Monday, June 18, 2012

A Secular Gospel for the Sickened Soul

Phil Stutz & Barry Michels, The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity

Hollywood head-shrink Barry Michels, with his mentor Phil Stutz, thinks we have made some very serious mistakes. Instead of addressing these mistakes in the present, psychiatry as an institution fixates on the past, keeping the wounds of yesteryear open long after they should have healed. But after nearly half a century of hard-fought practice, they believe they have fine-tuned the tools to move forward, and are ready to share them with you.

Using a blend of creative visualization, introspection, and muscular will, the authors lay out five simple steps ordinary people can use to overcome the limitations we set ourselves. Like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell, Stutz & Michels believe we exist to do something specific, something we haven’t discovered yet. Until we surmount our own attempts to sabotage our purpose, we will live diminished lives. But we have the power to reverse our spiral and reclaim ourselves.

Some people spend their lives fretting; the authors want them to practice gratitude. Some live in fear of external judgment; the authors want them to find their own authority deep within. Some (like me) build walls to keep ourselves in our tiny Comfort Zones; the authors want us to embrace pain as a pathway to the rewards we fear. To do this, we rely not on our own limited strengths, but on the Higher Forces that color our universe.

The authors’ overtly spiritual approach seems counterintuitive in today’s medical settings. They admit it may require some struggle (MIchels describes being raised atheist, and resisting belief in forces that cannot be quantified). But they bolster their techniques with case studies, philosophy, and wheels-on-the-ground evidence. They make a persuasive case that their techniques deserve at least a fair shake if we really want to move forward in life.

But pause briefly on the spiritual aspect. Stutz & Michels perform elaborate verbal gymnastics to avoid getting pinned to a single spiritual tradition. They insist that people of any spiritual heritage can use their techniques equally; even atheists can believe in their Higher Forces without attributing divine meaning to them. Yet the only spiritual heritage they directly cite is the Judeo-Christian one, quoting the Hebrew Tanakh and the philosopher Kierkegaard.

If you removed the New Age lingo from their techniques, and subbed in specifically Christian terminology, it wouldn’t leave a scar. Unfortunately for the “spiritual but not religious” set, the more we learn about the human psyche, the more our understanding accords with that of the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine. Despite lingering myths of post-Enlightenment rationalism, we now know humans are not beings of pure science; we cannot be quantified so easily.

Consider: if we walk this earth for a purpose, then this earth itself has a purpose. If we become whole when we surrender our own ego and live in the likeness of the Higher Forces, then we were perforce created in the image of the Higher Forces. Graphing the parallels between Stutz and Michels’ psychology and Western religious tradition would be long and tedious, yet observant readers will note that the correlations are most certainly present.

Therefore, let’s say it: psychotherapy is a religious pursuit. We humans are worth saving because we know we’re finite, and we know we’re redeemable because our infinite universe opens doors it could slam in our faces. Jesus and Jeremiah shared many of the authors’ beliefs, from a benevolent universe to disdain for the priesthood. Even without a specifically embodied Savior, Stutz and Michels pitch a path to salvation that any Christian pastor would recognize.

Stutz and Michels barely stop short of proclaiming that “we are justified by grace through faith.” I’m not adding to their message, only clarifying where they play coy.

The authors also show no false modesty about their technique’s larger potential. In the final chapter, they assert that the same problems which plague us as individuals characterize our society as well. Like a human spirit, our social spirit lives under a cloud, separated from the Higher Forces. And they dare us to imagine a society that, together, uses their Tools to recapture the spiritual footing that makes healthy life and forward motion possible.

I recommend reading this book alongside Clinton & Springle, Christian therapists with a similar emphasis on spiritual reconciliation. Though the two pairs of authors overlap somewhat, they differ enough that the two parallel books make intense learning. Perhaps if enough readers recover the spirituality to make themselves well, we can see the improvement Stutz and Michels promise, with such bold chutzpah and learned panache.

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