The following is a review of the book A Cry in the Desert: The Awakening of Byron Katie written by Christin Lore Weber and reviewed by contributor to The Noumenon Journal, Shirley Bell. Although the book is now out of print, this review covers essential ground about a truly remarkable woman.
‘Out of the hopeless into the whole universe!’ This was quite literally Byron Katie’s experience when she awoke to a new life after years of rage, drunkenness and carelessness about the feelings of her family and friends. She found herself lying on the floor of a room in a halfway house for women with eating disorders watching a cockroach crawl over her foot. With no memory of past or even of self, she was without preconceptions and perceived the world as new and innocent and herself as part of the One. ‘1 was the all,’ she says, ‘and the all was me.’
It was a kind of deep knowing, because she had no philosophical system of spiritual practice that could identity the ‘all’ for her. She was to come to see ‘all this naming’ as ‘a cosmic joke’. ‘In this human realm we name things. That’s fine with me. It’s fun. But it’s never to be taken as the Reality.’ We name things and, having labelled them, we mistakenly assume that the names give them meaning. But labels are only a convenience, and often an impediment to real understanding.
There had been no preparation for such a change, and it might have seemed to those about her that it was merely the next stage of her disintegration, a further alienation. Instead it was the beginning of a life changed in every way. She arose from that attic room floor as a consciousness observing itself minutely, with an awareness of its oneness with all that exists. She remembered nothing. It wasn’t that she had become a temporary amnesiac and forgotten familiar people and places. Instead she had lost her entire structure for perceiving reality as she had known it and she felt completely lost.
‘I had to learn humanness,’ she says. ‘I had to learn to communicate the way that I see.’ Her therapists taught her meditation as a way of finding herself, and in meditation she discovered knowledge that was entirely new to her. She called these ideas ‘revelations’ and wanted to pass them on to others, but found she couldn’t put them into words without their sounding banal, ambiguous or over-simplistic. Finally she realised that they can only be experienced, and that her future work lay in helping people to have the experiences for themselves. Ineptly captured in words, the revelations embody things like no time, no space; unknowing is everything; there is only love. Many were made uneasy by such utterances.
‘We are stopped when we believe that we are not what we really are,’ she says.
In her first forty-three years, she had known wealth and power, lost and regained more than once, but she was bitter and self-destructive, and her family watched helplessly as she raged against life and her own being. Her second husband, Paul, suffered four heart attacks as he struggled to keep the family together and look after his wife, who clung to him in her despair and yet could offer him nothing but further distress.
One of the first things that needs to be said when one tries to articulate the teachings of Byron Katie is she sees language as a barrier to understanding: she is trying to make manifest a way of being rather than a ‘telling about’. Words get in the way, are directive, they try to pin things down. Words are ‘the steps away from experiencing the presence of the God that you are,’ she says. She invites us to unknow, to see no distinctions between subject and object, relative and non-relative being, temporality and the location of events in time.
Unlearning, she says, is ‘moment by moment work’ requiring dedication and renunciation. At first she thought she needed help and went from teacher to teacher, beginning with the therapists at the halfway house, but she had to stay with her own truth. ‘Truth,’ she says, ‘is higher than either attachment or loss…attachment and the perception of loss is the only death. Life springs forth as we let go of attachment.’ One recognises echoes of other philosophies, but Byron Katie has her own way of showing by being.
In the months following her release from the halfway house, she found that the body, like all external things, is simply another symbol reflecting mind. She followed that truth, and her own body became strong and healthy. She found that animal foods had a dire effect on her and gradually changed her diet according to her body’s guidance.
The path was far from easy. Sometimes she felt steeped in a kind of agony that she had never known before. Paul was always there, supporting her, holding her. And then she came to perceive her own completeness, the totally perfect reality and, simultaneously, the woman located in a specific moment and in the process of evolving.
The power of Byron Katie’s awakening consciousness began to communicate itself. Sometimes people dissolved into tears and felt healed as she touched them, even before she had said a word. Sometimes, she noted, they would recreate the disease as a result of their unhealed thinking and return to be with her. Not everyone was impressed by her; there were those who scoffed and those who became insulting, but her heart and her home remained open to them. ‘Only you can heal you,’ she told them. ‘I’m a boost. I’m what it looks like on the other side.’
Different people experience what Byron Katie teaches according to their particular need. One says she teaches how to live in the present moment; another says she learned ‘radical responsibility’ from her. Others came to understand unconditional love, or the oneness of Being, or forgiveness, innocence, non-judgement, self-blame, guilt, pain, the primacy of truth, the dispelling of illusion, respect for our bodies and for all life, joy as the essence of life, healthy attitudes towards food, the realisation that we teach what we are... Each of these focused what Byron Katie calls ‘The Work’ for a particular person and became for them the energy of their transformation and healing. While all of these are things we’ve heard, read and thought about, Byron Katie offers new perspectives. Her responses are not always what one might expect and are often very different from what one has heard before. She exemplifies her teaching and sums up what the great Masters have said in a simple, direct way. ‘It is so authentic that there in front of you is the truth.’ Not too many teachers have that powerful a tool in themselves.
Our work is, through acceptance of our responsibility for our own lives, to find not our guilt but our innocence. It’s what we do to ourselves that matters in our lives, for that is inextricably linked with what we do for, or to, others. Through forgiveness (which means ‘seeing the Reality of what happened’), we become free. Responsibility has nothing at all to do with blame. What we call forgiveness, says Byron Katie, is merely seeing things clearly.
People of all religions and spiritual beliefs, or none at all, find joy and peace in her. ‘Words cannot carry what she is,’ says her biographer. ‘Every attempt to express the ineffable in language limited by a subject-object structure falls short. Such attempts are baffling at best. At worst they sound senseless.’