A Mind at Home with Itself by Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell
In A Mind at Home with Itself, Byron Katie illuminates one of the most profound ancient Buddhist texts, The Diamond Sutra (newly translated in these pages by Stephen Mitchell) to reveal the nature of the mind and to liberate us from painful thoughts, using her revolutionary system of self-inquiry called The Work. Byron Katie doesn’t merely describe the awakened mind; she empowers us to see it and feel it in action. At once startlingly fresh and powerfully enlightening, A Mind at Home with Itself offers us a transformative new perspective on life and death and is certain to become a classic.
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, in A Mind at Home with Itself, beautifully and freshly expresses the essence of the Buddha-Dharma. Through Inquiry she directly points to the Mind of liberation. I love this book! It is one of my favorite teachings on the heart of Buddhism.” —Hogen Bays, Roshi, Co-Abbot Great Vow Zen Monastery and Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple, Portland, Oregon
“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 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
“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