January 21, 2008

Back to the School

I wrote this article some years ago, and for several years it was available at TheWork.com. It stands the test of tme with a few tweaks, so I'm rerunning it here to convey the School for The Work experience without giving away the store.

The Work, and the life-changing experience of the School (which I attended twice as a participant; I'm a tough case), are why I am who I am and do what I do today.


Extreme Internal Makeover: Nine Days to a Kinder Mind
by Carol L. Skolnick

"Is it true that you're too fat?' the silver-haired woman pointedly asks a thirtyish man who is quite large by the world's standards; it is difficult for him to walk upstairs or even to breathe, and he has never had a relationship with a woman. He has just revealed his despair and self-disgust to a gathering of about 300 strangers.

'Sweetheart,' the woman continues, 'Can you absolutely know that it's true? How do you treat yourself when you believe this lie, this mythology?' The man enumerates the sad details of a life of self-hatred. The woman, Byron Katie, understands—she's been there—but more importantly, the man gets it...that he's been beating himself based on erroneous beliefs about what constitutes self-worth. He comes to see, after answering a few more of Katie's questions, that the point is not to neglect one's body and health, but to be happy in the meantime. What hurts less, Katie asks: to be at war with reality or a lover of 'what is?' One way brings peace, the other stress. We can be overweight (or out of love with our spouse, or living with cancer) and be in hell, or we can question our thoughts and be in heaven...and it doesn't mean we won't diet (or get divorced, or get chemo). It's almost too simple.

"If I think I'm not beautiful," Katie tells the audience, "I'm confused. If I see someone's less than perfect, I'm insane."

Byron Katie specializes in extreme makeovers of the internal kind; she comes equipped with a surgical team of four self-inquiry questions designed with the purpose of helping people deconstruct their painful stories.

"Confusion is the only suffering," Katie tells rapt audiences all over the world, and she ought to know. She was one confused, suffering lady. "But," she says, "only for 43 years."

You'd never guess that this charmng, sixty-something Eileen Fisher-sporting grandmother—whose popularity in part lies in her unique ability to make a public program attended by hundreds feel as intimate as a coffee date—was once an obese, suicidal, pill-popping depressive who slept with a loaded gun under her pillow, unable to care for her family, afraid to venture outside. Prior to that she had been one of those suburban American Dream types: a gorgeous blonde with an adoring husband, three healthy kids, the finest home on her Barstow, California block...and a Midas touch with real estate.

But for Byron Kathleen Reid (everyone calls her Katie)—who began, perhaps, as a garden variety middle-class neurotic but became seriously unhinged over a period of ten years—nothing was ever enough, and no one understood her, least of all Katie herself.

"Love thy neighbor as thyself," she often jokes. "I always had. I hated me, I hated you."

One day in 1986, at the age of 43, Katie rose from the ashes like a suburban phoenix, as she lay on the floor (because she felt unworthy to sleep in the bed provided to her) of a Los Angeles-area halfway house for women with eating disorders. Only weeks earlier she had been diagnosed by professionals as mentally fragmented, a hopeless case. Suddenly, Katie realized she'd had it all backwards...that a thought creates a feeling, and a feeling based on believing a thought to be true creates a life...that when she attached to a self-defeating thought or a judgment about another, she suffered, and when she questioned the validity of the belief, she experienced a deep and abiding joy. Katie calls that life-changing instant her "moment of clarity," and she has been on the road cluing in others ever since.

Katie can't tell you exactly what happened to create such a sea-change, but she has devised a written technique, called The Work, so that anyone can experience, and maintain, the radical shifts in perception that she had. The method—consisting of four targeted self-inquiry questions, related subquestions, and a thought-reversal technique called a turnaround—is deceptively simple, surprisingly deep, free for the asking (see www.thework.com), explained in greater detail in Katie's book, LOVING WHAT IS: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life (Harmony Books, 2002), and expounded upon further in I NEED YOUR LOVE—IS THAT TRUE? How to Stop Seeking Love, Approval, and Appreciation and Start Finding Them Instead (Harmony Books, 2005), and in A THOUSAND NAMES FOR JOY: Living in Harmony with The Way Things Are (Harmony books, 2007).

The Work bears some resemblance to cognitive therapies, to Socratic dialog, even to Zen Buddhism, although Katie had no knowledge of psychology, philosophy or spirituality prior to her metanoia. Her Work is based only on her direct experience of how suffering is created in the mind, and how we can end it—not by dropping thoughts, but by investigating them.

For those hearty souls ready for gut renovation, Katie offers weekend intensives and a nine-day School for The Work, a total immersion program with a demanding, interactive curriculum designed to directly impart her own experience of "waking up to reality." The School is attended in large numbers by all manner of truth-seekers as well as business people, educators, therapists, coaches, and anyone interested in meeting the mind (and the people and situations of their lives) with clear understanding.

Why should anyone go into lockdown for more than a week with some lady from the Mojave desert, just to explore why it hurts to believe that your partner should get a job, your mother didn't love you or that the government is corrupt? Graduates' claims of addictions falling away, relationships saved, and increased efficiency in their work lives are interesting...and the testimonies of trauma victims coming to terms with everything from incest to terrorism have drawn more than 100,000 people seeking their own relief to Katie's program worldwide.

Glenn Koshar, who used to counsel inmates at a Northhampton, Massachusetts state prison, initially wanted to bring the process into his profession...and discovered an even greater benefit of attending The School for The Work for his personal life:

"In my passion to be right, I often missed the bigger picture, the whole truth, even in situations I had gone over a thousand times before," says Koshar, a married father of two. "I was able to resolve issues with my father that had plagued me for more than a decade. I found forgiveness for his choices and forgiveness for my own blind rage and self-righteousness.

"I still have plenty to inquire about," Koshar readily admits, "but I have also found a deeper peace. While therapy, talking to friends and family was sometimes helpful, I never got the resolution I needed to let go and move on. The School allowed me to find forgiveness and gratitude, where previously there was only bitterness and self-pity."

Basking in Byron Katie's loving attention, and absorbing a week's worth of her considerable wit and wisdom, are bonus attractions of the School for The Work. Katie facilitates all sessions herself, assisted by a small core staff and a larger cadre of volunteer graduates. Being around someone with her degree of clarity can be very inspiring; Time magazine, in a profile of Katie, gushingly called her "a visionary for the new millennium." As for Katie, she makes no such claims, "I don't know anything about that," she says. "I only know the difference between what hurts and what doesn't."

"Reality is always kinder than the story we tell about it," says Katie. So perhaps the single most compelling reason to attend the School for The Work is the opportunity to learn how to fall in love with everyday life as it shows up. Once examined under the microscope of inquiry, annoyances major and minor cease to be a problem, people need not change to make us happy, obstacles become opportunities for self-realization ("Stress is a compassionate alarm clock, letting us know we're in the nightmare," Katie says) and a trip to the grocery store can be as exciting as a world tour.

As Paula Brittain from Colorado—a School for The Work graduate who now works with Katie's organization—puts it, "The School sends people out into the world, the real school, with tools to just watch life get better and better."


For more information about the School for The Work, visit TheWork.com.

©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.

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