Getting out of the Mind-F*ck Maze—and Liberating Yourself From Anger
We’ve all been there: irritated, agitated, or raging without abatement because we feel wronged. In fact, it’s probably one of the more familiar and primal reactions to life. But very rarely does the anger actually get you anywhere: It’s not particularly common to get a gratifying apology or often even an acknowledgment that there’s been a wrong at all. So how do you move forward?
L.A.-based psychotherapists Barry Michels and Phil Stutz, authors of the brilliant and easy-to-action book, The Tools, address exactly these types of scenarios, offering exercises for harnessing “Higher Forces” to move past these feelings of being stuck. (Higher Forces are not as woo-woo as they sound, promise.)
Their second book, which grapples with Part X, i.e., the part of our sub-conscious that likes us to feel mired in the past—comes out early 2018. Meanwhile, they’ve written other pieces for goop, including “Three Tools to Unpoison Relationships,” “How to Move Through Pain to Unleash Your Inner Potential,” and “Why Nobody is Exonerated from Pain and Hard Work.” You can also hear them in conversation on Brian Johnson’s podcast, Optimize.
A Q&A with Barry Michels & Phil Stutz
We’ve all had that experience of getting angry and fixating on it; not being able to let go of it. How do you move people out of that place where the anger is no longer serving anyone?
BARRY: We call this state of mind you just described the “Maze.” Everybody gets into it. It happens when you’ve been wronged in some way, and you can’t stop thinking about the person who wronged you. You go over what they did to you in your mind, and you can’t let go of it—it’s like you’re literally trapped in a maze. We get into this state of mind because on an unconscious level, we all have a child-like expectation: If I’m a good person, life will treat me fairly. Then, when somebody is rude to you, or cheats you in some way, that little kid inside you digs his heels in and refuses to let go of it until the other person apologizes.
I actually saw this in action a couple of months ago. I took an Uber ride and the driver was in the Maze. About a week before, a drunk passenger had gotten into his car and then vomited all over his upholstery. The driver was never going to see the passenger again—but even a week later he couldn’t get over it; he talked about it for the entire trip.
“Your job is to get past whatever happened while minimizing its effect on you. If you can’t do that, the person who wronged you starts taking up rent space in your head.”
When unfair things happen to us, we feel like they shouldn’t have happened. And in a perfect world, we’re right. The problem is that it isn’t a perfect world—unfair things happen every day, and going over it again and again in your mind isn’t going to change that fact.
So your job is to get past whatever happened while minimizing its effect on you. If you can’t do that, the person who wronged you starts taking up rent space in your head. It doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to do something about it—confront the person, write them an email, etc.—but that is a strategic decision, and you cannot be strategic when you’re in the Maze.
One evening, about 20 years ago, I spent an entire night in the Maze, writing the nastiest, most poisonous letter I’ve ever written to a contractor who had screwed up some part of a remodeling job. Not to brag, but it was some of the best writing I’ve ever done! The problem is—it was a complete waste of time. In the morning, I realized I couldn’t send the letter because I actually needed the guy to complete the job!
So how do you get people out of the Maze?
BARRY: We do it with a tool called Active Love. But to understand how the tool works, you first have to understand something about the human ego.
The ego is the part of you that makes judgments about what should and shouldn’t happen. And once you’re wronged, it decides that this shouldn’t have happened. Like a little kid, your ego digs in until the wrong gets righted. Good luck with that because most wrongs never get righted. The insults and injustices just come in and you have to let go of most of them.
PHIL: Yeah, my favorite example of how badly things can go when you try to right every wrong is Hamlet. At the very beginning of the play, Hamlet’s father has been murdered. He comes back as a ghost and tells Hamlet, “You must set the balance straight.” Needless to say, it doesn’t work out too well—by the end of the play, the stage is littered with dead bodies.
“The ego isn’t strong enough to get you out of the Maze. All it wants to do is right the wrong, and since that’s impossible, it stays stuck.”
BARRY: Exactly. Now, for most people, we aren’t trying to avenge a murdered parent, it’s a minor injury. But we all get wronged, and we all fall into the Maze at some point or another. And the longer you let yourself stay in that state, the more life passes you by. Everyone else moves on and you’re stuck, fixating on something somebody did to you.
But here’s the key: The ego isn’t strong enough to get you out of the Maze. All it wants to do is right the wrong, and since that’s impossible, it stays stuck. To get out of the Maze, you need something stronger than the ego; something less concerned with judging what’s fair and unfair. In our book, we call that the force of “Outflow.” Think of it as a force that loves life in all of its forms—good, bad, ugly, beautiful, fair, and unfair. Outflow accepts everything that exists—without the judgments the ego makes. It’s kind of like sunlight—it just shines on everybody without judging whether or not they deserve it.
What the tool, Active Love, does is it syncs you up with that force of Outflow so you can get out of the Maze and back into life again. You can participate without judging whether what happened was fair or unfair.
How do you put the Active Love tool into practice?
BARRY: Simple, we can try it right now. Close your eyes and imagine that someone has wronged you. You can pick something that happened in the past, or something you imagine happening in the future. Most important, get that angry, churning feeling inside you, where you can’t let go of it. That’s the Maze.
Now that you’re in a self-induced version of the Maze, I can teach you the tool. It has 3 steps and each step has a name to help you remember it. Take your time with each step, so you can feel what’s happening as fully as possible.
Concentration. Just imagine that you are surrounded by a warm liquid light that is infinitely loving. Feel your heart expand far beyond your body, so that it encompasses and becomes one with this love. As you bring your heart back to normal size, this infinite energy concentrates inside your chest. Imagine that it’s a compressed, unstoppably loving force that wants to give itself away.
Transmission. Focus on the person who has triggered your anger. Since they’re not physically in front of you, just visualize their presence. Now, send all of the love in your chest directly to them. Don’t hold anything back. This should feel like completely expelling a deep breath.
Penetration. Follow the love as it leaves your chest. When it enters the other person at their solar plexus, don’t just watch that happening, feel it enter them. This will give you the sense that you’re completely one with the other person, erasing the distance between you and them. Now, just relax. You’ll feel yourself once again surrounded by infinite love. It returns to you all of the energy that you gave away. At that point you feel completely at peace.
Do you generally recommend always letting things go? Or should you address the person who has upset you?
BARRY: I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to that. For me, personally, it depends on how much the person means to me. I almost never confront waiters, bad drivers, or distant acquaintances, because they aren’t an ongoing part of my life. Unless they’ve done something truly egregious, I figure, “Why waste my energy?” On the other hand, if the person is someone who’s important to me—a close family member or friend, I will usually say something.
But the bigger problem for most people is the order of things. They get hung up on whether or not to address it, rather than getting themselves out of the Maze. You should always get yourself out of the Maze first before you make that decision. You can’t make good decisions when you’re in the Maze.
“You can’t control what happens to you in the outside world. But you can control your state of mind, your response to what happens to you.”
It’s a great question, though, because it leads to the philosophy behind the tool. For Phil and me, your state of mind is ground zero; it’s more important than anything else that you do. The reason for that is simple: you can’t control what happens to you in the outside world. But you can control your state of mind, your response to what happens to you. Learning to do that—control your inner world—gives people a kind of power they’ve never experienced before.
It’s what Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher was referring to when he said: He who conquers others is strong, but he who masters himself is mighty. That power comes from the refusal to disconnect yourself from Outflow—no matter what the other person does or says to you. And if you read Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on loving your enemies, you’ll see that the spirit of Outflow is embodied in that speech. King was threatened, thrown in jail, deprived of his rights as an American citizen, and what he said in that speech was revolutionary: I refuse to hate; I refuse to seek revenge. I will not lower myself to that level. It took incredible self-control and courage—and it’s what made him a great leader.
PHIL: I grew up in a tough neighborhood. Most of the guys I knew wouldn’t have gone for the idea of Outflow. Their response would’ve been, Are you going to let someone diss you, or step on you? And the answer is very interesting. Now, in my old age, if I had to confront you, or even fight back physically, I would still want to use the tool first. And the reason is that the tool frees me from needing anything from you. If I don’t use the tool, I’m still looking for some kind of rectification for what you did to me; that gives you power over me. The tool shifts that: I get my power from Outflow itself, not from the other person. So what you get from the tool is the sense that no matter how heinous or evil the other person is—they can’t stop you from being in this Outflow state.
“The tool frees me from needing anything from you. If I don’t use the tool, I’m still looking for some kind of rectification for what you did to me; that gives you power over me.”
If you have to confront somebody, or tell them something uncomfortable—always send Active Love to them first; bring it right into the situation. To your amazement, you’ll find that about 50% of the time it’ll change the trajectory of the interaction. You’ll be sure the other guy is going to jump on your case, but if you use the tool, somehow the peace of mind gets transmitted to him also. And without his even knowing you used a tool, he’s a little bit nicer to you.
BARRY: I experienced this about 25 years ago. Just to give you a little background, my mother was a very difficult woman. She was an amazing mother in many, many ways: Incredibly creative, smart, she got me interested in philosophy from a very early age. But she was really tough to get along with, and the people she was the hardest on were my sister and me. So fast forward to when my kids were young and I was working long hours trying to start a practice. I would see 10 patients a day, come home at about 8pm, grab some dinner, maybe spend a little bit of time with my kids, go to sleep, and then do the thing again the next morning. Every day of the week.
One night I came home and I was just exhausted. I’d made myself some dinner, I was just sitting down to it, and the phone rang. I picked it up and it was my mother on the other end. She didn’t even say hello. She literally said: “Barry, there’s a light bulb out over my bed, and if you don’t get over here and change it now, I’m going to find another son who will.” And then she hung up on me.
And that wasn’t unusual for her! So … I must’ve used Active Love 20 or 30 times while I finished my dinner, got in my car, and drove to her house. She answered the door and I went in and I changed the light bulb. And then I sat down with her. I’d used the tool so many times I was calm but really firm. I said: “Listen to me carefully. You have alienated everyone who’s ever been close to you … except for me. You can’t ever speak to me that way again. Do you understand that?”
“Very often, they not only change you, they help those around you to feel safe enough to change themselves.”
And amazingly for a woman as tough as she was, she burst into tears and said: “I know, I’m so sorry. I’m so scared that everyone’s going to abandon me that I come out swinging, and that’s why people abandon me.”
It was an amazing moment, and it’s indicative of the power of Active Love. When you use the tool, you send out forces and you never know what’s going to happen. Very often, they not only change you, they help those around you to feel safe enough to change themselves. You rise to a higher level, and those around you rise with you. And Phil and I are strong believers that that is how the world is going to change for the better: one individual at a time.