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How a Self-Help Guru Is Born

Allison Adato last wrote for the magazine about actor and producer Rob Reiner's efforts on behalf of the California Children and Families Commission.

Two questions in the interview consume me. Although being a reporter gives one license to ask just about anything, these two questions knock around my head, unable to escape my mouth. The first feels superficial, but I have to know: How does this woman achieve such perfect fingernails? They are natural, unadorned, tapered to exquisite ovals. The second question would make me appear uninformed. For some time now I have been talking to her, to others about her, and observing her at work. Yet still I want to ask, “What is it you do exactly?” Finally I blurt out a wimpy, deflected substitute: “When people ask you what you do, what do you tell them?”

The woman fixes her aquamarine eyes on me, smiles and says, “I clear people’s minds.” She illustrates the statement with a flick of those fingernails, as if brushing crumbs from a tablecloth.

Since 1992, Byron Katie, 59, has traveled the world clearing minds en masse. She is not a therapist, a counselor or a religious leader, though her work--which she simply calls “The Work"--suggests elements of all these professions. She gives an average of three free workshops per month, teaching people her method to end emotional suffering. She instructs them to write down their troublesome thoughts: My mother should love me more. My wife shouldn’t cheat on me. I need to lose weight. Then they apply to each thought the following four questions: Is it true or can I really know that it’s true? How do I react when I think that thought? Can I find one peaceful reason to believe that thought? Who would I be without the thought? She then engages what she calls “the turnaround,” flipping those initial statements to see if their opposites don’t feel equally, if not more, true: I should love my mother more. I shouldn’t cheat on myself. I don’t need to lose weight.

Resting on this minimalist method of inquiry and linguistic reversals, her philosophy can be used, say proponents, to overcome troubled family relationships, problems at work, even the trauma of rape or the grief of losing a loved one to terrorism.

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While Katie is tentative about saying that her method is for everyone, the promotional literature for The Work isn’t shy about making claims. Her intensive school, which she holds in various places around the country, is billed as “not only a way to find freedom, it’s a fast way. In just over a week, the school changes lives radically and permanently.”

The number of people who attest to this statement is growing. Over the course of a decade, The Work has spread from Katie’s hometown of Barstow and spawned both a nonprofit organization (The Work Foundation) and a for-profit branch, Byron Katie International, which has ocean-view offices in Manhattan Beach and an outpost in the Netherlands. It is accepted as continuing education units for social workers, nurses and marriage counselors by those professions’ respective governing organizations. Her ideas also are spreading through the sale of videotapes, audiotapes and a Web site that is translated into languages including Italian, Dutch, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish and Macedonian. In California, she has garnered an eclectic celebrity fan base that she says ranges from actor Richard Chamberlain to the anger-rock bands Slipknot and Korn. She has held private workshops for donors such as Norman Lear’s wife, Lyn, who introduced The Work to 50 women friends, and former Warner Bros. Records exec Jeff Gold, who shared it with his industry pals.

Last spring, Harmony Books--an early publisher of Deepak Chopra--released Katie’s “Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life,” which booksellers could display somewhere between “self-help” and “New Age.” The book is a collaboration with author Stephen Mitchell, whose own works have topped the spirituality list. Mitchell, 59, is a translator of religious texts from the “Bhagavad Gita” to the “Tao Te Ching” to “Genesis.” A widely respected pan-religious scholar, he might be a good person to assess the rise of Byron Katie--were he not her collaborator and her husband of the last 18 months.

The word “guru” comes to mind. But, says Mitchell, “Gurus are a dime a dozen. There are people saying, ‘Live in the now’ or ‘There really are no problems.’ It’s nothing like what Katie’s doing.”

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So what is she doing? And how does a woman with no psychological, theological, spiritual or therapeutic training, and who once earned her living as a landlady, get taken seriously as a self-help authority?

It helps, for starters, to have a cockroach walk across your foot.

From Aimee Semple MacPherson to Ram Dass to Marianne Williamson, California has attracted gurus like medflies. But Barstow, the Mojave desert town where Byron Kathleen Reid spent much of her youth, was a virtual woo-woo-free zone. Raised by a housewife and a train engineer, Katie grew up to be a fairly unhappy woman. As she tells it, by the time she was 43 in February 1986, her life had hit a nadir of hopelessness. What happened between then and now is an oft-alluded to but little-probed story in Byron Katie circles.

Every religion has its founding myth. All gurus have a saga of how they came to know something from which the rest of us could benefit. Who would buy Richard Simmons’ “Deal-A-Meals” if he couldn’t credibly point to his own struggles with food? Katie’s story appears in abbreviated form in her book. Quizzed on many of its particulars, she is at first cordially hazy.

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This is what her friends and family confirm: In 1986 Katie was a mother of three, on her second marriage and had spent a decade falling into depression, agoraphobia, overeating and addiction to codeine and alcohol. They say she rarely left her bed and grew so paranoid that she sometimes slept with a loaded gun under her bed.

“She was probably one of the saddest, angriest people I’ve ever known,” recalls her daughter, Roxann Burroughs, who was 16 at the time. Her sons, then ages 18 and 23, had moved out of the house. “She was very closed up and volatile,” says her eldest son, Bob Robinson. “Her mood swings were incredible. She came down on me with a lot more intensity than the other two siblings.”

Katie desperately needed help, but the idea of seeing a therapist or even a religious or spiritual advisor didn’t square with her upbringing. “We’re like Barstow desert people,” explains Burroughs, who still lives in the Mojave, where she and her husband own a construction business. “We didn’t know about therapy or 12-step. So Mom stayed in bed, and we ordered pizza and watched TV.”

Eventually, Katie says, she called her insurance company, which referred her to Hope House, a Los Angeles residential treatment center for women with eating disorders that has since closed. While there, she slept in the attic because the other residents were afraid of her. “It was run like a home with a house mother, so there was some democracy,” recalls Pat Scales, who was a therapist at Hope House but did not live on the premises. “I remember that she was very emotional, both with anger and with tears. When she came into my group, she was so emotionally fragmented there didn’t seem to be a self there, which is not the case with most people with eating disorders. They’re fairly functional. She could easily have scared people.”

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Less than two weeks into her stay, Katie says she awoke one morning to the sensation of a cockroach crawling across her foot. She opened her eyes and, she explains in her book, “It was as if something else had woken up. It opened its eyes. It was looking through Katie’s eyes ... it was intoxicated with joy.” At that moment, she claims, the four questions appeared in her consciousness.

Applying the questions to her life, she challenged long-held beliefs, such as “my children should respect me,” and felt her emotional suffering lift.

Scales says that she had never seen anything like it in a therapy setting. “There was definitely a personality shift,” she says. “I was on a spiritual path at the time. I recognized that something rather extraordinary had happened to her. She wasn’t the same crazy person that she had been the day before.”

“It was like they dropped off a completely different person--the most innocent, sweetest child you’ve ever seen,” Burroughs says. “There just aren’t programs that produce a different person.” Katie’s son Ross Robinson adds, “She seemed like an alien to me.”

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Katie attributes this difference to waking without memories. She claims not to have recognized even her own husband and kids at first. She also forgot conventions of contemporary life. “She would walk out the door in pajamas,” says Burroughs. “I’d say, ‘You can’t go out in pajamas,’ so she would change. She did it for me.”

There were other changes. She dropped 75 pounds. She says she found that if she ate meat, her tongue spontaneously bled in a stripe down the center. She meditated, sitting stone-still for hours a day and perplexing her family.

“I am one of the most down-to-earth, flat-footed people ever, so I had a really hard time with it,” Burroughs says. “We knew nothing of Buddhism, Hinduism. I thought you were straight-up weird if you meditated. I’d look at her and think, ‘What is she doing?’ I went with the idea that she had had a nervous breakdown.”

Katie began taking long walks to rediscover Barstow. On these walks she would embrace strangers. While some were put off by her guileless approaches, others saw in her a peace that they wanted for themselves. “People from the street, people I’d meet in stores,” Katie says.

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“They would say, ‘There are names for people like you. You’re self-realized. You’re a mystic.’

“I’d say, ‘I’m a married woman with three children.’

“And they would say, ‘No, no, there’s something else.’ ”

Unable to offer them advice, Katie invited people home to observe how she lived. The first was a depressed man she remembers only as Jim, who saw Katie as his potential salvation. She showed Jim and the others what she did when she had a problem: She wrote it down and asked her four questions.

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Soon she was like that family in New Jersey whose home drew reverent pilgrims to see a tablecloth with a spaghetti sauce stain that looked like the Virgin Mary. Dozens, and eventually hundreds, came to be with Katie. They stayed for hours or called in the middle of the night. Some believed that she was healing them, though she insisted that they were healing themselves. Some wanted to turn her home into an ashram.

These developments, as well as Katie’s personality shift, would prove taxing on her marriage. She and her second husband separated. As her son Bob, a foreman supervisor, remembers, “We thought it was crazy. She started caring for other people as much as she did her own family. We had all these ragamuffins, street people in the house. But we learned about others through her and became more tolerant of society.” Once skeptics, her children now embrace The Work to varying degrees.

Word of mouth about her living room gatherings led to an invitation to appear before a small group, composed mainly of psychologists and therapists near Berkeley, Katie says. She recalls the experience as “very odd. I was just this woman from Barstow. They knew things that I had no concept of yet.” But the professionals wanted insight into Katie’s practice. Answering their questions provided a format for her traveling workshops. “That was probably the real beginning of The Work,” says Judith Avalon, who attended that first gathering. Katie had been “ungroomed as far as doing retreat work. But we were fascinated by her story and her power to shift people.” The experience also provided Katie with a mandate for deciding with whom she would share The Work: Only those who ask. She would not evangelize.

Today Katie’s schedule remains largely determined by request. If she is asked to bring The Work to a prison in Texas, as she was in 1996, she goes. If they want to hear her in Germany again, she returns.

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By the early ‘90s, the workshops began to look much as they do now. At a Marin County appearance in 1995, Larkspur doctor Kevin Maher, now a close Katie friend, saw her for the first time. In that part of the state, he says, “You were used to seeing these neo-bohemian Marinites who had been to India and declared themselves enlightened beings. Katie shows up looking like Dolly Parton and Tammy Faye Bakker. She had no idea of enlightenment or the vocabulary.”

Today Katie no longer looks or sounds like a Barstow housewife. Her flowing clothes, usually in black or earth tones, suggest a well-tailored Jedi knight. Her personality has evolved into a compelling set of contradictions. She retains a fair amount of earthy pragmatism, yet occasionally refers to herself in the otherworldly third person. She has been called a Bodhisattva--an enlightened being who selflessly delays nirvana to assist others--but this has fostered in her no curiosity about Buddhism or any other religion; she has not read her husband’s books on the subject. She rejects such lofty labels, but sits quietly as Mitchell expounds on her awakening.

“I don’t know of an instance of this happening to another human being,” he says. “It’s like if you took psychosis or amnesia as a negative and printed it as a positive photograph.”

Unavoidably, she has grown fluent in the language of the New Age movement. She has refined her ideas into sampler-ready sound bites: “Arguing with what is is like teaching a cat to bark. Hopeless.” Mitchell has anthologized them in a pamphlet available at Katie’s workshops. Attendees also can buy her tapes, videos, mugs, backpacks or a $76 fleece jacket with her logo (a heart made of arrows pointing inward). Revenue from these items goes to Byron Katie International, not the nonprofit foundation.

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At the workshops, scented candles burn as you enter and music is playing, something affirming such as John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U” or an original composition called “The Work Rap: No Decision, No Fear.” A typical program begins with a volunteer from the crowd sitting in a chair opposite Katie onstage, a box of Kleenex between them. All of her events are videotaped and the volunteers are miked. Katie is introduced with no mention of her spiritual resume. (Throughout the evening, she rarely alludes to her past except to empathize. To a woman enduring power struggles with her kids, Katie offers, “I know. My religion used to be ‘pick up your socks.’ ”) She starts by asking the volunteer to read his or her answers to questions on a printed worksheet. “OK, sweetheart,” Katie says. “Do you really want to know the truth? Let’s hear No. 1.... “

Though she calls everyone “sweetheart” or “honey,” there is little coddling. Asking someone if the deeply held stories about them are true requires a bluntness almost incongruous with Katie’s Zsa Zsa-meets-Deepak demeanor. At its most effective, her method can cut through years of self-delusion and rationalizations; it leaves some participants in tears of recognition. Many wrestle with Katie’s frequently repeated statement that she loves reality, whatever it brings, because reality is “kinder than our stories.”

“I have a hard time with the passivity--what comes to you, be happy about it,” says Nancy, a Los Angeles lawyer who asked that her last name not be used. She has been in the chair twice, and the first time she spoke about losing her mother. “I needed God to put a mother figure in my life. Katie turned it around: ‘You be the mother figure. It’s not God’s responsibility to give you that,’ ” says Nancy. “It feels hokey. It ticks you off. But it returns the power to you.”

Marion Jacobs is a clinical psychologist who has studied self-help groups. She is not familiar with The Work, although when it is explained to her, Jacobs suggests it is similar in some ways to traditional therapy. Katie’s first two questions, says Jacobs, “are fundamental to cognitive behavioral therapy. Then she makes the connection between thoughts and feelings--any therapist is going to do that. Finally, she’s asking a person to use imagery to see what would change them. Nothing in there that’s new.”

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While Jacobs isn’t troubled by Katie’s ideas, the format does raise questions. “If she just got up and gave a sermon, you could listen and decide where it fits in your life. But she’s working with people individually. When you do that, you’re walking a fuzzy line of what is therapy.”

In 1999 the California Board of Psychology raised that issue after listening to a tape of Katie working with an incest survivor. Katie says the board wanted to know what would happen if she were hosting a session elsewhere and the woman subsequently had a breakdown. Katie argued that the woman’s emotional state after the dialogue was her own responsibility, just as it had been before they met. Ultimately, with no finding that she was practicing psychotherapy, the investigation was dropped. As a matter of policy, the board would not comment for this story or release records.

Kathy Smith, a self-described “Byron Katie groupie,” drove up from San Diego to hear Katie in L.A. She also has attended the five-day “New Year’s Cleanse,” held at a summer camp in Malibu. Smith, an ebullient woman who first used The Work to explore her struggle with overeating, says that the only thing that concerned her going into the Cleanse was the juice fast. The what?

“I brought cheese and crackers--I was sure I wasn’t going to make it,” she says, adding proudly that she existed for three days on watermelon, beet, lemon, apple and cucumber juices and miso broth.

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Katie explains the reasons for relying on juice: “You take away people’s chewing and their mind goes nuts, they start getting angry, feeling like little children. They feel deprived. It gets really radical and that’s what I want.” She says she went through the same changes in 1986.

Using anger and deprivation is a rarely discussed element of The Work. I ask if there are any other physical elements to the program. “No sex, please,” says Katie, smiling but serious. “We separate husbands and wives so they can focus on their thoughts about that. They don’t have to, we just suggest it.”

It is virtually impossible to find a Byron Katie critic at a Byron Katie event. (She more frequently attracts what one volunteer dubs “Bliss Ninnies.”) On three occasions I lurked in the parking lot, trying to catch people leaving early. At an East Hampton, N.Y., workshop, two women emerge before the break, talking and laughing. Perhaps they found it all too funny, possibly ridiculous.

“Oh, no,” one insists. “We love Katie. But we have dinner reservations.” Where, I wonder, are the skeptics?

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In Altadena, Calif., as it turns out.

I call the Skeptics Society, a watchdog group that challenges bogus science. They have not heard of Katie, so I run through the four questions. “I like that fourth one,” says Pat Linse, a Society co-founder. I try to rile Linse’s skeptical side: What about Katie’s lack of training? What about presenting The Work as a charity? What about the mugs?

“They are supporting themselves,” she reasons. “We don’t fault people for making money.”

“Her Jaguar was a gift,” Roxann Burroughs says, aware that seeing a quasi-spiritual self-help authority roll up in a Jaguar sends up a red flag with some people. The car was bought by Katie’s son Ross, a successful record producer who credits The Work with greatly improving his life.

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Even in the depths of her depression, Katie says that she was always able to make money. Byron Katie International now has a paid staff of seven, and Katie receives an annual salary of $120,000. Aside from the free public appearances, Katie charges $250 plus accommodations for the Cleanse and $1,800 to $3,000 for the school, plus room and board. “We’re not trying to build anything, we’re just trying to meet the call,” she says. “I don’t have any ambition. I’m a woman without a future.”

Andy Bernstein, director of Byron Katie International, is a bit more focused than his boss, who doesn’t seek out forums for sharing The Work. “I’m pushing it,” Bernstein says. “We don’t just answer phone calls. It’s not as passive as it seems. We have a product: four questions, and a spokesperson: Katie. It moves the way any product moves, whether it’s Nike sneakers or anything else.”

Katie plans to continue sharing The Work as long as people ask for it and she is able. Still, she is preparing for the day when she isn’t. Hundreds of graduates of her school now lead groups of their own, and her book will eventually reach many more people than her workshops can. Although her wise pixie face twinkles on the book’s cover, Katie feels that the questions, and not the woman behind them, are what’s worth promoting. But her undeniable charisma is a selling point. She plays down the import of discussing her awakening, yet she and Mitchell already are at work on her autobiography. An early draft suggests it will delve into Katie’s cockroach moment, which otherwise has been excised from her literature.

“The cosmic side of things is a big stumbling block for a lot of people,” says Jeff Gold, who is now on the board of The Work. “It’s a stumbling block for me, but who am I to say it didn’t happen? She is clear in claiming to not be enlightened, but I think they were smart to keep it out of the first book.”

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Like many Byron Katie fans, Gold finds her practice useful regardless of its origins, which is handy, since trying to confirm the more incredible elements of her story is like looking for the footprints where Jesus walked on water. Why have some of the key people and places in her story been lost to history? Why didn’t she ever get a doctor to look at that bleeding tongue? (Her answer: “It was beautiful, a stripe of red. It didn’t hurt.”)

With Mitchell conveniently nearby whenever Katie and I sit down to talk, posing the question about how new religions are born is irresistible. Is it possible that, generations hence, the story of a woman with little education, suffering from acute depression and spontaneously becoming a charismatic teacher will be an article of some new faith?

“If we’re lucky, people will have forgotten all of that, because it’s not about her, it’s about The Work,” says Mitchell. Still, he will allow that “this kind of radical questioning is in the lineage of the great spiritual traditions. The ‘inquiry’ is in Buddhist traditions and my own Jewish tradition, from the book of Job to Spinoza.” He won’t go so far, however, as to say that they are actively trying to put a new brand of spirituality on the map. “I’ve never heard Katie say, ‘I have the truth.’ It’s not like that. It’s not a doctrine,” he says. “She doesn’t want to spread the word. She doesn’t want a following.”

The Work’s simplicity is seductive, as is Katie’s apparent happiness. Her calm acceptance of reality is as enviable as those unbreakable fingernails. I wonder if a mere mortal can achieve either trait.

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One day, Mitchell, Katie and I go to lunch. The restaurant we choose has a half-hour wait for a table, so we walk to another place. Katie is pleased: This other restaurant is the right one. No disappointment, because she always loves what happens. When Katie’s salad arrives, she tastes the vinaigrette and crinkles her nose. She calls the waiter. Seeming like a gal from Barstow, she asks, “Could I have some ranch dressing?”

It is a relief to see even this little glimpse of desire in her. Sometimes getting what one wants tastes even sweeter than accepting what is.


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