A Critique of Byron Katie's The Work
Is Byron Katie’s method known as The Work harmful? Some believe so. There are numerous instances of Katie on stage blaming sexual abuse victims, denying racism, stifling efforts for social change, denying the reality of abuse and accusing people of things they didn’t do. It’s all done under the guise of spiritual growth. Katie claims to haven’t had a thought in 26 years and says she could walk into a gas chamber knowing it’s an “amazing day.”
By Be Scofield
October, 24th 2019
“As a psychotherapist who works with people who’ve had severe trauma, my opinion is that Byron Katie is dangerous.” – Karla Helbert
Author and teacher Byron Katie has been described as a “spiritual mentor to millions.” With her method of inquiry known as The Work she has traveled the world for the last thirty years speaking to sold-out audiences inspiring them to find freedom from their suffering. Her popularity has undoubtedly made her one of the most well-known figures in the self-help and new age spiritual scene. Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, says Katie’s work is “a great blessing for our planet.” Oprah Winfrey is also a fan. She interviewed Katie in 2010, strongly praising her teachings, later saying she had never met anyone like her. Katie’s books Loving What Is, A Thousand Names for Joy and Question Your Thinking, Change the World have sold hundreds of thousands of copies internationally.
Katie wasn’t always a highly confident, well-spoken spiritual luminary, however. She claims The Work was born out of her own journey through the dark night of the soul.
According to Katie’s official story, she suffered from years of deep depression, severe anxiety, and compulsive overeating. She drank excessively, took codeine pills and obsessively ate until she was over 200 pounds. Suicidal, she prayed each night to not wake up the next morning. At the age of forty-three, she checked herself into a half-way house for women with eating disorders and while there she slept in the attic because the other residents were so frightened of her. They even booby-trapped the door because they feared she may “do something terrible to them.” Katie slept on the floor of the attic because she didn’t feel worthy of sleeping in a bed.
After only a few weeks of being in the half-way house, Katie says she had an awakening experience that gave birth to The Work. One morning while sleeping, a cockroach crawled over her foot and “woke” her up. “I understood that when I was asleep, prior to cockroach or foot, prior to any thoughts, prior to any world, there was — there is — nothing. In that instant, the four questions of The Work were born.” She claims she then saw the world through perfectly neutral eyes. “There was just awareness, no story.” This pure consciousness “had never seen anything before” and “it had never been born before” she says. All her depression, fear and tormenting thoughts were gone. She then became “intoxicated with joy” and it has never ceased to this day Katie claims.
Katie says she spent the next year sitting in meditation and practicing deep inquiry about any thoughts that arose. Any thought that took her away from her newfound state of peace and joy was “subjected to rigorous inquiry” until it was resolved.
“I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but when I did´t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment.”
She says it was from this real-life field testing that she created her four-question method and began offering it to others in 1992.
Katie claims that since her awakening she has lived in a dream-like state where everything is beautiful and wonderful. In a 2012 interview with Haaretz she claimed to “have never had a thought in 26 years,” since her awakening in 1986. Katie told him she lives in a “state of total peace of mind…a kind of nirvana.” She also said she doesn’t get upset or mad anymore. When the interviewer asked her how that was possible she explained:
“Look, so far I haven’t experienced anything like that. But I’m open to such an experience. It’s very liberating to live in the world where I live. A world where there’s no right and wrong, just or unjust. Everything is right. Everything is in place. There’s no possibility of making a mistake.”
ANATOMY OF THE WORK
The four questions of The Work taken from Byron Katie’s website are as follows:
Step 1:Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
Step 2:Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
Step 3:How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
Step 4: Who would you be without the thought?
Katie guides students on stage and in her books through this process of inquiry to help them see how their thoughts are causing them suffering. No experience or trauma is too difficult for her method. The Work is true for every human being and can be used on all problems humans face she claims. According to her website, The Work “is a way of identifying and questioning the thoughts that cause all the fear, violence, depression, frustration and suffering in the world.”
How does Katie’s method actually work? It is quite simple, although to an untrained eye it can seem like she is offering something psychologically sophisticated or spiritually profound.
The Work is similar to a method known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in that it focuses on correcting our mental patterns. CBT, however, focuses on correcting actual cognitive distortions like “everyone thinks I’m ugly” whereas The Work tries to “correct” valid thoughts about real-world situations that Katie believes to be “negative” or judgmental. She wants people to stop believing the perfectly normal and healthy thoughts that arise in response to injustice, abuse or trauma. She thinks being upset or angry at your abuser is causing your suffering, not the abuse itself. This is where The Work gets dangerous. When used like this it can blame those in pain for their own suffering and often requires people cut off important parts of their inner lives and spiritually bypass difficult emotions.
In Katie’s view, nothing in the world no matter how awful it is can cause us to suffer. Only our minds are real and thus only we can cause ourselves to suffer. “Harm is nothing more than believing your thoughts” she states. This is an extreme form of philosophical idealism, the notion that only minds exist. She’s essentially taken the new age cliche “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” and monetized it with her four-question system. As this passage from her book A Thousand Names for Joy illustrates, Katie literally believes the worst thing that could ever happen to someone is a belief.
“Nothing terrible has ever happened except in our thinking. Reality is always good, even in situations that seem like nightmares. The story we tell is the only nightmare that we have lived. When I say that the worst that can happen is a belief, I am being literal. The worst that can happen to you is your uninvestigated belief system.”
In 2016, Katie posted a tweet that read: “All harm in 2015 was nothing more or less than how you react when you believe your judgments.”
Katie’s extreme view of thoughts equal reality is further illustrated in this quote referencing the holocaust, “When I’m walking to the gas chamber, other than what I’m thinking and believing, what an amazing day!” Katie believes “everything outside you is a reflection of your own thinking” and thus terrible situations such as walking into a gas chamber become merely mental illusions that can be easily corrected by denying the awful reality of what is occurring.
“When I’m walking to the gas chamber, other than what I’m thinking and believing, what an amazing day!”
Remarkably, in her book Losing the Moon Katie even states that she could throw her baby into the fires of the concentration camps without resisting.
“If Someone (God, ‘what is’), pulls my baby from me – if that’s what it takes, I’m there. Take the baby. Tear my baby from me. Throw it in the fire….My discomfort is my war with God.
You see, there are NO choices. What is, is.
But when we get to the baby thing, we’re getting down to our sacred little concepts now….You take my baby from me, you’re messing with the illusion of I’m the mommy, this is the baby, there’s the daddy…
But tearing the baby away- that’s the higher. That’s the higher, because it snatches your story from you and makes it apparent in your face – nothing’s real short of reality….
That’s it. That’s what is. That’s love. That’s absolutely un-describable love. That you, God, would even give me that.
Can you know that Hitler didn’t bring more people to realization than Jesus? On your knees – God. God! God! But our stories of reality keep us from the awareness of God is Everything. And God is Good. […]
There has never been evil and there never will be. Evil is simply a story about what’s not…”
In her interview with Haaretz she was asked about the world’s problems. “According to you, all the problems that we’re dealing with are nonexistent?” Katie responded “true.” In the same interview, Katie states that the cause of people’s suffering from things like rape, abuse or murder is strictly their belief in their thoughts.
Interviewer: People come to you with very bleak stories of abuse, rape, bereavement, even murder. Do those stories shake you up? Do you feel sorry for them?
Katie: No. Never. I know that they’re perfectly all right. They only believe their thoughts. You can examine your life for a moment. If you set aside the things that you think and believe in, isn’t your life good? Aren’t you all right?
Obviously, the students seeking her out for support are not “perfectly all right.” Merely telling students to no longer believe the thoughts that stem from trauma and abuse doesn’t address the reason they are experiencing those thoughts. Any momentary relief a student will receive from temporarily switching off their thoughts will be short-lived. If the core wound is not dealt with the person will not find freedom from the painful or traumatic experience. They will find that those thoughts revisit them regularly.
Healing occurs when someone is met where they are with empathy, care, and connection. By claiming a student is not really suffering and dismissing their pain as a “story” or “belief in their thoughts” Katie is trivializing their experience. She regularly does this live, on stage with abuse victims and trauma survivors. Katie is missing an opportunity to deeply listen and instead invalidates their reality.
The Work echoes something we see more broadly in new age spiritual culture; the idea that all healing can occur on the level of thought alone. Of course, psychotherapy works on the level of thought and it can be highly effective, but it is a longer process and based on certain parameters like a caring therapeutic relationship, not just the manipulation of thoughts. What these new age teachers mean is that healing can occur by using quick fix mental techniques. A Course In Miracles, for example, describes a miracle merely as a shift in perception from fear to love. But those who understand the process of healing know that shifting a perception, denying a thought or suppressing an emotion won’t address the real underlying problem.
In the context of Katie’s awakening story, one can understand the method behind The Work. Remember, she says the inspiration for her technique comes from her realizing that she had no thoughts while sleeping. She then realized that she no longer needed to believe her thoughts and from this unending joy and peace were felt. Given her explanation, it’s understandable then why her method involves literally shutting down the mind to turn off any “negative” or judgmental thoughts. When she was sleeping the morning of her supposed awakening those thoughts didn’t exist. Her method is an attempt to return to that undisturbed place.
What Katie has done is essentially monetized her trauma, as Matthew Remski, author of Practice and All is Coming describes it. The suppressing of her pain and thoughts became an unsubstantiated pop-psychology healing method used by millions. Mixed with her new age spiritual influences she crafted The Work which quickly became an authoritative self-help process and text.
THE WORK IN ACTION
There are numerous instances of Katie on stage blaming sexual abuse victims, denying racism, stifling efforts for social change, denying the reality of verbal abuse and accusing people of things they didn’t do. She probably believes she is helping but the consequences of her applying The Work unconditionally to every situation can make things worse for some of her students, potentially leaving them confused and further traumatized.
In this exchange from her book Loving What Is, Katie, convinces a woman who is upset about terrorism that the real problem is in her mind. If she wants true freedom she must get rid of her judgmental and “negative” thoughts about terrorists.
Emily: They’re evil, ignorant, and yes, they’re successful and powerful.
Katie: And I…
Emily: I am evil, ignorant, successful, and powerful?
Katie: Yes. In all your righteousness.
Emily: My thoughts are like locusts.
Katie: Exactly. I don’t see any terrorists in this moment except the one you live with: yourself.
Emily: Yes. I see that.
Katie: I live in peace, and that’s what everyone deserves. We all deserve to end our own terrorism.
Emily: I can understand the arrogance of doing what I’ve been doing.
This is called the “turnaround” technique where Katie convinces the student that the real problem is in their head not in the world. Emily went from someone with legitimate feelings about terrorism to someone believing that she was the actual terrorist , a mental terrorist to be precise. It goes without saying that it’s quite normal to be angry and upset with people who intentionally kill innocent civilians. Yet, Katie’s method left Emily believing her thoughts are “like locusts.” Until Emily can remove any “negative” or judgmental thoughts about terrorists she cannot be free according to Katie.
In this exchange taken from a video, a woman speaks of her concerns about the meat industry and factory farming. Katie downplays her valid and legitimate perspective by convincing her the problem is only in her mind.
Katie: So, the meat industry is the largest, most accepted form of violence in the world today? How would you turn that around?…Fantasy is.
Student: So you’re suggesting to replacing the meat industry with fantasy?
Katie: Yes, or “my thinking.”
Student: Oh, definitely. My thinking is the largest most accepted form of violence.
Katie: Of violence in in your world today and it just wipes people out. It can wipe out your happy life.
Katie believes this woman is upset only because of her thoughts about the meat industry. Factory farming itself could never cause someone to be upset. It is only a choice we make in our own minds and being upset equates to suffering in Katie’s view.
In this exchange, also from Loving What Is, a passionate believer in social change expresses hurt and frustration about corporations polluting the planet, only to have Katie tell her that her feelings are violent.
Margaret: It hurts. I can’t stand what they’re doing to our planet.
Katie: Doesn’t all that anger feel violent inside.
Katie: Anger is violent. Feel it.
Margaret: But it motivates me to act, so it’s good to have some stress. We need it to get things moving.
Katie: So what I hear from you is that violence works, violence is the way to a peaceful solution. That doesn’t make sense to me.
Margaret knows that the anger she feels about pollution is a motivating factor to take action but Katie twists this around in her mind. The result may leave the woman confused about her activism. Furthermore, Katie’s method cuts off an essential part of Margaret’s human experience.
There are numerous examples of Katie victim blaming sexual and verbal abuse survivors in her books and in videos.
In this exchange from her book Loving What Is, Katie convinces a woman who was sexually abused by her stepfather that she abused him.
Katie: He abused me — turn it around. I…
Diane: I abused me?
Katie: Yes. Can you see that?
Katie: There’s another turnaround. I…
Diane:…abused…[There is a long pause.] I abused…him? That’s a hard one.
Katie: Tell me about that.
Diane: I abused him.
Katie: Yes, sweetheart. Tell me about it.
According to Katie, this woman is abusing both herself and her step-father merely by thinking critical thoughts about her abuser. Katie is requiring abuse victims to state live on stage in front of hundreds of people that they abused their abusers.
In this exchange, also from Katie’s book Loving What Is, Marty explores the pain of verbal abuse they experienced from their uncle. The same turnaround technique is used by Katie to deny the reality of this persons experience and blame them for the abuse.
Marty: I’m still feeling the pain of his verbal abuse.
Katie: Okay, verbal abuse — turn it around. “I’m feeling the pain…”
Marty: I still am feeling the pain of my verbal abuse.
Katie: Toward him in your mind.
Marty: I’m still feeling the pain of my verbal abuse toward him in my mind?
Katie: If your uncle says something that hurts, he’s just revealed what you haven’t wanted to look at yet. The man is a Buddha.
Marty: You mean that everything I’m defending against is the truth that I don’t want to see? Holy shit! No wonder I’ve been seeing my uncle as an enemy! This is amazing!
Katie: Uncles have never been the problem, and they never will be. It’s your uninvestigated thinking about your uncle that’s the problem. And as you inquire, you set yourself free. Your uncle is really God in disguise as an uncle. He’s giving you everything you need for your freedom.
Marty falsely believes they’ve experienced a breakthrough or profound insight based on this inquiry. What’s really happening is that an abuse victim is blaming themselves for “abusing” their abuser. On top of this awkward exchange, they are being misled to think it is “spiritual” to tolerate abuse. Katie tells them that their abusive uncle is a Buddha and “God in disguise.” Marty is then told that the cause of their suffering is the resistance to the abuse. Katie likes to say “war begins at defense.” Their uncle’s abuse is actually helping them discover things they didn’t want to look at according to Katie. Denying someone’s reality like this and making them question their own reality is undoubtedly a form of gaslighting.
In a video, a man is on stage discussing his girlfriend’s verbal abuse towards him. When Katie asks him if he can think of any instances where he is verbally abusive to her he says “nothing comes to mind.” Katie then focuses in on that “terrorist” in his mind and asks about the thoughts he’s been thinking about his girlfriend’s verbal abuse towards him. And voila, she’s found the real culprit. He tells Katie “My thinking would be insulting to her definitely. I’d be looking at her thinking you’re crazy, this is insane, damaged, very unevolved behavior. I would definitely be having insulting thoughts.” Katie responds “there it is!” Having critical thoughts about someone who is abusing you is normal. It protects us from harm and is a sign that things are working properly.
It’s important to understand when reading these passages that Katie outright denies the reality of verbal abuse. “There’s no such thing as verbal abuse. There’s only someone telling me a truth that I don’t want to hear. If I were really able to hear my accuser, I would find my freedom.” In one video she says “aggressives come for us, not to hurt us, to open us.” This quote from Katie further illustrates her belief about the benefit of an abusive partner.
“There’s never a mistake in the universe. So if your partner is angry, good. If there are things about him that you consider flaws, good, because these flaws are your own, you’re projecting them, and you can write them down, inquire, and set yourself free. People go to India to find a guru, but you don’t have to: you’re living with one. Your partner will give you everything you need for your own freedom.”
It’s worth pointing out that, by her own admission, Katie’s husband was so verbally abusive to her that people would leave the house in fear of him. She says he was her Buddha, teaching her profound spiritual lessons that she truly needed to grow.
It goes without saying that verbal abuse is serious and can cause severe trauma. Anyone who has ever been screamed at knows intimately the lasting impact it can have in your body and psyche. The effect of long-term partner abuse is even more serious.
In a video, an audience member tells Katie she is upset with someone named Bob because he lied to her, stole from her and betrayed her. Katie has the woman turn around her statement and say “Bob should lie.” Later in the exchange, the woman tells Katie that Bob groped her inappropriately at her husband’s funeral. Katie asks her what her thoughts were about the incident and she replied, “I just thought that he was a disturbed person on a power trip.” Katie immediately says “turn it around” to which the woman responds “I’m a very confused person on a power trip and I’m self-absorbed.” She continues, “yeah, I guess so. I was deciding what behavior was right for him and what wasn’t. I was very self-absorbed. I wasn’t thinking about what he was thinking, I was thinking about me and what I felt.” Once again Katie convinces someone who was harmed that she is the problem, not the perpetrator.
In this exchange taken from a video, Katie tells a woman she is the one having an affair, not her husband who cheated on her.
Woman: Bill had an affair.
Katie: Turn it around.
Woman: I had an affair?
Katie: Have you ever imagined him with her?
Woman: Of course.
Katie: So you’re having an affair and you’re using him and her to do it. You’re having an affair in your head.
Woman: Because I’m picturing their affair in my head?
Katie: Can you find another turn around?
Woman: He didn’t have an affair?
Katie: Give him some credit, there were some times when he didn’t.
Katie proceeds to stifle this woman’s desire for her husband to accept responsibility for cheating on her by questioning her at length until she abandons her efforts. She also asks her where she has been “sneaky” and dishonest with her husband and her children which confuses the woman.
In a video on her channel titled “No One Can Hurt Me, That’s My Job” she tells an audience member that if someone threatens to kill him with a loaded gun that he is responsible for any suffering that stems from the situation.
“If someone pulls a rifle and says ‘I’m going to kill you’ where’s the problem?” He says he’s going to kill me, the gun is in his hand loaded, his finger is on the trigger. Where is the problem? Here [pointing to her head]. I imagine whether I’m aware of it or not, he’s going to pull the trigger, bloods gonna fly and I’m going to die or I’m going to be maimed and fall and be in agony and my family’s going to suffer and I’ll never see my children again and it’s not fair and it’s all because of the color of my skin or my national or my culture or whatever it is, and he hasn’t even pulled the trigger yet. So who would I be without all of that? Who would I be if I were not projecting a future into imagining what’s going to happen. Who would I be without out it. Look into his eyes, the sun is shining, I’m looking around, it’s just, in reality an amazing world, a gift. So, who caused my fear and pain, was it him that said I’m gonna kill you or was it me? Who’s causing my agony now in that situation? How many of you get it’s me. 100% totally there’s no exception to it.”
Katie blames any pain or suffering entirely on the victim being held at gunpoint. Yet, it is totally normal for someone to panic in a life and death situation like that and they should not be blamed for the responding experience.
Katie flat-out denies reality in one video by telling a woman who has cancer that she doesn’t.
Katie: I have cancer. Turn it around.
Woman: I don’t have cancer.
Woman: I don’t have cancer. It’s just that simple.
Katie: That’s it.
Woman: It is just that simple.
Katie: Exactly so.
In this exchange from a video, Katie tells a young boy he should celebrate when someone he knows dies.
Boy: What would you do if someone just died that you know?
Katie: Celebrate. What would you do?
Boy: Probably be sad.
Katie: Oh, why?
Boy: Because I love them and they’re gone.
Katie: Well, if you love her why wouldn’t you celebrate?
Boy: I don’t know.
Katie: Have you ever hurt yourself? Ok. Well, that person you love, there never gonna be hurt again.
In a dialogue with a World War II survivor in Loving What Is Katie convinces him to say that he looks forward to “the bombs falling again.”
Willem: I don’t ever want to experience again the bombs falling on my head, or being a hostage, or feeling hunger.
Katie: If only in your thinking. The bombs aren’t coming from out there; they can only come from inside you. So “I look forward to…”
Willem: It’s hard to say this.
Katie: I look forward to the worst that can happen, only because it shows me what I haven’t yet met with understanding. I know the power of truth.
Willem: I look forward to the bombs falling again and feeling hunger. Hunger is not so bad. [Pause] I don’t feel it yet. Maybe I will later.
In a video, a black woman in the audience at one of Katie’s events recalled a conversation she had with a white man who told her to just forget her ancestral history. Her gut feeling was to say “fuck you” to that idea because “the history is still happening today.” She was trying to understand the collective history, her personal story and the reality of racism in her world and asked Katie for her insights. Katie’s response was to essentially derail the reality of racist harm by saying it’s happened to everyone equally and to claim she is not a color.
“Things that happened to you have happened to every color. You are not a color. You are beyond that…When you really love your people. When you stop fearing for them is when you stop fearing for yourself and then everyone is your people.”
In an exchange with Katie, a woman expresses her desire for there to be less racism in the world. She references the murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was murdered by three white men in 1998. “I was thinking about the guy in Jasper Texas. These guys dragged him behind the truck.” Rather than saying how awful that incident was and acknowledging that racism is a blight on our society, Katie responds by awkwardly asking her to turn the question inward. Katie says, “How did I drag my three children behind the truck their whole life? Let it begin with me. I begin there and then I’ll go talk to those guys.” The woman presses on with her desire for a more just and sustainable world. “I need for the establishment to give up the need to separate by race, to accept that people of color can be smart, successful, brilliant.” Katie responds by asking her “Can you see a reason to drop the story first?” The woman is confused and doesn’t want to abandon what she knows is right. “I don’t know. I’m having problems with that. I’m having this wedge of resistance.” Katie responds by saying, “You want to control our thinking.” The woman is then convinced that it is unloving to want people to not be prejudiced.
Katie: I want people to stop being prejudiced. Turn it around.
Woman: I want me to stop being prejudiced.
Katie: That will work.
Woman: I just didn’t realize how unloving that was to not let people have their prejudices.
[This article is based on countless hours of research and writing. Please consider donating to support these efforts.]
I GOT MINE
What about all of the people who report profound breakthroughs and healing from doing The Work? The first response to this is that the same reports are found in every spiritual or religious group, no matter how outlandish they are. This is referred to as “I got mine,” as formulated by author Matthew Remski and it’s one of the most commonly used defenses to shut down criticism. Scientologists, followers of cult leader Jim Jones and devout Christians report to have significant transformations and breakthroughs. Do we conclude from this alone that being a saved Christian is a useful method to heal trauma or abuse? Do we assume that what Jim Jones offered was a responsible and wise approach to treating depression or personal problems? Karla Helbert is a psychotherapist familiar with Katie’s method and believes it is harmful. She shared her views online about the efficacy of The Work to warn students who may be misled.
“As a psychotherapist- who works with people who’ve had severe trauma, my opinion is that Byron Katie is dangerous. She has no training in supporting people who have been traumatized. She blames and shames them and calls it The Work. In her book Loving What Is, she has a woman agree that as a child she was responsible for her sexual abuse and invited it. It’s appalling and psychologically and spiritually dangerous. I can’t believe no one has sued her. Her method of questioning our own thoughts, challenging our own beliefs is sound and a good practice- ultimately the basis of Jnana yoga- but when it comes to the flip, turning the statements toward yourself and the way this can easily turn to blaming a victim/survivor is horrid.”
In the very least, a conversation about the scope of what situations The Work can be applied to would be beneficial.
Secondly, The Work is similar to a cognitive-behavioral technique, so it could offer people relief when applied to actual cognitive distortions like “everyone thinks I’m ugly.” As Helbert mentioned, there can be a place for examining and reframing certain types of thoughts. And even victims of abuse may experience relief after doing The Work. The problem is that it is often only a temporary shift that undoubtedly returns once the student no longer suppresses or denies the difficult emotions and thoughts. Regardless, Katie has no training in CBT or psychotherapy either, so the efficacy of her work, even when applied to cognitive distortions, is questionable.
Lastly, you have to consider the context that The Work is being used in. All of these exchanges with Katie occur on stage, in an environment and context that carries with it a certain power. Students often uncritically accept her method as legitimate because she has authored books and can command a stage. Nervous and traumatized people sit in awe of a self-proclaimed awakened spiritual teacher who is seemingly showing them love. The act of sharing your story with someone alone can be cathartic and shouldn’t be discounted as a contributing factor when a shift occurs. Matthew Remsksi describes the power dynamics at play in his insightful article “Byron Katie’s Domination Technique: a Case Study.”
“Consider the performance pressure on the subject, on a dais in a room filled with a hundred people or more, with whom she must socialize on breaks, to whom she might be looking for relief from social isolation, who might constitute for her the idealized friend group for which she’s longed for years. Imagine the stakes involved in her talking back, refusing the advice, reasserting her original thought, wrestling back her agency from Katie.
Note signs of Katie’s somatic control: talking to the subject but really to the crowd, nodding as though she’s heard it all before and nothing could possibly surprise her (grandiosity), the implicit agreement that she can interrupt anyone at any time (because she’s not there to listen but to tell).”
Remski refers to this stage performance as “somatic theatre.” In no way is this performance dynamic unique to Katie’s method, it can be found widely in spiritual culture.
In addition to offering workshops and events, Katie offers a 9-day experience called The School where participants question “the fear-based stories” they’ve “innocently clung to” for so long. Some schools have had as many as 300 students. With a tuition of $3,500 per person, Katie is making hundreds of thousands of dollars per event. Katie also sells a 28-day program called “The Turnaround House” which costs $20,000 per person.
The School may have evolved since its inception but previous participants have complained that Katie creates a cult-like atmosphere. They’ve reported it consisted of: a 36-hour long fast, intense group confessional sessions where people were required to list the worst things they’ve ever done, participation in long days (7:00 am-11:00 pm), being subjected to Korn’s heavy metal music to probe out deep traumas, being encouraged to criticize Katie and The School only to be shunned when doing so, being required to go two days as a “silent one” where no talking was permitted and not being allowed to exercise or have contact with family. When some people vomited from the food provided it was seen as cleansing and evidence of how powerful The Work is. Also, any questions, criticisms or concerns about The School were required to be endlessly subjected to the turnaround technique until they lost their inner critic. Apparently, none of this is explained to participants beforehand either. Current descriptions of The School do not say what occurs during the nine days.
One participant describes what they witnessed when people were forced into deep confessions in the “shame” unit of the week.
“In the Shame unit, we were instructed to write down the thing we’d done in our lives that we were most ashamed of, then take the mike and tell the whole group, then do The Work on it with a partner.
People stood up and, sobbing or preening, revealed everything from bestiality and zoophilia to embarrassing physical features, infidelity to poor parenting that bordered on abuse. Many people told of having been abused and shamed by that. The reward for producing a novel or particularly painful shame experience was Katie’s cooing, warm approval and attention. This was such a powerful exercise that, for the next few days, Katie would interrupt whatever exercise was in process to say that so-and-so desired to tell about their shame.”
A former senior staff member of many years named Janaki broke away from Katie after realizing how dysfunctional she was. She went on to write a 72-page document detailing her time working with Katie. She warns of The Work becoming like a religion and of Katie adopting a messiah-like complex.
“It seems to me that The Work has become a religion that is now taking on global forms, especially when I see how it is being marketed through Katie’s various websites and her weblog. The four questions have become the holy bible…
Many years ago, I sat with Katie in her room one morning. She was talking about the future of The Work and she said, ‘I have seen it Janaki, it is going to be like the Sermon on the Mount’. I felt so in awe of her at the time. Here I was sitting with someone equal to Jesus Christ, having tea on the balcony.”
Janaki says that other staff members and core followers believe that Katie exists in a state of flawless perfection as well.
Stephen Mitchell is Katie’s current husband and helped her write Loving What Is. He told Janaki that he was proficient at understanding the significance of people’s eyes and whether or not they were spiritual masters. From their eyes alone he could tell if they knew “The Great Secret.” When looking into Katie’s eyes he saw something truly unique: “But Katie’s eyes were even more glittering, I felt, even more ancient, and so beautiful that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with joy. The joy shining from them was something I had never seen before.” In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mitchell said in regards to Katie’s awakening, “I don’t know of an instance of this happening to another human being. It’s like if you took psychosis or amnesia as a negative and printed it as a positive photograph.”
Taken as a whole, Katie’s project begins to fit the description of a cult: A spiritually awakened charismatic figure who claims to have no thoughts and that exists in a pure state of awareness, the use of behavior modification, thought reform, shaming techniques, confessionals, the stifling of criticism, and the manipulation of the environment to break down individuals. The result is a new person who has shed their previous identity and has merged with Byron Katie and her system. Katie promises that “once the four questions are alive inside” of participants their minds “become clear.” Ironically enough, “clear” is the same term Scientology uses to describe when someone has achieved mastery in their program.
THE REAL ORIGINS OF THE WORK?
Did The Work really come spontaneously from Katie’s awakening experience in 1986? Former staff member Janaki points to different sources: the work of Ken Keyes, Ramana Maharshi, A Course In Miracles and other spiritual new age books. She claims to have spoken with someone who lived near Katie in her early days who told her that Katie’s basement was filled with boxes of spiritual books that allegedly “had underlined sentences in them and contained notes in Katie’s handwriting.” This disputes the assertion of her husband Stephen Mitchell, who has stated, “Anyone who knows Katie knows that she doesn’t read books.”
Janaki was told that Katie had all of Ken Keye’s books. This is significant because she makes a compelling case that Katie plagiarised Keye’s’ teachings when creating The Work. After purchasing Keyes books she realized how strikingly similar they were to Katie’s method.
“I became more curious and ordered some of his books. I was amazed. He called his process The Inner Work. He worked with worksheets that consist of 6 uncompleted sentences. I found a list of all the questions that are on the worksheet from The Work: I want, I need, he should, what I never want to happen again. I also found some of the questions, especially the 3rd question was literal, including the answers that are given to that question. I found the turnarounds, exactly the way they are done in The Work. And there was a lot more.”
Towards the end of her 74-page document called “Byron Katie and Janaki,” she illustrates the similarities in detail by using images taken from Ken Keye’s work. In total there are over forty pictures from his books that show strong evidence for the true origins of The Work. The image below clearly shows the origins of Katie’s turnaround technique. Keyes calls it the “Insight Leap” but the method is identical.
NOT LOVING WHAT IS
Byron Katie’s dictate to “love what is” has taken an idea that at best is a quasi-universal aspiration and awkwardly contorted into a pseudo-method for healing. For Katie, what is is. If it has happened or is happening, no point in judging it. People who lie, cheat and steal should lie, cheat and steal simply because they are doing it. This is God’s plan according to Katie. The world is a beautiful and perfect place, where nothing terrible has ever happened. Suffering only arises when we think reality should be any different than it is or was. It is our “negative” or critical thoughts about what has happened that take us away from inner peace, not the actual abuse or injustice we’ve been subjected to.
As a result of this erroneous conflation of the absolute with the relative realm, Katie has led millions of people to believe disassociating from their thoughts and feelings is a valid form of spiritual growth. If only healing were as simple as a shift in perception, or the reversal of difficult thoughts.
The Work is ultimately a double betrayal. On one level wounded participants are being deceived because they’re sold a system that most likely won’t help them. On another level, they are gaslighted to such an extent that they are coerced to say on stage in front of hundreds that their abusers never abused them, that they abused themselves and that they abused their abusers. When Katie tells students their abusers were “God in disguise” or the Buddha she has weaponized spirituality in the disservice of fragile trauma survivors.
Following Katie’s logic ultimately leads to a predicament: we can no longer try to change the world because challenging reality causes suffering. Remember, the problem in Katie’s view wasn’t the corporation polluting the world or the factory farm inhumanely processing animals. The real problem was the anger and frustration in the mind of the student discussing their concerns with Katie. She told Haaretz news that all of the problems in the world are non-existent. Katie will push back and say her intent is not to prevent people from creating change. Yet, in example after example of her doing The Work and in her statements she is doing just that.
We’ll never know the full extent of damage that Katie’s methods have caused, regardless of her claim that “it’s not possible for” her “to hurt another person.” One can only imagine the lasting confusion in the young boy who was told by an authority figure whom his parents admire that he should celebrate when a loved one dies. Or the harm caused to the World War II vet who said on stage that he looks “forward to the bombs falling again.” Or the re-victimization of the woman sexually abused by her step-father who proclaimed to an audience of several hundred that she abused him. Or the pain of someone having to list off positive qualities of their abuser. Or the stifling effect it had on the student who was passionate about reforming the factory farm industry.
It is not spiritually wise to blindly follow a dictate like “love what is” and apply it equally to all situations. We need to use discretion and critical thinking to navigate a complex and treacherous world. This is a fact that marginalized people understand much better than Katie ever will. As a wealthy, straight white woman it is much easier for her to live in a fantasy world where everything is always wonderful. And isn’t Katie merely promoting the same false story that underlies neoliberal capitalism? That everything is ok no matter how terrible things actually are? That we can grow and pollute exponentially without harm? That individuals alone are responsible for their own well-being or suffering?
In conclusion, like so many other well-meaning spiritual systems, The Work tragically leads participants away from themselves under the guise of leading them towards themselves. This is a form of toxic spirituality that we must challenge and think critically about as spiritual practitioners, journalists or concerned citizens.