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”Because a good personal psychosynthesis is all that we can look for in many of our patients the idea which is of capital importance, and around which the entire personal psychosynthesis revolves, is that of a personal self, of a point of consciousness and self-awareness, coupled with its realization and the use of its directing will”(Assagioli, 1975, p. 87)
When Maja first started psychotherapy, it was obvious that she was identified with her mind. Her rationalisations often annoyed me and I could sense she was barely aware of her body and feelings. Her world consisted of sensible concepts, emotionally shallow and bodiless. She came to me because she was unhappy with her love life. She was 33 years old and had not yet started a family. Her last relationship ended five years ago; as her friends began to settle down and have children she felt increasingly desperate. She was involved with a married man, but knew he would never leave his wife, so this relationship caused her more pain than happiness.
I knew that our journey had to be a “descent” into the body and emotions. Presence and intimacy was our first task. When she spoke of her unhappiness there was no emotional “charge” in the room, and when she talked about the love she felt for the man she was seeing, I could not “feel” her.
We had to make her aware and present in her body. I suggested that she try to identify with the observer, and sense her physical and emotional responses to words like: “I am unhappy”, “I love him.” A greater depth to her experience would help her to become aware of a larger part of her inner world. My intention was to help her become a centre of pure self-awareness and will, a loving witness to her psychological processes.
In Chapter I we defined the self’s consciousness as presence – the ability to be free, awake and aware in the present moment. We can see this as a loving presence that compassionately contains, observes and interacts with the content of the field of consciousness. In Chapter VI we will explore how the self is also a will – the will-to-be-self. Here we focus on presence as focused self-awareness. Awareness was important for Assagioli. “I speak much of awareness,” he wrote. “Awareness is just this to be aware all the time is not “pure awareness” or something transcendent. There is that of course. But the first awareness is to be aware of the interplay of the factors of the personality.” (Undated 2)
Presence constitutes the soul of Psychosynthesis. Its practitioners need to understand how to be present and how to work with presence with their clients. The personal self is Assagioli’s second core concept and it is clear why he believed his understanding of it was unique to Psychosynthesis. It is precisely the definition of a central identity as pure self-awareness and will that sets Psychosynthesis apart from other psychotherapeutic approaches. This self is something quite different from the contents of consciousness, our thoughts, feelings and sensations. Assagioli was deeply inspired by the East’s understanding of the self – especially the Yogic philosophy – and wrote extensively about it.
Pure consciousness, awareness and presence all point to the fundamental fact that we are conscious beings who can observe the content and flow of consciousness. Fundamentally we are consciousness. We see this in meditation when we “observe the observer.” When we turn our consciousness towards its source, we find nothing but consciousness (and will, but more on this later).
We can observe the psychological processes taking place within us. The value of this is evident in a psychotherapeutic context. When working with clients, I use the metaphor of “the inner house,” referring to the three levels of the Egg Diagram (see diagram: chapter two). The Lower Unconscious is the basement, the Middle Unconscious is the first floor, and the Superconscious is the second floor. Each level contains different energies and needs which affect the self (the observer). Some rooms even have subpersonalities that colour the atmosphere of the entire house.
It was clear that Maja mainly occupied the first floor of her inner house, whose rules are guided by rationality and logic. She was unaware of the resources stored at the lower and higher levels. Turning the light of consciousness inward, we illuminate what is hidden, and can see what affects our behaviour. This is easier said than done. Repressed, painful memories occupy these dark rooms. Yet doing so is an unavoidable prerequisite for freedom. We are in fact often enslaved to the reactions of the Lower Unconscious; becoming aware of them releases us.
Awareness Based Psychotherapy helps clients to be aware of the effect a particular subject has on their bodies, emotions and mind. In my practise, I first introduce clients to the idea of the inner house and the observer. Then I ask them to turn their attention to this inner world and what I refer to as the loving witness.
The client sits with eyes closed or open. I slowly guide their awareness to a quiet and attentive observation of their breath, body sensations, feelings and thoughts, relating to whatever subject we are working with. We can call this a reflective meditation on the content of the client’s consciousness, an exercise in finding the right words for the energies that are sensed and observed. The exercise produces a sense of “coming home”. We learn how to occupy all the floors of our inner house, creating a new and better atmosphere “at home.”
When Maja spoke about her sadness, I asked where in her body she could feel it? Was it hot, cold, heavy, cutting, pulling? Looking at these emotional nuances, she realised that she was also angry, at herself and ”the man”. She felt used and that she had allowed herself to be used. We could say that Maja was emotionally and bodily illiterate. Her experience was limited to a small, rational part of her inner reality. Because of this she had a meagre vocabulary to describe what was happening in her inner world. But as the sessions progressed, she gained a greater intimacy with herself and her inner world.
“To come home to yourself” is to be with what is, without wanting to fix it or run away from it. This is the first step, but there is a second. We must not only witness our experiences, we must master them. We cannot be at home with ourselves while we are slaves to outgrown behavioural patterns. We must become “masters in our own house.” That is the aim of Psychosynthesis.
Mastery requires love and will. As Assagioli points out these are essential:
”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 centre of the self there is a unity of masculine and feminine, will and love, action and observation.” (Keen, 1974)
LOVE IS NECESSARY
The foundation of Awareness Based Psychotherapy is “to be with what is”. At the first stage we observe the process. Next we contain, accept and include what we observe. Many of the subpersonalities squatting in our inner house are homeless, rejected and excluded. We must learn to love them. My method is:
Observe what is… Love, what is… Breathe through it… Let it go…
Let’s look at the role of love… Empathy is the key word here. To empathize with and understand the conditions from the inside is what unites and heals. Love is magnetic. It integrates and creates an intimacy – a unity between the lover (self) and the beloved (the object).
The client may identify with that which repels or rejects the unwanted energies and subpersonalities. The therapist then must hold the space of acceptance. The ability to identify with the loving witness, will slowly ease the tension between what rejects and what is rejected. The loving witness can embrace both subpersonalities lovingly and achieve cooperation between the warring factors.
Maja needed to discover, contain and own her feelings. She could then recognise and relate to them. Initially I provided the containing and empathic centre, but by strengthening her identification with the loving witness, Awareness Based Psychotherapy soon passes this responsibility on to the client. Awareness Based Psychotherapy guides the client to an open, aware acceptance of life by revealing the truth that existentially speaking she is the loving witness. Through this process we gradually develop a centre of consciousness and will, one of the key elements of Psychosynthesis.
Will, because the client will to be a loving witness.
With its emphasis on the client as self-awareness, Psychosynthesis differs from other Awareness Based approaches such as Gestalt therapy. Our presence is a living being, a centre of pure self-awareness, not an analytical presence, neither an impersonal field. We aﬃrm a centre, an inner identity, behind our thoughts, feelings and sensations. We call this the self. It is a living being whose fundamental feature is self-awareness and will. Psychosynthesis concerns the integration, harmonization and synthesis of the three levels of unconsciousness with the observer in the centre. This centre is necessary for integrating the conflicting parts of ourselves.
The observer is not an idea or theory; it is a fact of which we can become conscious. We may begin with the observer as an idea – most clients understand that they can observe the content of their consciousness. However, understanding is not the same as the awakening to the fact that one is consciousness, a pure consciousness, independent of thoughts feelings and sensations. This amounts to a revelation for the client. They have found the eye of the hurricane, a perpetually calm and stable point. The simplicity of their discovery astonishes them. It induces a sense of freedom; they can step back and observe powerful inner forces at work. Gradually they can be present with the depths (Lower Unconscious), the heights (the Superconscious) and the outer periphery of their being (the Collective Unconscious).
A strong identification with the mind makes our observations distant, cold and neutral. Including the body and emotion they become more intimate and immediate. This is because consciousness works through all three basic functions: thought, feeling and sensation. When we include intuition, we experience a beingness of light and connectedness.
Maja gradually became more present with her experiences. Her language became more nuanced. She could step out of the stream of consciousness and observe, could hold, breathe and chose how to respond. By disidentifying with her thoughts and identifying with the loving witness she gradually develop the loving observer.
FREEDOM THROUGH DISIDENTIFICATION
We’ve mentioned how essential it is for clients to practice disidentification. An important part of this process is the psychotherapist’s ability to take the identity as an observer. If we observe the client closely, we can detect her identifications. When we act as observer, it becomes possible to see when the client identifies with a thought such as “I am angry, frustrated, ugly, stupid.” We can then help the client to disidentify.
Sometimes the client is simply not able to disidentify. The pain could be too much, or what they gain from the identification is too important to give up. This is often the case when they identify with a “victim” subpersonality. The psychotherapist then holds the possibilities and gradually leads the client to meet these with an open heart. Repeated experiences of the freedom to choose how to respond to a situation or state, creates the need for more freedom. Transforming from a “victim” to a loving witness embracing the victim, is like moving from a closet to a spacious apartment. The victim may still be there, but is no longer “in our face” giving us more space to work with.
An Awareness Based approach works with the first, second and third person perspective simultaneously. A first-person perspective is fully identified with an emotional state. We deliberately experience being in full contact with all modes or aspects of our psychological states. If suﬃciently anchored in her identify as the observer, the client can reflect on the experience while it happens. In a second person perspective we dialogue with the subpersonality or emotion, asking questions and listening to answers. The aim is to achieve cooperation, a loving exchange between the observer and the observed. In the third-person perspective there is greater distance. The client describes and talks about the subpersonality or emotion.
When we can master the flow and exchange of perspectives, we have a valuable tool for understanding and integration.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF PRESENCE – ITS DEPTH, HEIGHT AND WIDENESS
Presence and the loving witness is not something that develops spontaneously. It is a centre we must create internally before it becomes stable. Inner forces can trap us into certain psychological conditions. When we forget that we are consciousness, we limit ourselves to various roles or subpersonalities.
An observer has the potential to be both transcendent (when the observer is detached from what is observed) and immanent (when he is in a living and loving relationship with the observed). Transcendence observes something from above, from a distance; immanence gets inside it through empathic identification.
Being a transcendent observer implies a certain disidentification, yet we can still be affected by the experience. As mentioned, disidentification has different levels. Transcendence does not mean lofty spiritual experiences, a connotation often associated with the word. The observer can transcend emotions from the Lower Unconscious such as anger, jealousy or envy.
It is the same with immanence. The observer also has the potential to make a deep but conscious connection with our psychological or spiritual experiences. It is the nature of the observer to be something other than the content of consciousness.
We must emphasize that transcendence and immanence are potentials. In order to realise these potentials the observer’s presence (depth, height, and breadth) must be developed. How present the self can be with the content of the Egg Diagram depends on the development of the self-line. The self and the development of presence form an individual line of development related to the psychological functions described in Chapter III.
The observer’s relation to the Lower Unconscious is initially neither transcendent nor immanent to the states below it in the depths. Barriers of past conditioning, pain and fear must first be weakened with love and made conscious before they open to the observer. When this happens, the observer can express Lower Unconscious energies – sexual or aggressive – freely and spontaneously.
So too with the “heights” of the Superconscious. The observer cannot be present, observe and be in relation to the energies of the Superconscious unless the inner worlds of love and light are also conquered. This is what Self-Realization means: to expand and deepen relations between the self and the soul through the Bridge of Consciousness connecting the two.
The ability to be present in its wideness with political, social and cultural developments depends on the empathy (immanence) and span of the self’s consciousness (transcendence). Breadth of perspective also includes our ability to identify psychological and spiritual influences coming from the Collective Unconscious from the biological to the spiritual levels.
We must emphasize that presence, the observer’s focused self-awareness develops in tandem with our other psychological functions. We use our mind to know, our emotions to empathise and our body to act.
Awareness Based Psychotherapy strengthens a client’s ability to be present (awake, containing, breathing, letting go) with what is at any given time. It must, however, become a daily practice, something Assagioli recommended for disidentification.
To develop presence we must practice meditation. According to Assagioli, meditation is ”the central technique which helps amplify effectively all the other techniques” (Freund, 1983). And that: ”In order to strengthen and make stable the pure self-awareness of the observer, it is necessary to have periods of inner silence, gradually longer, to make what is called the void in the field of consciousness. Then one discovers another important function of the self: that it is not merely an observer, but it can also be active in modifying the personality. That is, it can direct and regulate the various functions of the psyche. It can be a will-er.” (Assagioli in Besmer, 1974)
Speaking with Sam Keen (1974), Assagioli confirmed that the disidentification technique resembles Vipassana meditation (Buddhist insight meditation). “The goal of these exercises is to learn to disidentify at any time of the day, to dis-associate the self from any overpowering emotion, person, thought or role and assume the vantage point of the detached observer”. Such practice reveals the self as a centre of pure self-awareness and will.
Awareness meditation is essential to Psychosynthesis and we can practice self centring throughout daily life. The aim is not a peak experience, but a gradually strengthening of presence. Therapists must also practice presence when working with clients. Presence allows us to observe what is happening inside ourselves and in the client’s field. We must encourage our clients to practice it from the very start of the therapy. Working with Maja I encouraged her continually to observe and notice her reactions when she talked about her processes.
Through the observer we can harmonize and synthesize our inner conflicts. It is the fulcrum around which we observe, love and master our different energies. As Assagioli states: ”Therefore, Psychosynthesis, first, second and third, is the working from the centre”. (Undated 2)
We can cover some ground without meditation if the intellect is used as a neutral and objective analytical function. Assagioli refers to the “inner person” in the last chapter, and I suggest it is our identification with the intellect and commentator. When the self identifies with the intellect, it becomes the centre. Because we are often driven by irrational unconscious beliefs that the intellect has unconsciously adopted, this centre’s freedom is limited. Often we can go no further because the client, the psychotherapist or both are not motivated to develop the real centre. Developing presence is like learning to play the violin. Once we discover the observer and its dynamic will-to-be-self, we can play all the strings of the personality, and our life becomes music.
THE INTEGRATION OF THE PERSONALIT Y
Personal psychosynthesis aims to unite the forces of the personality around the self, hence the importance of integration. In Chapter III we defined a self-actualized personality as someone who can freely assert his or her uniqueness. When the disparate aspects of their personality are integrated, they become focused, independent, authentic, definite, and strong.
There are, however, types of integration when the observer is not the centre. Identifying with presence and self-awareness occurs at an advanced stage of development. Usually, one or more roles connected to a psychological function constitute the centre around which our lives are organized.
For example, a woman identified with her role as mother (based primarily on the feeling function) organizes her life around children and the family. Here she is authoritative, persevering and independent. Naturally, this is a very limited identity; many inner resources may not be activated and actualized. There is nothing wrong with this. From her perspective it is an authentic life choice. But it has consequences. She may face a crisis when the children leave home, or, if she is uneducated or unemployed, she may become dependent on her husband or social services.
Other forms of integration involve one-sided and dominant roles such as one’s career, sports or social life. We may be strong, integrated and focused in these roles, but behind the scenes, we can experience great inner conflicts. Parts of our nature have been repressed and excluded from our identity, leaving an unbalanced personality. An artist may have an inferiority complex because he is uneducated. A successful CEO may have a string of failed relationship behind her.
With Maja, she unconsciously shifted among three sides of her nature, which constituted her centre. I illustrate her situation using the Egg Diagram used by Assagioli (1983c). A pair of glasses near the self symbolizes the ”inner commentator” is inserted by me. As mentioned, Assagioli described three different self-identifications: Subpersonalities or “Personages”, the commentator or “Person” and pure self-awareness (see 1975, p. 121). Here three dominant roles (subpersonalities) occupy most of the field of consciousness and the centre; they constitute Maja’s identity.
Maja came to me because her self-image as a woman suffered and she yearned for a warm and nurturing relationship. This role inhabits the lower circle and its needs relate to the love needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
The middle circle represents her professional identity as IT manager in a large media agency. Maja was happy with her work. She was good at her job and was recognised for this. This role made her self-reliant and financially independent, and she saw her job as the most stable aspect of her life.
The upper circle represents her “inner philosopher” and her interest in life’s big questions. She was curious about the meaning of life and death. She had read some self-development literature, but also ancient Greek philosophy. That the upper circle reaches into the Superconscious illustrates that abstract and reflective thought can connect with “something greater”. Maja thrived within the mental world, but it was her identification with her intellect that caused the problems in her love life.
When she started therapy Maja was not aware of the self as the observer/presence, and her will was tied to her work identity. The three circles in the oval diagram show only their centre of gravity relative to the primary motivation of the subpersonality. Depending on the psychological state of each subpersonality, they may go up or down the Egg Diagram. In reality things are more nuanced than what a diagram can illustrate; in Chapter VIII we will explore subpersonalities further.
We become much more free from our different roles when the observer is the integrating centre of the personality. We can move in and out of roles and subpersonalities easier then. We relate to life with a sense of playfulness because we know that our identity does not depend on the roles we play. This freedom requires constant struggle. We must fight many battles before we liberate ourselves from strong identifications with certain roles. Whatever the loss in our love life, career or social status, they offer opportunities to develop trust in the will and to recognise that we need not identify too strongly with anything in the external world. This inner detachment creates greater flexibility. We can take more risks because we can handle the danger of reaching out for something new. We become more creative, courageous and committed; in other words, a self-actualized personality.
The observer does not emerge spontaneously out of the blue, it must be won through our struggles in life. An extrovert can be introspective and practice inner observation and know nothing about disidentification. Life will itself teach him to disidentify. To be conscious of our inner observer is an advantage, but not necessary. The observer is an existential fact that one way or another we awaken to, but clearly a determined development of the observer saves many unnecessary struggles. That meditation and yoga are popular suggests that the experience of the self as pure self-awareness is spreading.
Ideally the integration of the personality is guided by the self as a loving dynamic observer. This, as mentioned, is our personal psychosynthesis. Humanistic or altruistic values do not necessarily motivate us at this stage; we may just want to get the most out of our lives and relationships.
THE PSYCHOTHERAPIST AS THE EXTERNAL UNIFYING CENTRE
Developing self-awareness alone is a great challenge. Presence and the will are subtle and are obscured by our identifications with ideas, feelings and external things. Here the living contact with another self-aware person is crucial. This may happen in therapy, or a meditation teacher or good friend can help. But when working to release ties to the past, things are different. This requires professional help, a psychotherapist trained to work with repressions, resistance and transferences.
Assagioli sees the therapist as: ”not only pointing out and suggesting to the patient, as Jung does, the goal of his “individuation”, but encouraging and educating him from the outset to practice active methods of acquiring an increasingly clear self-consciousness, the development of a strong will and the mastery and right use of his impulsive emotional, imaginative and mental energies, and to avail himself of all means of gaining independence of the therapist.” (1967b)
We must clarify this with our clients. Assagioli mentions first the development of self-consciousness, then the will. As Psychosynthesis focuses on the role of the centre this makes sense. It concerns the client’s ability to be a loving witness capable of independent choices (the will) and implementing them in life. The self develops via the mirroring or feedback between the psychotherapist and the client.
When we psychotherapists develop our inner observer we are able to recognise our client’s observer and help him to become his own loving witness. We can help our clients to disidentify from limiting self-perceptions such as “no one loves me”, “I’m so angry,” and “I am not attractive.” This shows our clients the freedom that disidentification offers. As the psychotherapist nurtures a relationship in which the client takes responsibility for his own life, the client’s autonomy and the will to-be-self is also strengthened.
In short, the psychotherapist aims to be an authentic mirror for the client’s own self-awareness, and in a broader sense, for the link between her self and soul. For Assagioli the therapist “must, to some extent, take on the role and task as protector, counsellor and guide. In dream symbolism, says Jung, he frequently appears under the aspect of the ”wise old man” and corresponds to what the Indians calls ”guru”. (1967b) Here the psychotherapist acts as both healer and teacher.
Assagioli illustrates this relationship in the diagram below, where he also describes four different client therapist relationships (1967b).
The star outside the individual psyche(2) represents the therapist. The therapist acts as a link or bridge between the individual self (1) and soul (3). When the client is not in direct “vertical” contact with the soul, the therapist can help establish this. The therapist becomes a “role model”, or “catalyst” for the development. The therapist acts as an external unifying centre helping the client to find his own centre. The star on the border of the Superconscious indicates that the therapist holds a transpersonal perspective and ideally expresses this to clients.
Working with Maja I focused on developing her feminine side and feeling function. In strengthening her feminine self-esteem as a woman, my gender played a role. Maja needed to be seen by a man who could understand and contain her despair about her love life.
The Awareness Based approach helped her to observe more of her personality than her mind, with which she was identified. She recognised that her identity as the loving witness strengthened her relationship to her body and emotional needs. Disidentifying from the body did not prevent her from being grounded in it, the opposite was the result due to her warm appreciation of it. As a result of this work she decided to leave the married man. She accepted that she had to stand up for herself and her dignity as a woman. She needed a man to be fully committed to her, and this meant choosing herself first. The will-to-be-self gave her the strength to stand alone and the freedom to find the right man.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE SELF AND THE SOUL
Chapter X concerns the relationship between the self and the soul, but I will briefly touch on it here. There is one self – Assagioli was very clear on this – but it unfolds at different levels. The consciousness, inner light, and presence is the same. The degree of awareness differs; what the self can consciously contain and include determines its “size.” An enlightened person will know with certainty and from experience that her pure consciousness is also my consciousness. The difference between us is the individual intention and purpose (the will) we have regarding our evolutionary role in the whole, the universal Self.
The difference between the personal and the Transpersonal Self depends on how free the observer is; how transcendent and immanent we are in relation to the content of consciousness on all levels. When we experience the personal self as pure self-awareness, a sense of separateness remains. There is a distinct feeling of an “I” that is quite different from “you”. Here the observer is still limited to the mental field, which creates this duality.
When we pass into the Superconscious, awareness expands beyond our physical limits into infinity. Thought stops; we lose our mental chains and find ourselves completely free and peaceful, as if a straightjacket had been removed. We can still think, but it’s like squeezing infinity into a box. There is still a “me” (I-am-ness), and full identity. But it is a me that is liberated.
In Awareness Based Psychotherapy we don’t often have the opportunity to work with the spiritual experience of self. But it can happen if the Psychosynthesis Psychotherapist practices awareness meditation seriously. A powerful exercise is to maintain eye contact with the client and just be, immersing oneself in the consciousness of the other.
Deep eye contact can instil peace and freedom, if the therapist knows how to communicate these states. I have practiced this for years and occasionally a client spontaneously recognises the value of “just being.” Once we sat for 45 minutes in silence. We knew that something transpersonal, a deeper being, was activated. Time stops, two souls are together in an endless now, a profound peace. Afterwards the client said: “This is the first time ever that someone else has been able to be with me in my deepest being.”
In the next chapter we will discuss the will and see how we can strengthen our own and our clients’ freedom to-be-self.