“I love skepticism,” Katie said. “I think it’s very helpful.”
“The Work is the essence of skepticism,” Mitchell chimed in. “If skeptical New Yorkers would take their skepticism further, and inward, they would see that what they think they know, they don’t really know.”
I countered that, living in New York, knowing stuff is the name of the game: which subway to take home, how much a Snapple costs at a bodega, how not to get taken advantage of on the street…
“And why am I so frightened?” Katie interrupted.
Well, I said, this a tough city.
“I know!” Katie replied. “I left my purse at a coffee shop or something years ago, and I walked out. Then I remembered and came back for it, but it was gone.”
But then Katie said something I didn’t expect. “My mind immediately started working on what they would do with my credit cards, and my money, but then I thought that they would see my children’s picture—and I thought of the joy, you know, that that can bring to anyone.”
“I remember you talking about the gift that the person could give to his girlfriend,” Mitchell added.
“Or the food for a child,” said Katie. “Or alcohol, whatever—we need what we need when we think we need it.”
Wait, so she had her purse stolen, but was really feeling joy and compassion? Really? This, I said, sounds radically different from the lives most people lead. Is it even compatible with a normal life?
“For me it’s a matter of do people suffer in it, or not,” Katie said. “I haven’t talked to anyone that is doing The Work that feels like he must do anything in particular with his life. We question everything.”
Even, apparently, how much it sucks when someone steals your stuff.
But wait a minute, I said. Some ideas are important—like “racism is bad,” for example. Do we really want to question that too?
“Yes,” she said, “because you’re more likely to understand the racists. You’re more likely to have sane discussions. You’re more likely to grow, listen, expand, and find common ground.”
“One effective kind of questioning,” said Mitchell, “would be to inquire into a statement like, ‘I’m angry at racists because they are ruining the country,’ or something to that effect. The fact is, that thought—even though it comes from a place of justice and compassion—is a thought that can cause tremendous stress and once you investigate it you find some very interesting creatures that live in the dark under that thought. And it’s to the benefit of everybody to be a little clearer about it.”
The truth is, Katie is a radical teacher, disguised as a nice lady who calls you “sweetheart.” For example, consider the passage in A Mind at Home with Itself where Katie says, “It’s all a dream—all of life, everything. Nothing ever is; nothing ever can be, since the very instant it seems to be, it’s gone. This is truly hilarious.”
This isn’t the cuddly spirituality that, say, Eat, Pray, Love offers for mass consumption. It’s almost shockingly uncompromising, albeit delivered in kind and reassuring tones.
But, I asked, if I’m feeling spiritually happy about getting robbed or racists ruining the country, aren’t I being irresponsible, given how privileged and fortunate I am?
“Isn’t it odd how people combine those two things [happiness and irresponsibility] when it’s just not so,” said Katie. “You know, the Dalai Lama has such a sense of humor. He’s such a good, clear man, it seems, and so bright.”
We sat there for a moment, perhaps reflecting on the horrors that the Dalai Lama has seen in his life, how much responsibility is on his shoulders, how his people are the victims of the largest ethnic cleansing operation on the planet right now.
Or maybe that’s just what I was thinking. Maybe Katie was just enjoying the moment.
Midway through A Mind at Home with Itself, Katie addresses the “enlightenment” question head on. “People used to ask me if I was enlightened,” she writes, “and I would say, ‘I don’t know anything about that. I’m just someone who knows the difference between what hurts and what doesn’t.’”