"Excuse me, that isn't coffee in your Starbucks cup, is it?" I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn to see a spritely gray-haired woman wearing a staff badge hovering behind me.
"Actually, it is," I mutter, swallowing the words with a swig of fresh, foamy latte.
"You'll understand if I ask you to remove it from the room, won't you? Some of the people here who are fasting find the smell disturbing."
"Oh, of course," I stammer, though I'm sure I'm not the only culprit.
I'm attending a conference where most of the 300-plus participants are on a juice fast, but it's hard to believe that the dozens of attendees I've seen carrying the familiar white cups haven't experienced a weak moment like mine. The only beverages permitted here are juice, water and tea.
My best friend, sitting beside me, suppresses a giggle as she hands over her cup. I shuffle, head down, out of the conference room. I'd known that finding inner peace was not going to be easy. But did it have to happen without caffeine?
What would Oprah drink?
Anneliese and I became fast friends while teaching English in Japan eight years ago. She lives in Mexico City now, and I call Oakland home. While we conduct marathon phone sessions weekly, until convening at this airport hotel in Los Angeles for a New Year's Mental Cleanse hosted by the spiritual guru and bestselling author Byron Katie, we hadn't seen one another for nearly two years.
Our traveling history smacks of the exotic: exploring tranquil temples in Kyoto, riding rusty bikes to the beach in Vietnam, hitching a ride to the rice-paddied Balinese countryside, washing down grilled fish with tangy micheladas at beachside cafés in Zihuatanejo. When we're together we eat, drink, laugh, dance and make the kind of carefree spectacle of ourselves that only two best friends can. Needless to say, we rarely sit still.
So how did we wind up on a foodless meditative retreat?
A few weeks ago, Anneliese announced that she was going to L.A. for the conference; she was a big Byron Katie fan. I knew nothing about Katie, but promptly invited myself along. Why not?
It was only after snagging a flight from San Francisco on Virgin America for just $119 round trip and registering for the $100-a-day conference that I got around to Googling Katie. Her brand of self-helpism, which she founded in the mid-1980s and calls The Work, centers on asking oneself four questions about a particular feeling or belief: Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it's true? How do you react, and what happens, when you believe that thought? And finally, who would you be without the thought? The next step is to turn the thought or belief around — to find examples of how it's not true.
Before I leave, I watch a video of Katie talking to Oprah Winfrey, who laments that she's too fat and that she's frustrated with family members for taking advantage of her financially. Deep stuff. But that only creates more anxiety for me: What if I never get past worry lite? I fear my beliefs will be more along the lines of "Anneliese and I should be out dancing, scarfing down pad Thai, and drinking margaritas instead of stuck in this bland fluorescent-lit conference room all day!"
Checking our baggage
Anneliese and I meet at the hotel mid-morning on the first day; we're already late, so there's no time to catch up. We make ourselves mint tea — I figure I'll save the truly ascetic hot water with lemon for later, once I've warmed up to my new liquids-only existence — and carry our mugs into the mammoth meeting room. Hundreds of people sit on padded wooden chairs or lounge on the carpeted floor, mesmerized by a beautiful white-haired woman on a raised platform at the front of the room. "Yours is the only world you can work with," she's saying.
I study my fellow attendees as Byron Katie, who goes simply by Katie here, dialogues with a middle-aged Latina who resents her father for treating her mother so poorly. In our early 30s, Anneliese and I are among the youngest in the crowd, which is 70 percent female but still astonishingly diverse. I spot thousand-dollar handbags and faces overrun by plastic surgery, as well as more Birkenstocks than I can count. Some people sniffle, some silently cry, others sit with their eyes closed or gaze straight ahead. Not being able to talk to Anneliese is torture, but we settle for passing Post-it notes back and forth.
"Wonder if there are any celebs in disguise here," I write.
"Totally. Is that Jenny McCarthy?"
I peer around.
"In the back, with the black glasses," she scribbles.
"She has a 'Jenny' name tag! It has to be!" I then try to recall anything Jenny McCarthy has ever been in, but can't. Still, I'm impressed.
"I'm hungry. Bring on the juice," I jot a while later. When we talked by phone a few days earlier we agreed to do the juice fast for as long as we could. The event Web site explained that participants would be given a "12 oz. goblet of complimentary juice (organic whenever possible)" three times a day, as well as an endless supply of hot herbal tea and "pure spring water." I initially packed a bottle of merlot and a jumbo bag of pretzels in my carry-on bag, but then decided that this approach was less than admirable. I was already regretting that decision.
"Me, too! When do we get the goblet?" scribbles Anneliese. "Do you think there will there be a stampede?"
When Katie breaks for "lunch" at 1 p.m., we follow the masses to a nearby room where tuxedo-clad waiters pour bright magenta and grass-green mystery liquids into tall glasses. We ponder aloud which one we should choose before realizing that most of the people in front of us are walking away clutching a glass in each hand. Score! We both snag a pink and a green.
Back in our room, we slowly suck down the liquid between bouts of nonstop chatter. I snap photos as we pose artfully with the juice, which is surprisingly palatable. Time flies, and soon we're back in the conference room, listening to Katie query a woman who believes that if she were thin, she'd be "good enough." Anneliese and I frequent talk about our body-image issues, and our ears perk up. Soon, we find, we're both reaching for tissues.
"Happiness doesn't require you to have a different body than you have now. You've gotta love the one you're with," says Katie. "And it's you!"
My stomach rumbles, as if to say, "Don't you love me?"
"How's that tea?" I whisper to Anneliese.
"It's amazing!" she says, her eyes wide with faux joy.
We're first in line outside the juice room door at 6 p.m.
"¿Listas, senoritas?" the server asks.
Anneliese responds in Spanish that we are, indeed, ready. A server pours a steaming brown broth into a mug and hands it to Anneliese. For a moment I wonder if we can take a few extras mugs back to our room, but then quash the idea. I'm supposed to be a purveyor of self-love and peace, not a broth hoarder.
A juicy breakthrough
In our room, we slowly drink the broth and discuss the day's events. A few minutes after I've drained every last drop, I make a crucial mistake: I spot the room service menu across the room and devour it as though it's a porn mag starring Brad Pitt circa his “Thelma and Louise” days. Anneliese can't resist, either. The riveting descriptions of each item — the salt-encrusted baked potato, the farmers market pizza loaded with tomatoes and mushrooms and onions, even a simple side salad — quicken my pulse. Our resolve dissolves, and it's only day one. Pizza — and our mutual thwarting of the rules — has never tasted so good.
Eventually, Anneliese and I settle into a nice rhythm of juicing for breakfast and lunch, and then ordering room service for dinner. On our final day, after being called out on our coffee habit, we decide to play hooky. Manhattan Beach beckons. We catch a red trolley on Century Boulevard and fifteen minutes later exult in the fresh ocean air. We enjoy a languorous lunch at a restaurant with a fantastic view of the ocean, and as I peer across the table at my friend and swirl my tongue around a sumptuous mouthful of buttery salmon, I have a Katie-inspired breakthrough.
I've long found Anneliese's laments about her body — trying on clothes depresses her, for one — upsetting. I just can't understand why she's unhappy with herself when she's so beautiful. Katie's belief, of course, is that everyone is just as they should be, right now. That everyone is perfect. And yet it's usually pretty hard for me to swallow that. There are plenty of my own flaws I'd like to fix, not to mention ways in which I'd like my husband to change, or things I wish my mother would do differently. I realize, in awe, that my best friend Anneliese is perhaps the only person I know who I think doesn't need to change a single thing.
"I can't find anything about you that I don't love," I tell her, surprising myself when I burst into tears. "So when you complain, it's like you're saying I'm wrong. That's why I get so frustrated!" Anneliese looks at me warmly, thanks me, and pulls a few Kleenex out of her purse. And I realize that, despite all of our adventures, we have never shared so many kind, clear moments as this one in such a short period of time.
We miss the distribution of broth that night but make it back in time for the evening session. We find we're hungry for more Katie, and she doesn't disappoint. Cue the Kleenex!
The next morning, the last day of 2008, we gratefully breakfast at Starbucks and wish each other a happy new year as Anneliese climbs onto the airport shuttle.
"I have so many bags!" she gripes.
"But you have less baggage than you did when you arrived!" I reply, groaning before the words are even out of my mouth. Anneliese gives me a final hug and is gone.
I have a few hours before my flight back home, so I duck into Katie's morning session. I try not to think about when I'm going to see my best friend next. I yearn to travel with her again, and yet it's clear that planting ourselves in an airport hotel for three days has been among our most meaningful journeys yet.
I think of something Katie told a woman who was bemoaning the fact that she lived her life in a constant state of anticipation, unable to enjoy the present because she was always trying to figure out what the future held.
"I don't know what's next, but I look forward to it, because there's no other choice," Katie told her.