Sergio Bartoli, one of Roberto Assagioli’s close collaborators, shares his impressions about Assagioli and summarises the ideas behind psychosynthesis
Translated from Italian by Gordon Symons
This subject immediately invites me to reflect: the figure of a great man can only be reduced by the mind of whoever interprets it. Aware of this limit, I will try to introduce you to Roberto Assagioli, starting from the consideration that each individual is intimately linked to two factors: his own internal structure and the socio-cultural climate of the era in which he lives.
I only met Assagioli in the last decade of his earthly experience but, however limited it might have been in time, this relationship has deeply affected my life.
The most evident aspect of his person was a strong charge of love that was spontaneously perceived in him: it was not an attitude, a “way of doing”, but a cohesive energy that vibrated in the deepest part of his being; I would say, “in spite of himself”. It was certainly that radiant love, with a clear altruistic tone, of which he speaks in some of his writings and which is generically defined as “spiritual love”. I later discovered that it was a real “active force,” which produced beneficial effects on those who received it. This was a characteristic of his personality that caught me unprepared, especially in the first meetings when, expecting only an exchange of views between psychiatrists, I realized that a particular light emanated from that man.
On leaving his office, I initially found myself thinking, “Is he a doctor or a guru?”
Over time I learned to know him better: I found that note of deep love “strange” in its affectionate and available emotional structure, permeated with loving gestures and words, always ready to come into contact with the other, attractive and attracted in turn by everything he came into contact with. His studio was, in fact, full of objects and symbols, his house animated by dogs and cats, his daily activity dotted with collaborators of all ages and languages. Such was his ability to attract, that it certainly was not easy for him to reserve time for himself.
His mind was powerful and inclusive: this fact impressed me a great deal and was probably the element that allowed me to overcome my initial prejudice of an “excess of spirituality” that I thought I had caught in him. In fact, like most intellectuals of the time, I was used to considering spiritual matters to be the “hunting ground” of religions and philosophies, considering it a “dangerous guest” in cultural and scientific matters.
Assagioli had a marvelous, intuitive and logical mind at the same time, which amazed by the ability with which he dealt with any topic and solved every problem. He spoke and wrote correctly in multiple languages, he read and synthesized any writing with astonishing speed, he knew how to listen and understand, affable and patient. He expressed himself with simplicity and clarity, faithful to the semantic value of words.
I certainly consider him the man with the widest mind and the deepest knowledge I have encountered in my life.
His personality, on the whole, could sometimes appear changeable and contradictory: it oscillated between moments of weakness and moments of strength, capable of giving suggestions but also of receiving them, always committed, however, to integrate and harmonize, whether it was internal tensions or external situations. This oscillation of the personality was reflected in his body: sometimes he appeared shy and indecisive, other times firm and confident. Capable of endurance, but also subject to tiring easily, always precise and meticulous in all circumstances.
I wanted to draw a picture, clearly a summary, of the “Assagioli the man” to try to better understand, together with you, the evolution of his thinking.
The fundamental characteristic of his being was an authentic spiritual vibration, which imposed itself as a motive (we would say as a “project of the Self”) on his personality and was manifested as a total commitment to self-realization – and this lived, with accents of true impersonality and universality.
His spirit, engaged since his youth in the search for absolute truth, chose the role of the psychotherapist as a social identity. Some sentences that result from his correspondence with Papini, when he was twenty-two years old, graduated in medicine, clarify well, in my opinion, his inner needs. In a letter he says: “You will understand that, given the nature of my studies (the human soul in its known and unknown aspects), it will be a long time before I publicly disclose the results which I hope I will reach,” and further on, after listening to a report by Freud at the Nuremberg congress, he writes “… I will try to practice psychotherapy, from which I promise myself a great benefit for the sick and precious observation and experiments for myself”. Subsequently, explaining to his friend his choice of medical-psychological studies, he says: “… They seemed to me and they seem to me the most suitable to satisfy my overbearing need to know the mysteries of the human soul”.
When we consider the cultural climate in which Roberto Assagioli’s personality developed, we capture some significant events: the first was certainly the family situation, which provided him with adequate stimuli and the opportunity to visit many countries from a very young age. This allowed him to grasp, once he moved with his family, from his native Venice, to Florence, the intellectual ferments of that city, characterized, at the time, by its wide international scope. This aspect of internationalism will accompany him throughout his life.
It is interesting to remember that, persecuted by fascism, he was initially accused of “pacifism, internationalism and other such crimes”, as he ironically himself wrote. This interest in “the whole of humanity” will become one of the fundamental points of psychosynthesis, which also includes the integration of the individual into ever larger groups, up to a psychosynthesis of nations.
Another event that affected his formation was the contact with the American culture of the early 1900s: in particular with that movement called “New Thought” and with the brilliant intuitions of William James who, at that time , represented official psychology in America. His first observations on the biological and psychological transformation processes of man and nature date back to then, as is clear from his article of 1907. In fact, he writes: “Man can transform himself indefinitely and must learn to do it”.
His discovery that the human will is a wonderful tool available to each of us is probably from the same period. I believe it was also those stimuli that evoked in him a profound interest in human consciousness (“that intimate and essential part of each individual”, as he defines it), to the point of affirming that “a transformation of consciousness corresponds to a transformation of our whole personality”.
It was also in those years that he first reflected on intuition, which would become the fundamental function in future transpersonal psychosynthesis.
Another fundamental element in his formation was, of course, the influence of Freud’s discoveries and of psychoanalysis, which was then emerging. Later, although he never entered into controversy, he distanced himself from certain psychoanalytic positions, not sharing certain generalizations and considering some assumptions about man as pessimistic and reductive. His interest, in fact, focused from the beginning on the human phenomenon understood in its “totality”: in particular, studying the unconscious psychic activity, he recognized different natures and various levels of manifestation. For him, psychology, in addition to being a method of treatment, was above all a tool of self-knowledge and conscious management of oneself. His attention as a scholar and scientist was not limited to the psyche of the individual who is suffering, but expanded to the “healthy” man who wants to grow.
It was also in this period that his participation in the establishment of an international philosophical library in Florence also allowed him to come into contact with well-known exponents of oriental culture. This experience had such a profound impact on his consciousness that it aroused a desire for integration between Western and Eastern thought. Psychosynthesis, in my opinion, is also the result of this commitment.
At this point we can summarize the characteristics of his philosophical and psychological approach: a strictly scientific humanistic position; authentic availability to the “new”, always filtered by vigilant discrimination; a tendency to accept the positive and useful of each theory and practice, while retaining its methodological originality; a constant commitment to synthesis, intended as an integral element of analysis.
An article in 1909, in Prezzolini’s “La Voce”, with the title “For a modern psychagogy”, represented a first focus of Assagiolian thought in an educational-psychological model, which embraced the fundamental conceptions of psychosynthesis. It was then that his ideas took shape and the psychodynamic conception of man began to make headway in him. The need to know, possess and transform himself became the meaning of his life: he discovered that energy follows thought and this experience linked him to the tradition of ancient wisdom, which represented for him a precious source of research and experimentation.
It included the chaotic play of the multiform forces of the human soul, identifying in the will the only function of the “I” capable of harmonizing and directing them.
As a good doctor and acute psychologist, he realized that the various levels of life in man interact with each other, often in a disorganized and conflicting way, sometimes producing harm and suffering on a physical and psychic level. He sensed and defined some laws that indissolubly bind together the biological, emotional and mental aspect, thus anticipating the psycho-somatic approach of today’s medicine.
His predisposition to include and harmonize, combined with an innate humanitarian sentiment, prompted him to seek “unity in diversity and diversity in unity”. He discovered that integration must not be transformed into uniformity but must instead aim at unanimity intended as a fusion of intent towards a single goal, while respecting the inevitable peculiarities of the parties. In this way, intra-individual, inter-individual and social psychosynthesis is outlined: the latter in particular, still constitutes a field open to research and experimentation.
Synthesis became the pivot of his psychosynthetic theory and practice: two or more elements always find a higher point of integration, creating a new element that comprehends and transcends them at the same time. This process can be carried out through “partial syntheses” and subsequent detachments.
Thus was born the concept of “subpersonality”, the process of “disidentification” and gradual “self-identification” was defined. The idea of the “personal “I”” was affirmed as the unifying center of conscious psychic life, a reflection of that “higher Self” still “recessive” in common experience. Introspection and continuous commitment to what is essential led him to the heights of the “higher unconscious”, an unexplored mine of spiritual values. On this path he discovered the golden rays of the true “I”, the “Self”, and traced on his “diagram” the dotted line which from the reflected “I”, the center of the personality, leads to the “numinal” “I”, the authentic identity of self. It was in 1926 that the research and experiences fermented in the alchemical vessel of his consciousness manifested themselves outside, coinciding with the opening in Rome of the Institute of Culture and Psychic Therapy, which a little later took the definitive name of the Institute of Psychosynthesis.
Unfortunately, that era was not very favorable to Roberto Assagioli’s ideas. Fascism took root in Italy, imposing nationalistic and rigidly autarchic models. Internationalism and cultural inclusivism were considered suspect. The same official culture was forced to follow obligatory paths and this first hampered and then suspended the activity of the Institute, which only after the war, in 1946, was reopened in Florence. Despite persecutions and exile, Assagioli’s thought had continued on its path and was ready to spread throughout the world. The United States in particular, welcomed it and favored its diffusion, thus reactivating an ancient “feeling”. This is the period in which Assagioli resumes his travels, actively participates in international conferences and, from 1956, promotes the first Psychosynthesis conferences, attended by congress participants of various nationalities.
In 1965 a first book on psychosynthesis was published in America, in English: “Psychosynthesis, A Collection of Basic Writings” (translated into Italian in 1973, with the title Principi e metodi della psicosintesi terapeutica).
Principles and methods of therapeutic psychosynthesis
Over the years he nurtured the idea of developing the topic of the will: he analyzed in a complete and detailed way the requirements and qualities of an integral will, describing its “anatomy”; he studied the volitional act in the various stages of its process, specifying its “physiology”. Thus he created a model of psychosynthetic will, emphasizing its dynamic aspect, which from personal will transforms it into transpersonal and cosmic will.
This work, of absolute value, materialized in 1973 in his third book The Act of Will, translated into Italian in 1977 as L’atto di volontà.
Assagioli considered psychosynthesis to be a continuous process of self-creation, and he was a living example of it. He loved to say, even in old age, that he was completing his personal psychosynthesis and that the task was arduous. He pursued that “ideal model” of man in which will, love and knowledge were merged into a single desire: to serve humanity. By freeing the individual from any determinism, and animating him from “within”, he made him capable of overcoming every obstacle, in a continuous tension at the maximum growth of himself. The “ideal model” technique is, in fact, a creative process which, once the chosen objective has been achieved, provides another of wider possibilities, in a crescendo of aspirations that gradually transform the phenomenal self into an ever more inclusive synthesis.
In the last years of his life, in line with his inner research, he devoted himself in particular to the study of the transpersonal aspects of the psyche, also in anticipation of writing a book on the nature and requirements of the “Self”. Unfortunately he was unable to complete this effort but, just in the centenary year of his birth, the Institute published “Transpersonal Development”, a precious collection of some writings by Roberto Assagioli on the “height psychology “, that psychology of “Total-man” to whom he dedicated his intense and fruitful life. In 1974, a few months before his death, in a significant article, dictated in English, (almost a sort of “psychological testament”), he clarifies and summarizes the basic concepts of psychosynthesis. Psychosynthetic “training” focuses on seven fundamental experiences: disidentification, the personal self, the will, the ideal model, the synthesis, the superconscious, the Self.
There are five main fields of application: self-training, educational, therapeutic, interpersonal, and social. To be understood, psychosynthesis must be known in principles and methods and, subsequently, applied to oneself. To do this, as Assagioli argued, the best attitude is that which fuses humility, patience and experimentation.
At this point, many memories come to my mind: different sensations, feelings and thoughts. It is not easy to tune them together to offer a synthesis worthy of this man and his thought.
I see him again now, still with his serene and smiling face, with his deep eyes immersed in infinity, with his subtle humor veined with loving understanding, with the scent of joy that emanated from his being. His thought: a harmonious synthesis of knowledge, love and will.
Sergio Bartoli, doctor and psychotherapist, was born in Rome on June 27, 1929. A close collaborator of Roberto Assagioli since the early 1960s, he opened the first center of the Institute he directed in Rome for many years. Also in Rome he organized the first International Congress of Psychosynthesis.
After Assagioli’s death in 1974, he participated intensely in the life of the Institute, promoting the birth of various Psychosynthesis centers in Italy. At the beginning of the seventies, together with some colleagues, he founded S.I.P.T. (Italian Society of Therapeutic Psychosynthesis) and has trained, as a teacher, a large number of doctors and psychologists in psychotherapy, a profession that for many years he has pursued with particular talent.
In 1979 he founded in Città della Pieve, Umbria, the “Community of Psychosynthesis”, which later became the “Community of Living Ethics”, where he tirelessly led meditation and spiritual growth groups until his death on January 16, 2009 .