Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon


In 1986, at the bottom of a 10-year spiral into depression, rage, and self-loathing, Katie woke up one morning to a state of constant joy that allegedly never left. She realized that when she believed her stressful thoughts, she suffered, but that when she questioned them, she didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Out of that awakening came The Work of Byron Katie, consisting of four questions and the turnarounds, which are a way of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. She is the author of six books, including Loving What Is and I Need Your Love—Is That True?, and has helped bring clarity to millions. Katie has three children and five grandchildren and lives with author Stephen Mitchell in Ojai. She will be a presenter at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in San Francisco this month.

Can you describe growing up, your childhood?

I grew up in the desert town of Needles, California. There was so much freedom as a child. I spent my life alone. You could go out with the trees and anywhere you wanted, and it was taken for granted. A little town where everyone knows everyone. My father was an engineer for the Santa Fe railroad. Then he was transferred to Barstow. I think that is where the fear began. Children were hurting each other. They weren’t referred to as gangs then, but that’s what they were; it was a foreign territory to me.

You married your childhood sweetheart?

Yes. We lived about four miles out of town at a lovely home on the river. It was really nice, because it was in the middle of nature. But I had a very unhappy marriage, though it produced three wonderful children.

You had a lifelong spiritual awakening that emerged from a bout of suicidal depression. Can you describe that?

Well, I had divorced my first husband and remarried, and was just as unhappy in this second marriage. I was clinically depressed for 10 years—agoraphobic, paranoid, suicidal. I used to sleep with a loaded pistol under my pillow and a rifle under my bed. I was so fearful that I often couldn’t leave my bedroom. The last two years were almost unbearable. My husband brought me codeine pills throughout the day, and I ate them like candy. I began overeating, and I spent more time in bed, watching a lot of television, sleeping for 12 hours a day or more. 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.

There is the famous cockroach moment; can you tell the story?

I was lying on the floor at a halfway because I didn’t think I deserved a bed. I woke up and saw a cockroach crawling over my ankle. I just opened my eyes. All my rage, all the thoughts that had been troubling me, my whole world, the whole world, was gone. The only thing that existed was awareness. The foot and the cockroach weren’t outside me; there was no outside or inside. It was all me. And I felt delight—absolute delight! There was nothing, and there was a whole world: walls and floor and ceiling and light and body, everything, in such fullness. But only what it could see: no more, no less. I was seeing without concepts, without thoughts or an internal story. There was no me. It was as if something else had woken up. It opened its eyes. It was looking through Katie’s eyes. Everything was unrecognizable. And it was so delighted! Laughter welled up from the depths and just poured out. It breathed and was ecstasy. It was intoxicated with joy, totally greedy for everything. There was nothing separate, nothing unacceptable to it. Everything was its very own self. For the first time I—it—experienced the love of its own life. I—it—was amazed!

Everything was crisp?

Yes. It was crisp, it was clear, it was new, it had never been here before. There was no name for anything. There were no separate words for foot or cockroach or wall or any of it. So it was looking at its entire body, looking at itself, with no name. Nothing was separate from it, nothing was outside it; it was all pulsing with life and delight, and it was all one unbroken experience. To separate that wholeness and see anything as outside itself wasn’t true. The foot was there, yet it wasn’t a separate thing, and to call it a foot, or an anything, felt absurd. And the laughter kept pouring out of me. Actually, I felt that if my joy were told, it would blow the roof off the halfway house—off the whole planet. I still feel that way.

From this day in 1986 came The Work of Byron Katie, consisting of four questions and the turnaround, correct?

Yes, it was all there in that first instant of awakening. Actually, all four questions were present in the first—Is it true?—and everything was already released in the instant that the first question was asked. The second, third, and fourth questions were embedded in the inquiry that was there in the experience. And then the turnaround is the grounding, the re-entry. There’s nothing / there’s something. And in that way, people can be held without the terror of being nothing, without identity. The turnaround holds them until it’s a comfortable place. And they realize that nowhere to go is really where they already are.

My first exposure to The Work was in India in the late ’90s, where I was traveling with my girlfriend at the time. In brief, she changed our travel plans, which to me felt like the last straw in a string of insults, so I was going to break off the relationship in protest. That is when I met someone who turned me on to The Work, and I became very engaged in the inquiry. I could then isolate my bruised ego, and that I carried a lot of (to my mind justified) beliefs and expectations about her, but reality was not cooperating. When I isolated those beliefs and anger, she remained sweetly who she was. In the inquiry I did a 180-degree shift and came to love her in a much greater way, for who she was, apart from my loaded thoughts.

That’s the deal, isn’t it? There was her, and there was the “her” you believed her to be. One was real, and one wasn’t. And it continues to shift if we get clear.

It shifted very quickly because I was in one part of India, Thiruvannamalai, and she was in Chennai. So the next day I took a four-hour bus ride to meet her with this newfound appreciation and anticipation, but when I arrived she broke her news that we were done. I remember being in a calm state, hugging her and saying, “I guess our lessons with each other are over.” The bus ride back was heavy hearted, but nothing dramatic. Life was moving me on.

It’s just another trip, isn’t it?

One of your quotes has long stuck with me. It is: “you don’t live life; life lives you.”

Yes. Just allow life to live you, beyond your thinking and believing, and watch how kind it is. Reality is always kinder than the story we tell about it. We can trust it completely.

Does anything upset you anymore?

Not for 29 years, but I’m open to that. There is no time that I’m not awake to what is really going on, as opposed to what I am thinking and believing. There is never anything that I can’t deal with. Without a past and future, you can do whatever is in front of you.

I must confess that I got wound up in this morning because my son sometimes drags himself to school, and it triggers me because he gets marked tardy, and I think it reflects badly. Recently, I got so upset it felt like I’d lost my mind. Maybe we could do The Work around it as an illustration.

Okay, so you have a stressful story about your son. The first thing to do is write it down on a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet. They’re free at our website,

I would write: “My son doesn’t cooperate in the morning, and it hurts me.”

“Your son is hurting you”—is it true? Can you absolutely know it’s true that that’s what he’s doing? There’s a whole world of enlightenment available in those first two questions.

Yes, he is.

Okay. Yes is as good an answer as no. The third question is, “How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought, that your son is hurting you?”

Sometimes my neck is strained, my shoulders are tight, and I start to be defensive and attacking. I might criticize and accuse him or lay a guilt trip on him. I try to scare him into action.

Good. We can clearly see the cause-and-effect of believing a stressful thought. Then the fourth question is, “Who would you be without the thought?”

Without my crazy thoughts, he would just be there, a beautiful boy in his school uniform, getting to school at his pace. Maybe he will be late, but maybe not. I would certainly feel more peaceful and compassionate, less agitated and violent. By dropping my thoughts, I would be at peace in that situation, maybe even happy. I imagine I would just love him and all life in that moment.

Beautiful. Now, let’s move to the turnarounds. This really takes inner quiet. What’s the opposite of “my son is hurting me”?

My son is helping me.

Good. What’s an example of that?

He was helping me see what a victim I had become, an accusing maniac.

Yes. Can you find another turnaround? “My son is hurting me.” What if you put “I” on all of it?

I am hurting me?

Yes. I hurt me when I attacked him. Everything I need to clean up my own life is right there. It shows me how to communicate differently. This is where the apologies start to show up. When you really sit with this turnaround and find examples of how you hurt yourself when you believe these stressful thoughts, your behavior starts to change, naturally, because you realize how crazy it is to believe them. Can you find another turnaround?

I am hurting my son.

Yes. An example of how this is true?

Well, I hurt him by getting angry and blaming him. It’s hard on him.

Yes, honey. This is another opportunity to see what really hurts, because if I hurt him, that’s what hurts me. That’s where I carry the guilt. It’s not that your son wasn’t cooperating as well as he could at that moment, and maybe even moving fast enough to get to school; the problem is totally caused by how you reacted, what you said and did. And that creates a life of guilt and suffering.

What is the general effect that you have witnessed over the decades of doing this work with many thousands?

A lot of grateful people. What I love is that whatever your way is, whether it’s yoga or 12-step or Christianity or Buddhism or whatever, The Work enhances it. Everything begins to make sense. We become more awake to ourselves and to our true nature and then closer to our families. We become more understanding and compassionate. Every time you do The Work, you become a kinder human being.

It seems some people discover The Work and use it as a tool maybe for some time. Others go deeper and learn to facilitate. Others come to live near you and consider you a guru.

I hope not. We have offices in Ojai and do our best to make sure that The Work goes out all over the world, but when people do The Work as a daily practice, they don’t need a teacher. They don’t need me. That is the highest way; that’s how I found it—within me. Oh, my gosh, I’m no guru.

But isn’t that what gurus do? Provide a clearer mirror? Isn’t that all they can do?

I don’t know anything about gurus. I am a friend. I do have the Institute for The Work. It is a daily practice structure for people who want to come in at any time and work with each other, facilitate each other. These certified facilitators are doing amazing work going into veteran’s homes and prisons. In prison, some of the prisoners are actually being trained to certify other prisoners.

How does The Work go over in prisons?

I have been going into prisons for years, all over the world. As I hear it, inmates coming through the gate have to choose which gang to hang out with, because they can’t make it on their own. We’ve seen radical shifts with lifers doing The Work and helping others.

Prison seems a reptilian environment of fight or flight, to the extreme.

Reality is not going to move. It is what it is. No need to bring hell into it. Look at the reaction to the cartoonists in Paris. Those extremists who massacred them were believing their own thoughts. That’s what causes all the suffering in the world, from mild upset all the way to murder.

Another quote I love: “When you argue with reality you lose, but only 100% of the time.”

It’s just simple awareness that we’re talking about. Just noticing the reality of what’s happening right here, right now, and not living in the dream of past and future.

We chase these imaginary windmills of the mind. This is our Love issue, and you’re a “lover of what is,” not a lover of fear. Is there not a place for fear?

What use is it? Do we get a lot accomplished in fear? Where do you make the best choices: when you’re fearful or when your mind is clear?

Isn’t fear built into our DNA for protection? Don’t vigilant parents assure the survival of their children?

You’re equating “vigilant” with “fearful.” The clear mind is never fearful. A man once came up to me, stuck a gun into my stomach, and said, “I’m going to kill you.” Well, maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t, but I wasn’t projecting a future, so I was completely at peace. I looked into his eyes and I saw a very frightened man. It was a beautiful moonlit night, and if this was my last moment, I was enjoying it thoroughly. And since I know what guilt we feel when we hurt another human being, my thought was, “I hope he doesn’t do that to himself.” And as it turns out, he didn’t. It’s so obvious that we make the best choices when the mind is clear. It’s that simple.

I’m not fearful for my children or my grandchildren. They’re free. My happiness doesn’t depend on whether they’re happy or sad, or whether they live or die. That gives them total freedom to live their lives however they choose, and they’re grateful.

I am remembering now the effect of The Work when my son was an infant and he would fall. I learned to stop and observe the reality of the situation and not leap into a tizzy. Sometimes it would agitate nearby adults—what seemed like callous passivity.

You’re not teaching fear. If my child falls and I’m upset about it, I’m teaching him that when he falls, he’s supposed to be upset. When my grandson Race was a little boy of 3, he fell down and scraped his knee; there was some blood, and he began to cry. As he looked up at me, I said, “Sweetheart, are you remembering when you fell down and hurt yourself?” And immediately, the crying stopped. That was it. He must have realized, for a moment, that pain is always in the past.

For adults, isn’t death our primal fear?

No one knows what death is. Maybe it’s not a something; maybe it’s not even a nothing. It’s the pure unknown, and I love that. We imagine that death is a state of being or a state of nothingness, and we frighten ourselves with our own concepts. I’m a lover of what is: I love sickness and health, coming and going, life and death. I see life and death as equal. Reality is good, so death must be good, whatever it is, if it’s anything at all. So if you’re afraid of death, that shows you what to question next. There’s nothing else to do; you’re either believing these childish stories, or you’re questioning them. The thing is that until you experience death as a gift, your work’s not done.

You have hands-on experience with thousands of people’s fear of cancer or death. What is your experience?

When you’re clear about death, you can be totally present with someone who’s dying, and no matter what kind of pain he or she appears to be experiencing, it doesn’t affect your happiness. To come to that person in fear is to teach fear: she looks into your eyes and gets the message that she is in deep trouble. But if you come in peace, fearlessly, she looks into your eyes and sees that whatever is happening is good. People who know there’s no hope are free; decisions are out of their hands. It has always been that way, but some people have to die bodily to find out. No wonder some of them smile on their deathbeds. Dying is everything they were looking for in life: they’ve given up the delusion of being in charge.

So when someone is diagnosed with cancer, I suggest that they write about their specific fears, what the diagnosis means to them. “I’m going to suffer.” “I won’t be able to handle the pain.” “I’m going to die.” “My children will be devastated.” They just write their fears down like that. They come to see that they never feared cancer. It is what they believed about cancer that caused their fear. Cancer was never that unkind.

This is our Love issue. What is love?

The absence of suffering. And in that absence of suffering, we become generous, because there is never a lack. Giving becomes receiving. It’s a way of living where there is never a sacrifice. It is the extreme opposite. So love is always fulfilling. It’s always full. And we really love ourselves in that state of being. And when we love ourselves, we love everyone we see. We are love, and there’s nothing we can do about that. Love is our nature. It’s what we are without our stories. When you’re shut down and frightened, the world seems hostile; when you love what is, everything in the world becomes the beloved.

I am a lover of what is, not because I’m a spiritual person, but because it hurts when I argue with reality.

What is hatred, in your way of speaking?

Hatred is simply confusion. When people believe their thoughts, they create a world of self and other, us and them, and as a result they act in fearful ways. First comes the belief, then the feeling, then the action. Hatred is a very painful emotion, like being in hell.

Critics would say that The Work is a palliative, an apology for crappy behavior in the world, like genocide and child abuse. Or my son having lazy get-toschool habits.

Oh, but it’s quite the opposite. I don’t condone unkindness in the world. How could I condone it? I simply notice that if I believe that war and rape and genocide and child abuse shouldn’t exist, I suffer. They exist until they don’t. Can I just end the war in me? Can I stop raping myself and others with abusive thinking? If not, I’m continuing in myself the very thing that I want to end in you. Sanity doesn’t suffer, ever. Can you eliminate war everywhere on earth? Through inquiry, you can begin to eliminate it for one human being: you. This is the beginning of the end of war in the world. If life upsets you, good! Judge the war-makers on paper, inquire, and turn it around. Do you really want to know the truth? All suffering begins and ends with you. And the end of suffering happens in this very moment, whether you’re watching a terrorist attack or doing the dishes. Compassion begins at home.

I’ve heard people say that they cling to their painful thoughts because they’re afraid that without them they wouldn’t be activists for peace. “If I felt completely peaceful,” they say, “why would I bother taking action at all?” My answer is, “because that’s what love does.” To think that we need sadness or outrage to motivate us to do what’s right is insane.

What makes your heart leap?

Last week I watched the movie Selma. There were parts of it that were so brutal, when people were marching for their constitutional right to vote. What these people went through and the brutality of that era brought tears to my eyes, and my heart just leapt. I was so moved by the power of their courage. Love is a fearless state of mind. There is nothing we can’t do when we’re clear, and our inner peace can change an entire world. I have watched everyone in my life shift. Every time my mind shifts, the people in my life shift. So does everything else.

You mention that there are three types of business: my business, your business, and God’s business. Can you quickly distinguish these?

Yes. I could find only three kinds of business in the universe: mine, yours, and God’s. (For me, the word God means “reality.” Reality is God, because it rules. Anything that’s out of my control, your control, and everyone else’s control—I call that God’s business.) Much of our stress comes from mentally living out of our own business. When I think, “You need to get a job, I want you to be happy, you should be on time, you need to take better care of yourself,” I am in your business. When I’m worried about earthquakes, floods, war, or when I will die, I am in God’s business. If I am mentally in your business or in God’s business, the effect is separation. I noticed this early in 1986. When I mentally went into my mother’s business, for example, with a thought like, “My mother should understand me,” I immediately experienced a feeling of loneliness. And I realized that every time in my life that I had felt hurt or lonely, I had been in someone else’s business. If you just understand the three kinds of business enough to stay in your own business, it could free your life in a way that you can’t even imagine.

It’s time to say good-bye or “no mistake.” I love that early story from your Barstow days, about some of the first people who came to see you.

I had never heard the word “namaste.” We didn’t have that kind of culture in Barstow. So when these people came to my door, what I heard was “no mistake,” and then they would bow. I thought these were really wise people who came to my door. They got it. They understood that there’s no mistake.

What is a parting message to our readers?

Suffering is optional, and I invite everyone not to believe me but to test it for themselves.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor in chief of Common Ground.

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