Definition of disidentification
In this glossary item, you will find Roberto Assagioli’s dis-identification and self-identification exercise and some important discussion about it. If you wish to explore the technique, you are welcome to use the 7 meditations I have created, one of them a disidentification exercise.
Roberto Assagioli’s Disidentification and Self-identification Exercise
(From The Act of Will, by Roberto Assagioli)
We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate, direct, and utilize everything from which we disidentify ourselves.
The central, fundamental experience of self-consciousness, the discovery of the “I,” is implicit in our human consciousness. (“Self-consciousness” is used here in the purely psychological sense of being aware of oneself as a distinct individual and not in the customary sense of egocentric and even neurotic “self-centeredness.”)
It is that which distinguishes our consciousness from that of the animals, which are conscious but not selfconscious. But generally this self-consciousness is indeed “implicit” rather than explicit. It is experienced in a nebulous and distorted way because it is usually mixed with and veiled by the contents of consciousness.
This constant input of influences veils the clarity of consciousness and produces, spurious identifications of the self with the content of consciousness, rather than with consciousness itself. If we are to make self-consciousness explicit, clear, and vivid, we must first disidentify ourselves from the contents of our consciousness.
More specifically, the habitual state for most of us is to be identified with that which seems, at any one time, to give us the greatest sense of aliveness, which seems to us to be most real, or most intense.
This identification with a part of ourselves is usually related to the predominant function or focus of our awareness, to the predominant role we play in life. It can take many forms. Some people are identified with their bodies. They experience themselves, and often talk about themselves, mainly in terms of sensation; in other words they function as if they were their bodies. Others are identified with their feelings; they experience and describe their state of being in affective terms, and believe their feelings to be the central and most intimate part of themselves, while thoughts and sensations are perceived as more distant, perhaps somewhat separate.
Those who are identified with their minds are likely to describe themselves with intellectual constructs, even when asked how they feel. They often consider feelings and sensations as peripheral, or are largely unaware of them. Many are identified with a role, and live, function, and experience themselves in terms of that role, such as “mother,” “husband,” “wife,” “student,” “businessman,” “teacher,” etc.
This identification with only a part of our personality may be temporarily satisfactory, but it has serious drawbacks. It prevents us from realizing the experience of the “I,” the deep sense of self-identification, of knowing who we are.
It excludes, or greatly decreases, the ability to identify with all the other parts of our personality, to enjoy them and utilize them to their full extent. Thus our “normal” expression in the world is limited at any one time to only a fraction of what it can be. The conscious—or even unconscious—realization that we somehow do not have access to much that is in us can cause frustration and painful feelings of inadequacy and failure.
Finally, a continuing identification with either a role or a predominant function leads often, and almost inevitably, to a precarious life situation resulting sooner or later in a sense of loss, even despair, such as in the case of an athlete who grows old and loses his physical strength; an actress whose physical beauty is fading; a mother whose children have grown up and left her; or a student who has to leave school and face a new set of responsibilities. Such situations can produce serious and often very painful crises. They can be considered as more or less partial psychological “deaths.” No frantic clinging to the waning old “identity” can avail.
The true solution can be only a “rebirth,” that is, entering into a new and broader identification. This sometimes involves the whole personality and requires and leads to an awakening or “birth” into a new and higher state of being. The process of death and rebirth was symbolically enacted in various mystery rites and has been lived and described in religious terms by many mystics. At present it is being rediscovered in terms of transpersonal experiences and realizations.
This process often occurs without a clear understanding of its meaning and often against the wish and will of the individual involved in it. But a conscious, purposeful, willing cooperation can greatly facilitate, foster, and hasten it. It can be best done by a deliberate exercise of disidentification and self-identification.
Through it we gain the freedom and the power of choice to be identified with, or disidentified from, any aspect of our personality, according to what seems to us most appropriate in each situation. Thus we can learn to master, direct, and utilize all the elements and aspects of our personality, in an inclusive and harmonious synthesis. Therefore this exercise is considered as basic in psychosynthesis.
This exercise is intended as a tool for achieving the Consciousness of the self, and the ability to focus our attention sequentially on each of our main personality aspects, roles, etc.
We then become clearly aware of and can examine their qualities while maintaining the point of view of the observer and recognizing that the observer is not that which he observes.
In the form which follows, the first phase of the exercise— the disidentification— consists of three parts dealing with the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of awareness. This leads to the self-identification phase. Once some experience is gained with it, the exercise can be expanded or modified according to need, as will be indicated further on.
Put your body in a comfortable and relaxed position, and slowly take a few deep breaths (preliminary exercises of relaxation can be useful). Then make the following affirmation, slowly and thoughtfully:
“I have a body but I am not my body. My body may find itself in different conditions of health or sickness, it may be rested or tired, but that has nothing to do with my self, my real ‘I.’ I value my body as my precious instrument of experience and of action in the outer world, but it is only an instrument. I treat it well, I seek to keep it in good health, but it is not myself. I have a body, but I am not my body.”
Now close your eyes, recall briefly in your consciousness the general substance of this affirmation, and then gradually focus your attention on the central concept: “I have a body but I am not my body.” Attempt, as much as you can, to realize this as an experienced fact in your consciousness. Then open your eyes and proceed the same way with the next two stages:
“I have emotions, but I am not my emotions. My emotions are diversified, changing, sometimes contradictory. They may swing from love to hatred, from calm to anger, from joy to sorrow, and yet my essence—my true nature—does not change. ‘I’ remain. Though a wave of anger may temporarily submerge me, I know that it will pass in time; therefore I am not this anger. Since I can observe and understand my emotions, and then gradually learn to direct, utilize, and integrate them harmoniously, it is clear that they are not my self. I have emotions, but I am not my emotions.
“I have a mind but I am not my mind. My mind is a valuable tool of discovery and expression, but it is not the essence of my being. Its contents are constantly changing as it embraces new ideas, knowledge, and experience.
Often it refuses to obey me! Therefore, it cannot be me my self. It is an organ of knowledge in regard to both the outer and the inner worlds, but it is not my self. I have a mind, but I am not my mind.”
Next comes the phase of identification. Affirm slowly and thoughtfully:
“After the disidentification of myself, the ‘I,’ from the contents of consciousness, such as sensations, emotions, thoughts, I recognize and affirm, that I am a center of pure self-consciousness.
I am a center of will, capable of observing, directing, and using all my psychological processes and my physical body.”
Focus your attention on the central realization: “I am a center of pure self-consciousness and of will.”
Attempt, as much as you can, to realize this as an experienced fact in your awareness. As the purpose of the exercise is to achieve a specific state of consciousness, once that purpose is grasped much of the procedural detail can be dispensed with. Thus, after having” practiced it for some time—and some might do this from the very beginning—one can modify the exercise by going swiftly and dynamically through each of the stages of disidentification, using only the central affirmation of each stage and concentrating on its experiential realization.
I have a body, but I am not my body.
I have emotions, but I am not my emotions.
I have a mind, but I am not my mind.
At this point it is valuable to make a deeper consideration of the stage of self-identification along the following lines:
“What am I then? What remains after having disidentified myself from my body, my sensations, my feelings my desires, my mind, my actions? It is the essence of myself—a center of pure self-consciousness.
It is the permanent factor in the ever varying flow of my personal life. It is that which gives me a sense of being, of permanence, of inner balance. I affirm my identity with this center and realize its permanency and its energy, (pause)
“I recognize and affirm myself as a center of pure self-awareness and of creative, dynamic energy. I realize that from this center of true identity I can learn to observe, direct, and harmonize all the psychological processes and the physical body. I will to achieve a constant awareness of this fact in the midst of my everyday life, and to use it to help me and give increasing meaning and direction to my life.”
As the attention is shifted increasingly to the state of consciousness, the identification stage also can be abridged. The goal is to gain enough facility with the exercise so that one can go through each stage of disidentification swiftly and dynamically in a short time, and then remain in the “I” consciousness for as long as desired. One can then—at will, and at any moment— disidentify from any overpowering emotion, annoying thought, inappropriate role, etc., and from the vantage point of the detached observer gain a clearer understanding of the situation, its meaning, its causes, and the roost effective way to deal with it.
This exercise has been found most effective if practised daily, preferably during the first hours of the day.
Whenever possible, it is to be done shortly after waking up and considered as a symbolic second awakening. It is also of great value to repeat it in its brief form several times during the day, returning to the state of disidentified “I” consciousness.
The exercise may be modified appropriately, according to one’s own purpose and existential needs, by adding stages of disidentification to include other functions besides the three fundamental ones (physical, emotional, mental), as well as subpersonalities, roles, etc. It can also begin with disidentification from material possessions. Some examples follow:
“I have desires, but I am not my desires. Desires are aroused by drives, physical and emotional, and by other influences. They are often changeable and contradictory, with alternations of attraction and repulsion; therefore they are not my self. I have desires, but I am not my desires.” (This is best placed between the emotional and mental stage.)
“I engage in various activities and play many roles in life. I must play these roles and I willingly play them as well as possible, be it the role of son or father, wife or husband, teacher or student, artist or executive. But I am more than the son, the father, the artist. These are roles, specific but partial roles, which I, myself, am playing, agree to play, can watch and observe myself playing. Therefore I am not any of them. I am self-identified, and I am not only the actor, but the director of the acting.”
This exercise can be and is being performed very effectively in groups. The group leader voices the affirmations and the members listen with eyes closed, letting the significance of the words penetrate deeply. (The Act of Will, p. 211-217)
Roberto Assagioli about Disidentification from his booklet Meditation for The New Age, vol. 3.
As recognised in the Technique of Dis-identification in the Second Meditation Course, the various elements of the personality are not the self, but the vehicles of expression and experience belonging to the self or “I”. Yet these elements often dominate us. The sensations of the physical body induce us to think “ I am tired ” or “ I am hungry ”. By using the phrase “ I am ” we identify with the partial and temporary condition and become in a way hypnotised by it. This identification with the physical body is one of the most limiting and beglamouring conditions and is the cause of one of the greatest sources of human suffering— the fear of death. Those who have realised that they are not their bodies, that they are simply inhabiting them, do not really fear death, for only the body dies; the self-identity persists.
A second realm of false identifications is the emotional world in which the majority of humanity exists. Here we identify with an emotional state using, again, the fatal phrase “ I am ” whenever depressed, afraid, angry or swept by any strong emotion. The falsity of this identification is clear when we remember that in one day we can—and generally do—pass through a series of diverse and even opposite emotional states, and yet we are the same identity —the same “ I ”.
Then comes the mental level. Those who are polarised in the world of the mind identify themselves with their minds, and this is a more subtle, but also a very limiting, identification. We can easily become, and often are, the prisoners of our ideas, ideologies, thoughts and also of various philosophical systems. Yet these, too, are far from permanent and we often change—and should change—our ideas and ways of thinking, moving on from one set or “ layer ” of concepts to another.
Once we realise this, we are beginning the process of dis-identification, but at first the realisation may cause bewilderment and a period of darkness and doubt while we ask the question “ what am I then? ” It is answered when we stand back, so to speak, from our physical sensations, emotions and mental activity and find that we remain. It is the living experience of self-awareness, of pure self-identity, and it is this self-identity which persists.
Another way of realising this is to look back at our lives through the years. We remember the various stages we went through, and our youthful illusions, and from our greater maturity can see how different we have been at various ages. Often we may hardly recognise ourselves in a photograph taken a long time ago. Yet we know there has always been the same golden thread of self-identity despite the many differing conditions—physical, emotional and mental—through which we have passed.
But the realisation of the central self is not all that has to be discovered. In fact it is, in a sense, only the beginning because, having reached awareness of the central “ I ”, which is naturally and rightly self-centred and separative at first in order to assert its unique and separate identity as an individual, we then find this is not enough, and that there are other and greater states of consciousness with which to identify.
Their stages, which include recognition of the self in others, group awareness and realisation of the higher or Spiritual Self, were explained in the Second Course just referred to, and several diagrams were given to illustrate the differing fields (degrees) of awareness. We will not therefore go into them again here, but one may say that, speaking in general terms, the unique, individual “ reality ” proceeds through gradually extending and expanding degrees of identification to discover the Universal Reality. Individual reality and Universal Reality are eventually realised as being of the same spiritual nature or substance.
This is naturally a process which is only gradually achieved, and the way, as said earlier, lies through the elimination of the many false identifications which we are constantly making. Whether these are of the physical level, the emotions or the mind, they are the specific glamours and illusions which limit us and even take possession of us, making us their slaves. Therefore disidentification from our glamours is an essential process.
The first stage in this is obviously to recognise what may be our most limiting or troublesome glamour. Psychoanalysis has revealed that much of the power of the emotions, complexes or characteristics that trouble us lies in the fact that we are unconscious of them. When they are recognised, unmasked and understood they are deprived of much of their strength and their hold on us is lessened.
The second stage is to see the glamour which we have selected as a force which plays through us, even sweeps through us, but is not our selves. This establishes a detached standpoint, and from this we can gradually cultivate an increasing dis-identification from the waves of it which flow through us or engulf us.
At this stage we should resolve that we never admit to being its prey by using the phrase “ I am ” whatever the glamour may be. Every time we make such an admission we are strengthening its hold upon us, in fact we are literally affirming it instead of dispelling it. We should simply acknowledge “ a wave of depression (or whatever it may be) is trying to overwhelm me,” or “ an impulse to be angry is trying to sweep through me ”. It would be unrealistic (itself a glamour) not to acknowledge this fact, but by admitting only its approach or onset, and by recognising it at its inception, we confront it with the forces of the vigilant self. This keeps it at “ arm’s length ” so to speak, and is a definite step in the process of disidentification
As well as attempting to dis-identify ourselves from our glamours when they appear, it will be helpful to practise an exercise in dis-identification regularly. This will fortify our independence from the glamours that trouble us and begin to “educate” our subconscious. Before outlining the exercise, however, it should be made clear that different techniques are needed with the various kinds of glamour. Also the different degrees of intensity of a glamour may require more than one technique. Added to this, what may be helpful for one person, or one situation, may not be equally effective for another. Various techniques will therefore be given in the ensuing chapters and students will be able to find the methods best suited to any particular case, but in the meantime, the use of the Technique of Disidentification will be a sound first step on the long journey towards “recognition of Reality”.
Self-Identification and Disidentification
Roberto Assagioli in a letter to the Psychosynthesis Research Foundation
Capolona, nr. Arezzo ITALY
SOME COMMENTS ON THE TRANSCRIPT OF THE FIRST PSYCHOSYNTHESIS MEETING HELD IN NEW YORK on October 19, 1963
I have read with interest the transcript of the first Psychosynthesis Meeting of the 19th of October, and I want to express to all the participants my great appreciation of the valuable contribution they have made to the understanding and clarification of the psychosynthetic procedures.
I have been particularly interested in the discussion about Self-identification and dis-identification, and should like to make some comments on it.
In my opinion, the difficulty is primarily one of semantics, of terminology. The first distinction to be made is between “having” and “being.” In saying “I have a body” there is an implicit recognition (even if not a clear awareness) that the I, namely the “haver” (if I may use this term) is not identical with the body. He regards the body as an object, or better as a mechanism of perception for receiving impacts from the external world (such as a radio-receiver) and for action, for producing effects in the outer world (much as the typewriter of the typist or the piano of the pianist). A pianist cannot produce audible music unless there is (temporarily a “functional synthesis” between him and the piano. He must have a piano, but he is not the musical instrument. He remains himself, a potential performer, even without a piano.
The same realization of disidentification can be carried on (as the exercise indicates) in respect of the emotions and the mind. “Behind” or “above” both, there remains the observing “I” who has been and can be variously called: the Spiritual Self, the Super Self, the Soul, Pure self-awareness, Being, etc. This Spiritual Self should by no means be confused with the “personal self” which in the terminology of a number of psychologists is synonymous with “personality,” and therefore includes all the constituents of the human being: body, drives, emotions, mind, etc.
Through the successive dis-identifications one may arrive at the direct awareness of this “inner Reality” with the accompanying feelings of expansion, joy, etc. (These have been aptly described by A. Maslow in his book: Towards a Psychology of Being.)
But I should like to emphasize that for therapeutic purposes it is not necessary to arrive at that realization. As Dr. Summo has rightly remarked, it would certainly not be wise to use with a patient phrases such as “I am I, a point of pure consciousness.” It would baffle or arouse an antagonistic reaction. That phrase indicates the ultimate result or achievement of a gradual process (as Dr. Halpern has suggested) or procedure of successive dis-identifications. It is included in the description of the exercise in order to give the whole picture – but it is meant primarily for the therapist and not for the patient. It is the therapist’s task and responsibility to choose wisely from among the variety of techniques those suited to each patient according to: 1)his psychophysical constitution, his cultural background and 2)each successive phase of the treatment, and then apply them, in the way best adapted to the specific circumstances of the case.
For therapeutic purposes it is sufficient in a number of cases for the patient to be brought to the point of achieving a good measure of dis-identification from his body and his emotions. The purpose and the usefulness of this procedure have been stated in the following stage of Dynamic Psychology and Psychosynthesis, pp.11 -12:
“We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we dis-identify ourselves.
“In this principle lies the secret of our enslavement or of our liberty. Every time we ‘identify’ ourselves with a weakness, a fault, a fear or any other personal emotion, we limit and paralyse ourselves. Every time we admit ‘I am discouraged’ or ‘I am irritated’, we become more and more dominated by depression or anger. We have accepted those limitations; we have ourselves put on our chains. If, instead, in the same situation we say, ‘A wave of discouragement is trying to submerge me’ or ‘An impulse of anger is attempting to overpower me,’ the situation is very different. Then there are two forces confronting each other; on one side our vigilant self and on the other the discouragement or the anger. And the vigilant self does not submit to the invasion; it can objectively and critically survey those impulses of discouragement or anger; it can look for their origin, foresee their deleterious effects, and realise their unfoundedness.’ This is often sufficient to withstand an attack of such forces, disperse them and win the battle.”
It can be summed up in the formula: “Disidentification makes it possible to control; to master drives, emotions, feelings – and subsequently to utilize them for constructive purposes.”
May I add a few other remarks. I was very pleased and am in full agreement with what has been said by Dr. Swartley, Dr. Halpern and others about experimenting and doing exercises. May I emphasize the value and one might almost say “the necessity” of the therapist first practicing upon himself at least some of the techniques and exercises. This gives a direct existential experience and understanding of them and a competence and skill in applying them to the patients (and also, in some instances, in practicing them together with the patients). Some medical doctors have first experimented on themselves – often at considerable risk – with new drugs or other therapeutic procedures. In my opinion, if we do the same with psychotherapeutic techniques, we incur no risk and will derive real personal benefit. This has been confirmed in the practice of didactic psychosynthesis, but it should prove equally valuable in-self-psychosynthesis.
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