My vacations are short and intense. Sometimes, they last about a day. But boy, what a day! I got up at 5AM, left the house at 6 and took a bus from Brussels to Amsterdam. There, at the Westerkerk (the church next to Anne Frank’s house), Byron Katie was going to give a workshop. It would cost me 80€, and well hey, if you count almost 8 hours of class, that makes only 10€/hour. And she came all the way from the USA, with a team, I’m sure.
I had heard about her years before, but only worked with the Four Questions once, a few months ago. I was suffering from an impossible relationship, so after watching a few dozens of her videos, I bought the book ‘I need your love. Is that true?‘ One evening I decided to give it a go: I filled out a ‘Judge Your Neighbor’ worksheet and did The Work. And it was over. In one night of questioning, I ended months of torture. And for once, there was no need to replace love with aversion; I felt a stronger, truer love, free from childish tantrums and projections. Of course I got fascinated by this simple process!
So what is The Work? You can find plenty on the website. Basically, it consists of identifying the stressful thought behind your suffering, and questioning that thought : 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? And then you turn your affirmations around (either by saying it is ‘not’ the way you thought, or that instead of the other person, it is YOU who does this, or should do that). That’s all ! (well, it is confronting, but the process is simple.)
And off I went to Amsterdam. I was prepared : I had questioned my lingering pains (and not found much, except maybe a slight irritation due to city life and Brussels’ horrid traffic management: sirens, motors, trucks, buses, pollution and even planes). So frankly, I did not at all feel the need nor the desire to do The Work before an audience with Mrs Katie herself.
Our bus was late, so I hopped into a taxi, telling the driver we needed to rush to Westerkerk as I was late for a conference. He wanted to know what the church service was about. “No, no, a lady from the USA is giving a workshop about ending suffering by questioning our thoughts!” So he proposed to start the workshop in the cab (traffic was slow). He did well: he complained about his mom and his neighbor. He totally got it! It’s always THEIR fault! Then he wanted to know if it was also about God, and grabbed a worn book from underneath the papers on the passenger’s seat: Stephen Hawkins. The clean-cut Dutchman was reading a book by the scientist ‘with only one muscle left that still worked’, and we had our tiny metaphysical discussion. Welcome to Amsterdam.
At Westerkerk church, I was welcomed by a team of smiling folk. I was 30 minutes late and paid my 80€. There were 650 people inside! Standing at the counter, I could eye a little woman with a white sweater and white hair who was softly talking to the audience. The church was luminous and the atmosphere light, though later I realized that most people could barely see Byron Katie or the person she would invite on stage (her ‘parlor’). Some people were sitting with their eyes closed, others were writing things down on a work sheet – The Work in progress!
After what appeared to have been a meditative introduction, the rest of the day Byron Katie proceeded as in her videos: she’d ask the audience if anyone had questions, and a few people would express their desire to do The Work with her. Some were invited into the ‘parlor’, while others could briefly expose their pains standing with a microphone. The first story was powerful, as we witnessed a kind of breakthrough: a woman who suffered because her brother had cut off all contact was guided through her beliefs and feelings towards the brother she had not spoken with for over 13 years. By the end, her face was radiant and open. The simple questions, repeated over and over, made her cry with relief as she let go of her thoughts of resistance and returned to the love she actually felt for her brother.
A dozen people from different countries also shared (or tried to share) their stories: a young woman suffering from moral harassment by her mentally ill mother (“We get bipolar mothers so they can show us what we have inside” and “She did not hug you because she would get sexual feelings and so not hugging you was a way of mothering you”), a mother whose young daughter was about to get brain surgery, where Mrs Katie questioned the audience: “Why can’t I absolutely know she will not ever be able to play the guitar and sing again?” and later: “We have to let go of our expectations about our children”. One man down right questioned the questions, asking how Byron Katie knows that it works, and something about intellectual comprehension. There was also the anxious young man, afraid to end up in a mental hospital like his mother and sister… I felt for all of them, and yet I can’t recall the outcomes of these stories. Maybe the 4 Questions are not that fitting for people who are in a deep crisis or suffer from severe PTSD(*)? I know Mrs Katie loves our daily stories (‘My mom’, ‘My boss’, and of course : ‘My neighbor’) and several times she asked us all to raise our hands to see how universally banal our stressful thoughts are.
Mrs Katie would always ask a person about the subject of their story before inviting them on stage, and sometimes I found the talks slow, a bit unfocussed and hard to follow (also due to the set up and the acoustics of the church). At one point, Mrs Katie gracefully told a young woman she could not help her “as she had a closed mind”, and several times she told people that their stories or questions were not understandable and therefore not treated. It was impossible for me to keep listening for 7 hours. Sometimes, I wished I could have talked with/listened to other people. Simple stuff: “Hello, how are you? Are you having a good time?” Instead, I went to buy a 2€ cup of coffee twice from the church crew and sipped it by myself, as I felt I could not disturb the nice lady or gentleman next to me who were maybe in the process of doing some big inner work. (if you read me: “Hello!” :) ).
Overall, I liked the moments when Byron Katie talked by herself most. Like when she explained she started The Work because “I don’t ever want to hurt my children again with my frustrations!” (my favorite, I can relate to and I wish for any child or parent to relate to this). Or this one: “Angry humans are frightened humans, and instead of compassion, we offer them more of the same. If someone has cancer, we give love and support. When someone is fearful, we kick them.”And: “No one can make me angry. It is what I believe about that person and what they say that is the cause of my anger.” Another more original quote: “‘I love you’ is a very stressful thought. You have to spend the rest of your life proving it! ‘I love’ is free.”
I still don’t know what this day of ‘workshop’ has brought me other than what the videos and books offered me. Have I learned anything new? Maybe the deepest work took place at the mini workshop in the taxi, or was it the work of patience sitting six hours on a bus? There was also my lunch hour in the sun, with a particular hunger for a bite of Amsterdam energy. Another highlight took place upon arrival in Brussels, where I found myself guiding a young Guatemalan man through the nightly South Station (Gare du Midi) in order to get the last tram to Molenbeek. He was surprised by the sight of so many men dressed in djellabahs, as he had never seen people from Morocco or heard of the ‘Ramadan’ in his country. That was quite an eye opener both for him and for me. Culture is not absolute, we are not the center of the world, Amsterdam is still beautiful… and I just spent a day with a lot of stuff happening. Hasta luego!
(*) PTSD: post traumatic stress disorder