‘The Tools’: Spirituality for screenwriters

There’s a surprising new cure for writer’s block circulating among Hollywood’s elite. But, shhh, don’t tell, God is much more effective when disguised as a “higher force,” a less-loaded term for a religion-phobic environment. 

At least that’s the way a pair of Hollywood psychotherapists, Barry Michels and Phil Stutz, regard the God figure in their new book, “The Tools” (Random House: $25), which promises to transform lives by way of a Jungian-inspired “new spirituality.”

Although you wouldn’t know this if you read a March 2011 profile of the pair in The New Yorker, which noted the 12 or 13 Oscars won by their patients but mentioned variations on the word spiritual only twice (once in a quote), and allowed a description of the therapists’ self-help system as “a prosperity gospel.”

But really, it is a gospel for connecting to the beyond. The book advocates the use of tools with names like “Active Love,” “The Reversal of Desire” and “Inner Authority,” which can be employed in response to an individual’s problem. Feeling a fiery anger flare when your spouse won’t do as asked? Practicing Active Love will connect you to “Outflow,” an infinite, spiritual force filled with goodness and light.

While true prosperity gospels, like “The Secret,” consider the individual’s attitude toward a problem as the key to solving it, Stutz and Michels want to help their patients change behavior — and quick. A tool, they say, is much more than an attitude adjustment: “The most profound value of a tool is that it takes you beyond what happens inside your head. It connects you to a world infinitely bigger than you are,” they write. In order to access this “higher world,” you must use the tools. They’re the new LSD.

Stutz and Michels are hardly the first psychotherapists to concern themselves with the realm of the spirit. Carl Jung was preoccupied with the cosmos, and Otto Rank (born Otto Rosenfeld), a close colleague of Sigmund Freud, focused his post-Freudian work on the psychology of the soul. Concern with how human beings operate in the world is integral to both psychology and religion — the Greek word psyche has been interpreted to mean “life,” “spirit,” even “ghost” and is equated with the soul in much of Greek mythology and philosophy, including that of Plato and Aristotle. It requires a certain amount of chutzpah, however, for two admittedly secular Jews to offer up a new spiritual system.

“I can’t believe in something because someone tells me to,” Michels said about his main problem with religion. “I have to believe in it because I experience it.”

In the modern Western world, so it goes, the individual is everything.

“All that we do is give people tools, and then we leave them to come to their own conclusions about what’s right,” Michels said. “Whereas religion is much more prescriptive.”

Stutz added: “The individual is paramount now, whether we like it or not. So whatever is going to happen has to happen through the individual. You have to be free to make your own decisions. This doesn’t obviate organized religion at all; it’s just, like, another track.”

But their book’s focus on achieving self-realization can seem a bit gauzy in the face of core religious values like altruism. And it lends credence to the argument that spirituality without religion is just an exercise in narcissism. Will using “The Tools” lead to better human beings or just assuage embattled egos?

“That’s the $64,000 question,” Stutz said. “How do you both be an individual that’s self-absorbed, and at the same time harmonize with the community? And the answer is sacrifice, but it has to be sacrifice that’s freely willed.”

Both Stutz and Michels had personal struggles that led to spiritual breakthroughs. In his late 20s, Stutz battled an undiagnosable but debilitating malaise that left him unable to leave his house or office. He was forced, he said, into an intensely introspective “inner world,” where his imagination was free to develop the concept behind the tools. Michels, who said that “faith was an f-word” in his childhood home, had a prescient dream that came true. But when the exhilaration of his own clairvoyance faded, he was left depressed. How would he recapture the magic of that spiritual high?

That’s when he stumbled into one of Stutz’s seminars and began using the tools himself and with his patients. Eventually he and Stutz became close colleagues, and Michels helped improve and refine the tools. They don’t worry that once their patients learn the tools, they’ll no longer need the up-to-$400-per-hour therapy they provide. Nor do they consent to the idea that long-term therapy means the tools aren’t working.

“Our idea is evolution, not cure,” Stutz said.

The notion that psychotherapy should be limited in duration is, they maintain, a canard.

“It’s also not really respectful of the deeply mysterious nature of human beings, you know?” Michels said. “A person can be going through something for a year and really need help, and then just kind of rocket out of that stage into a stage where they’re functioning much better. And then they could go through something else, and it doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong or that they’ve stopped using tools, it means that they’re evolving.”

Their main goal, both men said, is to help their patients find meaning in adversity.

“We’ve become a society that really craves comfort and anesthetizes itself from pain,” Michels said. “But if you can handle the uncertainty of the outside world, of your own fate, you actually become more creative. You can tap into deeper resources inside of you, because you’re willing to take risks because you know that life is risk.”

As Torah teaches, in an uncertain world, the best tool upon which one can depend is God.