The Golden Mean of Assagioli

The following are fragments of an interview conducted with Dr. Roberto Assagioli - founder of psychosynthesis - by Sam Keen, published in the December 1974, issue of & copyright Psychology Today.

More than half a century ago, when Freud was creating psychoanalysis in Vienna, Roberto Assagioli, MD., was developing psychosynthesis in Italy. Until recently his work was not much known either in or outside Italy, but in the last decade institutes of psychosynthesis have been blossoming around the world and Assagioli's books are being translated into many languages.


Keen: What are the major differences between psychosynthesis and psychoanalysis?

Assagioli: We pay far more attention to the higher unconscious and to the development of the transpersonal self. In one of his letters, Freud said, "I am interested only in the basement of the human being." Psychosynthesis is interested in the whole building. We try to build an elevator which will allow a person access to every level of his personality. After all, a building with only a basement is very limited. We want to open up the terrace where you can sun-bathe or look at the stars. Our concern is the synthesis of all areas of the personality. That means psychosynthesis is holistic, global and inclusive. It is not against psychoanalysis or even behaviour modification but it insists that the needs for meaning, for higher values, for a spiritual life, are as real as biological or social needs. We deny that there are any isolated human problems. Take sex for example. There is no sex per se. Sex is connected with every other function. So-called sexual problems are often caused by power conflicts between two persons and can only be solved by unravelling the complex interactions between them.

Keen: The features you have mentioned so far are largely theoretical. Is your therapeutic technology any different than psychoanalysis? [...]

Assagioli: Psychosynthesis makes use of more exercises and techniques than it is possible to list here. We have systematic exercises for developing every function of the personality. Initially, we explore all the conscious and unconscious aspects of the personality by having patients write autobiographies, keep a diary, fill out questionnaires, and take all types of projective tests (TAT, free drawing, etc.) As therapy proceeds, we use relaxation, music, art, rhythmical breathing, mental concentration, visualization, creative imagination, evocative visual symbols and words, and meditation. But I want to emphasize that every individual is different and no techniques can be applied automatically.

Keen: Did psychosynthesis develop from psychoanalysis?

Assagioli: Yes. In 1910 Freud was unknown in Italy. My doctoral committee was reluctant, but they finally permitted me to do my doctoral thesis on psychoanalysis. I went to Zurich to study with Eugen Bleuler, the inventor of schizophrenia. When I returned, I practised psychoanalysis in Italy but I soon discovered its limitations.

Keen: What was your relationship to Freud and Jung?

Assagioli: I never met Freud personally but I corresponded with him and he wrote to Jung expressing the hope that I would further the cause of psychoanalysis in Italy. But I soon became a heretic. With Jung, I had a more cordial relationship. We met many times during the years and had delightful talks. Of all modern psychotherapists, Jung is the closest in theory and practice to psychosynthesis.

Keen: What are the similarities and differences?

Assagioli: In the practice of therapy we both agree in rejecting "pathologism” that is, concentration upon morbid manifestations and symptoms of a supposed psychological "disease." We regard man as a fundamentally, healthy organism in which there may be a temporary malfunctioning. Nature is always trying to re-establish harmony, and within the psyche the principle of synthesis is dominant. Irreconcilable opposites do not exist. The task of therapy is to aid the individual in transforming the personality and integrating apparent contradictions. Both Jung and myself have stressed the need for a person to develop the higher psychic functions, the spiritual dimension.

Perhaps the best way to state our differences is with a diagram of the psychic functions. Jung differentiates four functions: sensation, feeling, thought and intuition. Psychosynthesis says that Jung's four functions do not provide for a complete description of the psychological life. Our view can be visualized like this: We hold that imagination or fantasy is a distinct function. There is also a group of functions that impels us toward action in the outside world. This group includes instincts, tendencies, impulses, desires and aspirations. And here we come to one of the central foundations of psychosynthesis: There is a fundamental difference between drives, impulses, desires and the will. In the human condition, there are frequent conflicts between desire and will. And we place the will in a central position at the heart of self-consciousness or the Ego


Assagioli: I believe the will is the Cinderella of modern psychology. It has been relegated to the kitchen. The Victorian notion that will power could overcome all obstacles was destroyed by Freud's discovery of unconscious motivation. But. unfortunately, this led modern psychology into a deterministic view of man as a bundle of competing forces with no center. This is contrary to every human being's direct experience of himself. At some point, perhaps in a crisis when danger threatens, an awakening occurs in which the individual discovers his will. This revelation that the self and the will are intimately connected can change a person's whole awareness of himself and the world. He sees that he is a living subject, an actor, endowed with the power to choose, to relate, to bring about changes in his own personality, in others, in circumstances. And this awareness leads to a feeling of wholeness, security and joy. Because modern psychology has neglected the centrality of will, it has denied that we have a direct experience of the self. With the certainty that one has a will comes the realization of the intimate connection between the will and the self. This is the existential experience of the direct awareness of pure self-consciousness. It is self-consciousness that sets man apart from animals. Human beings are aware but also know that they are aware. We can express the importance of self-consciousness, the unity of willing and being, by saying (as opposed to Descartes): "l am aware of being and willing," or "1 am a willing self."


Assagioli: It is certainly true—that there is a multiplicity within the self but the will is essentially the activity of the self which stands above the multiplicity. It directs, regulates and balances the other functions of the personality in a creative way. I don't believe there is any fundamental split, any irreconcilable conflict, within man. I don't think there is a will to death opposing the will to life. What is loosely called the "split will" can be recognized to be in reality the conflict between the central will and a multitude of drives, urges, desires and wishes. This is a universal experience. Conflicts are present in every normal individual. Without them, there would be no need for psychoanalysis or psychosynthesis! Each choice involves some conflict whether to stay inside and read or go out for a walk—you can't do them both at once. In neurotic conflict, there is a desperate attempt to have two incompatible things at the same time. But in the normal person, the will can function to lessen or to eliminate the conflict by recognizing a hierarchy of needs and arranging for an appropriate satisfaction of all needs. The central will distributes the tasks to other parts of the personality. Let me use an analogy that is central to my thinking: The will is like the conductor of an orchestra. He is not self-assertive but is rather the humble servant of the composer and of the score.


Keen: Doesn't placing the will at the center of the self betray a distinctively masculine perspective? In traditional terms, direction, control, assertion and aggression are considered masculine attributes. The female of the species is supposedly more welcoming, nurturing and flowing. Do you recognize an essential "feminine" component of the self? Of the will? How do you balance the masculine and feminine elements in the self?

Assagioli: The will is not merely assertive, aggressive and controlling. There is the accepting will, the yielding will, the dedicated will. You might say that there is a feminine polarity to the will—the willing surrender, the joyful acceptance of the other functions of the personality. I can state the same point in another way. At the heart of the self, there is both an active and a passive element, an agent and a spectator. Self-consciousness involves our being a witness—a pure, objective, loving witness—to what is happening within and without. In this sense, the self is not a dynamic in itself but is a point of witness, a spectator, an observer who watches the flow. But there is another part of the inner self—the will-er or the directing agent—that actively intervenes to orchestrate the various functions and energies of the personality, to make commitments and to instigate action in the external world. So, at the center of the self, there is a unity of masculine and feminine, will and love, action and observation.

Keen: (Both/and rather than either/or. There goes the synthetic principle joining together what is usually kept apart. Eastern philosophy locates the essence of man in the atemporal observer. Western philosophy, since the rise of technology, locates the chief dignity of man in the ability to control the world, to act. Assagioli marries East and West. Do mixed marriages work, or do they produce philosophical bastards?)

Keen: How does psychosynthesis train people to create this Olympian attitude of detached powerfulness?

Assagioli: Techniques are always related to the individual situation, so it is hard to generalize. But I can discuss two basic techniques: disidentification and training of the will. I can begin with a fundamental psychological principle: We are dominated by everything with which our self is identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we disidentify ourselves. The normal mistake we all make is to identify ourselves with some content of consciousness rather than with consciousness itself. Some people get their identity from their feelings, others from their thoughts, others from their social roles. But this identification with a part of the personality destroys the freedom which comes from the experience of the pure "1."

Keen: We identify with the predicate rather than the subject.

Assagioli: That is right. Often a crisis in life deprives a person of the function or role with which he has identified: an athlete's body is maimed, a lover's beloved departs with a wandering poet; a dedicated worker must retire. Then the process of disidentification is forced on one and a solution can only come by a process of death and rebirth in which the person enters into a broader identity. But this process can occur with conscious cooperation. The exercise in disidentification and identification involves practising awareness and affirming: I have a body, but l am not my body. I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. I have a job, but I am not my job... etc. Systematic introspection can help to eliminate all partial self-identifications.

Keen: This technique is similar to the Buddhist vipassana meditation in which one merely observes passing thoughts, sensations and images.

Assagioli: Yes, and it leads to the affirmation that the observer is different from what he observes. So the natural stage which comes after disidentification is a new identification of the self: I recognize and affirm that "I am a center of pure self-consciousness. I am a centre of will, capable of ruling, directing and using all my psychological processes and my physical body." The goal of these exercises is to learn to disidentify at any time of the day, to disassociate the self from any overpowering emotion, person, thought or role and assume the vantage point of the detached observer.


Keen: I see how you arrive at the pure experience of the self as an observer, but how can you claim that the will is capable of ruling and directing all the other psychological functions? Frequently the will seems powerless to master infantile drives. At times it is a powerless prisoner governed by an infantile tyrant. When depression strikes, or anger surges, or sexual desire bubbles up, will power seems weak, more like an ageing parent than a virile manager of the personality.

Assagioli: Will, like any other function of the personality, can be systematically developed and strengthened. If it is weak it can be trained by regular exercise in the same way muscles are developed by gymnastics. And if a person begins with a weak will he may, by the simple miracle of overcompensation, develop a greater than normal strength of will. Everybody has enough will to begin the process of developing more.


Assagioli: A person is always in a social context; he is not an isolated unit. So the more conflict there is, the more energy is wasted. If we are to have any deep peace it depends upon the harmonization of wills. Self-centeredness is deeply destructive to the cooperation without which a person cannot live a full life in community. Why should we consider good will an expendable virtue, a matter only for the religious? I can go even a step further. This same principle applies to an individual's relation to nature and the universe. No person can take an arrogant stand and consider himself unrelated to the universe. Like it or not, man is a part of the universal will and he must somehow tune in and willingly participate in the rhythms of universal life. The harmonization and unification of the individual and the universal will—the Chinese identification with the Tao, the Stoic acceptance of destiny, or the Christian will of God—is one of the highest human goals, even if it is seldom realized.

Keen: Until Maslow began to talk about meta needs, psychology was embarrassed by anything that looked like metaphysics or religion. Now it seems that mysticism and medicine are joining forces. Does healthy self-awareness necessarily involve a religious commitment?

Assagioli: Not necessarily. What I call personal psychosynthesis can be achieved by coming to understand the lower and the middle unconscious. But for some people, when basic psychological needs have been met and a measure of health has been achieved, boredom and a sense of meaninglessness set in and a search begins for some higher purpose in life. As Jung pointed out, being normal and adjusted is enough for some persons but others have a hunger for transcendence. There is a new "fourth force" in psychology—transpersonal psychology—which seeks to explore those needs and aspirations that go beyond self-actualization and humanistic psychology.


Assagioli: We fear the sublime because it is unknown and because if we admit the reality of higher values we are committed to act in a more noble way. Goodness, cooperation, the loss of self-centeredness, and responsibility for spiritual growth go along with acknowledgement of the higher self.

Keen: What is the nature of the transpersonal self? Are you talking about an entity separate from the self we experience directly in self-awareness?

Assagioli: My dear friend, I cannot tell you what the transpersonal self is like. Maslow tried to characterize it and the nature of the peak experience in The Psychology of Being. Direct experience of the transpersonal self is rare and union with it is very rare. But many people have a knowledge of it that is mediated through the higher unconsciousness, or the superconsciousness. I can describe some of the effects. It is spontaneously manifested in the creative works of the great universal geniuses such as Plato, Dante and Einstein. Others get in touch with it through prayer or meditation. Or they may feel a call or pull from some Higher Power. Language is always inadequate to speak about transpersonal or spiritual experiences. Every expression is highly symbolic, and a large variety of symbols have been used: enlightenment, descent into the underworld of the psyche, awakening, purification, transmutation, psychospiritual alchemy, rebirth and liberation.

Keen: I assume you have techniques in psychosynthesis to develop awareness of the transpersonal self.

Assagioli: Yes. Among them, the technique of inner dialogue works well. Imagine a very wise man who knows the answers to all the problems you face. If you could obtain an interview with this man what would he tell you? This is your inner teacher...


Keen: Tell me what psychosynthesis has to say about forgiveness, responsibility and gratitude.

Assagioli: In psychosynthesis, we stress individual responsibility. No matter what has happened to a person he must assume responsibility here and now for changes he wants to make in his personality and not blame his parents or society. I am against many things in modern society and am a revolutionary in that sense but we have to change it from within because it is our society. Toward those persons who have harmed you I recommend understanding and pity. Probably the harm is not so great as you imagine. Of course, we are conditioned by the past but we have the power to disown it, to walk away, to change ourselves. Most of the harm parents do to children is done out of ignorance and not malice and so it is liberating to forgive those who knew no better, rather than harbor resentment and self-pity. Also, forgiveness becomes easier when you come in contact with the real suffering of humanity. One thing! would propose in education is that young people have a weekly: visit to hospitals, institutions for the insane and slums so they come directly into contact with human suffering without the interposition of theories, statistics, or political ideologies.

Keen: Since the decline of religion in the West and the loss of the rites of passage—birth and death rituals—it has fallen to psychology to help people cope with transition crises and boundary situations. How do you deal with death? At 85 how does it appear to you?

Assagioli: Death looks to me primarily like a vacation There are many hypotheses about death and the idea of reincarnation seems the most sensible to me. I have no direct knowledge about reincarnation but my belief puts me in good company with hundreds of millions of Eastern people, with the Buddha and many others in the West. Death is a normal part of a biological cycle. It is my body that dies and not all of me. So I don't care much. I may die this evening but I would willingly accept a few more years in order to do the work I am interested in, which I think may be useful to others. I am, as the French say, disponable (available). Also, humor helps, and a sense of proportion. I am one individual on a small planet in a little solar system in one of the galaxies.

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