Byron Katie, Loving What Is. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002), 322 pages
A book review by Ozodi Osuji
Byron Katie Reid was a typical middle class white American woman, married with three children and living in the desert country of Northern California. Life seemed to be going well until she found herself clinically depressed. She took to staying on her bed and did not have the energy to engage in the activities of daily living, such as work, food, sports, socializing and personal grooming. She languished on her bed and like most depressed people did not see any reason to go on with life. Life is now something she no longer desired. She simply gave up and her family was astonished. When her three children came close to her room she yelled at them. She was not a happy camper and made life miserable for those around her.
She checked into a halfway house for treatment. There, she slept on the floor because she believed that the bed was too good for her (in depression folks have very low self-esteem, feel like they are literally no good, and are shit). She said that one morning in 1986, at age 43, she woke up a changed woman. She did not tell us what exactly happened during the night, all that we are told is that from then on she was no longer depressed and found a way to cope with life; subsequently, she began sharing her insights into how to live peacefully with those around her.
Thereafter, she was invited by churches to share her new found way of helping people cope with life’s issues; she progressed to going to prisons to share her new way of life. She was invited all over the place to share her story and folks apparently benefited from it. Eventually, her approach to helping people congealed in what she calls the Work.
The book, loving what is, is an attempt to describe the work and how it works. Readers are invited to follow the approach and are told that should they do so they, too, would see their lives transformed, as Katie’s life was apparently transformed.
The work is not an intellectual exercise; it is very simple and Katie invites folks to practice it on their selves. In her workshops she would sit on a chair and invite a person from the audience and have him or her fill out a one page questionnaire and from that Katie did the work with him.
You are not invited to engage in intellectual masturbation but to simply try the work on you and see for yourself whether it works or not. The individual is told to tell himself who in his life he judges the most troublesome for him. He is encouraged to be judgmental (the bible teaches folks to not judge their neighbors but Christians are still judging their neighbors, so Katie engages in reverse or paradoxical psychology and asks folks to judge their neighbors and then examine their judgment). Who makes you the most angry, sad, unhappy? Say it out loud; and write it down.
After you have written down the person you believe is problematic for you and what he does to you, Katie asks you four simple questions and from your answers you are supposed to have been healed of your problem. The four questions and a fifth one called a turnaround constitute the Work. The questions are:
(1) Is it true?
(2) Can you absolutely know that it is true?
(3) How do you react when you believe that thought?
(4) What would you be without that thought?
Turn the thought around
Since Katie asked her reader not to engage in mere intellectual gymnastics but to apply the questions to his self, let me apply them to me. So, who was the most problematic person in my life? It was my father. How so? He over criticized me. Nothing I ever did was good enough for him. So, what did I want from my father. I wanted my father to stop criticizing me.
Katie would ask me:
Is it true?
Did my father really criticize me or was it a story I made up, untrue? It is true; father did criticize me. I remember once while he was sitting with his three brothers, in the evening and embarked on telling them how I was no good, how I was rotten and did nothing right; he said that I was no good at school either (that quarter I made second in my class of thirty three students, I was in class two in secondary school then). My father criticized me, criticized my brothers and criticized our mother. His presence was so critical that we considered it toxic and sought ways to avoid him (during school holidays I preferred to go to other boys homes rather than go to my own home).
Can you absolutely know that it is true?
Yes, I know that it is true that father criticized me. He criticized all his children and wife so we all can testify to his behavior; I am not making it up.
How do you react when you believe that thought?
How do I react when I believe the thought that father criticized me? I feel angry. I wished that he had not criticized me, especially publicly. The other children that he compared me to were objectively speaking not better than I was, certainly they did not do as well as I did at school, nor were they behaviorally better; I spent my time helping mother do her work and generally was helpful for my siblings.
No child likes to be compared to other children; children should not be compared to other children for each child is unique and different from other children; no two children are alike. The fact that one child does well in one subject does not mean that another child should do so; this is because each child has unique talents and special skills.
I considered myself a model child. I do not believe that I engaged in what folks call anti-social behaviors. I did what I was told to do and never got into trouble with the law; I did not smoke or drink or gave any one occasion to say that I am a problematic child. All I did was go to school, read books and helped out around the house. Most parents would consider me an ideal child, I think.
What would you be without the thought?
If I did not feel criticized by father, I would feel that he accepted and loved me; I would feel that he did not publicly humiliate me with his constant put downs.
Even as a fourteen year old boy when I was in class two at secondary school, I wondered what is the reason why father saw it fit to criticize his family; why did he do it, I asked myself? His brothers did not do what he did; at least I did not see them criticize their children. What was in it for him? Is he not adult enough to realize that most children want to be loved and do not want to be insulted by their parents? Since we all want to be loved, why is this man not showing us that he loved us; why is he degrading us before his brothers?
I read voraciously and knew way too much than you would expect from a typical teenager. From what I read, I had enough knowledge to speculate on why folks are critical. I concluded that father felt inferior, denied his inferiority and compensated with desire to seem superior; in his efforts to seem superior he worked hard and was pretty successful. He had money to provide us with good education. He wanted to make sure that his children did not fail; he wanted them to be successful. Criticizing us was a way of making sure that we did not become lazy and failed. The man feared failing and feared that his children could fail. Bad mouthing us was a way of preventing our failing.
Deep down he loved us and we knew it. If I had felt that he did not love me and he subjected me to the type of public humiliation I got when I was a teenager, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have attacked him. No child deserves to be constantly degraded, as father did to his children. Parents who do such things do it for their own psychological deficits.
Limiting myself to Katie’s question, I wanted father to accept me in an unconditionally positive manner, to love me; being loved would have made me feel connected to him; instead, I felt alienated from him and his people and to the present do not identify with his people; I do not see them as my people; I am the eternal outsider; I am the other looking in on the in-group from the outside. I am totally alienated from in-groups.
Turn it around:
Turn around the thought of been criticized by my father. It would look like this: I criticize my father (after all I see him as a bad father and that is criticism, is it not?); I criticize me (and project my self-criticism to father).
How do I want my father to change?
I wanted him to stop criticizing me.
What should he have done?
He should have loved me in an unconditionally positive manner and not criticize me.
Do I need anything from father to be happy?
Yes, unconditional love from him would have made my childhood happy (is this true, are there not some children who were loved by their parents who are unhappy, are on drugs?).
What do I think of my father?
I think that he was immature, childish, critical, fearful, cowardly and lacking in understanding of what children need to be happy. (These are what I think of myself, too; I project what I see in me to father and other people.)
What don’t you want to experience with that person?
I do not want him to criticize me. (Really, I probably enjoy been criticized and provoke it in other people and they then criticize me!)
Turn it around and apply all those wishes to me. It would read like this:
I criticize me and father and should not criticize me and father (in complaining about his criticism am I not criticizing him?); I should accept me in an unconditionally positive manner; why wait for other people to accept me; I have no control over what other people do; what I have control over is what I do; thus, since I can choose to love me I love me in an unconditional manner and stop criticizing me, seeing what I did as right or wrong.
Instead of waiting for father or other people to accept me, I accept me. When I accept me and do not criticize me I feel at peace with myself; I am happy; other people’s behaviors cannot give me peace and joy; only my behavior would give me peace and joy.
I cannot change reality, the reality that some people, father included are critical; I have to accept that reality.
I cannot, for example, change racism; I cannot change the fact that some white folks see black folks as no good and reject them.
Reality of what other people do is what they do and I have no control over their actions. Reality is what is (what has happened, criticism rejection). Accept reality as it is (accept other people’s criticisms and rejection). Indeed, I should love reality for it offers me opportunity to make the right choices.
So, other people criticize and reject me, eh? Okay; the lesson is for me to accept me and not worry about what other people do to me, for I have no control over them.
If Katie’s methodology is strictly followed, my father’s criticism of me, and other peoples criticism of me is actually my criticism of me. I projected out the world that I see around me. What other people do to me is what I have them do to me. The world is a mirror of my thoughts. I criticize me and project out those who criticize me; those who do to me what I want done to me and what I do to me.
There is no external world; the seeming external world is in my mind and I deny it and project it out; I had other people do to me what they did to me; indeed, other people are me and what they do to me I did to me (in my dream of separation).
The goal is not to strive to change the external world but to change the internal world, to change my thinking patterns, to stop criticizing me. I should accept me, I should love me in an unconditionally positive manner regardless of what external others say about me; I shouldn’t criticize father and other people for they are me projected out; even as a teenager I recognized that father did what he did because he had a weak character; those who do not love people have weak characters; racists are some of the weakest human beings around; their hatred of folks from other races is not sign of strength but sign of utter weakness.
Love is sign of strength, hate is sign of weakness. Father was filled with fear of failure and because of that fear was critical.
Racists are filled with fear of people from other groups and that is sign of weakness; strength lies in welcoming folks from all human groups, for they all belong to one family, God’s family.
Since what I see in father and racist is what is in me that I projected out, instead trying to have the seeming outside persons change and become better persons I should change and become better; I should stop being critical; stop being fearful and practice love for all people.
What I wanted father to do is what I want to do so I should do it and stop bitching about what the man did to me. He probably did his best given the limited information available to him. I have more information (since I have college education and father did not) and, as such, should correct his perceived mistakes and stop whining about them.
I do not want to be insulted, degraded and humiliated. Because I believe that I shouldn’t be degraded a part of my mind projects out people who degrade me. My mind projected father out and had him degrade me. But I managed to survive despite his constant humiliations.
The lesson is that despite other people seemingly insulting me I would survive their badmouthing. The goal is to realize that other people cannot really insult you. If other people say demeaning things about you, what they say does not matter unless you accept that what they say does matter. You can shine off the negative things other people say about you.
It is not for you to change other people and make them love you. You got to be a dictator to be able to change other people and make them say only nice things about you or make them love you.
The reality is that other people have the right to say whatever they want to say about you. By the same token, I have the right to overlook what they say.
Go ahead and insult me and I will go ahead and ignore you. That is the lesson. Nothing can hurt you unless you believe that you can be hurt by things external to you.