Table of content
There are a number of naturally occurring crises, personal and spiritual, throughout a person’s lifespan, according to Roberto Assagioli. This is an introduction to the ebook with the same title.
By Kenneth Sørensen, MA Psychosynthesis. This is my introduction to the free ebook Conflicts, Crises, and Synthesis, a compilation of articles by Roberto Assagioli. The ebook will be published on this website next week, September 11.
This collection of articles by Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, provides an overview of some of the major conflicts and crises a human being naturally encounters as an infant and throughout its lifespan. Many students of psychosynthesis have missed this perspective, so I am happy to report that this compilation fills some of the gaps. There are three sections in this ebook focusing on interrelated themes, which gives us an idea of our developmental stages and their related conflicts and crises, why we suffer, and how we create a synthesis out of the polarities we encounter. In this introduction I focus mainly on presenting the different crises which Assagioli mentions in his miscellaneous writings, because his thoughts on synthesis are well-established in his books.
He never presented a complete theory of development, so we must collect it from bits and pieces. I don’t consider this collection of articles a complete picture; however, it is a decent start. This is an ongoing process, so if the reader is familiar with essential pieces left out of this compilation, please let me know. From the very outset, I must mention that this book would not have been possible without the valuable services of the Assagioli Archive in Florence. They have made many of the Italian articles available, which have been translated for this work, so the English-speaking reader now, for the very first time, can study Assagioli’s thoughts on this vital topic. Let me also acknowledge the valuable help from my translators, Jan Kuniholm, Francesco Viglienghi, and Gordon Symons; Kuniholm also provided important feedback with the editing and proofreading of this work.
The compilation also reflects on why we suffer, what we can learn through suffering, and how we can get the most out of our suffering. It is important to note that psychosynthesis does not see suffering as a disease, according to Assagioli (p.34): “We must not confuse “suffering” with illness; suffering is a normal part of human life.”
We all suffer and experience conflicts and crises as part of the human journey. The strange thing about suffering is that it often is related to the experience of joy – the joy of overcoming life’s obstacles and digging deep so that we develop our resilience, finding new and unrecognized qualities and talents. Often we don’t regret our crisis afterwards, because it is part of our unique story and shaped who we became as authentic human beings. Even when people undergo the most horrendous and unjust life circumstances, some seem to be able to give it meaning, such as the famous example of Victor Frankl, the Austrian Jewish psychiatrist who was in a concentration camp during the Second World War. He later wrote about the Will to Meaning and founded Logotherapy.
Assagioli, as a Jewish person who lived during Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy, was not unfamiliar with suffering. He was arrested on charges of “pacifism,” had to run for his life later during the Second World War, and lost his only son to tuberculosis a few years later. This book’s collection of articles might help us understand what insights he used to overcome his obstacles.
Assagioli was first and foremost interested in exploring and presenting the superconscious dimensions of the personality and its creative center, the transpersonal Self. He acknowledged the valuable contributions of all the diverse psychological traditions that addressed the normal development of man; however, he wanted to fill in the blanks regarding the higher reaches of human nature.
As a transpersonal psychology, psychosynthesis covers a much more comprehensive range of developments than mainstream psychology. Its developmental theory includes all the normal developmental stages a human goes through from infancy to old age, including the spiritual dimension, which some people encounter if they take hold of that potential in the human heart.
Psychosynthesis will, for that reason, address very advanced stages of development related to what has been called Enlightenment in the East; that is, mystical and spiritual realizations aiming at becoming one in the spiritual dimension. However, such developments come with a considerable price. The difficulties between our ordinary ego-based consciousness and the transpersonal Self may create tensions, conflicts, and suffering due to prolonged struggle between the two competing centers of our psycho-spiritual makeup. The struggle occurs about what values, needs, and agendas shall rule our life and whether we will become the master of those needs or continue to be enslaved by them.
Psychosynthesis offers a comprehensive map of the journey through all the developmental stages and levels and shows how we can transform the conflicts and suffering into a psychosynthesis of all our resources by using a variety of insights and techniques adapted to each specific individual. Sometimes Assagioli is criticized for not paying enough attention to normal psychology and its development; however, as stated above, he didn’t see this as his mission, because so many skillful psychologists already focused on that area of the human psyche. Nonetheless, it is my pleasure to note that in a couple of the articles included in this work, he does indeed cover some of the significant crises related to normal development.
Assagioli’s approach toward human development is unique in that his emphasis is on developing the will and the other psychological functions to their full potential, empowering the individual to become the master of his or her life. Personal responsibility is a keystone in Psychosynthesis, and the tendency to blame others for one’s difficulties is an obstacle to self-actualization. Assagioli informs us that (p.47):
“Nowadays, there is often a tendency to blame the environment or society. Society certainly has its faults, but not all those attributed to it by those who use it as an escape and a justification for their own deficiencies.”
He enlarges on this approach in an interview with Sam Keen (1974):
“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 harbour resentment and self-pity.”
This is a piece of sound advice, and it may also be adopted with an attitude of acceptance when forgiveness is not within reach for a particular individual. However, we must note that psychosynthesis is most suited for the relatively healthy human being. Psychosynthesis techniques are for individual use, which takes discipline; but only some are motivated to do that work. Focusing on the superconscious dimension and the Transpersonal Self first becomes relevant for people who are inclined toward spiritual growth.
The purification of the lower unconscious is significant whether we work with spiritual themes or not. Transforming our aggression, vulnerabilities, and sexual instinct is essential because these energies can be powerful obstacles to personal and spiritual psychosynthesis. The predominant theme of psychosynthesis is the integration of all our normal and superconscious energies around a center. This center is the observing and acting self-awareness in each of us, which is called the conscious “I” when speaking of the ordinary awareness, and the transpersonal Self when relating to the spiritual core of our being. The ideal of psychosynthesis is a healthy and fully functioning human being, becoming a creative force for good in the world.
Trauma caused by social situations in the family is a critical factor causing many internal and external conflicts; however, they are not the only source of our conflicts and suffering. Children come into life with baggage, so to speak, which is easily verified in families with more than one child. They each have unique tendencies, needs, and characters from birth, which are later impressed and modified by the conditions in the family. The dynamic between these factors relates to the “nature versus nurture” debate. It is the question of what tendencies in the personality are part of the child’s internal psycho-genetic heritage and what comes from external influences.
In other words, conflicts and suffering are endemic to the evolution of consciousness when we move up through the internal levels of our psychological universe, from instincts to mental development, superconscious unfolding, and beyond. This picture will become evident when the reader goes through the book’s sections. The point is, no matter how happy a childhood we have, no one avoids suffering! What a good upbringing can provide is the resilience to encounter it skillfully.
Let me add a few words about the resolution of conflicts. Assagioli asserts that every conflict and crisis is uniquely individual concerning its solution due to the various psychological types; what works for one type does not go for another. He also asserts that the (p. 122):
“…nervous and mental troubles of the average man and woman are often more serious and intense, more difficult for them to bear and for the doctors to cure than those of the aspirants. They are mostly due to violent conflicts between their lower passions, or between the subconscious impulses and the conscious personality; or to rebellion against conditions and people arising from their selfish desires.”
“Aspirants” are spiritually-inclined persons who, according to Assagioli, are more motivated to make sacrifices and discipline themselves because they have values and needs that go beyond the ego. From this perspective, they are more able to take responsibility for their healing by implementing the necessary psycho-spiritual techniques, meditation, courageous action, and disidentification from harmful attachments.
Assagioli differentiates between two fundamental causes of suffering based on internal conflicts, originating from different psychological levels in the individual.
Some conflicts relate to the developmental pain which emerges when we go from child to adult. Pain is normal when we struggle to build a healthy ego with all its duties — here, the child’s instincts and the adult’s rational needs collide. The other general cause of suffering is part of a spiritual emergency when a person undergoes an awakening to the call of the Transpersonal Self, resulting in an existential crisis. This is a battle between the average ego needs of the person and a longing for deep meaning and purpose, which goes beyond the gratification of one’s primary needs. An intervention from a higher source causes this latter type of crisis — the Transpersonal Self, which disrupts the normal flow of everyday life by inducing an emptiness and lack of motivation to continue in life as before. Both of these significant crises are discussed at length in this book.
The symptoms of these two types of crisis can seem very similar to the uneducated eye; depression, anxiety, and irregular behavior, which makes it challenging to maintain an everyday life, are often part of the symptoms. However, Assagioli differentiates between regressive and progressive symptoms (p. 123):
“The nervous symptoms of the ordinary patient generally have a regressive character. The individuals have not been able to accomplish some of the necessary inner and outer adjustments which constitute the normal development of the personality.”
Maintaining a regular job, establishing safe and nourishing relationships, or fulfilling the duties of the family can all be challenging and cause mental breakdowns, often as an unrecognized rebellion against the responsibility of adulthood. The regressive nature of the crisis is due to an unconscious attachment to earlier developmental stages, where the individual responsibility was less demanding.
The progressive symptoms have entirely different causes because they result from an out-growing of a normal lifestyle, an internal need to expand the horizon, and often include more altruistic values beyond regular ego-gratification. They usually precede the awakening of new values and interests and an expansion of one’s social circles, which share these values. Unsurprisingly, these inner developments can also cause disruptions in one’s outer environment, where others may have difficulty understanding these changes in the person.
The problem gets more complicated because there is often a blend of regressive and progressive symptoms when one is dealing with the signs of personal awakening. After all, the “downflow” of energy from the Transpersonal Self stirs unresolved problems in the personality. As the reader probably can see, we are complex human beings, immersed in an often chaotic and unregulated psychological environment where different energies collide and battle for our attention. It is this human challenge that psychosynthesis is called to solve, making us the master of our inner house and our life.
Let us now create a short overview of the different types of conflicts and crises seen through the lens of Roberto Assagioli’s thought.
The different types of conflicts
Assagioli differentiates between external and internal conflicts, but even though it is meaningful to study them separately, there is a close relation between them. External conflicts influence the internal psychological environment and create disharmonies and, in the worst cases, complexes. The opposite is also true; we project our inner frustrations on our environment, so with this in mind, let us study the differences.
External conflicts emerge between the individual and the environment, i.e., with the family and the social groups one belongs to. Life also poses serious challenges when facing difficult situations, illness, loss, and the struggle to create a stable way of life. I will go through the internal conflicts and crises below and then proceed to the external ones.
Internal conflicts occur between the instincts, feelings, and ideas of the personality or, to paraphrase it according to Assagioli’s “egg diagram”: between the lower, middle, and higher unconscious. The collision between the energies at these levels creates three categories of internal conflicts: psychological, moral, and spiritual.
Psychological conflicts are all internal and external conflicts related to normal psychology and are focused in the lower and middle unconscious of Assagioli’s egg diagram. They are the naturally occurring conflicts between our innate instincts of self-preservation, herd instinct, sexual instinct, self-assertion, and the mature ego’s need to discipline them to meet the duties of being an adult human being. When we take responsibility for a family, a job, or social roles, we take it upon ourselves to “show up” in these relationships, even though doing so often collides with our most egocentric impulses.
The moral conflicts are due to our internal sense of conscience, which collides with impulses that go against its advice, which can be based on intuition or on internalized social norms (Freud’s Super-ego). These conflicts are, according to Assagioli (p.xxx), “produced by the sense of guilt.” When emerging from ethical and spiritual values, they create deep divisions internally between the more altruistic superconscious values and the normal self-serving levels. They also emerge from a sense of justice, which is the first elementary manifestation of the moral sense, according to Assagioli.
However, there is a question as to why Assagioli created a special category for moral conflicts, because it seems that if they are caused by the heart’s intuition of right and wrong, then it is a spiritual conflict (category 3). If the Super-ego causes them, it is a psychological conflict (category 1). I will leave it to the reader to ponder this.
Spiritual crisis and conflicts occur, according to Assagioli: (xxx), “in a different inner dimension, being produced by experiences and conflicts that transcend the level and sphere of ordinary existence.” In other words, spiritual conflicts are initiated by the Transpersonal Self from the superconscious sphere because (p.xxx), “the transpersonal Self is’ outside’ time and above it. It exists and lives in the dimension of the Eternal.” These types of conflict are often part of an awakening process to spiritual values and purpose.
The average adult is often fully identified with his or her personality and all the typical needs of ego-gratification. However, at some point, dissatisfaction with everyday life sets in, and a search for a deeper meaning becomes urgent, often provoking a deep crisis. This is a conflict between normality, whatever that entails in a given culture, and a call to live a more authentic life in accord with one’s deepest longings.
This crisis will be presented in full in this book, so there is no need to say more here. Let us now go through some of the external conflicts that the individual can have with his environment, according to Assagioli.
External conflicts and crisis
“The fundamental principle is that the resolution of external conflicts with other people necessitates the prior resolution of one’s own inner conflicts. To put it in a more general way, to regulate psychological forces in others, individually and collectively, the corresponding psychological forces in ourselves must first be brought under regulation.” — Roberto Assagioli
It seems like sound advice that we can only solve the problems in our relationships if they are solved in ourselves. However, it is a tremendous task to uproot and heal our internal conflicts because many go back to our earliest past. Assagioli offers a rough outline of the major external and inter-individual conflicts, so let us look at them and create a brief overview.
The birth trauma
Assagioli (p. 34) acknowledges the birth trauma, currently a well-known theory :
The first conflict with external reality, with the environment, is birth itself. In a tiny being, a shock or crisis occurs at the moment of beginning an independent life outside the maternal womb: cold, physical discomfort, and hunger produce a crisis of adaptation.
The infant starts immediately to experience its complete dependence on the outside world for survival, even though it is still in a symbiotic phase. Assagioli speaks of the infant’s complete absorption in its sensations (1974: 254)
“In the case of the infant in the first months of life, one may speak of a condition of introversion, in the sense that the baby is entirely absorbed in the sensations of its own body. Then little by little it turns its attention and interest toward the outside world and other beings, thus passing into a phase of increasing extroversion.” [my emphasis]
This complete dependence is a terrifying experience for the infant if its primary needs are not sufficiently met, and can create lifelong anxieties and insecurities. The actual birth process is also significant in molding the infant’s instinctual expectations of life, something Stanislaw Grof, the Czech-born psychiatrist, has written extensively on. However, it is not only birth itself that impacts the manifesting soul and infant; the time spent in the womb also plays a significant role in molding the emerging character of the infant. Assagioli offers an illuminating list of external influences that impact and mold the personality in his article Individual Psychology and Spiritual Development (2), which is not part of this compilation. However, he confirms:
“They [external influences] begin to act not only from the moment of birth but from that of conception, because many sure evidences have proved the great influence that the impressions received by the mother during pregnancy can have in the moulding of the future personality.”
Gradually the infant also discovers its powers to influence the environment through crying, and it can establish a trusting relationship with the environment if there is a stable and good enough nurturing response to its needs. However, the child will, after a while (p.51):
“soon realizes that the outside world is not always at his service, that other beings do not always obey him, and that the weapon of crying and shouting often fails. This is the first more conscious conflict with the outside world, a conflict that can have various developments and continue, with various vicissitudes, throughout life.”
Before we go on to the following stages, which Assagioli lists in this compilation, let me address another crisis, which he mentions indirectly in other places – the process of incarnation.
The incarnational crisis
It is a well-known understanding by psychosynthesists that the conscious “I” is a projection or emanation of the Transpersonal Self. Assagioli proposes that the Transpersonal Self, ourselves as a soul, resides in a transcendent dimension in the superconscious sphere, similar to the notion of Atman in Hindu philosophy. This understanding has been verified by millions of people who have had a direct experience of themselves as the Transpersonal Self or Atman. In other words, we are a transcendent being that incarnates in a personality and takes on a physical body.
When the Transpersonal Self incarnates, it projects a thread of pure consciousness and life into the embryo, which will gradually unfold in the evolving self during its life course. However, according to Assagioli (Freund, 1983), the projected consciousness is “only a pale reflection of the Transpersonal Self.” So the critical point is that the newborn infant has suffered a tremendous loss of Divine Consciousness before birth!
Assagioli describes this process in the following (2007, p. 85-86):
“Time and time again one is brought up against the paradoxical duality and unity of the Deity. The personal “I” comes down from the star, or from the spiritual “I”, in the form of a reflection. This fits one of the interpretations of the parable of the prodigal son. The personal “I” is the prodigal son who has descended to the level of the material world and forgotten his origin, to the point where of his own free will he resorts to all the foolishness he is capable of, all the errors (“errors” both in the sense of making mistakes and of going astray), and only then feels a longing for his father’s house, sets out in search of it and eventually finds it.”
The above quote shows that the loss of divine consciousness remains unconscious for a long time because the child is wholly identified with the body and material world. However, I believe some highly sensitive children instinctively feel this loss and long for a union with their spiritual source. Assagioli calls this longing (1961) “divine homesickness” and offers this beautiful presentation of its role (2007: 251):
“Beneath the present state of division, difference and separation, in their various ways, and to different extents, these creatures [human beings] have a distant, dim recollection of their original unity, a vague sense of common origin and an unconscious, though powerful, longing to return to that origin. Every creature, every separate being, feels incomplete, inadequate, unsatisfied: it lacks peace and searches for something, though it does not know what that something is. As it searches it makes mistakes and suffers one disappointment after another, but it cannot help continuing to search. It is spurred on relentlessly, and its thirst is never quenched.”
“Indeed there is no alternative because this urge, this yearning, is an expression of the great law of evolution. This gives us a glimpse of the secret of nature and the function of love. This earnest desire to be made complete, to become one, to merge with something else or with someone other than ourselves, is the very essence of love.”
Much more could be said about this philosophy of involution or emanation, and readers interested in this concept can find more in my MA dissertation: Integral Psychosynthesis, and my online compilation of quotes by Assagioli. The article The Pattern of Human Life in this compilation also gives excellent insight into the lost spiritual home. The good news is that the incarnating soul and infant has all the inner tools to return to its source, the Transpersonal Self and Soul. By developing the psychological functions and its I-consciousness, it can gradually travel up through the egg diagram’s lower, middle, and superconscious levels and unite with its source (see diagram 1).
I have illustrated Assagioli’s philosophy of involution and evolution in Diagram 1. The soul or Transpersonal Self projects a portion of itself down from its position in the superconscious and incarnates (involution) as an embryo and an infant at birth in the lower unconscious. Now a process starts in the opposite direction, when the child’s evolving self-awareness (I-consciousness) gradually develops and returns to its source through the major stages of physical, emotional, and mental consciousness and beyond. I will detail the stages below, but I hope the reader understands the picture. Let me add that there are many steps back and forth between the major stages because development is not a ladder we climb in a fixed order once and for all.
If the Transpersonal Self is the level of maximum self-awareness, where our experience is at its most transcendent, widest, and interconnected with the whole in a conscious way – then the complete identification with the body, as in the case of the infant, is the level of minimum self-awareness. From this point of view, we can say that this is when we are furthest away from our spiritual home in a conscious way. It can only go forward in an upward spiral from then on. We can call the physical level the “ground unconscious” and the level of the Transpersonal Self the “Ground of Being.” I will return to this point below.
Let us move on to the next crisis Assagioli lists in his presentation.
The crisis of weaning
The next crisis Assagioli discusses is the process of weaning. Sometimes, this life change occurs without problems, but in other cases, the child can suffer psychological distress if it (Assagioli, p. 34): “does not adapt easily to abandoning the condition of identification with the mother that exists during breastfeeding.”
The abandonment complex
The child suffers deeply if it is not receiving affection from the parents. It is important to emphasize that the child’s identity is mainly formed around the relationship with its primary caregivers in the first years. So (Assagioli, p. 35), “the child needs the external presence, and above all the emotional relationship with the parents. When this is missing, what has been called the’ abandonment complex’ is formed.” What the parents must aspire to do, is to lovingly relate to the child and affirm its primary needs and instincts while also providing security by setting the proper boundaries. However, in some cases, the parents harm their children when mothers and fathers (Assagioli, p.36), “unload their complexes on their children.”
The Crisis Related to Kindergarten
The next crisis occurs when the child starts kindergarten. Some children do that very early, around one year old, even though much research shows that this is not in the best interest of the child because the primary attachments to the parents are not yet fully formed. However, at any age this is always a big step for the child because (Assagioli. p.36) “it is the first detachment from family life.” What the child needs in the first couple of years is a stable relationship with adults, something not all kindergartens can offer, due to frequent changes in personnel. Some children suffer from this detachment, and their reactions to the separation can be manifold, from rebellion to depression and anxiety.
The Crisis of Elementary School
The social integration outside the family system continues in elementary school. There can be a major conflict and crisis when the child begins to learn to adapt to the school, the teachers, and classmates. Immature teachers can cause many problems for children (Assagioli, p.36): “If the teacher is not sympathetic, if he is too strict and above all if he allows himself to mock or make fun of the child, if he uses negative expressions towards him, he can create a very harmful inferiority complex.” Dominant peers can also create conflicts, especially in shy and introverted children.
The Crisis of Adolescence
Adolescence is another crisis, according to Assagioli, where the “declaration of independence” by the young teenager takes place. The child’s need for self-assertion rises up and causes conflicts between parents and child. However, (p.37), “when faced with the adolescent’s self-assertion, the worst attitude is to try to repress it,” according to Assagioli. There is a need for a wise and reasonable adjustment to the situation, and often it is a major crisis for the parents too.
Another significant conflict and crisis that emerges around this time is between the sexes. Assagioli’s primary point is that men and women have some fundamentally different characteristics, which the sexes need to understand and learn to harmonize. He asserts that women are generally more emotional, imaginative, and intuitive, while men are generally more practical, mental, and willful. Assagioli’s assertions may seem to exaggerate these differences because so many social and cultural changes have occurred since his time; however a lot of more recent biological and social research has generally supported much of what he said. If there is a conflict between the sexes, it is often prolonged into adulthood, so this is a lifelong theme that needs to be faced and resolved.
Assagioli does not specify any adult stage in the papers that deal with external conflicts in this compilation. Still, in other articles, he speaks of numerous conflicts and crises related to adulthood. In a note found in the Assagioli Archive (doc. 15915), Assagioli mentions the:
“Difficulties at the various ages and stages:
2. Years of development and outer activity
3. The crisis of the middle age
4. Old age”
He does not specify more in the note. However, elsewhere he mentions several conflicts in which the adult must overcome difficulties, whether with the opposite sex, one’s children, or in one’s family or professional life. The adult’s ambitions and need for respect and self-actualization give rise to many conflicts with the external environment. Some adults who find it hard to face these responsibilities may retreat into illness.
“Sometimes it is the unwillingness to meet the requirements of ordinary family and social life or the inability to cope with its difficulties, which makes them unconsciously seek refuge in a nervous illness and invalidism.” (Assagioli, p. 124)
After the later stages of adulthood, Assagioli mentions the crisis of maturity.
Crisis of Maturity
The crises related to maturity might include loss of beauty for women and loss of strength and virility for men. There is also the crisis of retirement, with the loss of relations with colleagues, power, and useful function in society. Assagioli says (p.40):
“it often happens that they “collapse” in retirement. They fall into a state of depression, into the “neurosis of the retiree.” The man often identifies with his job, even if sometimes he does it unwillingly, and when he misses it he feels lost, he no longer knows what to do. He finds himself handicapped, having to start a new life and not knowing where to begin.”
We can safely assume that this also applies to women. It is a major transition in life and offers on the other hand, room for higher interests, a sense of liberation, and freedom if the individual succeeds in transmuting the energies into new and beneficial interests.
Crisis of Old Age.
The predominant crisis of old age is related to the fear of death, and here is how Assagioli approaches that challenge (p.40):[The fear of death] “is aroused by the biological instinct of preservation. For those who are materialists, in practice though not in theory (since a person may consider oneself a “believer” but in reality, one identifies with the body), death is naturally something to fear. For many it means the annihilation of all values rooted in earthly life. This fear can provoke truly anguished states, and some go to the extreme of taking their own lives in order to escape the anguished anticipation of natural death. Here, the solution cannot be exclusively psychological: it must be spiritual. Only by disidentification from the body, only by a felt conviction of the continuity of life, only by identifying with one’s spiritual Self, and experiencing the sense of immortality, of indestructibility that comes with it — only then can that biological fear be mastered and eliminated.” 
We can also safely assume that good relations with one’s life partner, children, and close friends are important bonds to mitigate the transition from this life to the next. Assagioli also acknowledges the crisis that occurs when we lose loved ones, which becomes especially relevant in old age.
The Psychosynthesis of the Ages
Let us conclude this section about external conflicts by mentioning another perspective on the various crises a person can go through during a life span – what he calls the psychosynthesis of the ages. We have three articles covering this idea. In his article The Conflict Between Generations & Psychosynthesis of the Ages (see p. 63), he defines the following stages of development: Childhood, pre-puberty, adolescence, youth, adult, and old age. They correspond somewhat to what we have covered above. However, he makes an essential point of defining the good and “bad” qualities of each age to show that each age has something precious to keep alive. He says (p.66):
“The psychosynthesis of the ages of a human being consists in keeping alive, conscious and operative in ourselves the best aspects of every age or stage of development in our past.”
The reader can study for herself what that means, and in another article (P.81), he adds an important point:
“The transition from one age to another is marked by a crisis.”
We can safely assume that not all transitions entail a crisis for everyone; it will depend on the degree of the supportive environment and the typology and character of the individual. We can also ponder whether such a crisis is external or internal, because crisis seems to be endemic to the transition from age to age; however, crises also affect our relationships and play out in relation to our social groups. The overall point Assagioli makes is that each age offers valuable qualities we can learn to express beneficially while still remaining free from identification with them. Assagioli asserts that (p. 70):
“Whoever gains the consciousness of his spiritual Self (and this can happen at any age from adolescence on) can disidentify himself from his personal biological and psychological ages by living closely with them as parts to be played, and tasks to be assumed and performed while remaining free. Indeed, in this way, he is in a position to perform them better.”
Well, this sounds good; it is clearly an ideal model of psychosynthesis, but admittedly also one which takes much effort to accomplish. Let us conclude this section with a last quote from Assagioli (p. 71):
“Experience of the transpersonal Self is not acquired easily. It demands persistent and prolonged training, but the magnitude of the reward merits the needed efforts.”
Internal Conflicts Between Different Levels of Consciousness
Let us now turn our attention toward the internal conflicts and crises that occur for all people; the point is that conflict, crisis, and suffering are endemic to the evolution of all human beings, and for that matter, all living beings! Assagioli explains it like this (p.56):
Within us there is a constant bumping and clashing of various elements, of the various tendencies within us, of heterogeneous and contradictory elements that, all of them, want to live, assert themselves and express themselves. Conflicts are thus innumerable and varied, and it is almost impossible to enumerate them all. … There are, for example, conflicting tendencies such as laziness and ambition, physical comfort and the desire for gain; therefore even on the purely egoistic level there are antinomies that cause conflicts if one does not regulate and harmonize them from a higher level.”
In his book The Act of Will, Chapter Nine, Assagioli aligns his developmental theory with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and relates the levels of his egg diagram to the different needs in the hierarchy.
Assagioli writes (The Act of Will, 1974, p. 106):
“Maslow has clearly described the “hierarchy of needs” in Motivation and Personality. He speaks first of the basic psychological needs; then of the personal needs such as belonging and love, esteem, and selfactualization; and also of a third group: Transpersonal or Metaneeds. Achieving the satisfaction of the first two groups of needs often engenders, paradoxically, a sense of boredom, ennui, emptiness, and meaninglessness.”
This is an example of what Assagioli calls the existential crisis, the conflicts between the values and needs of the Transpersonal Self and those of the personality. These conflicts between lower and higher levels of needs are true for all levels, so when we, e.g., feel an ambitious drive (esteem needs) that might involve risk-taking via a change of jobs or investing time and resources, we might feel the fear of failure (safety needs) or ridicule by our loved ones (love needs). These types of conflicts are normal and natural for all; however, if we have deep-seated trauma related to any of these levels, we will go through more severe crises to reach a higher functioning – and a more abundant display of our resources. It is evident that Assagioli’s alignment with Maslow’s thinking clarifies how he understands the evolutionary unfoldment through conflict and crisis.
So, let’s look at how Assagioli integrates Maslow’s ideas within the egg diagram. Assagioli (1974, p. 110) further explains how the Hierarchy of Needs fits into the egg diagram:
“We can look at the diagram of the psychological constitution of man [egg-diagram]. The basic and normal personal needs concern the lower and middle psychological life, both conscious and unconscious. However, there is also a third and higher level – the area of the superconscious, which culminates in the Transpersonal Self.”
The two quotes above tell us that, for Assagioli, basic needs such as hunger and safety are “located” in the lower unconscious; our “personal needs” for belonging, love, self-esteem, and self-actualization are related to the middle unconscious; and the need for meaning and transcendence is active in the superconscious (Diagram 2). Assagioli (1974: 111) also offers the following additional insight into his understanding of the energies that are present in the lower and middle unconscious:
“All needs evoke a corresponding drive toward their satisfaction. The drives concerning the basic elementary needs are more or less blind, instinctive and unconscious. But for the more personal needs the drives gradually lead to conscious volitional acts, aiming at their satisfaction. Therefore, every need arouses, sooner or later, a corresponding will.”
We read that “every need arouses, sooner or later, a corresponding will”; however, that will must struggle with the attachments to the needs at lower levels before it can be the regulating function it is intended to be. This is a conflict between the will of the conscious “I” and our resisting nature — we want to do something but don’t manage to because we are held back by fear, inertia, or comfort.
Assagioli (1974: 99) also explains how, at a later developmental stage, superconscious energies in the higher unconscious are activated naturally, stating:
“As the basic human needs are being taken care of, the pull of what Maslow has termed the higher needs gradually emerges and asserts itself, and draws us toward ever greater expansions of consciousness and realisation.”
The above quotes show that Assagioli understood the lower, middle, and higher unconscious to be natural developmental stages. These are the stages a person may pass through in their lifetime, and at each progressing stage, we must face conflicts and crises. I will return to the egg diagram later when we look at the specific spiritual crises that Assagioli is famous for describing. On a general level, he explains them in these terms (p.43):
“Then there are more specifically spiritual conflicts between our conscious part and the superconscious; that is, the spiritual drives and energies that try to enter the consciousness, and the refusal of the conscious personality to admit them.”
We often fear the responsibilities for our personal life and their consequences , if we are going to follow our heart. Still, if we don’t, we suffer from stagnation and a betrayal of ourselves. All the various conflicts and crises can also be related to subpersonalities, which are larger formations of energies organized around a core need. I have published a free ebook on this topic which includes all the relevant core articles by Assagioli, called Subpersonalities. There are numerous conflicts between these subpersonalities; some are based on our social roles as parents, lovers, or professionals. The well-known conflict between our family self and work self is a good example. Subpersonalities are also based on the different self-images we have developed through life and which compete among them. Assagioli mentions the following self-images (p.39):
“In a lecture last year, I spoke of the various “I” s, the various sub-personalities that each of us has within us. I spoke of of the discrepancy between what we are at any given moment, what we believe we are, what we would like to be, and — in our relations with others — what others believe we are. Also there is a difference between what others would like us to be; what others evoke in us; what we want to “appear” to be; and finally what we can become.“
Many of the conflicts mentioned above operate below the surface of the conscious “I” and cause numerous tensions, psychosomatic illness, depression, anger, and anxiety. According to Assagioli, one of the primary reasons for our inner conflicts is our tendency to condemn what we do not understand. This condemnation forces the resistant energies and subpersonalities to retreat to the unconscious, where they can combine into tenacious complexes of inferiority, superiority, mother and father complexes, etc.
Spiritual Conflicts and Crises
Let us now turn our attention to the conflicts and crises which Assagioli mentions in connection with spiritual development. We learned earlier that integrating all the personal energies of the lower and middle unconscious around the conscious “I” is called personal psychosynthesis or self-actualization. However, there are further reaches of human nature than building a strong and effective personality; and for some people personal psychosynthesis is not enough. They long for a deeper meaning where they can make a difference that goes further than ego-gratification, and this provokes a new kind of crisis, which Assagioli call the crisis preceding awakening. Assagioli defines spiritual development or Self-realisation in the following very clear way (The Act of Will p. 120-121):
“In the terminology of psychosynthesis, self¬actualization corresponds to personal psychosynthesis. This includes the development and harmonizing of all human functions and potentialities at all levels of the lower and middle areas in the diagram of the constitution of man. Instead, SELF-realization concerns the third higher level, that of the superconscious, and pertains to Transpersonal or spiritual psychosynthesis.”
“SELF-realization itself has three different stages. The first is the activation and expression of the potentialities residing in the superconscious: it includes the various types of transcendence previously mentioned. Leonardo da Vinci or Goethe would be good examples of this. The second stage of SELF-realization is the direct awareness of the SELF, which culminates in the unification of the consciousness of the personal self, or “I,” with that of the Transpersonal Self. Here one might mention those who have done self-sacrificing work for a beneficent cause in any field. Active humanitarians who have given themselves to a cause are good examples: Gandhi, Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King, Schweitzer. Schweitzer is typical because he gave up even some of his higher interests—music and culture—in order to do humanitarian work. In terms of will, it is the unification of the personal will with the Transpersonal Will.”
“The third stage of SELF-realization is the communion of the Transpersonal Self with the Universal Self, and correspondingly of the individual will with the Universal Will. Here we find the highest mystics of all times and places.”
We learn that Self-realisation concerns the area of the Higher Unconscious or Superconscious and has three specific stages. We can call them Self-realisation 1, 2, and 3. The first stage is related to integrating into the personality the transpersonal qualities that reside in the superconscious – among them, the qualities of unconditional love, wisdom, supernatural beauty, and spiritual power.
The next stage is concerned with becoming what one essentially is, a spiritual soul, and with awakening to that transcendent identity that we are, which endeavors to manifest and embody its true nature through the personality. This entails a radical shift in one’s sense of identity; we become pure loving and wise understanding, and live in the eternal while being present in the now.
The third stage is incomprehensible for the mind to conceive; it is the unification with God, Source, and Universal Presence. We will not dwell further on these stages but direct the readers to chapters 8-10 in The Act of Will and the following chapters in this ebook.
Spiritual development is a messy business; it comes with a heavy price because the personality must be completely purified and organized in order to transmit and embody the spiritual Self. Possessive love must give way to unconditional love; lust for power must give way to the power of love; and our many attachments to comforts must step aside for complete freedom. Assagioli describes the journey with these words (p.107):
“Man’s spiritual development is a long and arduous adventure a journey through strange lands full of surprises, difficulties and even; dangers. In reality it is no less than the passing from the human to the spiritual kingdom.”
It involves a drastic purification and complete transmutation of all; the normal and purely “human” elements of the personality, the awakening of a series of faculties hitherto dormant; the raising of consciousness to an altogether new realm; the functioning along a new inner dimension.
Indeed, should we compare man as he was when he first started on this quest and as he has become when he has reached the summit of spiritual perfection, we would find that practically nothing of the former, personality has remained, that they are two entirely different beings.
In other words, we can foresee severe adjustments along this way, and Assagioli lists five “critical points along the inner path” (p. 108):
- Crises preceding the spiritual awakening.
- Crises determined by the spiritual awakening.
- Reactions to the spiritual awakening.
- Phases of the process of transmutation.
- The “Dark Night of the Soul.”
I will briefly present some of the features of these inner crises which occur due to the tensions between the needs, drives, and values of the personality and those of the soul.
Crises preceding the spiritual awakening are related to the loss of motivation, a kind of existential vacuum where nothing really makes sense anymore. The personal types of motivation (desire for pleasure, safety, ambition) have lost some of their main thrust, and a new set of ideas and longings are beginning to be felt, emerging from the superconscious level of the personality. Depression, anxiety, and loss of meaning are often felt.
Crises determined by the spiritual awakening. When the light finally breaks through after the first crisis, the personality will often react with excitement due to the newfound ideal, be it a new idea, a good cause, or new altruistic values. Anyway, the newfound life purpose entails its own dangers because there will often be an unbalanced reaction to the incoming spiritual energies, marked by ego inflation, exaltation, or a feverish activity that can burn the personality out. It can take some time to stabilize the situation and create that sound balance between a newfound spiritual potential and actuality, between ideal and reality.
Reactions to the spiritual awakening. After the exalted height of the awakening comes the reaction from the normal levels of the personality. We believed, for a time, that we became a new person after our newfound illumination, but the old layers of egotism will rise when the spiritual tide resides, and an overwhelming depression can set in. This is often a crucial setback for the aspiring personality because the same old fears, attachments, and vulnerabilities remain and fight back against the new mode of life. When this happens, it often seems that one is worse off because now one judges the old behavior from a new set of ideals. However, we must realize that no one gets a free ride, everything valuable comes with a price, and this realistic attitude will help us realize that a lifelong journey of personality transformation has just begun.
Phases of the process of transmutation. Assagioli aptly describes this journey with the following words (p, 105):
It is a long and many-sided process, which includes: phases of active purification in order to remove the obstacles to the inflow and operation of spiritual forces; phases of developing and building up of faculties which lie dormant or undeveloped; and phases in which the personal self has to remain still and let the spirit work, enduring the pressure and the inevitable pain of the process. It is a most eventful period, full of changes, of alternations between light and darkness, between joy and suffering.
Many people who consciously tread this path can attest to the long periods of intense suffering while healing the wounds of the past or battling with aggressive energies that will not give in to the new Soul Order. However, it is suffering with a background of joy, the joy of overcoming age-old prisons, and the gradually more powerful experience of freedom and the ability to serve humanity in a self-initiated way. This crisis may take a very long time, and we are crucified between the height of our ideals and the depth of our resistance until we reach the goal of becoming one with our souls.
The “Dark Night of the Soul.” This is the last crisis Assagioli presents, and it is a most mysterious phase in the soul’s life. It is often misunderstood and compared to depressive episodes in the personality’s life. However, it is entirely different because it is related to what Assagioli calls stage three of Self-realization – the unification of the transpersonal Self with the Universal Self or God. I have compiled a set of quotes by Assagioli, which is available on my website, and they will show that it is related to the crisis before we enter what Buddhism calls Nirvana:
“After the “dark night of the soul”, that new period of shadow, labor and sorrow, comes the glorious goal, the transfiguration of the soul in God, the conscious communion of the individual with the universal Spirit. The Orientals call this Moksha and Vinmuhti (liberation, Nirvana) and the Occidentals the Mystic Marriage and the Unified life.”
It seems to be a process of detachment from identification with the superconscious energies, a temporary loss of the joys and expansions that they give. But life in the superconscious is greatly limited compared to the freedom and expansion of the Universal Spirit. The rare individual who succeeds in reaching this culminating point, and Assagioli mentions Christ and Buddha as two outstanding examples, has traveled a long way from identification with the physical body all the way to Spirit. It is an upward-ascending journey through inner psycho-spiritual dimensions and an outward manifestation of the qualities that each level gives. Assagioli mentions the following inner dimensions:
“There are a series of inner worlds, each with its own special characteristics, and within each of them there are higher levels and lower levels. Thus in the first of these, the world of passions and feelings, there is a great distance, a marked disparity of level, between blind passion and the highest feelings. Then there is the world of intelligence, or the mind. Here too are different levels: the level of the concrete analytical mind, and the level of higher, philosophical reason (nous). There is also the world of the imagination, a lower variety and a higher variety, the world of intuition, the world of the will, and higher still, those indescribable worlds which can only be referred to by the term “worlds of transcendence.” (Transpersonal Development, 2007, p. 84).
What Assagioli is speaking about above has been called the Great Chain of Being, and all the major world religions have affirmed these inner levels, something I present on my website for interested readers. I will not dwell further on this stage but let the reader dive into Assagioli’s presentation.
Let me summarise all we have covered regarding the stages of development and the different types of inner crises by illustrating Assagioli’s egg diagram. This is an attempt to create an overview of how Assagioli viewed his developmental theory in one image – see diagram 3. However, I don’t consider this a final statement, only a suggestive first try.
The levels in the left column of the diagram are the levels mentioned above by Assagioli and how these energies relate to the levels of the egg diagram. According to Assagioli, imagination is a synthetic energy that can operate on all levels up to intuition, so it is not shown.
Next, (moving left to right) we see what energies must be integrated around the conscious “I” concerning personal and transpersonal psychosynthesis. Inside the egg diagram, we see the major stages of development for the evolving “I,” and we emphasize that each time we move forward to a higher level, we need to go back and reintegrate all the former stages, so there is a lot of going back and forth. Below the Egg-diagram, we see the Ground Unconscious, the collective mass consciousness from which we all emerge before becoming self-aware. The Ground of Being, at the top of the diagram, is the universalized self-realized beingness that we enter when we return to the source of transcendent Oneness.
The stages on the right column of the diagram first include Maslow’s self-actualization, equivalent to Assagioli’s personal psychosynthesis. On top of that, we see Self-realization, meaning the realization of the Transpersonal Self, and it pertains to the superconscious area and can be divided into three stages. We see these final stages on top of the Assagioli/Maslow stages. I have also included the psychosynthesis of the ages, even though this is quite difficult because chronological age is not necessarily equivalent to specific growth or to psychological age. Some people, e.g., may remain at or regress to an earlier psychological age, or alternate between different psychological ages within themselves.
I have also added the spiritual crises according to the levels where they often set in. Remember that the level I suggest a particular crisis sets in is only the frontier of the individual’s evolving consciousness: much of the work done during such crises happens in the levels below – especially in the lower unconscious. The reason for that is the Transpersonal Self’s will to incarnate with all its energies through the spiritualized “I” and the personality. Let me add a final quote by Assagioli to illustrate that point before we briefly touch on the next sections of the book:
“Although Psychosynthesis postulates the presence in man of a transpersonal essence, it maintains that man’s purpose in life is to “embody” and manifest this Self or essence as completely as possible in the world of daily life.” (What Is Psychosynthesis)
Suffering and Pain
I have already mentioned some of Assagioli’s considerations about suffering in the above; however, let me add a bit more so the reader gets a fuller idea of how he understands this essential topic. Suffering is endemic to the evolution of consciousness; nobody avoids it, so we had better learn how to deal with it. Assagioli gives this deep analysis of the problem (p.151):
“The imprisoned, crucified Christ within every human being suffers; and so on and so forth throughout the entire range of forms, each of which encloses a consciousness or germ of Life. This stifled, limited, latent consciousness or Life separated from the Universal Consciousness suffers, and the price of its expansion and free return to Oneness by passing through many stages and overcoming is: PAIN.”
Whenever we feel the urge to expand our capabilities and start the discipline to accomplish it, the price we pay is pain— a common experience for most people. However, Assagioli goes further; he even claims that pain is beneficial and highlights four principal and beneficial aspects of it. Let us see how he presents this (p.151):
“In the early stages of human evolution — but to some extent also in the later ones — the value of pain lies principally in its capacity to shake man out of his passive inertia, his comfortable routines, his fundamental mental and moral laziness, and his narrow egocentricity.
“Good pain” employs its many and various forms to induce and oblige him to “wake up”, to arouse his latent energies, to will and to mature his “talents”.
The second beneficent function of pain is, in a certain sense, the opposite of the first. It is to disengage man from excessive attachments to things or people, to liberate him from the slavery to which his instincts, passions and desires subjugate him, and to discourage him from committing new errors and incurring fresh guilt. This function is, therefore, purificatory and releasing.
The third function of pain is associated with the preceding one in that it induces man to discipline himself and control the disorderly instinctive, emotional and mental energies which seethe within him; to regulate and organize them so that they become converted from the destructive to the constructive; to transform them, canalizing them and utilizing them for productive and beneficent activities, and directing them to lofty and humanitarian ends. …
Finally, pain leads to and compels recollection, reflection, and meditation. It possesses the precious and indispensable mission of recalling us from the superficial and materially oriented life which, occupied with external affairs, we are too often leading, scattering and frittering away our forces. Pain jolts us, making us “re-enter into ourselves,” arresting our breathless pace and turning our attention inwards and upwards. Thus we commence really to think, to put the great problems of life to ourselves, to discover their justification, understand their significance, and intuit their purpose and goal. Then follows the creation of silence within us, accompanied by “questioning,” prayer, and invocation. Then begins the inner conversation, or “dialogue”, with a principle, a higher reality, and with our Soul, or God.” [end of quote]
There is definitely room for thought in these remarks, whether we disagree or agree with them. Let me also stress that he warns us about making pain an objective in itself. It must always be a means to a positive outcome.
I have not included any specific articles about how to overcome pain, they are presented in full in Assagioli’s books; however, what he does mention on these pages is the crucial understanding that we are not our bodies, emotions, or thoughts. We are the inner observer and actor, the pure I-consciousness, and from that central realization, we can start observing, accepting, and regulating the energies which cause pain. I have dealt with that topic in depth in my book, The Soul of Psychosynthesis.
The last theme of the book is synthesis, or the process of balancing and integrating all the conflicting energies into a harmonious whole. This is an ongoing process throughout life and something we never complete because our capabilities can expand into the infinite. Assagioli uses the healthy body as an example of what synthesis entails in the psycho-spiritual world. When the body is functioning well, all the cells, organs, and functions are organized and fine-tuned to keep the body alive. The central directing purpose of the body is to preserve life, and all the parts cooperate to accomplish this task. This example shows that the body as a collective whole is a unity in diversity.
We must accomplish the same harmonious order in the inner worlds, where chaos and conflicts often are the rule. The psycho-spiritual forces and energies must be organized and harmonized around a directing center and purpose, which is the conscious “I” and its visions and ideal models for a good and authentic life. There is much more to be said about that, and the reader will find many inspiring thoughts by Assagioli in the final chapters of this book.
With this in mind, I wish the reader an illuminating journey into the world of psychosynthesis, with Roberto Assagioli as your wise guide.
Kenneth Sørensen, Oslo, 2023
Assagioli, Roberto, 1961, Self Realization and Psychological Disturbances, Psychosynthesis Research Foundation Issue No. 10
Assagioli, Roberto, (1973). The Conflict Between the Generations and the Psychosynthesis of the Human Ages. Psychosynthesis Research Foundation, Issue No. 31.
Assagioli, Roberto (1974). The Act of the Will. Penguin Books.
Assagioli, Roberto (2007). Transpersonal Development. Inner Way Productions.
Freund, Diane, (1983). Conversation with Roberto Assagioli – an interview, Psychosynthesis Digest, Spring 1983.
Keen, Sam, (1974). The Golden Mean of Roberto Assagioli, Psychology Today.
 You can read a short overview of his developmental theory here, which is an extract from my book The Soul of Psychosynthesis. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/the-developmental-theory-of-psychosynthesis/
 You can read an introduction to Assagioli’s personality theory here, which is also a chapter from my book on psychosynthesis. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/the-psychosynthesis-model-of-the-personality/
 Read a presentation of these elements here. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/the-psychosynthesis-model-of-the-personality/
 Read a presentation of Assagioli’s egg-diagram here. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/the-psychosynthesis-model-of-the-personality/
 See Assagioli’s definition of instincts here. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/glossary/instinct/
 Roberto Assagioli, Individual Psychology and Spiritual Development (2). https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/individual-psychology-and-spiritual-development-2/
 There is a collection of quotes by Assagioli, which brings further light on involution. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/glossary/involution/
 See here – Involution. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/glossary/involution/
 For examples of such reseach see Brain Sex (1991) by Moir and Jessel; Sex and the Brain (1997) by Blum; and Results at the Top (2017) by Annis and Nesbitt. All of these books contain extensive bibliographies.
 Dark Night of the Soul. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/glossary/dark-night-of-the-soul/
 The Great Chain of Being. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/glossary/great-chain-of-being/
 In this specific example Assagioli uses a symbolic expression, Christ being the evolving consciousness in all beings. (ed.)