A Mind at Home with Itself is a book about generosity. It’s structured around the Diamond Sutra, one of the great spiritual texts of the world (newly translated in these pages by Stephen Mitchell), which uses the diamond as a metaphor. In the same way that a diamond can cut through any substance, inquiry cuts through any stressful thought, any blindness or delusion of the mind. The sutra is an extended meditation on selflessness. The original stressful thought is the thought of “I.” To the clear mind there is no self and no other, and once you begin to understand this radical truth, generosity is the natural result. In this book Byron Katie doesn’t merely describe the awakened mind; she empowers us to see it and feel it, in action.
A Mind at Home with Itself is a book about generosity. How can we be generous not just occasionally but all the time, every day of our lives? It sounds like an unattainable ideal, but what if it’s not? What if generosity can become as natural as breathing? This book shows you how. All it takes is an open mind, a mind willing to question any stressful thought that arises within it. When we understand who we really are, behind all our confused thinking, we discover the constant, effortless generosity that is our birthright.
Byron Katie Mitchell (everyone calls her Katie) speaks from the depths of realization. Her method of self-inquiry, which she calls The Work, is a kind of enhanced mindfulness. As we do The Work, not only do we remain alert to our stressful thoughts— the ones that cause all the anger, sadness, and frustration in the world—but we question them, and through that questioning the thoughts lose their
“Great spiritual texts,” Katie says, “describe the what—what it means to be free. The Work is the how. It tells you exactly how to identify and question any thought that would keep you from that freedom. It gives you a direct entrance into the awakened mind.” A Mind at Home with Itself will let you see the world through the eyes of someone who has woken up to reality, the radiant moment, the state of grace in which there is no separation and the heart overflows with love.
For readers who haven’t heard about Byron Katie, here is some background. In the midst of an ordinary American life—two marriages, three children, a successful career—Katie entered a ten-year-long downward spiral into depression, agoraphobia, self-loathing, and suicidal despair. She drank to excess, her husband brought her pints of ice cream and codeine pills that she ate like candy, and she ended up weighing over two hundred pounds. She slept with a .357 Magnum revolver under her bed. Every day she prayed not to wake up the next morning, and it was only because of her concern for her children that she didn’t kill herself. For the last two years of this ordeal she could seldom manage to leave her house; she stayed in her bedroom for days at a time, unable even to shower or brush her teeth. (“What’s the use?” she thought. “It all adds up to nothing anyway.”) Finally, in February 1986, at the age of forty-three, she checked herself into a halfway house for women with eating disorders—the only facility that her insurance company would pay for. The residents were so frightened of her that they put her in an attic bedroom and booby-trapped the staircase at night; they thought she might come down and do something terrible to them.
One morning, after about a week at the halfway house, Katie had a life-changing experience. As she lay on the floor (she didn’t feel worthy enough to sleep in a bed), a cockroach crawled across her ankle and down her foot. She opened her eyes, and all her depression and fear, all the thoughts that had been tormenting her, were gone. “While I was lying on the floor,” she says, “I understood that when I was asleep, prior to cockroach or foot, prior to any thoughts, prior to any world, there was—there is—nothing. In that instant, the four questions of The Work were born.” She felt intoxicated with joy. The joy persisted for hours, then days, then months and years.
When she went home, her children, who had lived in fear of her outbursts, could barely recognize her. Her eyes had changed. “The blue had become so clear, so beautiful,” her daughter, Roxann, says. “If you looked in, you could see that she was as innocent as a baby. She was happy all day long, every day, and she seemed to be brimming over with love.” She spent most of the time silent, sitting for hours on the window seat or out in the desert. Her younger son, Ross, says, “Before the change, I couldn’t look into her eyes; after it, I couldn’t stop looking into them.”
It took Katie years to learn how to speak about her state of being. She had no external context for her awareness; she had never read spiritual books or heard about spiritual practices. She just had her own experience to guide her, and all she needed was the inquiry that was alive in her.
Katie’s rebirth was more radical than the kind of conversion experience that William James documents in The Varieties of Religious Experience—so radical, in fact, that she had to relearn (or, from her perspective, learn) everything about being human: how to function in time and space, how to break reality apart into nouns and verbs so that she could communicate with people, how to pretend that past and future were real. And its effect was directly opposite from the usual conversion experience in that it didn’t result in the acceptance of a religious belief. Her clarity didn’t and couldn’t permit a single belief. It burned through religious concepts along with all other thoughts. After her awakening, she continued to feel—to be—the uninterrupted presence of the love she had awoken as. “I felt that if my joy were told,” she says, “it would blow the roof off the halfway house—off the whole planet. I still feel that way.”
During that first year, in the midst of her great joy, beliefs and concepts continued to arise in her mind. The way she dealt with them was through inquiry. She would often go out alone into the desert, which began just a few blocks away from her house in Barstow, California, to inquire into these thoughts.
Whenever a belief appeared in my mind—the big one was “My mother doesn’t love me”—it exploded in the body like an atom bomb. I noticed shaking, contraction, and the apparent annihilation of peace. The belief might also be accompanied by tears and a stiffening of the body. It might have appeared to an onlooker that I was affected from the toes to the top of the head with upset and sadness. But in fact I always continued to experience the same clarity, peace, and joy that had arisen when I woke up on the floor in the halfway house, with no “I” left, no world, and laughter just pouring out of my mouth. The belief that had arisen would always fall away and dissolve in the light of truth. What shook the body was the remnant of the belief, which appeared as an uncomfortable feeling. From this discomfort I automatically knew that the belief wasn’t true. Nothing was true. The awareness of this was experienced as glorious humor—glorious, rapturous joy.
Inquiry continued for a year or so, until all the beliefs and concepts were burned up. The method was tested in the laboratory of her experience, with a more stringent standard of sanity than even the most meticulous scientist of the mind could devise. Any thought or mental event that had the tendency to pull her off balance, anything that caused a reaction in her that was a diminishment of her peace and joy, was subjected to rigorous inquiry, until the thought was met with understanding. “I am someone who only wants what is,” Katie says. “To meet as a friend each concept that arose turned out to be my freedom. That’s where The Work begins and ends—in me. The Work reveals that you can love it all, exactly as it is. And it shows you exactly how.” By the end of this process, during the second year after her awakening, only the clarity remained.
Soon after Katie’s return from the halfway house, word spread in Barstow about a “lit lady,” and some people found themselves magnetically attracted to her and her freedom. As more and more people came to see her, she became convinced that what they needed, if anything, was not her personal presence, but a way to discover for themselves what she had realized. The Work is an embodiment of the wordless questioning that had woken up in her. She had lived and tested it. Now she formulated it, as if in slow motion, for other people to use. Over the past thirty-one years it has helped millions of people around the world begin to free themselves from stress, frustration, anger, and sadness.
A Mind at Home with Itself is structured around the Diamond Sutra, one of the great spiritual texts of the world. The sutra is an extended meditation on selflessness. Selfless, in ordinary usage, is a synonym for generous; it means “acting for the benefit of another person rather than for yourself.” Its literal meaning, though, is “without a self,” which means both “not having a self” and “realizing that there is no such thing as a self.” You may think that this second meaning is a spiritual concept, since trying to get rid of your self may seem as impossible as walking away from your shadow. But after you have practiced inquiry or meditation for a while, you can see that it is “self” that is actually the concept here, rather than “not having a self.” However hard you try, it’s impossible to locate anything in reality that corresponds to that noun. To the clear mind there is no self and no other, as the sutra says, and once you understand this truth, selfishness radically subsides. The more your sense of self dissolves in the light of awareness, the more generous you naturally become. In all its variations, that is the central truth that the sutra is trying to wake us up to.
One of my jobs as co-writer of this book was to find a balance between what is accurate for Katie and what is intelligible to a large audience. The process had to end in relative failure, though “failure” is a concept foreign to her. “The Diamond Sutra,” she emailed me, from the couch three feet away from my armchair, “cries out for an awareness beyond anything that can be articulated. The sutra knows that the simplest way to present the truth is to negate anything that can be said. That is accurate and generous. I speak or write my comments, and you shape them and tidy them and get them as close to my lived experience as you possibly can, and still the words are lies. You have a tough job, dearest. I’m the cat you’re trying to herd.”
I enjoyed the job of catherd. Where I have failed in these pages, Katie’s words may seem to take themselves seriously. Where I have succeeded, the words sound the way Katie does in person: clear, loving, funny, generous, hip, and helpfully alarming.
I have included some Katie stories from the first year or so after her experience of waking up to reality. This has the disadvantage of pointing to what Katie calls “the woman,” the person Byron Katie, which is not something she often finds a reason to do; I had to wheedle these stories out of her by the sincerity of my fascination. But including them here has the advantage of making the truths of the Diamond Sutra more vivid and personal. The stories may be unsettling, even frightening, to some readers; they may make it seem as if Katie’s experience was some kind of mental breakdown, and therefore dismissible. But as wild as some of them sound, in essence they are about a woman settling, through a process of ecstatic trial-and-error, into a profound and balanced sanity.
There is very little that has been written from the inside about the experience of deep self-realization. We have just sketches and tag-lines from the ancient masters: “When he saw the peach blossoms,” the old accounts say—or “When the door slammed on his leg and broke it”—“he suddenly awoke.” Nothing is said about how the whole world crumbled and changed for the astonished seeker. And there is almost nothing about the aftermath of these experiences. In addition, awakening without any preparation is very rare; there is only one example I know of in the twentieth century that compares with Katie’s in its depth—the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi’s. Ramana described the aftermath of his awakening in some detail, but since he was the equivalent of a monk and lived in a culture where this kind of experience was recognized and revered, there was no problem with integration. A few people came to feed and clothe him; otherwise they left him alone, in a state of samadhi (deep concentration). He stayed on his mountain. He didn’t have to go back to a family or drive a car or shop in a supermarket. (“Neither did I,” Katie says.)
The usual awakening that happens through intensive meditation practice is much more jagged: a lightning-flash of insight that gives you immense encouragement and clears up your life to some extent, and afterward a great deal of slogging, as that insight settles in and transforms you. “It’s not that I’m not joyful,” the future Zen master Tung-shan said to his teacher, after his inner eye opened. “But it’s as though I have grasped a pearl in a pile of shit.” Then later, there may be another insight or insights, and more clarity, and more slogging through your karmic debris. These are extraordinary experiences, and each insight is the pearl of great price, for whose sake you would gladly sell everything you owned. But they are not that uncommon. What happens, though, when there is a total breakthrough? With the Katie stories, we get to see.
One of the benefits of Katie’s commentary is that it demystifies the term enlightenment. Why does the Diamond Sutra say that there is no such thing as enlightenment? Why did Zen master Huang-po say, “Enlightenment is the realization that enlightenment doesn’t exist”? Through Katie’s clear words we get to find out. “Enlightenment, at its simplest,” she says,
means a more lighthearted way of experiencing the apparent world. If you believe that the world is unkind, for example, and then discover, through inquiry, that it’s actually kind, you become kinder yourself, freer, less depressed, less fearful. I like to use the word enlightenment not for some exalted state of mind but for the very doable, down-to-earth experience of understanding a stressful thought. For example, I used to believe the thought “My mother doesn’t love me.” After I questioned it, realized that it wasn’t true, traced the effects of believing it (the effects that belief had on my emotions and actions), saw who I would be without it, turned it around to its opposites, and found living examples of how each of the turnarounds was true, I was enlightened to that thought, and it never troubled me again…. This is so important to understand. People think that enlightenment must be some kind of mystical, transcendent experience. But it’s not. It’s as close to you as your own most troubling thought. When you believe a thought that argues with reality, you’re confused. When you question that thought and see that it’s not true, you’re enlightened to it, you’re liberated from it. You’re as free as the Buddha in that moment. And then the next stressful thought comes along, and you either believe it or question it. It’s your next opportunity to get enlightened. Life is as simple as that.
The stories tell of someone who had no preparation for her experience of waking up to reality. She hadn’t longed for it, hadn’t practiced toward it, didn’t even know what it was. She had no categories for what had happened, nor did anyone else around her. All she knew was that her life had been changed utterly. A paranoid, agoraphobic, suicidal woman had instantaneously become joyful and serene, and had been given a method that could keep her rooted in that state without ever returning to the world of delusion. “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered,” Katie says, “but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.”
She had no recollection of her former life, and she stepped into her family’s story with a fearlessness one can only be in awe of. Her husband and children suddenly appeared at the halfway house, out of nowhere. “This large stranger is my husband? These three young people, whom I’ve never seen before, are my children? Okay.” The slate had been wiped clean. There was no teacher or tradition to help her or give her a reference for what had happened. She had to figure everything out for herself. She didn’t know what our social norms were. So when she saw a stranger on the street and went up to him and stared into his eyes, intoxicated with love, or walked into someone’s house because she knew that everything belonged to her, she had no idea that people would see her as crazy. There was never any retrenchment after the initial experience. But there was a gradual process of adjustment. She learned how to modulate her ardor. She learned how to say “I” and “you,” “table” and “chair,” even though she knew that the words were lies.
These stories also show us how radical the insights of the Diamond Sutra are. When the author of the sutra says that there is no self and no other, he isn’t fooling around. He doesn’t mean simply that all things are interconnected. He means that there is literally no such entity as a self—that “self” is nothing more than a mental construct, as is the apparent reality of anything outside us (or inside us, for that matter). The Katie stories show what it can look and feel like when someone realizes this truth to the very core of her being. However wild the form of the awareness may seem from the outside, from the inside it moves in perfect harmony. The boat keeps rowing itself gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily—no dreamer, just the dream. (And not even that.)
– Stephen Mitchell
About the Diamond Sutra
…the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
–Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”
The sutra’s title in Sanskrit is Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, which means “The Diamond-Cutter Transcendent Wisdom Scripture” (“Diamond-Cutter” because it is a scripture of such highly compressed, adamantine wisdom that it can cut through doubt the way a diamond cuts through glass). Scholars think that it was written sometime around 350 ce, although, according to the usual convention in Mahayana scriptures, it takes the form of a dialogue with the historical Buddha, whose traditional dates are 563–483 bce. After it was translated into Chinese in 401 ce, it spread throughout East Asia and became popular in many schools of Buddhism, especially Zen. A Chinese woodblock copy of the sutra, published in 868 and now in the British Museum, is the oldest printed book in the world, predating the Gutenberg Bible by 586 years.
Though the sutra is a dialogue, it is not a literary text, and it has none of the charm of Plato’s dialogues, for example. It is very repetitious. But when a point is worth making, it’s worth repeating. The author’s intention is not to impress or entertain us; he isn’t trying to be interesting or clever. He wants to awaken us to reality, and in case we didn’t understand something the first time around, he will say it a second time, or a third, or a fourth.
The sutra was famous in Zen circles particularly because of a story about Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, who as a young man was an illiterate woodcutter. One day, standing outside a shop where he had just delivered a pile of firewood, he heard a monk reciting the sutra. At the words “Develop a mind that abides nowhere,” Hui-neng’s mind opened. After he became a Zen master, he, or a fictional version of him, praised the Diamond Sutra in the highest terms: “The Buddha delivered this discourse especially for very intelligent students. It will enable you to realize the essence of mind. When you realize that wisdom is inherent in your own mind, you won’t need to rely on any scriptural authority, since you can make use of your own wisdom by the constant practice of meditation.”
It’s a radical and subversive text, constantly undermining its own statements, never letting the reader get comfortable in any spiritual concept, even in such a refined one as “non-self.” Like inquiry, it keeps pointing us back to the mind that abides nowhere.
There is another famous Zen story about the Diamond Sutra:
Te-shan, a learned scholar of the Diamond Sutra, heard that there was an irreverent doctrine called Zen, which taught that there was “a special transmission outside the sutras.” Filled with indignation, he went south to exterminate the heresy. When he reached the road to Li-chou, he stopped to buy a snack from an old woman who sold dumplings at a roadside tea stand. The old woman said, “Your Reverence, what are all those books you’re carrying in your cart?”
Te-shan said, “My notes and commentaries on the Diamond Sutra.”
The old woman said, “I hear that the Diamond Sutra says, ‘Past mind is ungraspable, future mind is ungraspable, and present mind is ungraspable.’ Which mind wants to have the snack?”
Te-shan was dumbfounded and couldn’t answer. After a few moments, he asked, “Is there a Zen master nearby?”
The old woman said, “Master Lung-t’an lives about half a mile from here.”
Te-shan went to Lung-t’an’s temple and questioned him far into the night. When it grew late, Lung-t’an said, “You’d better go to bed now.”
Te-shan made his bows to the master and lifted the blinds to leave, but it was pitch dark. “It’s dark outside,” he said.
Lung-t’an lit a candle and handed it to him. As Te-shan was about to take it, Lung-t’an blew it out. At this, Te-shan had a sudden awakening.
The next day he brought his notes and commentaries on the Diamond Sutra in front of the Dharma Hall and held up a torch, saying, “Even though you master the profoundest teachings, it’s like placing a single hair in the vastness of space. Even though you have learned all the truths in the world, it’s like letting a drop of water fall into a deep ravine.” Then he set fire to all his writings, bowed to Lung-t’an, and left.
In A Mind at Home with Itself, Katie functions as both the old woman who asks the fundamental question and as the Zen master who blows out the candle—the tiny flame that tries to illumine the all-encompassing darkness. If you think you have grasped any truths in this book, you may be delighted later on to find that the breath behind her words has blown them out like the candles on a birthday cake. “Don’t believe anything I say,” Katie often says. “Test it for yourself. The important thing is to discover what’s true for you, not for me.”
Chapter 1: The Cosmic Joke
Thus have I heard: The Buddha was once staying in Shravasti at Anathapindika’s garden in the Jeta Grove with a community of twelve hundred fifty monks. Early in the morning, when the meal-time came, he put on his robe, took his bowl, and walked into the city of Shravasti to beg for his food, going from house to house. When he had finished, he returned to the garden and took his meal. Then he put away his robe and bowl, washed his feet, and sat down.
I come from a little desert town in southern California where people think that the Buddha is the happy fat guy whose statue you see in Chinese restaurants. It wasn’t until I met Stephen, my husband, that I learned that the fat guy is Pu-tai, the Chinese god of prosperity. The Buddha is the thin one, he told me, the one with the serene smile on his face. I respect what Stephen says, but for me the guy with the big belly is the Buddha too. He’s the one who gets the joke. The joke is that it’s all a dream—all of life, everything. Nothing ever is; nothing ever can be, since the very instant it seems to be, it’s gone. This is truly hilarious. Anyone who gets the joke has the right to laugh that wonderful, whole-body, belly-shaking laugh.
Here’s another way of saying it. To me the word Buddha means pure generosity: meticulous, joyful generosity, without left or right or up or down or possible or impossible—the generosity that naturally flows out of you when you’re awake to what is real. Generosity is what’s left of you after you realize that there’s no such thing as a self. There’s nothing to know, and there’s no one to know it. So how do I know this? What fun!
The Diamond Sutra begins with the simple act of begging. I was very touched when I heard that the Buddha begged for his food. Since he understood how the universe works, he knew that he was always taken care of, and he didn’t see himself in the position of a lofty transcendent being, or even of a spiritual teacher. He refused to be treated as someone special, someone who should be waited on by his students. In his own eyes, he was a simple monk, and it was his job to go out every morning and beg for food. One meal a day was all that was necessary. He was wise enough to go to any house and stand in front of the door without wondering if the family would feed him. He understood that the universe is always friendly—understood it so well that in silence he could hold out a bowl to any householder and calmly wait for a yes or a no. If the householder said no, the no was received with gratitude, because the Buddha understood that the privilege of feeding him belonged to someone other than that person. Food wasn’t the point. He didn’t need it. He didn’t need to keep himself alive. He was just giving people an opportunity to be generous.
Stephen also told me that the word monk means someone who is alone. I love that, because in reality we are all alone. Each of us is the only one there is. There’s no other! So for me monk doesn’t describe someone who has entered a monastery. It’s an honest description of everyone—of me and also of you. To my mind, a true monk is someone who understands that there is no self to protect or defend. He’s someone who knows that he doesn’t have a specific home, so he’s at home everywhere.
When I woke up to reality in 1986, I realized that all my suffering had come from arguing with what is. I had been deeply depressed for many years, and I had blamed the world for all my problems. Now I saw that my depression had nothing to do with the world around me; it was caused by what I believed about the world. I realized that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that.
Once I opened my eyes that morning, I no longer had a home or a family or a self. None of all that was real. I knew nothing, even though I had Katie’s memory bank and could tap into her story as a reference point. People would tell me, “This is a table,” “This is a tree,” “This is your husband,” “These are your children,” “This is your house,” “This is my house.” They also told me, “You don’t own all the houses” (which from my position was absurd). At the beginning, someone would have to write Katie’s name, address, and phone number on a piece of paper, and I would keep it in her (my) pocket. I noticed landmarks and left them in the mind like breadcrumbs, so that I could find my way back to what people called my house. Everything was so new that it wasn’t easy for me to find my way back, even from five blocks away in the small town where I had grown up, so sometimes Paul, the man they said was my husband, or one of the children would walk with me.
I was in continual ecstasy. There was no “mine” or “yours.” There was nothing I could attach to, because I had no names for any of it. Often, when I was lost, I would walk up to people and say, “Do you know where she lives?” (In those early days it was impossible for me to say “I.” It seemed out of my integrity; it was a lie I couldn’t bring myself to tell.) Everyone was unfailingly kind. People recognize innocence. If someone leaves a baby out on the sidewalk, people will pick it up and take care of it and try to find its home. I would walk into any house at all, understanding that it was mine. I would open the door and walk right in. I would always be shocked that they didn’t realize that we all own everything. But people were very gentle with me; they smiled and weren’t offended. Sometimes they would laugh, as if I had said something funny. Some of them would say, “No, this is our house,” gently take my hand, and lead me to the door.
Every morning, as soon as I woke up, I would get out of bed, get dressed, and immediately start walking the streets. I was powerfully drawn toward human beings. This was very strange when you consider that only a short time before “I” had been paranoid and agoraphobic and had hated people as much as I hated myself.
Sometimes I would walk up to a stranger, knowing that he (or she) was myself, just me again, and I would put my arms around him or take his hand. This felt very natural to me. When I saw fear or discomfort in people’s eyes, I would step away. If not, I would talk to them. The first few times, I just told people what I saw: “There’s only one! There’s only one!” But I immediately noticed the imbalance in this. It felt like imposing on people. The words didn’t feel natural, and they couldn’t be heard. Some people appeared to like what they saw in me and laugh and feel safe in it; they didn’t seem to care that what I said didn’t make any sense. But some people would look at me as if I were crazy. I also noticed that it didn’t feel comfortable not to tell the whole truth. So I would say, “There’s nothing! There’s nothing!” and I would hold up a zero with my fingers. But when I said this, I had the same feeling as when I told people that there’s only one. So I stopped. That turned out to be a kindness.
The truth is that there isn’t nothing. Even “There’s nothing” is the story of something. Reality is prior to that. I am prior to that, prior to nothing. It’s unsayable. Even to speak of it is to move away from it. I quickly realized that none of the things I understood could be put into words. And yet they seemed so simple and obvious to me. They sounded like this: Time and space don’t really exist. Unknowing is everything. There’s only love. But these truths couldn’t be heard.
I spent months walking the streets of Barstow, where I lived. I was in a state of continuous rapture, so intoxicated with joy that I felt like a walking light bulb. I would sometimes hear that people called me “the lit lady.” I felt that this separated me from other people. Eventually, though the radiance continued (and does to this day), it went inside, and I began to look more ordinary. Until it was ordinary and balanced, it wasn’t of much value to people.
Stephen tells me that artists often imagine the Buddha with a halo around his head. But any light that came from him or others like him was an inner glow. It was the radiance that arises from being completely comfortable in the world, because you understand that the world is born out of your own mind. The Buddha has seen through all the thoughts that would override the experience of gratitude. When he goes out to beg, he experiences a receiving that is so deep that it is itself a giving. It’s the food beyond food. He comes back to the Jeta Grove and sits with the given and eats his meal, and then he washes the bowl that supports all possibilities, and he washes his feet and sits quietly, in readiness, not knowing whether he will speak or not, whether people will listen or not, serene, grateful, without any evidence of a world before this moment or after it: sitting as the fed one, the supported one, the one who is nourished beyond what any food could supply. And in that quiet sitting, the mind is about to question itself through the apparent other and meet itself with understanding, without past or future, abiding in the self that cannot be named, the self that cannot exist, the radiant non-self.
You say that life is a dream. What motivates you to be kind to other people if they’re just characters in your dream?
I love everything I think, so it follows that I love everyone I see. That’s only natural. I love the characters in my dream. They are only there as my own self. As the dreamer, it’s my job to notice what in the dream hurts me and what doesn’t, and lack of kindness always hurts. In this I hear the voice of the Buddha, the antidote and blessing and doorway and unfailing consciousness within.
You say that after you woke up, people had to tell you, “This is your husband,” “These are your children,” that you had no memory of them. Did the memories come back later?
I found myself married to Paul, out of the blue. The woman who married him in 1979 had died, and something else was living in here. I didn’t even recognize him; I literally didn’t know who he was. The women at the halfway house brought him in, this large man, and said, “This is your husband.” He was a complete stranger to me. I looked at him and said to myself, “This too, God? This is my husband? Okey-dokey.” I was completely surrendered to what is, married to it, was it. So you could say that whatever had surfaced as Katie in her body that morning had never been married to anyone. And when they told me that my children were coming, I expected babies. I had no idea that “my” children were in their teens and early twenties. I thought that people going to bring in two- or three-year-old babies. As the children came in, I watched and let the dream unfold. I didn’t recognize them as different from anyone else. But I didn’t know why I shouldn’t accept that they were “mine.” I just lived out the story. Love complies. It will meet itself in any form, without condition.
I would always let people define their relationship to me—who they thought they were, who they thought I was. The memory of Paul and the children never came back. It wasn’t necessary. They would bring their stories to me, and I would get to see four different women all rolled up into a “me.” At the time, there was a kind of echo, a shadow of memory, as they began to define me. If I knew them at all, it was like an essence, like music that was way in the background and couldn’t be reached. They filled in the story. They loved their stories of me. They would say, “Remember the time when…? Remember when we…, and you said this, and I did that?” and it all started filling in, even though it had never really happened. I came to inhabit their stories, and that was fine with me.
For the first seven months or so, people continued to define me. What was left of the one we call Katie was foreign to me, and yet I had her shadow, her memories—some of them, anyway. It was as if I had her fingerprint, and I knew it wasn’t mine. It was all her story. I was only the self realizing itself—or, more accurately, the “self” realizing its non-self.
After your experience, you say you had no sense of “mine” or “yours.” How is that different from a baby’s sense of the world? Isn’t becoming an adult a matter of developing proper boundaries and differentiating between “mine” and “yours”?
Without the sense of an identity weighing me down, I would wake up in a bed, and it was okay, since that was the way of it. There was another apparent human being lying next to me, and that was okay. I had legs, it appeared, and they walked me out the door, and that was okay. I learned the customs of this time and place from my sixteen-year-old daughter, Roxann. I would put on a red sock and a blue sock, and Roxann would laugh at me. I would walk out the front door in my pajamas, and she would run after me and pull me back in. Oh, okay, I would think, no pajamas in public. We don’t do that here. She would take me by the hand (bless her heart) and guide me through it all. She would explain everything to me, again and again. How could she know, through my tears, that I was having a blissful love affair with life? What did I care what the names were? But in a grocery store, for example, she would patiently stop and point and say, “This is a can of soup. This is a bottle of ketchup.” She would teach me, as a mother teaches a small child.
So in one sense, yes, I was like a baby. But in another sense, I was very practical, very efficient. I could see where people were stuck in their stressful thoughts. I could show them how to question these thoughts and unravel their misery, if that was what they wanted and if their minds were open to inquiry. My communication was a bit wild at the beginning. I have learned to be clearer.
I sometimes say that a boundary is an act of selfishness. You don’t need any boundaries when you’re clear—about your yeses and noes, for example. In the early days, a couple of men wanted to have sex with me; they were sure that by sleeping with me they would become enlightened. Though I loved these dear, deluded men’s honesty and their hunger for freedom, I said, “Thank you for asking, and no. That won’t give you what you’re looking for.”
But isn’t “no” a boundary? “No, I won’t have sex with you,” for example?
Every no I say is a yes to myself. It feels right to me. People don’t have to guess what I want or don’t want, and I don’t need to pretend. When you’re honest about your yeses and noes, it’s easy to live a kind life. People come and go in my life when I tell the truth, and they would come and go if I didn’t tell the truth. I have nothing to gain one way, and everything to gain the other way. I don’t leave myself guessing or guilty.
If a man wants to have sex with me, for example, I don’t have to decide about my answer. I’m married and monogamous; my “no” pops out with a smile. I’m actually giving the man the greatest gift I can give: my truth. You can see that as a boundary, but if a boundary is a limitation, a contraction, that’s not how it feels to me. I see it as integrity. It’s not something I establish; it’s something that has already been established for me. Saying no isn’t an act of selfishness; it’s an act of generosity, both to myself and to the apparent other.
You say that you were intoxicated with joy when you first discovered the truth that there is no self and no other. Are you still intoxicated with joy?
Joy balances, yet it remains the same.
How do you relate to the Buddha’s begging for food? Can you imagine yourself being penniless and homeless, like a monk, fully dependent on other people for food?
But I am fully dependent! If people don’t grow vegetables, there are no vegetables in the stores. If people don’t pay me or my husband, I can’t buy food.
The Buddha asks only for what already belongs to him. He never suffers from hunger, yet he’s generous enough to ask for food. He knows when to ask and what to ask for. He knows what to eat, which is precisely what you give him, and no more. I am always free of hunger until the moment food comes; I’m always perfectly fed, perfectly on time, with the right food, gifted out of grace. If you give me food, I thank you not in words but from within your own self. If you don’t give me food, I thank you, and maybe, as love would have it, in another time and consciousness you’ll be ready to eat the only food worth eating, the thing we all hunger for, and what I offer truly: to serve what serves.
Byron Katie has rocked my world and shaken loose my mind more thoroughly than any other spiritual teacher I’ve ever encountered, living or dead. Using her simple process called The Work, I have managed to liberate myself from thoughts and beliefs that had brought me years of suffering, and that I had honestly feared would never leave me. In her newest book, A Mind at Home with Itself, Katie offers us the rare gift of peering into a human mind—her own—that is truly at ease in the world, and absolutely relaxed in its own company. Stephen Mitchell’s rare ability to help translate Katie’s wisdom for the lay-reader makes this book both a pleasure and an adventure to read. I would recommend A Mind at Home with Itself to anyone like me—in other words, to anyone who has ever felt like her own mind was a very dangerous neighborhood. This book may help you to learn how to feel safer and more comfortable wandering around that neighborhood all alone at night, no matter what thoughts arise. And that is something we could all use
—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic
“A truly illuminating and lively hookup of revered ancient Zen Diamond Sutra teachings and a wild and clear-eyed modern sage. It will help you to question deeply, inspire your spirit, and awaken your understanding.”
—Jack Kornfield, author of A Path With Heart
“Byron Katie is an immeasurable gift to the world. In A Mind At Home with Itself, she takes us to the clear, radiant joy of freedom from our own thoughts. Here the words of an ancient spiritual master are illuminated by the words of a modern one, and they show us that life beyond suffering is possible. This book can take your mind home to its singular, unique, unfathomably precious self.”
—Martha Beck, author of Finding Your Own North Star
“A Mind at Home with Itself is a beautifully crafted book that points directly to the wisdom within us, the ultimate treasure that resides in the open heart and quiet mind—and it shows us exactly how to access it. Its insights sparkle and shimmer from every page, but they will remain like a beacon.”
—Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest and Drawdown
“A confluence of two transcendent wisdom streams embodied, entwined, and entrancing, in no small part because one arose spontaneously in Byron Katie outside of any tradition at all, while the other is an ancient Buddhist teaching hard to penetrate on one’s own but now accessible through Stephen Mitchell’s version. These two minds at home with themselves are also radically at home with each other. We as readers get to benefit enormously from this, and from their shared comfort, clarity, and heart—and even more so if we throw ourselves into the great work of inquiry so simply and radically offered here, and the meditative wakefulness and insight it not only invites but catalyzes.”
—Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Mindfulness for Beginners and Coming to Our Senses