ASK, AND YE SHALL RECEIVE: Review of LOVING WHAT IS: FOUR QUESTIONS THAT CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE by Byron Katie

Loving What Is is a self-help book that examines how thoughts create suffering—and how investigating that thinking can provide relief. Author Bryon Katie calls this process “inquiry” and the overall methodology “The Work.” Katie maintains that that “The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is.”

Katie’s process entails writing down a troubling thought on a piece of paper, then asking and answering four questions about it:

1. Is it true?

2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?

3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

4. Who would you be without that thought?

“Inquiry is more than a technique,” Katie writes, “It brings to life, from deep within us, an innate aspect of our being.” I don’t know what this aspect is, and Katie doesn’t say. It suggests some kind of soulfulness, but while this is a book that talks about God, Katie defines God in an unusual way: “For me, the word God means ‘reality.’ Reality is God, because it rules.”

Katie is very concerned about people minding their own business. “Anything that’s out of my control, your control, and everyone else’s control—I call that God’s business.” Katie sees The Work as the way to understand what’s yours to deal with. She point out, “We’re all responsible for our own peace. I could say the most loving words, and you might take offense.”

Katie encourages people to write down everything that’s troubling them, then pick apart those statements, one by one. What The Work seems to do is to allow the participant the ability to understand the story he’s been telling himself about why he’s unhappy. “Inquiry is not about getting rid of thoughts; it’s about realizing what’s true for you…Once you see the truth, the thought lets go of you, not the other way around.”

She shares examples from her own life to illustrate the ideas she’s talking about. Most of her examples are simple and concrete. “My children were perfectly happy with their socks on the floor. Who had the problem? It was me. It was my thoughts about the socks on the floor that had made my life difficult, not the socks themselves.”

Katie’s elaboration on the principles defining her process are interspersed with transcriptions of sessions where she does The Work with various participants in front of a live audience. Katie makes each participant read aloud what they’ve written down, then takes them through the process of inquiry, turning the thought around to “find at least three specific, genuine examples of how each turnaround is true for you in this situation.”

The “turnarounds” often give participants a dose of their own medicine. The advice you’re always foisting on your daughter-in-law? Maybe it’s meant for you to take. “The turnarounds are your prescription for health, peace, and happiness,” Katie writes. “Can you give yourself the medicine that you have been prescribing for others?”

Katie insists The Work cannot just be done mentally. You must write your thoughts down. The mind is too wily, she argues; you can talk yourself out of anything. “Once the mind is stopped on paper, thoughts remain stable, and inquiry can easily be applied.”

Katie posits that “The world is your perception of it. Inside and outside always match—they are reflections of each other.” She likens the mind to a projector. Suffering is “like when there’s a piece of lint on a projector’s lens. We think there’s a flaw on the screen, and we try to change this person and that person, whomever the flaw appears to be on next….Once we realize where the lint is, we can clear the lens itself. This is the end of suffering.”

The real mystery of Loving What Is is not its methodology, but its author. Who is Byron Katie? She was a heavy smoker, calls people she doesn’t know “sweetheart” and “honey,” and sometimes writes and talks in a tone marked by exasperation: “Peace is who you already are, without a story. Can you just live it?”

Her husband, the writer Stephen Mitchell, authors the introduction and provides the most cursory of biographical sketches of Katie: “two marriages, three children, a successful career” (doing what, he does not say), followed by “a ten year downward spiral into rage, paranoia, and despair…Finally, she checked in to a halfway house for women with eating disorders, the only facility that her insurance company would pay for.”

Mitchell doesn’t let the reader discover who Bryon is, through her work (or, in this case, The Work); he foists her on us. Pompously, he writes her legend: “The Work was born on a February morning in 1986 when Bryon Kathleen Reid, a forty-three-year-old woman from a small town in the high desert of Southern California, woke up on the floor of a halfway house.”

Something about this made me resistant to everything that followed, like someone shoving a dripping spoon in my face and saying, “Yum-yum-yum! Here comes the airplane!” As a result, I approached the rest of the book not only with skepticism, but mistrust. Yet the more I read, the more interested I became in the things Katie was saying. Of close-minded thinking, Katie writes, “you have to find a way of defending that position. You have to prove that you’re right about your hatred. That it’s valid and worthwhile.”

It wasn’t the only thing she wrote that resonated with me. Katie writes, “I noticed many times how people, in conversations, the media, and books, made statements such as ‘There isn’t enough understanding in the world,’ ‘There’s too much violence,’ ‘We should love one another more.’ These were stories I used to believe, too. They seemed sensitive, kind, and caring, but as I hear them, I noticed that believing them caused stress and that they didn’t feel peaceful inside me.”

The hardest thing about The Work seems to be sitting down and doing it. Yet even thinking about doing it, asking myself the four questions as I read along, I could feel my thinking starting to shift. “When you ask yourself question 1, your mind begins to open,” Katie writes. “Even to consider that thought may not be true will let a little light into your mind.” In its simplicity, Katie’s method seems almost too good to be true. Yet as she points out, “If it weren’t so simple, I never could have found it.”

Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, Byron Katie with Stephen Mitchell, Harmony Books, 2002, 320 pp.