Work it out

“Is it wrong to bring a bucket of popcorn to a self-improvement workshop?” I asked the clerk at the Crest Theatre’s refreshment counter. He replied with Zen detachment: “That’s a question only you can answer for yourself.”

I paused to consider. This lecture with Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is, was bound to get intense. Surely it would be rude to munch away while others publicly wrestled with their anger and grief. Then again, I’d come to this three-hour event straight from work and popcorn was my only shot at dinner. I ordered a medium bucket.

If the name Byron Katie sounds unfamiliar, you probably don’t read SN&R’s Ask Joey column. Joey Garcia, who introduced the author’s Sacramento appearance, credits Katie’s trademarked healing process, The Work, with changing her life and often recommends it to readers. Having edited Garcia’s column for five years, I was more than curious about Katie. I wasn’t alone; several hundred Sacramentans, mostly women, had gathered in the theater.

I studied “The Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet” between bites. “Fill in the blanks below, writing about someone (dead or alive) you haven’t yet forgiven one hundred percent,” the instructions read. “Don’t censor yourself—try to fully experience the anger or pain as if the situations were occurring right now.” I opted to fully experience my popcorn until Katie appeared.

Minutes later, she welcomed us with a broad smile and told us she hadn’t had a problem in 20 years. Taking a seat center stage, Katie asked us to complete our worksheets using short, simple sentences.

I drew a blank. I didn’t feel mad at anyone, but I had to write something. I mentally cycled through ex-boyfriends and family members, looking for someone to complain about. With some guilt, I chose a target and was surprised to see my answers fly out. “How do I want them to change?” Well, let me tell you! When Katie asked who needed more time, my hand shot up. Judging my neighbor was so cathartic that my pen ran out of ink.

Katie explained that the writing stopped our thoughts so we could question them. Her theory is that all suffering arises from “arguing with reality.” When we ask the right questions, we can let go of painful ideas and see clearly.

She opened the floor for volunteers, who read their worksheets into a microphone, sharing grudges about runaway sisters, deadbeat dads and unsupportive friends. Katie invited each person on stage and led them through a series of questions about their statements: “Is it true?” “How do you react when you think that thought?” “Who would you be without that thought?” Finally, she asked each participant to “turn around” their statements to see whether the opposite was also true.

Many started out crying and ended up laughing. A woman who was angry at her sister for dropping contact with her read the statement, “I want her to feel bad.”

“Is that true?” Katie asked.

“Yes!” the woman growled.

“Well, that could be one reason why she left,” Katie said calmly. The woman’s expression transformed from anger to understanding.

Another woman started with the statement that her daughter’s father “should be there more often” but dissolved into giggles when asked, “Is that true?”

“It’s so much better when he’s not around,” she admitted.

People struggled to keep their grudges even as they seemed to beg Katie to remove them. I can’t calculate the long-term effects of these five-minute conversations, but I was heartened to see each person find humor and peace, however briefly.

After two hours, though, I was also battling my own negative thought: “I have to stay until the end, even though I’m tired and hungry.” Popcorn bucket empty, I turned to The Work. “Who would I be without that thought?” I asked myself.

“I would be on my couch eating soup and watching the WB,” I answered. My turn-around, “I don’t have to stay,” seemed equally true, so I left.