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The Alchemists: A Conversation with Phil Stutz, Part II

07/09/2012 08:07 am ET | Updated Sep 08, 2012
  • John Cusack Makes films; Board member, Freedom of the Press Foundation

Psychiatrist Phil Stutz and psychotherapist Barry Michels first came to national attention in a profile ("Hollywood Shadows") that ran in the New Yorker last year. Their bestselling book, The Tools, 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 second of a three-part conversation I conducted with Phil that touches on why creative people connect so well with the tools and discusses two of the tools from the book and the hidden forces involved. Read part one here.

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John Cusack: I think one of the reasons creative people respond to the tools so well is because we have a capacity for risk. We're trained to take emotional risks, so when you come to us and offer a method that asks for a suspension of the ego to perform an action and then asks for impartiality, a distance, to observe the result -- this makes sense to an actor.

Phil Stutz: Yes, definitely. Look, to be creative on the level you are dealing with as an actor, you have to like the uncertainty of it. You have to like being out on a limb. You have to somehow sense that that's part of life and get turned on by it. Now, usually, when I meet an artist for the first time, they have that capacity, but it's not directed -- half of it is directed toward self-destruction.

John Cusack: And as actors or artists we are forced to deal with our shadow because we have to go to places -- emotionally at least -- that most people spend their lives trying to avoid.

Phil Stutz: Yes, there you go.

John Cusack: We're trying to use that darkness in an alchemical form -- when we're good or lucky -- trying to take the raw substance of our shadow and put it onto the canvas, or onto film, or into a piece of writing, and we're trying to turn it into something that creates art. We know the more committed we are to a vulnerable state, the more powerful the performance is, right?

Phil Stutz: Yes.

John Cusack: We don't know why we're doing something, but we know we've gotten into a zone and we feel like, whether it's real or not, that something is coming through us and we don't have to choose anything. We just let something happen. What you're trying to do is to help people get to those forces that artists and athletes -- anybody who has to perform -- is more attuned to, more desirous of.

Phil Stutz: Yes, we're trying to make that zone accessible.

John Cusack: The ball player has 30,000 people waiting for him; the actor has a whole movie set waiting for him to do something interesting. So we have pressure on us, and in these situations we tend to rigorously adhere to our techniques -- but when the shoot is over or the game done, and we're back in everyday life, we lose our discipline. The $64,000 question is why, since we know that the tools work, do we stop using them? Why do we fail to do the work that puts us in creative flow in our everyday life?

Phil Stutz: It's not just stars that have that problem. In our consumer society we have a misapprehension about what success is. We believe success is the state where you're so rich, so famous and so esteemed, that you can basically stop making an effort. There are three laws of reality: One, uncertainty, it never goes away. Two, pain, it never goes away. Three, the need for constant effort and work never goes away. People don't like that. Look, you became a star when you were a kid. How old were you, 17 or something?

John Cusack: Yes.

Phil Stutz: So you've been through all this. There's an illusion that there's an "in group," some in group of special people that are exonerated from these rules, and if you could just make it in --

John Cusack: I remember it very clearly, I was walking once and I saw on a newsstand this beautiful girl on the cover of a glossy magazine, and I had this feeling -- "my God, if I could get that girl... I felt l I was being excluded from this unbelievable secret VIP circle, but if I could date that girl, I'd have access. In fact, I was actually dating this girl, but it didn't matter. That girl on the cover was still unattainable to me...

Phil Stutz: That's a great story.

John Cusack: It was hilarious to experience it that viscerally... When I told you that story, it was pretty clear to me you we right, and I think I also knew it anyway and was just being a stubborn Irish fuck where I wanted to get endorsed by the VIP circle, but I didn't want to go hang out there. I wanted it, but I didn't want it, and so I always felt excluded from it even when I was in it.

Phil Stutz: Yes. Everybody has that. You have more of it than most people, but because this thing is unreal in the first place, people adopt a psychological pattern to make it seem real. Now, here's the trick. You need two different things to make it seem real and they're completely at odds with each other. One thing is the sense that every success in life is created by a holistic force that belongs to the universe; the other is the idea you control that force yourself because you're special. It's called a biphasic fantasy.

John Cusack: You're basically describing a movie star. For the record.

Phil Stutz: It's like a John Wayne movie. John Wayne doesn't walk into the OK Corral with 40 guys and the bad guys have 40 guys. John Wayne walks in with three guys and there are 47 bad guys. It's John Wayne against the world. That makes John Wayne special, it makes him stand out. If he wins, he's God. This is a terrible model for reality.

John Cusack: Right.

Phil Stutz: In the real world you accomplish nothing by yourself. Everything is a joint effort. When people win in reality, it's never because they're God; it's because the universe works -- it's whole -- and it provides the support of many other people. John Wayne can't have that because then he doesn't get a sense of specialness, so as soon as he wins, he's got to destroy what he's won to make sure the universe doesn't appear to be working, and then he can go back to being John Wayne again -- terminally unique. So that's the two phases. One phase is called the conquest phase and once you win, you have to alienate yourself from the world again and that's called the alienation phase.

John Cusack: But the flip side of that perversion of individuation is the fact that in order to be a part of something, you need to be an individual. So you need that Nietzschean rebellion at first. You must be an individual, paradoxically, to be part of a whole, right?

Phil Stutz: Right. You just need a different formulation for individuality and instead of it being just utter defiance and rejection and anger --

John Cusack: Well, don't knock my hobbies.

Phil Stutz: You can do whatever you want, John.

John Cusack: The individuation has to take a different form than defiance and rejection.

Phil Stutz: You need to choose -- of your own free will -- to submit to a program of spiritual strengthening. The free will is what makes it part of your individuality. The submissive part allows you to connect to something bigger than yourself. You could spend ten years discussing this, but that is the secret of how we can bring the whole society back together again.

John Cusack: And that's alchemical.

Phil Stutz: That's alchemical, that's correct. If it's just pure defiance, there's no progress, nothing gets changed. You just keep repeating the same thing over and over again. The alchemy is in transforming defiance into submission.

John Cusack: So you and Barry are a kind of alchemist.

Phil Stutz: Yes. What we've done, I think, that's somewhat original is we've taken the alchemical model of taking something base or lower and turning it into something of priceless value. We've applied it to human problems and that, I haven't seen done before, not as clearly as we've said it, anyway. The alchemy part obviously has been going on for a long time before us.

John Cusack: Let's talk about some of the tools in the book. The first one is the Reversal of Desire, which acts on the person who uses avoidance to stay stuck in their comfort zone.

Phil Stutz: Correct. The trick of the whole thing is what we call the secret of pain. The secret of pain is if you're moving toward pain, it lessens; if you're moving away from pain, it pursues you like a beast and gets bigger and bigger.

John Cusack: That's the force of forward motion, moving toward and through pain.

Phil Stutz: Most people get that right away and like the idea that there's a tool that will actually help them and train them to desire pain in a healthy way.

John Cusack: Pain that is useful toward your evolution. So the tool changes the meaning of what pain is, how you experience it, and how you use it.

Phil Stutz: Yes. You could visualize it as a pain cloud -- a condensation of all the pain you're avoiding. If you get into that cloud and the cloud spits you out and propels you forward, you've picked the right pain. What propels you forward is meaning. If what you're trying to do is meaningful, you'll go right through the pain and then you just have to experience that.

John Cusack: And the higher force you're connecting with when you use that tool is forward motion, and the only way to connect with it is to face pain and be able to move through it.

Phil Stutz: Yes, and there are many different kinds of pain and discomfort. Constant forward motion is miraculous, but very, very difficult. It's like anything else though -- you can train yourself if you're serious and diligent.

John Cusack: Another tool in the book is Active Love, which acts on the idea that love is a substance that you can direct anywhere and tap into anywhere. It isn't something that happens to you. Everyone says, "I want to fall in love, I want grace, I want transcendence," but they're not willing to work for it. They want it to be bestowed on them, or they think they deserve it. In reality they must use their willpower to choose to love actively, especially in the face of problems that seem insurmountable or people who have wronged you, real or imagined.

Phil Stutz: Right. It's called Active Love because it takes activity, it takes effort, and if you can generate love in the face of someone you basically hate or someone who hurt you badly, your capacity to generate love becomes unstoppable. And that changes everything. If you want to say it differently, when your capacity to love becomes unstoppable, you're in sync with the universe, which is built of that kind of love. And that's deeply satisfying to people.

John Cusack: And that's what makes it radical and, in that sense, it's very Christic.

Phil Stutz: Yes. And again, I attempt to operationalize these things, so you can actually do them without getting caught in an internal dialogue. But that was the force that the real Christianity -- the first couple of hundred years of Christianity -- introduced into the world. It was the force, not just the idea.

John Cusack: And the flip side of that is when people have rage or get caught up in revenge fantasies or can't let go of their hurt feelings or obsessive thoughts. They go into what you call "the maze."

Phil Stutz: Yes. And meanwhile, life passes you by. You only have so much time here. And by the way, you can also see the maze at work in our public sphere, particularly in our political sphere, and you see how much gets accomplished there -- not that much.

John Cusack: I could always accept the premise of the tools except when I was right about my perceptions. What if you're right to feel hurt or angry? What if the other person is wrong? What if the paranoia is real?

Phil Stutz: This whole thing goes back to you and how you treat yourself. Let's say the paranoia is real. Is it helpful for you to walk around muttering under your breath all day? Do you want to really let that person set up camp inside your mind, pitch a tent, so that you're in their presence, in a spiritual sense, constantly? In other words, whether it's right or wrong, the only way you can help yourself is to get free of them and move on with your life.

John Cusack: So you're responsible for your own moods and you're responsible for the maintenance of your own soul, regardless of the environment. You're responsible for the energy that surrounds you.

Phil Stutz: Yes, you're responsible for your own state, your own mood, your own relationship to the world, and you're responsible for it no matter what happens.


In "The Alchemists, Part III," Cusack and Stutz discuss the Jungian archetype of the Shadow, how the tools work collectively, and how they can be an instrument of change on a societal level.