Thursday, August 16, 2012

Would you buy a complete metaphysical system from this woman? ... Byron Katie, Part 2.

In our last episode, we met Byron Katie and were introduced to her Four Questions, which supposedly will take you to a new level of peace, happiness and fulfillment. And, in fairness, you'll have no trouble finding legions of online fans.'ll also find legions of people who swear by oxycontin, at least in terms of the narcotic's propensity for making life seem rosier and less anxious (till you run out of the drug). Which raises, in my mind, a Fifth Question: Is what Katie espouses really a valid metaphysical system? Or is it just the New Agey equivalent of oxy...a convenient, seductive-sounding way of rationalizing all the bad stuff (and generating enormous revenues for Katie, or so we're led to believe)?

Once again, we'll let Katie set the tone in her own words. This is from her site:
"The Work of Byron Katie is a way of identifying and questioning the thoughts that cause all the anger, fear, depression, addiction, and violence in the world. Experience the happiness of undoing those thoughts through The Work, and allow your mind to return to its true, awakened, peaceful, creative nature.
On another page appears this quote from Katie herself:
"I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn't believe them, I didn't suffer, and that this is true for every human being."
The premise of Katie's system, then, as I understand it, is that very little in life is objectively true. It's just a matter of how we see things. And since so many of us harbor thoughts, feelings and beliefs that are unduly dark—i.e., like looking at the world through the antithesis of rose-colored glasses—we need to learn to try to see life for what it really is, stripped of our own overlay of fear, diffidence, etc.

OK then, since we're operating in the realm of questions, let me ask another: If, as Katie suggests, there's no such thing as objective truth...then why would we question only the negative human interpretations of that higher, unreachable truth? Suppose my abiding view of my life is, "I am happy and safe here. I feel confident and whole." If I subscribe to that thought, am I supposed to subject it to the scrutiny of the Four Questions? (Or do I just leave that one alone.) And if not, why not? What kind of "philosophy of life" is it that applies only to thoughts you don't want to have or facts you'd rather not know?

Similarly, take a look at Katie's emotions list, to be used as a guide in answering the "How do you feel" question. It presupposes that when you take this course, your emotions are negative, and thus the turnaround will provide positive answers. This makes no sense to me on its face. Why are we questioning the legitimacy of the thoughts that breed anger, fear and depression, and not the legitimacy of the thoughts that cause peace, happiness, elation? After all, who's to say that the natural state of your mind is to be peaceful and creative? (OK, well, Katie says it. But who the hell is she?)

Like recovery theory, which posited that "it's never your fault," blaming all dysfunction either on genetics (over which we're powerless) or upbringing (again, you don't pick your parents), Katie's Work is an escape hatch—a mechanism not for finding truth, but for avoiding it.

To get down to cases:  In this piece from, a woman with cancer uses The Work to question her medical status and thus feel freer, better. She finally comes to an epiphany of sorts where she concedes she doesn't literally know that she has cancer; that's just the diagnose she was given. Thinking that way makes her feel better. As she writes:
"The thought that I had cancer made me feel terrified and immobilized. Without that thought, I was free—I was just myself, sitting on my bed with the windows open, completely alive and enjoying the breeze."
So let's turn that around. In my case, I haven't been given a diagnosis that I have cancer. But how do I know that I don't have it? Doesn't The Work also contemplate my way of thinking? While I'm sitting here in my home office with the window open, enjoying the breeze, there might be cancer afoot somewhere in my body, alongside the stroke I already had (or maybe I didn't have it; the bastards could have lied). Or maybe there's a strain of airborne Ebola wafting in through the open window...

But seriously, even if the woman above is correct in posing that she doesn't know that she objectively, factually has cancer, her diagnosticians, with all their years of training and accumulated expertise, surely would be closer to ascertaining the objective truth of the matter than she is in denying it.

And don't we absolutely need to consider probabilities in everyday decision-making? "No, I don't know that the gun I'm putting in my mouth is loaded. I don't even know that it's a real gun (And what is a gun, anyway?) So I guess I'll just pull this trigger here and..."

I wonder: Is Bryon Katie the kind of person who just plows right on through red lights because she doesn't know there's cross-traffic racing through the intersection?

If a philosophical system is valid, then it is always valid, for all people in all settings. Any system of though that "works" only when you use it to make yourself feel better is not a metaphysical system.... It's a crutch. That's why I have to give Rhonda Byrne props for being philosophically consistent (if for little else): If you're going to argue that projecting happy thoughts into the Universe can bring vast riches into your life, then you have to concede the possibility that negative projections can attracts the likes hurricanes, terrorist hijackers and other gross misfortunes.

In the end it would seem that for all its New Age flair, The Work reduces to little more than an over-intellectualized entreaty to "Just feel better about life, dammit! ... Accentuate the positive!" Why does anyone need Byron Katie for that?

Next time we get down to Business...


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, you deterministic cynic, you! Can you not recognize the emotional benefits implicit in the suspension of common sense?

Despite what Katie or Byrne might like to believe (and as I've stated many times), life is terminal, and nobody gets out alive. Accepting this "negative" reality as an inescapable aspect of the "positive" reality that is our living state is actually quite liberating. Not to mention simpler and less expensive than some scammer's expensive coaching seminars, workshops, "subliminal" CDs, and the like.

Shit happens. We can choose between dealing with it as best we can, or spending lots of time and money trying to justify why it happened, in the vain hope of stopping it from happening. One is a realist's approach, the other, an escapist's.

Rob Schwartzman said...

I think you're fighting a straw man, Steve.

Katie doesn't say that "The Work" is a metaphysical system. She says it's a way to examine the thoughts that can produce unpleasant feelings.

Can you investigate pleasant thoughts? Of course. And neutral ones as well. Investigating each can deliver quite interesting effects.

Let's use your example:

"I don't have cancer." Is it true? I don't know. I might. Doctors say that your body produces cancer cells all the time, but your immune system usually kills them before they become tumors. And some tumors go into remission. It's possible that I have or had cancer and don't know or didn't know.

How do you react when you think that thought? (the thought "I don't have cancer.") Well, on the one hand, I get a bit nervous and wonder if I do. On the other, I'm amazed that my body takes care of itself most of the time. On another hand, it makes we want to take better care of myself. And on another, I realize that I've got to die somehow, and cancer is one of the ways that many people die, and that understanding makes me feel less concerned about dying. And on the last hand, I'm grateful to not be dealing with cancer at this moment, whether I have it or not, since I have friends who are dealing with it, and it's not pleasant.

Who would I be without the thought "I don't have cancer"? I'd be the same, since I don't usually think this thought.

Turn it around -- 1) I do have cancer (Yes, that's possible. Maybe I'll get that checkup I've put off for 2 years); 2) My thinking doesn't have cancer (That seems as true; I usually don't think about cancer. I don't feel like something is growing out of control in my mind.); 3) My thinking DOES have cancer (turning around the turn around -- Well, sometimes I do obsess in a way that feels cancerous, or sometimes I have really unpleasant thoughts. So, metaphorically, that sounds as true as well.); 4) I don't have perfect health (turning around "cancer" -- well that's true, but who does? I feel calmer realizing that nobody on the planet is in perfect health and I'm just one of those billions of people. In fact, I must admit, that considering this thought is resulting in a pleasant feeling of being a part of something much bigger than myself, namely, the human race with all it's imperfections); 5) I do have perfect health (another turnaround of a turnaround -- Since I'm not dead now, and not suffering at this very moment, then in this moment my health is "perfect." Now that expansive feeling I mentioned before is taking on another characteristic that I can best describe as appreciation of being myself and just a small part of something much bigger.)

BTW, I'm not saying Katie, or even TW, is beyond reproach. But, frankly, your criticism seems much less informed, nuanced, and clear as it usually is.

Steve Salerno said...

Rob, I think you're missing my point. What I'm saying is that Katie has added a lot of "nuance" to a "system" that reduces to "Don't worry, be happy." That's all there is to it. The rest is window dressing, put there in order to make it sound like it has some philosophical validity.

In order for The Work to be accepted as more than just a self-involved rationalization (or more than the equivalent of emotional oxy), it would have to be a complete metaphysical system. And it clearly isn't.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Byron Katie, have you ever checked out Martha Beck? She's Oprah's "life coach." I bring this up because the reviews for her latest book on Amazon are hilarious! Seems quite a few of her fans aren't drinking the Koolaide anymore with her.

Beck is a fan of Katie, which is why your post reminded me of her. Beck is also getting a lot of criticism for her life coaching training. Just something for you to check out whenever you get a chance.

Steve Salerno said...

I mention Beck in "SHAM."

Jenny said...

Hey, Steve. I'm looking forward to the next installment here, not so much because I've been following Katie (I haven't) but because, by coincidence, I came across something this morning by her that piqued my interest. Maybe I'll blog about it, although I hesitate to "pick on" people too much when I write stuff I want people to read. Why, you may ask. Because it opens the door for people to begin picking on me! Anyway, looking forward to hearing from you again.

Anonymous said...

Wayne Dyer was once a huge fan of B.K. He even appeared on stage doing his schtick with her. Not sure if he is still a chum as B.K's husband was suing Wayne for plagiarism.
Interesting as Cosmic Connie points out for a guru that spends a lot of time asking people who they would be without their stories, she spends a heap of time lecturing others about hers.

Robert Markowitz said...

I've gone to several Byron Katie workshops and I've done the work for years. Analyzing what she does with everyday consciousness is not helpful. Sorry, but if you really want to evaluate what she does fairly, it's necessary to actually try it, and it really helps to learn it from someone who has been doing it for a while. Her work accessing a polarity of mind that is not usually available to us, i.e. sanity, wholeness. Sure, you have a right to your opinion, but her work is not really a philosophy, it's a technique to dive deeper.