Belaboring the obvious

Byron Katie, a leading figure in the self-help world, comes here to make her pitch.

byron katie 88 1298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
byron katie 88 1298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The stage was set like an Oprah talk show. Two burgundy leather chairs atop a furry gray rug faced each other on the stage in front of two tall potted plants. Between them, a table with fresh flowers, a candle and a box of tissues was precisely set. Long, flowing white curtains hung down from the rafters in soft waves, offsetting the television cameras set up on either side next to gigantic projection screens designed to give the entire audience a good view of the proceedings - especially close-ups of participants' faces. After battling the hot, angry, impatient throng outside, stepping into the cool auditorium was a huge relief. More than 1,000 people were gathered that steamy Friday morning on Tel Aviv University's campus to participate and learn from guest speaker Byron Katie. The co-author of several self-help novels, including I Need Your Love (2005), A Thousand Names for Joy: Living in Harmony with the Way Things Are and Loving What Is (2002), Katie is an internationally known self-help guru who gives seminars all over the world. She discovered what she calls "waking up to reality" in her late 30s after experiencing depression, rage, self-loathing and constant thoughts of suicide for almost a decade. One morning in February 1986, she realized that if she believed her untrue thoughts, she suffered. When she didn't, she became free. With no formal studies in psychology and only what she calls "a background in pain," Katie's simplicity appeals to the masses, but fails to bring any earth-shattering new revelations to the lucrative business of self-help. With invitations from all over the world, she chose Israel because she feels at home here, but with tickets selling for $50 and a wealth of DVDs and books on sale in the lobby, there is no doubt the three-day trip was also a profitable one. In a phone interview, Katie laid out her four questions that make up "The Work." In a role-play situation to better understand how it helps people psychologically, I put myself in the position of a woman who cannot obtain a divorce. "Is it true that your husband will not grant you a divorce?" asks Katie. "Yes," I answer. So far, so good. "Do you absolutely know that it's true?" she continues. "Yes," I say. "How do you react when you think that thought?" she asks. "I feel trapped and enraged," I answer. "How would you feel if you didn't believe that thought?" she asks. That one throws me a curve ball. I hesitate. It would be hard to imagine life without that reality. "I would probably feel much better if I didn't believe it were true," I say. "OK, now let's turn it around by making it the following: 'I won't grant me a divorce.'" This throws the mental confusion into an even faster spin. As Katie explains, leaving life up to religion, government, the law or a single man puts one in a position of weakness and helplessness, but there is always a choice. "It might be death," she says, "but there is always a way to stop blaming others and be free. It doesn't mean that you will or won't get a divorce, but you can move to another country or leave your husband. The main point is to deal with your own mind." Right. But how do you deal with your own mind when the reality is that you cannot legally obtain a divorce? With the questions from this confusing mini-lesson in the back of my mind, I take my seat. Before the soft-spoken blonde takes the stage, Arik Peled, her chosen local facilitator, shares his personal story of how Katie's self-help methodology changed his life. "Until I made contact with The Work, I had a lot of difficulties in my life," he says. "And I knew there was one address for my problems: my mother." After the audience finishes collectively chuckling, Peled says that for six years, week after week, he sat with a psychologist to talk about how his mother stole his energy and didn't place proper boundaries in their relationship. "I felt like a victim and I blamed her," he continues. "After I discovered The Work and started using the four questions Katie created, I realized that my mother was not the cause of my suffering, but rather my own thoughts were the source of my problems. It set me free immediately. Today, I love my mother the most in the world." The underlying idea that individuals can only change themselves and not others sounds more like common knowledge than something people should pay to "learn," but perhaps there is something to the old mantra that practice makes perfect. At the end of his introduction, Peled reminds the audience that the proceedings will be filmed and documented for a DVD series, and books not available elsewhere can be purchased in the lobby. The obvious sales pitch strikes a disharmonious chord. There is nothing wrong with making money, but somehow selling freedom seems to go against the principles Katie propagates. "The greatest thing about The Work is that everyone can do it if they have an open mind and courage" Katie told me in the phone interview. True, but apparently not without purchasing a book or attending a seminar first. At last, Katie walks confidently onto the stage in a casual blue dress and black sandals. "How many of you are new to The Work?" she asks. A huge number of hands shoot into the air. "So what are you doing here?" The crowd snickers. For more than half of those seated around me, The Work is completely new and they have purchased a ticket to discover how four questions can make their lives freer, happier and kinder. The Work, according to Katie, is a way to identify the thoughts that cause all the pain and suffering in the world. It's a way to question these thoughts and become free. "If freedom were complicated, I never could have found it," she says. The first volunteer to do The Work steps onto the stage. A handsome young gay man bravely takes a seat, microphone in hand. "I am angry with Y because she accuses me of touching her son," he says. He explains that he and Y were very close friends, that her son is now in a mental health facility and she blames him. With reassuring skill and a soothing tone, Katie takes him through the four questions: "Is it true that you are angry with Y because she unfairly accuses you for touching her son?" "Yes. Absolutely." "OK. Are you absolutely sure it's true?" "Yes." "OK, how do you react when you believe that you need her to understand you instead of blaming you and she doesn't?" "I get violent. I feel like a caged lion." "Now with your eyes closed, I want you to look at your life without that thought and tell me what you see and how you feel," she instructs. "I feel much lighter," he says. "OK, now let's turn the thought around. Is Y really the cause of your suffering or are you believing your thoughts the one causing it?" Katie asks. "I am," he finally admits. And this basic premise defines The Work: Individuals are responsible only for their own thoughts. One cannot know what is in the minds of others or do much to change what other people think and do. By examining our own thoughts and then turning them around to focus on ourselves, we are closer to the truth. When we try to work on others, we become hopelessly embroiled in an impossible battle. It's neither an earth-shattering concept nor an innovative psychological methodology. It's probably true and it's very simple. It might even have helped many people improve their personal lives and relationships. Nevertheless, there are similarities to the endless array of expensive self-help forums and seminars that over-promise and under-deliver. Paying for common knowledge may be rampant in the self-help world, and it might even be worth it if your life change for the better, but it still makes my stomach ache.