Living Dangerously – Issue 39

“Life occurs between people as well as within them.”

Futurists say that psychology is a driving force equal to technology and to economics. But when it comes to business, what we know about the mind doesn’t represent a fraction of what we know about technology or about economics. Being surprised by changes in the market is nothing compared with being blindsided by the unconscious. Leaders are led by things that they don’t see or don’t pay attention to. Other people, for example, have a big impact on us, but we’d be hard-pressed to say why. With some people, we turn into creative stars; with others, we mutate into shutdown dorks. “Cocreation” was a term that vaguely addressed this, but it’s a term that made me want to plug my ears and scream. That is, until I met don Juan and got a glimpse into how the unconscious can either rescue or torpedo business relationships.


You remember don Juan, the “man of knowledge” who taught author Carlos Castaneda (and, later, millions of leaders) how to see movement in motionless rock and to hear voices in silent trees — and, oh yes, to chew peyote. Don Juan was an adult’s Harry Potter, a true wizard, and, thanks to him, executives today think nothing of “crafting their own visions.” Don Juan, I had been told, was a real person and not just a hallucination by Castaneda. I had my doubts about that until I met don Juan myself — or so I’d like to imagine. He’s come to urban America, to a small room in Manhattan, and he goes by the name Nathan Schwartz-Salant. The shingle on his door says that he is a Jungian analyst. But I didn’t let that fool me for a minute — no more than anyone would believe that Castaneda’s original don Juan was a simple farmer.

Trust me on this. I’m not on peyote. I’ve seen leadership schools set out on the fringes, including one in an outpost of Jerusalem that teaches would-be messiahs to lead in the coming apocalypse. I trust myself to know the real thing. Schwartz-Salant, 62, has a finer sense for the mysteries of practical leadership than I’ve seen in a long time. And he knows how to craft that half-mystical “third space,” as he calls it, where two people cocreate something more real than simple attention, dialogue, vision, or negotiation can create.

Most of us get our information, and our power, by watching and by listening. We stay alert — on the lookout for information, for clues, and for ideas — always expecting clarity, logic. Schwartz-Salant does something different. He uses alchemical notions to experience what he calls “a space that is animated and alive with meaning.”

The alchemists tried to transform base metals into gold. They never quite got the formula right, but modern seers can turn psychological deficits into psychic triumphs. Schwartz-Salant goes beyond notions of “relationship” to initiate people into the mysteries of working in that third realm — the space between people “that is alive with meaning and contains its own process.”

“It’s a space our culture has lost sight of,” Schwartz-Salant says. “When we think of it at all, we think of Buber’s I-Thou, but the third realm is much more real and less abstract.” Here’s how it works: You meet me. I fit certain expectations or fantasies of yours that have nothing to do with me but that have everything to do with your own psychological state — your own needs, your own fears, your own history. I experience you the same way. Those fantasies meet in the third space that exists between us — where cocreation can take place, where relationships can be shaped and molded whenever you apply a few counterintuitive tools. One of the most important tools involves listening less to what the other person is saying and paying attention instead to how you feel in the interaction.

Right away, Schwartz-Salant picked up on something that I wasn’t aware of. “You aren’t breathing,” he said. How did he know? “I can feel it. I have to make a conscious effort to breathe around you. Not breathing is a way to defend yourself.” He was right. I had been living out a role in Night of the Living Dead. So had all of the movers and the shakers that I know. All over the United States — and all across the skies, riding in Gulfstream Vs — were dead people. Nonbreathers. He looked at me so piercingly that I felt as if he was seeing my soul before he was seeing my body. I didn’t know this, but I definitely felt it. That feeling made me trust him; it opened my heart to anything else he might say. I wasn’t just listening with my ears, I was leaning into the conversation — with all my heart.


In the third realm, people become cocreationists by learning to listen mentally, spiritually, and physically to one another. At the level of the body, for example, you can listen for signs of feeling controlled or of feeling constrained by those with whom you are interacting. Are you breathing right now?

At the mental and spiritual level — that is, at the level of your head or your mind, according to Schwartz-Salant — you hear pain, fears, unvoiced desires, in yourself and in the other person. You can hear when someone really doesn’t want to be with you and is turning off everything that you suggest, even though she invites you to suggest more and more until you feel as if you are going crazy. You can cocreate a terrible space in which you feed off each other’s fears.

When you listen for what is unconscious and what is unarticulated, you enter a space between mind and matter in which, alchemically, you can create something that didn’t exist before. You can mold the relationship. You can turn the base metals of confusion and missed opportunity into the gold of circumstance and hope.

“Life occurs between people as well as within them,” says Schwartz-Salant. When people understand the “subtle body” that they create when they interact — almost like the creation of a baby — they deepen their relationship from one of power to one of respect. They learn to see through the eyes rather than with them, to achieve a nonordinary kind of perception.

Schwartz-Salant’s alchemy in his deeply intriguing book, The Mystery of Human Relationship: Alchemy and the Transformation of Self (Routledge, 1998), is dangerous. It deals with Schwartz-Salant’s discovery of “the mad parts of sane people.” He shows that chaos is not in the environment but in each of us. “People get frightened of having a mad part, a part in which they are out of control,” he says. “They don’t like to embrace it, because it means embracing one’s extreme limitations.” But those parts are the arenas in which people can be the most creative, given the right conditions.

The best metaphor to deal with the mad parts of sane people is alchemy because of its emphasis on chaos. “Alchemy is a thousand-year-old system of thinking that is primarily interested in the transformation of things rather than in the linear cause and effect that one thing does to another thing,” Schwartz-Salant says. “There are many other forms of relationship between things. One develops a finer understanding of dynamic processes: How does a leaf grow? How does one discover a new idea?”


In every act of listening, in every moment of a relationship, Schwartz-Salant says, “You’re creating something out of nothing. You’re opening your mind to a dimension of reality that had been hidden. You are creating that dimension and discovering it at the same time. Shifting to a different kind of awareness allows that to happen. I took the experience that alchemists had and that is no longer magical or scientific thinking, but that is instead a movement toward a different kind of consciousness. I’m interested in perception that is not ordinary, that involves seeing behind something.”

How do you play in this interactive field, in this third realm? “It’s a matter of intentionally letting go of your focus, of your sharp focus, and of letting yourself see with your imagination,” Schwartz-Salant says. Alchemy goes beyond “getting to yes,” or getting an upper hand in a negotiation by zeroing in on someone else’s weaknesses. Alchemy is “getting to and” — which means getting another person to trust you, to open up to you, and to get you to open up to him. You learn to speak a language upon which you both can build an intensely collaborative relationship. Such a relationship forges a deep human connection that discovers and creates at the same time.

Why does the mysterious science of alchemy work? Because there is a dark side to each of us. At the moment when we think we are in control, that’s when we are out of control the most.

In a conversation, if you concentrate too much on the words that are being spoken, you begin to “select,” to mistake the part for the whole — and so, as you try to find clarity, you lose meaning. Instead, try listening for opposites that come up — for love and hate, for freedom and confinement, for optimism and pessimism. Listen for intense swings that happen from moment to moment. In one breath, your friend encourages you to try something, and in the next, she tells you why your effort likely won’t work. By acknowledging the presence of ambiguity, you have a chance to create a situation of trust. That kind of listening will open up your friend’s heart — and make alchemy happen.

I want to know about the tattoo on Schwartz-Salant’s arm: two snakes entwined. I don’t ask. Instead of searching for clarity, I lean into the image: Don Juan would wear snakes. The snake is one of the oldest symbols of power and of the wisdom of the unconscious. Wisdom is a risky venture; it is more than knowledge. Snakes are the creatures most unlike us. Connecting with them psychologically is difficult. According to biographer Frank McLynn, Jung liked to say that it is possible for zoologists to make a rapport with any animal, but that it is not possible with snakes. Jung would then tell a story of a man who reared a python and fed it by hand until one day, without warning, it wrapped itself around him and nearly killed him. It loosened its coils only when the man’s friend hacked it to death with a hatchet. You can’t control snakes or tame them — or know them. You can only hope to live in harmony with them.

Yet the oldest branch of leaders, the desert kings of the Bible, boasted about carrying snakes on their shoulders. If you could carry wisdom so lightly, they believed, then you were powerful beyond belief. By working with your unconscious, by accepting it and using its materials and its tools, you can see farther, you can hear more clearly, and you can act more boldly.


Maybe players in biotechnology will be more creative, more open to chaotic ways of knowing than their wonky, high-tech forebears have been. Maybe they will be the first leaders in a long time who will allow the dark forces of the unconscious to prompt a new enlightenment. When that happens, when psychology assumes its rightful place among technology and among economics, the change in business will be monumental: bigger than the steam engine, bigger than junk bonds, bigger than the microchip.

Harriet Rubin ( is the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women (Doubleday, 1997) and Soloing: Realizing Your Life’s Ambition (Harpercollins, 1999). Contact Nathan Schwartz-Salant by email: