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The Alchemists: A Conversation with Phil Stutz, Part III

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Psychiatrist Phil Stutz and psychotherapist Barry Michels bestselling book, The Tools, brilliantly distills the dynamic methodology developed in their private practice. Through their particular brand of alchemy, which draws in part on the Jungian principle of active imagination, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and spiritual precepts unbuckled from religion, the problems and pain of life become the foundation for creating meaning and transformation. You start to see that problems are the instruments of your evolution.

What follows is the third of a three-part conversation I conducted with Phil about the Shadow, how non-believers can embrace the concept of higher forces, and the possibilities for individual and collective growth through an understanding of these principles and the forces they unleash. Read part one here and part two here.

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John Cusack: Let's talk about the Shadow, because it's really at the heart of so much of this work and it taps into all sorts of creative powers. So let's start here: What is the Shadow?

Phil Stutz: The easiest way to say it, if you're not familiar with the concept, is that the Shadow is the part of yourself that you're ashamed of. You were on the outs in the eighth grade and nobody would invite you to any parties, you have bad penmanship, you once stole something from your best friend -- it could be anything, but whatever it is, it's not particularly rational.

It's a flawed part of yourself that you feel you have hide and once you start to hide things, you become very sensitive to whether other people can see them or not. It becomes an obsession and at that point, you lose touch with yourself. Your consciousness leaves. How do they see me, what do they think of me, do they like me, love me--all with the fear that they're going to see the Shadow you're trying so hard to hide.

John Cusack: Now, you're not being diagnostic about someone with a problem. You're talking about the human condition--the way we were all born?

Phil Stutz: This is the way humans are born, that's correct.

John Cusack: You're saying it's a living, invisible force that lives in our psyche and subconscious.

Phil Stutz: Yes, it's the second self that's alive inside you, but the beauty is once you stop hiding it, you can relax and then you get flow. If you stop hiding your Shadow, if you stop hiding the human part of yourself, you get flow and that's what most actors want. That's what everybody wants, but it takes a little bit of courage and it takes a tool to standardize your responses, so you know how to accept the Shadow.

John Cusack: Jung had different versions of the Shadow among his many revolutionary archetypes--there's a mother archetype, there's an evil shadow, etc., and it's all very labyrinthine and complex, but to cut to the chase: By visualizing your Shadow and working with it, you are going to get transformative results.

Phil Stutz: That's right. You can grapple with the complexities of the Jungian Shadow, they're invaluable, but you really need to do this first. It changes the whole game because you're getting a benefit that you can feel tangibly right away and that'll drive you to further exploration.

John Cusack: My Shadow is like some version of Colonel Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now." I was doing a baseball movie in Chicago and I had broken my ankle. I was eating and drinking a lot, so I was kind of puffy, and my skin kind of broke out, and it was really fucking cold, and I was depressed. It was some weird mutation of me. I try to bring that guy into the room whenever I work and whenever I get a cue that I need to use that tool.

Phil Stutz: Yes.

John Cusack: It's akin to Jung's Active Imagination, in that you start to have a relationship with this invisible force. Now, an actor would say, "Hey, sure, we do that all the time. We're crazy," but how would you tell people who aren't used to such things to have a relationship with something that isn't there?

Phil Stutz: The way to see your Shadow is fairly simple. Imagine yourself in front of an audience that's very critical. It could be an imaginary audience or it could be real people you know, even better, that are highly judgmental, that don't approve of you, that set you off balance, whatever.

John Cusack: It might be a mother, a father, an uncle, or a boss, co-workers--anybody.

Phil Stutz: The worse they make you feel about yourself, the better. Now, once you see them there looking at you, flip the camera, so now you're seeing yourself through their eyes. You're going to see a version of yourself that looks somewhat like you maybe, but mostly, it looks like a different person. It's like your alter ego.

John Cusack: It's not just the way it physically looks, but what feelings it provokes. Shame, embarrassment, fear, worry, angst... If you feel those things, there will be a visual picture that connects to it, probably an image of you in your past that then mutates into something else.

Phil Stutz: Yes, that's a good start. Then you have to bond with that image and you can do that by talking to it or actually by giving it a hug or making a physical connection.

John Cusack: Or even just by saying to him or her, "Come into this room" or "Come into this creative process ---instead of me trying to hide you, why don't you take over and you drive the car? I'll sit back and let you drive. This is your car."

There's a relief when you find spiritual principles or laws that transcend your own ego because you realize you don't have to be responsible for everything and you can just go to work with a little bit more humility. It's not all resting on your own ego, which is a shock to your grandiose plans, but it's somehow comforting in some way.

Phil Stutz: It is comforting.

John Cusack: Let's address the concept of the higher forces in the book. What would you say to the non-believers about how to get comfortable with this notion? The closest example, it seems to me, is the AA model, which basically says, "Here's the principles and here's some tools and it doesn't really matter whether you believe in God or not. You can make the group your higher power." You don't have to endorse a higher power to test out whether these higher forces are there or whether they work, right?

Phil Stutz: That's correct. I consider AA the truest, most potent spiritual movement that exists today exactly for that reason. And typically for me, as a psychiatrist, I'll send somebody there and I'll say, "Look, you have to go because I can't treat you anymore until you become sober." And at least half of them will come back and say, "Well, the people there were stupid and they were doctrinaire and they say the same things over and over again," etc. And my reaction is always the same, which is, "Fine. Just do 90 meetings in 90 days and see what happens." And the ones who do gain their sobriety, so then I can say to them, "Look, it didn't really matter. Your opinion didn't matter."

John Cusack: Still, I think the biggest hurdle for people to embrace The Tools is going to be the concept of higher forces. Is this a spiritual book or is this a psychological self-help book--what are these guys talking about here? Because when you say "higher forces," you really are talking about existing within a spiritual universe with spiritual laws. You're free to ignore them or embrace them but they ain't going anywhere. There's no way around it...

Phil Stutz: Think of it as three levels. Believing that we live in a spiritual universe with its own laws--that's the highest level. You needn't accept that level. The second-highest level is the belief that there's some kind of meaning and something a little bit beyond the norm and you don't really know what it is, but you know it's there. A mother can suddenly lift a car because her kid is caught under the wheel, for example. That's a higher force. Most people have experienced something like that at one point or another without realizing it. So that's group is curious, but unconvinced.

John Cusack: And then there's the group that says, "I don't really care about any of that shit. Just get me through a crisis" or "I want to remain in a marriage," or "I want to keep a job," or "I want to stop driving myself crazy."

Phil Stutz: Yes. And that's the mechanical level. The level that's most interesting to me is the middle level because they have no inherent belief or faith, but they stay open anyway.

John Cusack: And that's why your method is akin to AA--because like AA, you just ask people to use the tools and be open to the possibility of higher forces without having to make any denominational endorsement of anything.

Phil Stutz: That's correct. Making yourself ignorant is a good starting point. In a 12-step program, that's what a bottom is: "I don't believe a word you guys are saying, but I know I fucked up pretty badly, so I can't be that smart." And to me, that's all you need, actually, to stay open.

John Cusack: And so basically, you need the destruction of your ego in order for some of these higher forces to enter, or to be allowed to enter.

Phil Stutz: Yes.

John Cusack: And that's why you preach ignorance, because the ego gets in the way of these higher forces, doesn't it?

Phil Stutz: Yes. And what destroys your ego is a problem you cannot solve by yourself.

John Cusack: That would be underlined.

Phil Stutz: Yes, that would be underlined in blood.

John Cusack: And so in AA, the act of communal appreciation of that problem is in itself the current that staves off the devil, that keeps that person from going out and using drugs or having a drink, just for a day, just for an hour, and then finally, that bond and those spiritual forces grow stronger and the person is able to let go of the substance or the addiction that was putting his life on the brink.

Phil Stutz: Yes. That's perfectly well said. If you want to go back to Shadow, the moment everyone gets up and says, "I'm an alcoholic," everyone there is saying, "I brought my Shadow into the room." And if you have a group of human beings, all of whom are bringing their Shadow into the room, you get that current or whatever you want to call it. And you don't have to call it anything religious or spiritual.

John Cusack: I think you told me at one point that you thought there was probably a more pure, raw spirituality in those rooms than in any institution on earth.

Phil Stutz: I believe it, yes. Here's what I say about the 12-step. It's anonymous, so no one is getting very much power from it, and it's free. Given the capacity of human beings to corrupt everything, it's very minimally corruptible and the most amazing thing of all is that it has a structure, so that people who don't know each other can go to cities they've never been in before, walk into a room with strangers they've never seen before, and make that current work. That is breathtaking and I've seen it happen a million times.

John Cusack: And those would be higher forces you're talking about.

Phil Stutz: Yes.

John Cusack: But you don't need to be an alcoholic to tap into those higher forces and you don't need to be an alcoholic or a drug addict to have problems that are severe enough to need tools. In essence, you just have to be human. And human beings are meant to evolve... So would you say that this book isn't just a self-help book for people with problems; isn't it much more of an evolutionary tool?

Phil Stutz: Yes. We tried to do at the end of the book - we take a look at five basic problems, apply the tools to those problems, and then we try to assess the evolutionary impact, assuming people are collectively using the tools. And one way to define it is to define evolution as the ongoing learning by human beings of how to connect to higher forces. That's what we're evolving toward. The spirit of our society has been broken fairly badly and the integrity of it, the wholeness of it, the mutual sense of responsibility, all of that stuff, has been broken down.

John Cusack: Obviously, it's a society that denies its own Shadow in every way.

Phil Stutz: What the evolution is, going forward, is the cohesiveness of society, the spirit of it, the sense that we're all in this together, the responsibility to each other, that is all going to have to be developed individual by individual, fully consciously. So the bad part is if you don't do it, things are going to fall apart. Everybody on Wall Street will keep cheating. Less people will go to church. Soldiers will come back from combat and nobody will give a shit about them. Everybody has a personal responsibility, and what the tools do is they empower you to help you fulfill that responsibility.

I don't want to sound grandiose about it, but without that sense of cohesiveness, there are problems that can't be solved. In other words, when we're solving our problems knowing what we're doing, we're in a more evolved state, but we're in a much more dangerous state because we can also take a pass.

John Cusack: So I mean, are you saying that by using these tools, by adopting these spiritual principles, a collective spiritual society can be reformed?

Phil Stutz: Yes. That's what we're saying.

John Cusack: So you don't have grandiose plans or anything?

Phil Stutz: [laughs] Listen, 34 countries bought the rights to the book, which is stunning, shocking, to both Barry and me, but it shows something is going on.

John Cusack: There've been classic uses of the tools, you'd say, in society. For example, you could see what Martin Luther King did in terms of Active Love.

Phil Stutz: Yes. And Gandhi before -there's a whole long tradition--so I don't know that we've done anything new, but what we've done is operationalize it.

John Cusack: You're trying to give everyone access to some of the spiritual principles and forces that the great men and women throughout history have used.

Phil Stutz: Yes. And when people learn the tools, they like it. It makes them happy. Not only do they become more confident; they can solve their problems. They're seeing progress, maybe in very different ways, but they're feeling this other dimension. That's what it is, really.

There's one other thing I want to say -- it's very important: Everything comes down to meaning. There's no spirituality; there's no society; there's no mental health; there's no nothing without meaning. And the tools give you a concrete way to give your life a sense of meaning. Everybody should read Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, who was a psychiatrist in Vienna, was sent to the camps, and everybody in his family was killed. The book is about his fight to maintain a sense of meaning in the concentration camps.

John Cusack: As you say, love isn't an attitude or an opinion you have about a feeling. It's an active force that you can direct anywhere. That would be what Viktor Frankl was able to do in the most inhuman circumstances imaginable.

Phil Stutz: Yes. His book is a tremendous victory. Somebody will come in here with a problem. Let's say their feelings are hurt. Let's say they get rejected by a lover. Invariably, they will say to me, "You don't understand how difficult this is. You have no idea what I'm going through. It's all very well and good for you to talk about using these tools and transforming your problems, but this is pain with a capital P." And I always tell them, "Well, I don't make any claims. Read this guy's book because what happened to him was far, far worse, and he insisted on maintaining some sense of focus and meaning in his own life."

John Cusack: Well, the counter-argument would be, Frankl was just born a superman. He was like a spiritual version of Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali. I'm not as strong as this guy. But your answer would be that what Frankl proved is that these forces are available. What he did doesn't prove that he was superhuman. It proved that he could tap into those forces.

Phil Stutz: Exactly. In the book, we laid this out very, very specifically in a series of disciplines designed to keep you motivated and give you hope. But also, we show you how to use the smallest everyday experience as a cue -- as a reminder to use the tools, because there are possibilities for growth in every moment.

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