Esalen is located about three hours south of San Francisco on a rocky bluff right above the Pacific Ocean. The workshop with Byron Katie, the reason that lured me to Esalen, began at 8:30pm on Friday night.
The workshop was held in a revival-like tent a good ten minute walk away from the main lobby area. I took a seat and immediately wondered as people poured into the tent, What am I doing here? On the seats were packets containing fliers for Katie’s other programs, a snippet from one of her books and a Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet. This is what it looks like:
Without any prelude, she started right in by asking us all to take out our Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet and began answering it. I couldn’t come up with someone I was angry with so I chose myself. I wrote: “I choose Alicia. She’s pissing me off. I’m frustrated with her. Why can’t she get her act together? Why isn’t she married? More successful? Or why is she so anxious, fearful, vulnerable and stupid?” Then I stopped, Good Lord, I thought – who is this Alicia judging the other one?
As if on cue, Katie (what everyone calls her) quietly spoke into her mike, “there are no new stressful thoughts. We just recycle them. We attach and that’s how it becomes a belief. Anything you believe against your true beauty is what causes stress. It’s rough to believe some of the thoughts we’re believing. We either question what we believe or we live it out.”
Then audience members began to ask questions. Katie runs her workshops in a case study style. She uses the experiences and questions of the audience to demonstrate how her method of challenging painful thoughts works. This method is what is called The Work.
A mother stood up and related that she had overheard her daughter talking with school girlfriends and the daughter told them that her boyfriend had called her a bitch. So Katie took it on. “Katie, you’re a bitch,” she said. Then she walked through the four questions with the first being, is it true? She said, “I turn to me and ask myself that. And I think, Oh yeah, I can find some of that. Let me ask what pieces he sees where I’m a bitch because I don’t want to be that way. He’s my friend. I’m open.”
She went on to advise the mother to encourage her daughter to question the painful thought, I’m a bitch. Basically, inquire why the boyfriend was calling her that instead of fighting the statement. The mother sat down visually stunned.
Katie added, “Denial is the pain. What we deny is what we suffer. A true seeker goes to her enemies.”
She continued by saying it’s possible to never experience rejection again. Using the “bitch” example, she explained that you can choose to look at it like they’re not rejecting me – they’re enlightening me. When you feel defensive that’s a clue that you’ve got a wall up – why do you need it? Especially if you believe that person is there to enlighten you and not hurt you. If you think they’re there to hurt you – then you’re just projecting. A defense is the mind’s way of putting up a wall to a powerful wisdom, knowledge.
I agreed with her explanation of defensiveness though it is really tough sometimes not to be. But Katie seems to be truly open. She walks into every room with this thought, “I know everyone here loves and cares about me, they just haven’t realized it, yet.” Her goal is to never meet a stranger or fear another human being. “The only way I can feel alone is to believe something about you that would separate us. The moment you believe your negative thoughts there’s a separation. It drops when I question what I think about you,” she said. Which made me realize I was questioning a lot about her.
At the end of the first night all I could think was, I have so many beliefs to question. Luckily, a man in the crowd stood up and expressed the same sentiment, to which Katie replied, “I’d question that.”
The crowd was noticeably thinner. She started the session by digging into the The Judge Your Neighbor worksheet. She explained that the worksheet is basically a written form of meditation. To judge someone else is the short cut to your own denial system. Your enlightenment lies in your answers – not the ones you hope they are or think they should be. She instructed us to listen and experience the answer to the question; “if you can hear it, it’s for you.”
The idea is to answer every question quickly on your Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet – don’t over think it. Then walk through the 4 questions for each question on the worksheet except for question #6. For that question the turn around should be “I am willing to…” and “I look forward to…” Doing this really gave folks a hard time. Katie said, “People are superstitious. They think if I say it, it will happen.” She challenges that by saying, “Good - if that happens to me it’s to show me what I’m not enlightened to yet.” She added it’s easier to welcome uncomfortable moments when you realize that reality is always kinder than your story. The only obstacles are what you are believing. Katie concluded, “It’s just an illusion and yet that illusion is creating your entire world.”
It seemed that not even small, seemingly inconsequential beliefs could get by without Katie’s scrutiny. When an audience member mentioned she was afraid of the dark walking over to the tent, Katie responded, “Of course you’re afraid of the dark because you’re projecting something into the dark. The dark was never that cruel. Can’t trust your thoughts? This is a way to find peace. What is real and what is not says you. Nothing terrible has ever happened; it’s what you’re believing in that moment.”
I have to say, it was pretty hard to believe that someone could embody this philosophy so whole-heartedly – could actually live it every moment of every day. But Katie seems to. There were many incidents that occurred that might have rattled a lesser person – like at one point the electricity went out, her mike didn’t work several times and an audience member called her out on having had a face lift. She was unmoved. She was placid and receptive to it all. I began to think she must have had a stroke.
The rest of the day she spent helping different audience members work through their Judge Your Neighbor worksheets.
Her response to a man who believed his father abandoned him: “If anyone leaves me, I’ve been spared.”
To a woman concerned about the recession and her retirement savings: “The retirement you’re going to have – you’re going to be left with your state of mind. Many people think money is the answer. They think I’m going to be safe, happy and secure. Is that true?”
One of the more powerful learning moments came when Katie worked with a woman who had been raped by two men 36 years ago. Katie asked the woman, “How long did the rape last?”
“Seven hours,” she replied.
“How long have you been raping that woman in your head?” Katie responded.
The woman looked struck. Katie continued, “Didn’t you say it’s been 36 years? Who then showed the most mercy – those men or you? Those men stopped.”
The bold statement sparked a turning point in that woman’s thinking that the whole room felt. It was a powerful demonstration of challenging beliefs.
Finally, after a long day of doing the work, a man stood up and said, “I’ve spent years working on myself and am frustrated.” She says, “Well yeah, considering there’s nothing wrong with you.”
The turnout was even sparser. What Katie is espousing is not easy to understand or accept. Still, I found that I reached a level of peace when I started questioning my beliefs. It was as if, taking full responsibility for my life, though at times hard to do, was also a relief.
She helped additional people walk through the questioning of their painful thoughts. One of the questions that came up is what happens if the painful thought comes up again. She said, “Let’s say you’re at peace and then someone says something you experience as a criticism – the womp. Get excited for that because it’s an opportunity to access a piece of the puzzle. It will show you what you’re still believing that stands between you and loving what is.”
She left us with these parting words, “This is a full-time job. If there’s fear in you then it’s not done. If you can’t walk in the streets and feel connected to everyone then you have work to do. If you can’t find peace, how can you expect others to? Work on you – it’s your only hope.”