February 15, 2007

FEBRUARY 15, 2007

Last night Jennie and I went to a reading sponsored by University Book Store for Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell, two authors who are married to each other. We chose to go to this event because Byron Katie was among the many, many authors mentioned in that book I've been raving about, This Year I Will...., by M.J. Ryan. What little I know about Byron Katie is that she's a modern-day guru, and her message is that reality is a projection of your own mind. When we'd received our monthly flyer in the mail from University Book Store, Jennie was enthusiastic about going to a reading by Stephen Mitchell, because she'd just read a book of his, The Frog Prince, and thought it really charming and witty, and a worthwhile read.

Stephen Mitchell is probably best known for his translation, published in 1988, of the Tao te Ching. Byron Katie is probably best known for what she calls The Work, which is a method of questioning one's thoughts. What Byron Katie has observed, from her own life experience, is that people get trapped in their beliefs about who they are and about how the world treats them or should treat them, and these thoughts cause a lot of suffering.

The book this couple was promoting, the one that the reading was from last night, is A Thousand Names for Joy. The premise of this book is that Stephen read aloud to Katie his translation of the Tao te Ching, and then she dictated her responses to him. (She has a problem with her eyesight and is going blind.) Thus, it's her commentary on the Tao. Stephen bills her as being "an innocent," someone unschooled in any religious traditions.

There was something very touching and very sweet about it -- Stephen Mitchell would quote a line from the Tao te Ching, and then say, "And here's what Katie had to say about it --" My husband should dote on my every word, like this. Stephen Mitchell did all of the reading aloud, last night, but Byron Katie interjected comments here and there, and entertained questions from the audience.

And there was quite an impressive turnout -- not standing room only, as it was for Annie Leibovitz's reading, but the lecture hall was three-quarters full. Byron Katie was instantly recognizable when she entered the room for the reading. She was dressed in solid, charcoal gray: a turtleneck and long skirt, and then a drapey wrap type of garment with close cuffs at the wrists that she wore over the turtleneck and skirt; the charcoal color perfectly set off her white hair. There was a cluster of people in the second and third rows who raised up their arms and pumped their fists in the air when she walked in, so glad they were to see her.

Now, Dear Reader, I'm sure you're wondering what my take is, on all of this. When I went to U Book Store last week to buy the book and the tickets to the reading, and I was standing in line to pay, I opened the book and read the first chapter. And I very nearly put the book back on the table, I thought it was so patently awful. Each chapter begins with a sentence from the Tao te Ching, and then is Byron Katie's free associations about what that might mean. Why do I want to spend $24.95 to read somebody's stream-of-consciousness responses to the Tao te Ching? I was a Philosophy major (and damn near have a Master's in the subject); I can ramble on about the Being of the Non-being with just as much authority and conviction (after all, Katie writes: "My experience is that there's no one with more or less wisdom; we all have it equally") -- and save myself $24.95, to boot.

But I'd made a commitment to Jennie that I'd come home with tickets for the reading, so I went ahead and bought them as well as the book. I've been reading a little bit of the book, every day, out of curiosity, and to pass time while getting in those 10,000 steps on the treadmill each morning.

And here and there in the text, nestled in among the parts that I think are mere rambling, are also things I agree with. Sure, reality is a projection of our own mind, and sure, people do get trapped in their stories ("I'm unlovable" or "I'm important") and then bring their own pain upon themselves ("He doesn't love me" or "They didn't treat me with the respect I deserve"). People get caught up in what they think should happen, and then are unhappy when the world doesn't deliver. This isn't news; we know this without needing to read A Thousand Names for Joy.

But here are some things I hadn't thought of before, or at least, hadn't read put in quite this way before:

At one point, Katie writes: "If I believe that I should be doing anything other than what I am doing right now, I'm insane." And that sentence was so profound, it stopped me in my tracks with a gasp, right there on the treadmill.

And when she writes about doing good works in the world, she writes: "Love is action." Yes! How could any statement be more true?

When I woke up this morning, I thought about the get-up that Byron Katie wore last night. It was reminiscent of monk's robes. Or is that merely a projection of my own mind?

There's a part of me that's very skeptical, very cynical. I think it's disingenuous for Stephen Mitchell to claim that Katie is "an innocent" who knew absolutely nothing about the Tao te Ching and thus her responses are fresh, influenced by nothing other than her open mind. I think it's disingenuous because how could she be married to the translator of the Tao te Ching and yet be completely unfamiliar with it? (But it probably doesn't matter whether her responses came out of the first time she'd ever heard the Tao te Ching, or the thousandth time. And my pointing out this disingenuousness does not in any way take away from my earlier observation that it was so touching and so sweet that Stephen Mitchell wants to show us: "Here's what Katie has to say about it -- ")

There's a paragraph at the end of the first chapter of A Thousand Names for Joy where Byron Katie writes about a man who pulled a gun on her. The story is completely ungrounded in time, place, details. I cannot believe the story because it is so ungrounded. This was one of the reasons I so very nearly put the book back on the table and walked out of U Book Store without buying it.

Byron Katie can write that she doesn't see herself as a spiritual teacher, and that if people see her as a guru, that's simply their own projection -- yet, she's the one who dictated the book that's supposed to teach us how to live in harmony with the way things are, and she's the one who put on the monkish-looking clothing. Looks to me like she's meeting our projections....

Posted by Karen at February 15, 2007 10:43 AM

What, no other comments? Just me, doting on your every word...

Posted by: Scott at February 19, 2007 07:23 PM


Posted by: Karen at February 21, 2007 07:30 AM

Having never heard of the authors or titles in question, just from your post here, I'm completely skeptical. Reality as a projection of the mind is only true subjectively: MY reality is a creation of MY experiences and MY reaction to them. YOUR reality is your creation. Any kid who doesn't like chocolate ice cream knows this. (What? You don't like chocolate ice cream? But it's the BEST! EVERYBODY likes chocolate ice cream! Yeah, right.) And the "if I belive that I should be doing anything other than what I am doing right now, I'm insane" - again, subjective. Maybe you're insane. Me, I'm just distracted, or uneducated, or stymied. There's an infinte number of reasons why I might believe I am not doing what I should. Obviously she never eats cookies at midnight, which we all know we shouldn't do.

Now this is just me here, not an educated philosopher or psychologist or anything, but these people sound like they have a narcisistic personality disorder. The whole sweeping into the room in costume with entourage in tow just seals the package. Nutballs, if you ask me. I grew up in Portland in the height of the Rajneesh craze. If it walks like a cult leader and quacks like a cult leader...

Posted by: terri at February 21, 2007 02:37 PM

PS: For what it's worth, I adore chocolate ice cream. That was just an example.

Posted by: terri at February 21, 2007 02:38 PM

Actually, and in all seriousness, the statement "If I think I *should* be doing anything other than what I *am* doing right now, I'm insane" is becoming my new mantra for time management. Like everybody else in our modern world, I have 16 things to do right now, all of them equally pressing, so what am I going to choose to do? And too many times I have sat down to knit on the blue sweater, and my thoughts have been racing: I shouldn't be knitting *this,* I should be finishing up that other knitting project, I should be balancing my checkbook, I should be getting caught up on the laundry, I should be updating the Two Swans website, I should be getting the supplies so that Allegra can get her homework done -- and I haven't updated my blog in *days.* And on and on my mind goes, finding more things to do and barely letting me concentrate on the blue sweater at hand.

But the new mantra for time management has helped me to focus on the here and now, and shut down those racing thoughts.

And if that's the only good thing I get out of a book that I otherwise think has a rather bizarre premise, that's okay. (Bizarre premise being, "Honey, I'll read you the Tao te Ching, and then you dictate to me your responses and I'll type them up and we'll publish them as a book!")

I should (should!) clarify that Byron Katie was not wearing a costume. Of course I have no idea where she shops, but the outfit was one I'm sure you could walk into Macy's or somewhere similar, and pick out: a turtleneck, a long, flowing skirt, a wrappy thing over the top. But the outfit *was* plain, unadorned, charcoal gray, loose-fitting, covering neck to ankles. And for these reasons reminded my unconscious mind of monk's robes. She *could* have chosen to wear anything: a flowered dress, an aloha shirt and blue jeans -- she *chose* to wear these plain, unadorned, loose-fitting clothes. That's my point.

She and her husband came in by themselves -- but they clearly had fans waiting in the audience. When Jennie and I were standing in line to get our books signed (Jennie had the _Tao te Ching_ and _The Frog Prince_ and I had _A Thousand Names for Joy_), we saw a woman in the front row with a giant tote bag emblazoned with Byron Katie's name and website URL. Clearly this woman was another fan.

But there are a lot of people out there with a lot of baggage. (Make your own association, there: tote bag, baggage....) There are a lot of people out there who are lonely and needy and emotionally hurting in countless many ways.

If what Byron Katie teaches ("The Work") helps these people to find peace of mind, then that's a good thing.

Interesting, though, that you flashed on Rajneesh. I flashed on J.Z. Knight and Ramtha....

Oh, where the mind goes....

Posted by: Karen at February 21, 2007 06:36 PM