A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind

Odyssey

Oct -Nov 2003

After her recent tour to Southern Africa, Byron Katie’s Southern African co-ordinators have been receiving e-mails and telephone calls  from people touched by this extraordinary womanand the process that she calls ‘The Work’. Kriben Pillay reports on his first-hand experience with this influential woman.

Out of the depths of her own despair, Byron Kathleen Reid (now simply called Byron Katie), awoke one day in 1986 to absolute clarity and unconditional love after a ten-year period of seclusion, food and substance addictions, and obsessing about suicide. In this awakening she found what all the great spiritual teachers had found - except that she was without any spiritual training whatsoever. She discovered, entirely on her own,  that it is possible to transcend our limited, self-centred and fearful life into a life that is an expression of connectedness and love. In Katie’s case, the awakening was accompanied by four questions that allowed her to undo stressful thoughts that threatened to take her away from this new incredible awareness of life that was devoid of any sense of  separation.

 Since 1986, Katie has been sharing this wonderfully simple tool with hundreds of thousands wherever she is invited all over the world. And, by invitation, she finally came to tour South Africa and Namibia, giving endlessly of herself to those who came in suffering or perplexity.

 “The Work” is not another motivational technique, nor is it a means to further delude the mind. Rather, in the tradition of Socrates, the Buddha, and later teachers like Ramana Maharshi and J Krishnamurti, Katie’s process is a process of inquiry, where questioning the mind’s stories allows us to see what is real without the overlay of our acquired conditioning.

 Like the title of her recently published book, Loving What Is, “The Work” brings us to full acceptance of reality in the moment, where we are no longer arguing with it but allowing ourselves to be a creative participant in the unfolding of each moment, as it is now. This is not a fatalistic approach to pain, but a dynamic unpacking of the stories that created the pain in the first place.

From Cape Town to Windhoek, Johannesburg to Durban, Katie, with great skill and compassion, unpacked participants' stories of suffering: painful relationships, parenting, blindness, cerebral palsy, obstinate employees, the fear of dying alone, political corruption, crime, the rape of little children – these were some of the issues inquired into. And each time Katie created a space for participants to see that suffering arises from the confusion within the mind. Laughter replaced tears, and self-righteousness was transformed into humility and compassion. Interestingly, an issue that preoccupies many people in this part of the world – racism – was the only currently predominant issue that was not brought up. This did not escape Katie’s notice, but she never imposes and always allows participants to work from a place where they are most comfortable. After all, working in front of a group of 500 strangers can be a daunting and fearful situation in itself, but those courageous people who sat with Katie and did The Work all walked away with peace restored to their hearts and minds.

So, up close, what is Katie like? I can write about the total absence of reactivity, even when a tiresome allergy and non-stop presentations caused her great fatigue; of a woman who is totally present for the person who is sitting before her; of her great compassion for a child who was struggling with the death of her loved ones; of her wonderful sense of humour amidst the grilling criticisms of hard-nosed journalists ... and of the almost palpable sense of the sacred that emanates from her. But I suppose, for me, the most accurate answer would be that Katie is a living reflection of our potential to be mature, sane human beings.

She did not come to South Africa and Namibia to sell another self-help programme or to make millions by promising a thinner body, a life without illness, the perfect soul mate, or how to manifest material wealth. Rather, she came with four questions that allow us to discover our own answers. She is, of course, a highly skilled and quietly supportive questioner and an empathic listener. As she worked in front of several hundred people, there was an immense quietness and never a sign of audience restlessness. 

Of course, not everyone in the audiences wanted inquiry that strips way our illusions. One woman argued that she knew that she would be attacked some day in crime-ridden Southern Africa. “The Work” in that moment was perhaps not for her. She could not see that she was attacking herself with thoughts that had no bearing on the reality of the moment; the moment where she was in perfect physical safety, except for her thoughts that told her otherwise. But Katie’s way is not to convince intellectually, for this simply keeps the sense of separation in place. She gently went on to the next participant. If we want to hold onto our suffering, then that is our business. “The Work” refuses to fall into the old trap of being self-righteous, of wanting to put the world right. As the Buddha is reputed to have said: ‘I show you suffering, and I show you the end of it.’

Katie likes to refer to her work as radical surgery without any anaesthetic, but it is only for the one who has truly grown weary of suffering. And from the responses of Southern African audiences, many are fast reaching this place.

I experienced Katie’s special touch when she and her friends had lunch at our home. Our Zulu domestic help, who lost her son in a freak accident three years ago, was hugged and kissed and within a few moments a glow from within lit up her face. There may have been a language barrier that she could not respond to, but she understood  the  awakening had taken her beyond the story of death.

In a supermarket you might pass Katie and see her for an ordinary woman – as we experienced her at the breakfast table, or on the short safari in the semi-desert of Namibia – until you look into her startlingly blue eyes with their depth of acceptance, tranquillity and wisdom, and see the essence of your own pure heart.

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