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Back to Stories

Friends of Six Senses with Dr. Barry Michels: The Tools to Come Alive

According to Dr. Barry Michels, co-author of the bestseller, The Tools, there is a second plague happening right now. A pandemic of negativity is engulfing our world. According to the National Institute of Health, a staggering 85 percent of our everyday thoughts are negative! 

Wellness Pioneer, Anna Bjurstam, talks with Dr. Michels about how we can overcome this global trend.

Anna: You would think the answer to negativity is positivity, but it isn’t. Tell us about that.

Dr. Michels: The real answer to negative thinking is to change your entire view and experience of the universe. Now that sounds like a long and involved procedure but it isn’t. Since the advent of science, we have begun to view the universe as a hostile or at best an indifferent place. The scientific world view is that life is unpredictable with threats to our existence and in the end, we die. Although there are tremendous benefits to science, one downfall is that it can make our lives seem meaningless.

To combat negative thinking with positive thinking doesn’t work because the negative voice is stronger than the positive one. When I am in a dark place and try to use positive thinking, my negative voice only laughs at me. You need something more powerful and what you need is the experience of a universe that is on your side that wants you to succeed and bombards you every day with beauty and goodwill. The avenue into that experience is gratitude because when you’re feeling grateful, what you’re feeling is the goodness of the universe coming towards you.

Anna: It’s true. We have this beautiful Mother Earth so how can we think that it wants us ill? We can be grateful for the obvious things like our children but what about experiences that are really fantastic today?

Barry: I practice gratitude when I’m stuck in line at the grocery store or in the car. You can do it anywhere, anytime! The other thing you mentioned is Mother Earth which is a finite body in space. The ungrateful negative worldview which is based on survival leads to the exploitation of our planet’s resources because in that state of mind, we’re in a quasi-state of panic all the time and there are no inhibitors to our greed. When we’re grateful, we feel the planet is already giving to us, so we want to give back, preserve her, we want to worship her because she is our home.

Anna: What about anger, what should I do if my neighbor is playing really loud music for example? Scream, shout, yell or be quiet?

Barry: In a situation like that, my goal is to start by spending time with my anger and get to know it, not to immediately indulge it. The reason is because this will help me calm down so I can present myself to my neighbor in a way that doesn’t offend them. I want to help them understand the impact they’re having on me. If I react in certain, angry ways, it might make them turn the music up even more. You have to start with your long-term goal. There’s nothing wrong with being angry but if you ultimately want to ask the other person for something, you need to present yourself in an appealing way. In other situations, you might need to present yourself in an angry way.

Anna: I think we’ve been taught that anger is not ok, that we should have equanimity all the time. We should meditate a lot and not react to what is happening. Is it ok to be angry?

Barry: It’s entirely natural and human to get angry. Rudoph Steiner who is my mentor says that anger is the human being’s most natural response to anger and injustice. There is a natural welling up when we’ve been attacked and that’s not bad. It’s your body’s way of saying no, that should not be happening. But then, you have to process the anger before you express it. At the very least count to ten because you want to have a positive impact on the other person. When you allow anger to gush out at the other person, they will usually respond with equal and opposite force. What we don’t want to do is get into escalating spirals of anger where both sides feel justified because the other side is acting so obnoxious.

Anna: When I’m angry, what I try to do is empathize and understand the other person and then the anger disappears.

Barry: Empathy helps enormously because anger is always from your point of view. You feel injured or angry. The moment you can take yourself outside of your perspective or even just speculate about what could be going on with the other person, then the anger will subside or disappear.

Anna: We have a lot of anger and pain in the world right now and I know you’ve talked about how that can be a starting point for fulfilling our potential. Are we, as a world, moving from pain to potential?

Barry: I think there are opportunities with what’s happening in the world right now but no, I think in the US, the pain we’re going through is a reaction to what is happening more than the expression of unfilled potential. It’s a reaction to a level of inequality and injustice that has been intrinsic to the whole American experience. It’s going to take time to work it out.

The kind of pain that keeps people from fulfilling their potential is individual and it’s scary. If you want to start a business, you need to call up people and risk getting rejected. If you want to write a book, it’s enormously painful so you have to have the stamina to go through that pain to succeed at writing the book. There’s no true human accomplishment that doesn’t require you to go through pain but there is a way to orient to that pain where you feel like, “bring it on!”

Anna: It’s like running a marathon. You know it’s going to hurt.

Barry: In my psychotherapy practice, most people don’t take on as much pain as they can handle. The thing that holds us back from maximizing potential is fear.

Anna: Fear is an interesting topic. When I’m afraid, I ask myself, what would love do now and I drop into my heart and that helps me shift my perspective. What do you think of that? Are you saying I have to love fear?

Barry: I don’t think there’s one way to move through the fear so that you can fulfill your potential. When a client tells me what they did and it worked, I say great! It’s not about the exact right words or process, it’s whatever gets them through the fear and out the other side.

I was terrified of public speaking but when my book, The Tools, came out and it was so successful, I had to face it. I didn’t want to be afraid of this for the rest of my life, so I threw myself into it and gradually I became more and more comfortable with public speaking. If I hadn’t overcome that fear, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

If fear is holding you back from achieving your aspirations, there are tools that will get you over your fear. In most people’s lives, there are areas of unfulfilled potential and it’s only fear that’s holding them back.

Anna: Tell us more about your book, what was the inspiration?

Barry: My book, The Tools, that I co-authored with Phil Stutz was the presentation of decades of psychotherapy and the conclusion that we came to was that the old methodology of psychotherapy of going back and exploring one’s family origins was pretty much useless. It’s nice to find out why you are the way you are, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

The tools we developed are five to 10-second procedures that you use while you’re experiencing the problem. Let’s say there’s procrastination, our tool, The Reversal of Desire, works 80 to 90 percent of the time and it can be used when you have to do something and you feel fear or even if the thought of doing something brings up fear.

The Reversal of Desire Tool

1. Focus on the pain you are avoiding; see it appear in front of you as a cloud. Silently scream, "Bring it on!" to demand the pain; you want it because it has great value.

2. Scream silently, "I love pain!" as you keep moving forward. Move so deeply into the pain you're at one with it.

3. Feel the cloud spit you out and close behind you. Say inwardly, "Pain sets me free!" As you leave the clouds, feel yourself propelled forward into a realm of pure light.

Anna: There are so many tools that can get you unstuck. Let’s look at being disciplined – going to bed, eating the right thing, which can be so challenging. How do we develop discipline?

Barry: Discipline is about your capacity to handle pain or discomfort. It’s usually self-restraint, getting yourself to give up something that you want now. One of the character traits that most correlates with success is self-discipline. It’s the person who can say, no that won’t be good for me. There’s a tool called the Black Sun tool that enables you to curb your impulses. The greatest strength that a person can have is to master the part of you that wants this or wants that. Containing this impulse when it’s appropriate is one of the most important parts of self-esteem. Self-esteem stems from being able to trust yourself. For example, if I make a commitment, I will keep that commitment. You can’t be confident if you can’t keep your own promises because you’ve lost credibility with yourself.

There are long-ranging consequences. We trained an executive to stop yelling at his assistant, for example, weirdly enough, that guy’s tennis game improved because self-discipline is across the board. Once you become disciplined in one area, it will transfer to all other areas of your life.

The Black Sun Tool

1. Deprivation: Feel the deprivation of not getting what you want, as intensely as possible. Then let go of the thing you want. Forget about the outside world as a source of anything that will fill you up inside; let it disappear

2. Emptiness: Look inside yourself. What was a feeling of deprivation is now an endless void. Face it. Remain calm and still

3. Fullness: From the depths of the void, imagine a Black Sun ascends, expanding inside until you become one with its warm, limitless energy

4. Giving: Redirect your attention to the outside world. The Black Sun energy will overflow, surging out of you. As it enters the world, it becomes a pure, white light of infinite giving

Anna: What about curiosity and beginner’s mind which I believe are some of the most important qualities?

Barry: I don’t use that word curiosity but I use the word wonder which I think means the same thing. One of the negative effects of science is that its premised on the idea that we can know everything. Unfortunately, the more certain we are, the less we wonder about anything, and the less we’re awed by the world. Awe is very important for humans to feel because it puts us in the right place by reminding ourselves that we’re a small part of the universe. It helps us be humble. There’s a close connection between gratitude and awe and wonder.

I do a lot of public speaking and everyone has been yearning for connection. They understand that the real meaning in life doesn’t come from material possessions, it lies in wonder and awe.

To listen to the entire interview, link here.

BIO

Barry Michels, LCSW, JD, has been in private practice as a psychotherapist since 1986. He holds a law degree from University of California, Berkeley, and an MSW from the University of Southern California. Michels is also a contributor to Psychology Today and Goop.com.

He is coauthor, with Phil Stutz, of The Tools, which offers "five tools to help you find courage, creativity, and willpower—and inspire you to live life in forward motion."

These five tools comprise a results-oriented practice that aims to deliver readers/participants relief from persistent problems and restore control in their lives.

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