you, you will treat me as an employee and not a friend’. She said, ‘I probably will, I lie about this friendship thing, I am a self realization machine’. She asked me how much I wanted to earn and I asked for $ 2500 per month. Katie told me that she would expect me to work full time for this. Even though I was already doing this above and beyond the call of duty, I took her literally and for as long as I was on her pay roll, I took no weekends off and no vacations. The agreed salary only lasted a few months. Soon I received a phone call from the manager at the head quarters, telling me that BKI was almost bankrupt, and would I work for $ 1000 a month. I told him I would, and I asked him if they would let me know when they were solvable enough to pay me my regular salary. They never did. Finally, when I felt that things must be financially sound again (after 1 year), I requested and received my regular salary.
[Katie] told me that she and Stephen [Mitchell, her husband and frequent co-author] had made a pact with each other. She said that if ever either one of them would attract a disease that would involve a slow dying process, they would throw a party, invite all their close friends and both drink a death cocktail.
At the time, even though this information overwhelmed me, I cheered what she had said. But I remember the thoughts that followed later. I happen to think in pictures, so in my mind’s eye, the whole scene flashed before me. I thought, I wonder who gets to clean up the mess, after you are both dead? Would people be seen as accessory, if they know a suicide is going to take place and they don’t try to stop it? How are we going to explain to the world that both the authors of a book called Loving What Is, just committed suicide and one of them was perfectly healthy? And what about all those sessions where she does The Work with people who have cancer, and asks them, ´Do you love your cancer yet?’
Could this be an example of, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’?
In a brief chapter (15) called "Katie Goes Blind," Janaki reports:
Katie was losing her eye sight. In one of the newsletters she announced she had succumbed to a genetic disease called Fuchs Dystrophy, and finally, after she was almost blind, she had a cornea transplantation that restored her eye sight fully.
What struck me was the word genetic.
I was in the car with Katie and some others, when a friend asked her which thought causes blindness. Katie started to go into an explanation about metaphorical blindness, when my friend told her she was actually talking about Katie’s physical blindness that was going on. Katie then told her that her blindness had nothing to do with a thought, that it was a genetic condition.
I remembered how Katie used to say, Body follows mind, and there are old tapes of Katie sessions where she actually said to people, ‘that’s how you cancer you’ and ‘that’s how you heart attack you’. I have never heard her say, ´that’s how I blind me’.
Hypocrisy. Inconsistency. Egotism. Money-grubbery. Yawn...just another day in the life of a New-Wage guru. The more important question is, does The Work work? Like anything else in the New-Wage bidness, that's debatable. For many, though, it doesn't seem to live up to its promise of "ending all suffering." Janaki writes in Chapter 37, "The Downside of The Work":
I know people who made the conscious decision to stop doing The Work and who felt greatly relieved. One particular person I am referring to here was doing The Work all day long, to get out of her anxiety. She said that she found a therapist who claims that he is treating a lot of people whom he has advised to stop doing The Work because it doesn’t seem to help them and it increases their sense of shame and guilt.
There was a girl in one of the recent Schools in the States. During one of the sessions Katie had done The Work with someone. Afterwards this girl stood up and gave Katie feedback. She commented that she actually didn’t experience Katie as kind and that she also didn’t feel it was very appropriate what Katie had said. Later on in her room, she was visited by a staff member who gave her the message that Katie wanted her to pack her bags and leave immediately. I personally have witnessed this before, that people were asked to leave a School. Katie’s explanation was, ‘it can hurt the curriculum’.
Following that, Janaki says that Katie's take on it is that if people don't like that sort of behavior from her, they can do The Work to work on it.
And so on. You can read Janaki's blog at http://janakisstory.wordpress.com/. A PDF version is available at http://www.theworkingcompany.nl/story.html.**
Finally, one of the most recent comments on the Rick Ross forum concisely describes the workshop hypnosis effect that, of course, is far from a uniquely BK phenomenon. (I've experienced it myself at one of those "crying and screaming" workshop series, which I should probably write about.) This is from a participant using the handle "Meadow":
It has been said before on this forum, but I don’t think it can be said enough, just so that people are warned before attending one of BK’s programmes.
This video shows how [magician, illusionist, and mentalist] Derren Brown robs someone of their possessions by just asking, while using the conversational hypnosis technique. [www.youtube.com]
That is exactly what Byron Katie does. She robs people just by asking. She is clever enough to warn them by announcing that if they want their possessions back, then now is the time to come and get them, because after this they won’t get them back. After this they belong to HER. It has been told before on this thread, BKI's offices are stacked with laptops that came to them through this 'Giving' exercise.
First people have been worn out emotionally through all the crying and screaming sessions. They are on a full ‘workshop high’ by the last day of the school, they have been detoxing and are going through withdrawal through enforced fasting. They are completely infused with the ‘love bombing’ atmosphere. They feel very intimate with complete strangers. They think they are part of a peace movement that is going to end war on this planet. So naturally they will give her anything she asks for. The criminal part is that this whole thing is being presented under the pretence of 'voluntary'.
But Byron Katie is very aware of the fact that, in a crowd of 300 people, it is very hard for a lot of people to ask for their possessions back. They think they will be seen as Indian givers. They feel ashamed and weak if they did so. They don’t want to feel they failed this last precious exercise. They don’t want to lose face in front of the crowd.
The correct term for this is STEALING, and Byron Katie is nothing short of a common THIEF.
At least (if I may digress momentarily) the above-mentioned magician Derren Brown doesn't pretend to be a spiritual leader; whatever he may have tried to get away with in previous endeavors, these days he knows he's an entertainer. (Plus, he gives people's stuff back to them after he takes it.) I've long said that much of selfish-help/New-Wage is expensive entertainment masquerading as something much more profound. The paradox is that in order to keep it truly entertaining, both guru and follower have to pretend, on some level, that it's all for real. Anyhow, this is from the "Criticism" section of the Wikipedia page about Derren Brown:
In his book Tricks of the Mind, Brown writes, "I am often dishonest in my techniques, but always honest about my dishonesty. As I say in each show, 'I mix magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship'. I happily admit cheating, as it's all part of the game. I hope some of the fun for the viewer comes from not knowing what's real and what isn't. I am an entertainer first and foremost, and I am careful not to cross any moral line that would take me into manipulating people's real-life decisions or belief systems."
But back to Katie. What struck me even more than the blatant-thievery aspect of the BK workshops was the bit about the workshop attendees feeling they are "part of a peace movement that is going to end war on this planet."
At least the original Woodstock attendees had acid (brown or otherwise) for an excuse. Eventually those hippies grew out of the hallucinogenic phase...well, sort of. A lot of them are now attending New-Wage workshops.
* Of course, the phenomenon of sudden enlightenment is nothing new. Whatever its physical, emotional or spiritual causes (and results) may be, it has a loooooooong tradition. Forty-four years before Werner's experience on the bridge, Bucky Fuller (who is often wrongly credited with inventing the geodesic dome), supposedly had one of those enlightening/out-of-body experiences that led to a life of brilliant innovation, though that story is also suspect. (This is not to discount his subsequent accomplishments in the real world, only to question the veracity of his "awakening" story.) And of course, there was Paul on the Road to Damascus. (You can question that one all you want, but true believers won't budge, and Paul's enlightenment experience did land him a major role in a book that has sold more copies than even The Secret. Paul's revelation has had a lasting influence on the beliefs and actions of uncounted millions, and therefore on history itself.)
And so on. Much has been written about enlightenment/revelation as a spiritual phenomenon, but it seems to me that the most lasting product, at least of famous folks' enlightenment, is the story/legend of how that enlightenment came about. That being said, for some really worthwhile thoughts on enlightenment, you need to check out Blair Warren's No-Nonsense Guide.
** In January 2010, Janaki added an interesting update to her blog. Here's the link.
Labels: Byron Katie, Hustledorks and New-Wage masters, Phony gurus