Book review: Loving What Is

Byron Katie has written a powerful, possibly life-changing book for those of us who suffer. She was rescued, in her own life, from anger, self-loathing, and addiction, by a self-revelation which left her with a simple, remarkably effective approach to living: recognize what is. Her genius is to observe we successfully negotiate our reality every minute, while our stories about it – our regrets, our fears, our tales of resentment – cause us endless discomfort and leave us feeling inescapably trapped. Her approach is to expose the stories as just stories, and ‘turn them around’ into truths about ourselves which set us free to live, and love ourselves, as we are.

Katie does this through a surprisingly simple, not at all mysterious technique. She asks four simple questions about any troubling thought. Is it true? Can we be absolutely certain that it’s true? What does having the thought make us feel like? What would life be like without the thought? Once these four questions are answered (and honestly answering them can be quite an experience), Katie asks us to ‘turn it around’ so we recognize our own thinking as the source of our anxieties. Liberating stuff. A worthwhile exercise at any time.

As a little child I would lie in bed with my skin hot and flushed, my guts icy cold, terrified a man would start beating my mother in the next room, or, in the morning, men would come and make us leave our home. Months became years, and in my hot-cold sweat I was afraid of being kicked out of school, of losing my job, of being rejected by the girl who made me feel like superman. Then I observed, years ago, my emotions preceded their explanations. I noticed I eagerly arranged my circumstances to justify my inchoate intentions, whatever those might be. Angry, I experienced antagonism; sad, I felt everywhere a loss; loving, the world was my generous partner and friend. So as I lay in my bed, at last, I began to relax.

I did this in a way reminiscent of Katie’s ‘Work.’ I opened myself to inwardly experiencing the worst possibilities, and watched as I lived through them. I learned how the language of fear can be heard and disregarded. I formed sentences describing my distress, and announced their opposites as the ‘real’ truth. I discovered how faith in the concrete reality of any moment loosened my body and soothed my mind. I grew up to understand ironic silence, joy in the present, and appreciation of what, simply, is.

There are differences, though. The purpose of my own understanding isn’t obviously about enjoying myself. Katie preaches a method. Religiously practiced, every such method leads to madness. She celebrates the ‘love’ that emerges when negative stories are stripped away, but there’s nothing inherent in its process to prevent using her method in reverse – we could question the thoughts we enjoy and free ourselves from them, as well. I find Katie’s semantics confusing. Self-inquiry is, of course, story-telling at its best, and page after page she re-narrates her students’ lives in ways which could hardly be less fictional, no matter how much more satisfying.  Katie insists nothing exists until I think it, so I respond with her own question: what would I be like without that thought?

It turns out, I, too, prefer the calmly ebullient, mindful generosity of ‘self’ abandonment. Simply, I think it’s just the beginning. I’m sure when I’m seeing clearly, I can see other souls. It’s an indulgence of the comfortable to believe the person in the street is exactly as should be, even when being run over by a bus. Katie promotes excellent self-repair techniques. Her theology leaves me less satisfied.

I worship the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, father of his living son, Jesus Christ – yes, because my people always have. At our finest, we still can’t distinguish between self-inquiry and self-service. I need to place my feet on what for me is solid ground. From here I can love you, not because you are a wonderful story, but because you are real.

The power of Katie’s conviction arises from her discovery none of us can truly know anything. Look at that squarely and you might break a few chains. If you find yourself believing life is nothing but your own thinking about it, please remember: you can’t be absolutely certain that it’s true.

 

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