In 1986, Byron Katie found herself at the bottom of a ten-year spiral into depression, rage, and self-loathing, until one day she woke up to a state of constant joy that has stayed with her ever since. She realized that when she believed her stressful thoughts, she suffered, but that when she questioned them, she didn’t suffer. The simple yet powerful process of inquiry that was born from this experience is what Katie calls The Work.
The Work consists of four questions and turnarounds, which are a way of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. When you question a troublesome thought, you see around it to the choices beyond suffering.
For more than 25 years, Katie has been bringing The Work to millions of people worldwide through public events, weekend workshops, five-day intensives, nine-day workshops at her School for The Work, and 28-day residential stays at the Turnaround House.
Katie shared some insights into The Work with The Fix.
Did you experience any alcoholism or addiction among your family and friends before developing The Work?
Yes. Two close family members. As for me, I was suffering so much that I would do almost anything to stop it, though I could never stop it. I drank a lot of alcohol. I smoked cigarettes almost nonstop. My husband at the time brought me codeine pills throughout the day, and I ate them like candy. I began overeating, and I spent more time in my bedroom, watching television, sleeping for twelve hours a day or more. Every night my husband brought me codeine and ice cream. In the end, I was obese and starving. Day after day, I would lie in bed with such self-hatred, so hopeless and suicidal, that I was beyond despair. But suicide wasn’t an option; I thought my children would blame themselves for my death, and I just couldn’t do that to them.
How do you view addiction overall?
In my experience, the ultimate addiction is the mind’s addiction to what it is believing—the unquestioned thoughts that create and safeguard its system of denial. To question the mind is to bring the mind to sanity and alignment with a power greater and kinder than I could give a name to.
You can experience the power of mind’s denial in a very simple way. Imagine biting into a big, ripe, juicy lemon. Did you picture a yellow lemon? I didn’t mention its color, but you probably imagined a yellow lemon anyway. And notice what happened in you physically. Did you salivate? Did you taste the lemon? Did you feel other physical effects? This is denial of reality and the power of mind that you are up against, as an addict: the power of your own thinking. So the stories we’re believing about the pictures of past and future that arise in our mind’s eye, pictures with meanings attached to them that aren’t even true, leave us as victims who may as well drink (we think). These mind alterations away from reality are happening so quickly that we aren’t even aware that they’re happening, and they lead us to believe in harsh realities of past and future that don’t even exist. If you consider your experience with the lemon and switch the symbol to alcohol, here’s how it happens: When we’re fearful, confused, angry, sad, etc., we’re compelled to drink (or drug, eat junk food, etc). Why? We believe that our stressful thoughts about ourselves, others, and life are true. We believe that that is the way things really are, rather than seeing the difference between beliefs and reality. So just as the mouth watered when we thought of a lemon, there’s an effect when we believe our stressful thoughts and then the image of alcohol shows up in our heads. The moment we see the image and feel the emotions, we have just had our first drink (remember the lemon?), and we begin to seek alcohol. We see the alcohol in our mind’s eye, we see where it is and how to get it, and that becomes the higher power we seek. And we can’t stop after one drink; many of us continue to binge. We lose ourselves and go even deeper into the seemingly hopeless pit of addiction.
But as drug addicts or alcoholics (or any stressed-out person) begin to question their thoughts, they begin to see clearly rather than blindly believing what their mind tells them; they begin to find answers that meet their true longing. When we discover those answers, inquiry becomes our addiction to the world of sane choices; we become addicted to discovering the truth—in other words, to sanity. And sanity doesn’t suffer, ever.
All twelve steps of recovery are included within inquiry, in the most meticulous way. Clarity is freedom, and when clarity becomes our path, we discover self-forgiveness on our own, from within, and we discover forgiveness for others and for the world. It happens without any conscious effort, as the thoughts we clung to so firmly, the thoughts that created our whole identity as victims, fall away by themselves. That leaves us with no cause to drink or use, and it leaves us as kinder, more awake human beings. The world seen through a clear mind is the greatest high; it has no low in it that can’t be questioned and dispelled. I didn’t quit drinking; I did The Work, and drinking, drugs, compulsive eating, smoking, anger, depression, sorrow, fear, all quit me.