It might surprise you to learn that the relaxation of my goal this month wasn’t entirely due to laziness (though, admittedly, that was a factor). There was something else at work here, too–something even more unfortunate: I got tripped up by a bit of skepticism.
Here’s how it happened. While doing some research for this series, I came across a negative review of the Work. Intrigued by this perspective, I started seeking out similar information, and what I found was predictably disturbing.
Interestingly, Katie’s detractors seem to be relatively few in number; Googling combinations of the terms Byron Katie, The Work, fraud, guru, fake, and scandal brings up a few relevant pages and a whole lot of irrelevant ones. Even more significant, the same two naysayers are quoted on most of the relevant articles, and only one of these people claims firsthand experience with Byron Katie. That said, there are a few probable arguments made against Katie as a trustworthy guru and reliable source of information, as well as several good arguments against the validity and effectiveness of the Work. In the interests of objectivity and knowledge, I address them here.
The ad hominem arguments are as follows:
1. Byron Katie shows anger, annoyance and other negative emotions at times, even though she says she never suffers and she implies that she feels constantly at peace with what is.
2. Byron Katie says she doesn’t read self-help books, but she has, in fact, done so, and the Work seems to be a repackaging of CBT and some of the other techniques in books she has read.
3. The School for the Work, the conferences Katie leads to teach her process, uses cult-like methods to encourage loyalty and to heighten participants’ emotional response.
And here are the main arguments against the method itself:
1. The Work causes confusion in the practitioner who is taught to question her thoughts till nothing seems true anymore.
2. The Work employs several logical fallacies, including begging the question, false dichotomy and generalization.
3. The Work encourages a lack of compassion for people’s pain.
4. The Work encourages false blaming; if all of life is a mirror, the sufferer is at fault for everything he experiences.
5. The Work claims to be a one-size-fits-all approach, a cure for all pain, and discourages other important and effective therapeutic methods.
6. The Work is a form of self-deceit.
Pretty good list, isn’t it? You’d think I really did my homework. Actually, most of these arguments are found in a single online article (see end notes). A few are mentioned other places as well, and still others, notably the last few, are my own.
The ad hominem arguments are, strangely, the most convincing to me, even though logically they shouldn’t be. Though I understand that the imperfections of a guru in no way refute the truth of her ideas, when we don’t trust the messenger, the message itself is often compromised in our minds. The first personal attack I’ll address, and the one that seems most damaging, is that Katie isn’t perfect.
Ah, perfection. We love to pretend it exists. We want so badly for Eckhart Tolle to exert divine love while flossing his teeth and the Dalai Lama to bless the snot in his handkerchief. And these special teachers know this. Some go to pains to remind us they’re only human, too, telling stories about their difficult moments. Others, though, aren’t quite so forthcoming.
As a writer, I understand the temptation to withhold damaging information; they’re just trying to help people, right? When Katie says she never suffers and Tolle claims continuous awareness of the present moment, they think they’re doing us a favor. They’re communicating to us that their day-to-day experience is largely joyful and easy, and that ours can be, too.
They’re offering us hope.
It’s unfortunate, really, the damage done later when some minor mistake that reveals their humanity is exaggerated a hundredfold in the light of such high expectations.
There should be a class for new gurus.
All this to say, there are a few reports out there that Byron Katie acts differently in person than she does on camera or on the stage. Since I’ve never met her or even attended one of her conferences, I’m not in a position to judge the veracity of these reports, and even if I did, my experience with her would likely be a public, not private, one, which wouldn’t count for much. My position on Katie’s sincerity, reliability and character is, therefore, simple: it’s not for me to judge or concern myself with. My best guess is that she does have a few flaws and that she does behave at least a bit differently at times with those she knows well. She probably gets impatient, bored, angry and sad, but I believe her when she says she doesn’t suffer. It’s possible to lose sight of the bigger picture for minutes or hours at a time, and then to snap back to your usual happy frame of mind. It’s possible to be flawed, but not let the flaw drag on, to express a negative feeling without hanging onto it tightly.
It’s possible to feel and express pain without suffering.
Our second personal attack on Byron Katie is that she purposely and knowingly appropriated her self-help method from other self-help books, then passed it off as an original method. Again, there’s no proof of this, certainly no firsthand knowledge on my part, so I can only offer an opinion. But I just can’t believe that she lied about the inception of the Work. Such an elaborate story. So detailed. So personal.
That said, unconscious imitation is a common human experience; one could argue that it’s all we ever do. If Katie read books about CBT and the like before discovering the Work, that knowledge may have partly influenced her revelation.
I believe in divine inspiration. But divine inspiration is limited; it’s part and parcel of the medium. For this reason, different clairvoyants will often hear and learn very different things from the other side. Medium Esther Hicks, while in a trance channeling the spirit collective called Abraham, was once asked by a conference attendee if Abraham is able to speak Spanish and thus serve another community that needs their message.
“We can,” Abraham replied. “Just not through Esther.”
“Through someone else, then?” the man asked, and Abraham said, “We choose you. We choose you.”
Maybe we’re all channels, in our limited way. If so, it’s okay that we don’t have the whole picture. We pass along what we know, what we’ve learned. We imitate.
The third argument against Katie seems to be the most popular, but for me it’s the least convincing. I read three long testimonials about Katie’s School for The Work saying the the techniques use to heighten the experience are similar to those used in cults. Only one of these articles was written by someone who claims firsthand experience with the School; the other two quote her directly for their evidence. What’s more, in no way do I find this author’s interpretation of events convincing. What it comes down to is that the women felt manipulated and forced into certain activities like fasting, which others felt to be voluntary.
“Cult” is a popular word these days. Any decentralized group might be slandered as such, even non-religious ones. Individuals can and do get carried away with their loyalty, but in determining whether or not an organization uses manipulative practices to encourage loyalty, common sense will prevail.
Now I turn to the arguments against the process of inquiry itself. In a later section of this book, I will address the logical fallacies. The rest I deal with here.
The five remaining arguments have something significant in common: they apply only after a certain (some would say unhealthy) commitment level is reached. If a practitioner were to question each and every belief, all day long, confusion could certainly result. (Katie herself had this experience after her revelation that our beliefs are what causes pain. She had to re-enter the world of apparent truth–what we call reality–in order to start functioning again.) Similarly, a person who takes the Work to the extreme may become self-blaming and lose compassion. They may even attempt to deceive themselves about their own beliefs, pretending to let go of them in order to find freedom. Finally, Byron Katie followers may refuse other helpful therapeutic methods in the hopes that the Work will give them everything they need.
When we hear Katie’s words, we don’t hear moderation. This is one of the things I don’t love about her delivery. A parent grieving a lost child, a war victim recalling torture–no one, in her eyes, is too justified in their story to not benefit from letting it go.
And sometimes, she’s right. We do hold on to sadness too long. We do let it stand between ourselves and joy. But grief is a process. A beautiful one. An important one. It’s something we need to experience.
Conclusion: It’s so much simpler, isn’t it, to attach yourself to a spiritual practice (on a political ideal, or a parenting philosophy) wholly. It is so tempting to believe you’ve found the Answer, rather than to complicate things with annoying nuance. However, the illusion never lasts. Eventually, we find exceptions–times when our current favorite practices aren’t the most helpful or effective. Byron Katie fandom aside, I don’t plan to question my beliefs to the point of confusion, lack of compassion, self-blame or self-denial, and I’ll never (God willing) give up all other spiritual and therapeutic practices in favor of it.
I would be remiss not to remind you that Byron Katie agrees with me here. Though most of the time she seems to present her ideas as irreproachable, she occasionally reminds us that the Work is not about self-deception. If a turnaround doesn’t feel true to you, she says, move on. Find a different one that does. And never bring ulterior motives to the Work–that’s a technique that’s destined to fail.
Read the rest of the series at My Byron Katie Detox: One Year of Questioning My Unhelpful Thoughts.