25/04/2008

Loving What Is (by Byron Katie)

This is not the kind of book I would normally come across; it's not a Christian book, it's not fiction, and it's nothing to do with personality theory or nutrition. However, it was recommended to me by someone on a personality related mailing list, and endorsed by someone else; I was interested enough to look at the website for the intriguingly named Byron Katie (who is known as Katie, but apparently doesn't use a surname).

Her theory is that all our mental and emotional pain and suffering is a result of our own thinking, and that by turning it around, after asking ourselves four main questions (and a few supplementary ones), we can get rid of all unhappiness and learn to live contentedly in the present moment.

A bit simplistic? Yes, that's how it sounded to me, when I browsed her site. I don't carry around a load of guilt or hurt anyway. I know there are some folk who seem to bear grudges for years, so I thought perhaps it might help them, but I am pretty good at letting go of the past.

However, the book was discussed again, and I was ordering a couple of other items from Amazon in the USA, so I decided I would order 'Loving what is' as well, since I was becoming intrigued by the concept. (And the dollar was very weak thus it was good value when converted to sterling!)

The book starts with a brief autobiographical overview of how Byron Katie turned away, almost overnight, from being severely depressed. She woke up one day, realising that she had the power in her own mind to turn around the anger and guilt she carried inside, and to learn to 'love what is' - to live in the moment, to accept each circumstance as it came along without pain. She calls this 'The Work'. Then there's a brief dialogue that shows 'The Work' in action.

Then there are a few chapters explaining of how 'The Work' is done. Details of tihs can be found on The Work website. Basically, people fill in a short worksheet, writing down why they are angry or hurt by someone, and what they wish would change about them. They are encouraged to be as judgemental as possible (the worksheets are titled 'judge your neighbour') and to explain exactly what they person is feeling about the people who upset or angered them.

Then there are four basic questions which are asked about the various statements made - do you know it's true? Are you absolutely sure it's true? How do you react when you think the thought? Who would you be without the thought? There are a few supplementary questions too, depending on the circumstances. Then a 'turnaround' is encouraged, where the person who did the worksheet tries to find ways of turning his or her statements around, and pondering whether or not they are more true than the originals.

There follow several more dialogues which Katie had with various people as they unravelled their problems - irritation with their loved ones, annoyance at children or colleagues, flashbacks to painful circumstances in the past, and more. They're divided roughly by subject matter, and follow similar patterns.

In one sense it all seems a bit clinical - after all, in a book like this, dialogues are going to be found which show 'The Work' as successful. There's no mention of people who did not find it helpful, or who were so stuck in their own stories about reality that they refused to answer the questions. Everyone seems to 'get it' pretty quickly. Maybe that's how it happens; yet I find myself a little skeptical.

However, the book does encourage the reader to do their own worksheet - to write down some judgements, rather than just think about them. A few day after I started reading this, something happened that made me rather angry with someone, so I decided I might as well try the system. To my surprise, the discipline of writing down all my most negative thoughts about the person in question, and the structure of the questions, meant that I could quite easily come up with turnarounds and see how I was contributing to my own annoyance. Someone did something, and it was in the past - I was hanging onto it, which had no positive benefit to anyone. Letting go turned out to be remarkably easy.

It was only a minor incident which I've now almost forgotten, but it did help me see how very powerful this 'work' can be, if someone is willing to go into it thoroughly. There are many people who carry around a lot of 'shoulds' and 'oughts' - and those are, very often, the first things that need to be unravelled in Byron Katie's questioning or 'enquiry' process.

At the end, there are some further questions which Katie answers, and I found that useful. They looked, for instance, at whether it's possible to be so in love with the present that we just watch painful circumstances and do nothing - she insists that the reverse is true.

My one reservation about 'Loving what is' is that there seems to be a rather Zen/Buddhist/New Age feel to some of it, with God relegated to 'the universe', or even a way of thinking about reality, rather than a living, loving Person. And, like all self-help books, it's very self-focussed. But that's perhaps not a bad thing, since many of the burdens which people carry around are totally self-centred, without their realising it.

Still, reading it from a Christian perspective it was still very interesting and quite eye-opening to find how well the system can work, albeit on something minor that I would probably have forgotten in a few days anyway.

It's not a book to read in one sitting - I dipped into it, off and on, for about a month. But it's one to come back to, and perhaps to share with others. Definitely recommended.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, April 2008

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