Who really teaches the young person the way, the practical methods, the technique of mastery and self-improvement?
- Abstract by Jan Kuniholm: Young people who do not live superficially eventually desire to form their own character rather than be swept along by the currents of life. Usually a difficult experience provokes this resolution. But the young person encounters difficulties, and the common platitudes do not teach the practical methods of self-mastery, which is “psychagogy.” Recent development in modern psychology are not yet fully appreciated or used, and the most important discovery is the sphere of unconscious life. The existence of the unconscious was shown by the use of hypnosis. There are numerous manifestation of the unconscious in normal life, and the knowledge of the unconscious has incalculable practical consequences. In the next meeting more about the unconscious will be explored.
Every young person who does not live in an entirely superficial way, who does not passively allow himself to be carried adrift by the current of external life, feels at some time the desire to be self-possessed, to come to discipline and direct the various elements of his[i] personality; in a word, the desire to form one’s own character.
Usually it is some painful and humiliating experience, an instinctive impulse, a burst of anger, a burst of passion, a moment of weakness or cowardice that makes the young person feel keenly how little he is master of himself, how much he is at the mercy of dark and unaccountable forces that drag him where he does not want to go. In the best of them, such experiences provoke a painful reaction and cause the person to make a serious resolution to “take charge” and gain self-mastery.
But when a young person sets out to implement this noble purpose, she soon finds herself perplexed and uncertain. She does not know which way to turn in the face of such an arduous and complex task, grappling with forces unfamiliar to her, which elude her and take her by surprise, which appear and disappear, take turns, and transform so as to confuse and disorient her. Not infrequently, unfortunately, the young person becomes discouraged, hesitates and procrastinates — and meanwhile new impressions divert her, so that she eventually abandons the undertaking. If, on the other hand, she persists — and if a new and more bitter experience brings the problem to her again in a more pressing way — she is naturally drawn to look around for someone to help her, some experienced and understanding guide, some place where this, which is the most useful of all arts, can be learned.
But it is very difficult for his very appropriate request for help to be fulfilled adequately. He easily discovers some codes and moral rules about “what he should do” — adult admonitions, moral treatises, prescriptions and sermons repeat those rules to him to the point of satiety — but who really teaches him the way, the practical methods, the technique of mastery and self-improvement? With few exceptions, there is a great and regrettable gap in our culture in this regard. This most noble and absolutely necessary art of self-mastery is generally neglected, if not ignored. It would be interesting and instructive to research the causes of such strange neglect, but this investigation would take us too far. I will mention only one of the main causes that have so far hindered the development of this discipline, which has been called Psychagogy, appropriately bringing Plato’s name back into vogue.[ii]
The fact is that in order to master and possess oneself, one must first know oneself, and despite the very ancient Delphic warning,[iii] man even today ignores himself in an incredible way. On the contrary, he knows the alignment of the farthest stars far better than he knows himself: stellar spectroscopy is more advanced than psychology.
There is reason to trust, however, that this strange and humiliating contrast may be eliminated before too long. Psychology is a young and still incomplete science, but in the last few decades it has made rapid and admirable progress; it is always providing new and valuable elements for the art of inner action, for psychagogy.
But because these recent developments in psychology have not yet been properly valued, they are still often intermingled, confused and blurred either by the detritus of traditional classical psychology or by the mass of experimental technical investigations made by overly analytical, naturalistic or external methods that make no real contribution to the solution of the central and vital problems concerning the human soul. I propose to set forth in these meetings what have been the most important advances and achievements in this field, and to indicate their most useful practical applications for progress and self-mastery.
The fundamental discovery made by modern psychology — a discovery whose enormous importance is suspected by very few — is one that is bringing about a revolution in the knowledge of the inner world comparable to that brought to our view of the external world by the collapse of the Ptolemaic conception [of the solar system] and the advent of the Copernican one; or even better, by the discovery and conquest of the New World. It was the revelation of the existence within us — within each of us — of a vast sphere of unconscious psychic life.
Classical psychology — which is still the only one known and generally admitted — is a surface psychology, in the geometric sense of the term; that is, it is a two-dimensional psychology, which knows only the psychic facts that take place at the surface of our consciousness, those of which we are clearly and directly aware. In short, it [merely] identifies psychic life and consciousness. Instead, a vast harvest of investigations and experiments have led first to the discovery and then to the exploration of the third dimension of the soul, of everything in it that is below and above the thin strip illuminated by ordinary waking consciousness: the dark underwater abysses from which the bottom waves come, from which the seaweed, the shells, the sands emerge, or the vast [upper] atmosphere where the invisible winds blow, where the birds rise with free flight, and higher up the blue sky where the glorious sun shines.
Let us pause to admire briefly the facts that demonstrate the reality of unconscious life and indicate its nature, laws, and extent; and their spiritual and practical value to us.
- Dissociations of personality
In psychology, as in physiology, much progress in the knowledge of normal people has been achieved by the study of ill and abnormal people. Often illness acts as a magnifying glass and a detector, and sheds light on facts that a closer analysis then finds even in normal cases. Such was the case with the unconscious. It was the surprising phenomena of hypnotism that revealed the existence of this hidden region of the human soul.
It was found that, by means of certain procedures, a suitable subject could be placed in a special state which in certain ways resembled sleep, and which was therefore called hypnosis.[iv] In this state the subject is as if asleep, due to the fact that his ordinary consciousness and will are abrogated; on the other hand he can move, speak, and perform intelligent actions under the guidance of the will and mind of the hypnotist. The latter can make the hypnotized person believe and execute whatever he wants, and the hypnotized person accepts and executes everything without criticism, without resistance — but, I repeat, intelligently and often with confidence, and with greater abilities than he would know how to use while awake. This psychic part that reveals itself in hypnosis is not something artificial or temporary, created by hypnotic practices, as some have believed at first; but has revealed itself as a natural element of man’s psychological constitution. It exists and operates continuously in each of us, and is precisely what has been called “the unconscious.” Its existence outside hypnosis has been demonstrated first and foremost by means of post-hypnotic suggestions, or “expiration manifestations.” An example will easily clarify what this consists of.
During hypnosis the practitioner says to the subject, “Tomorrow morning at eight o’clock you will get up and go pay a visit to Mr. X.” After a few minutes he wakes the subject, who remembers nothing of what was said and done during the hypnosis. But the next morning, before eight o’clock, the subject wakes up and feels impelled to get up and go to his friend X . . . . His reason tells him that there is no reason to make this visit, that it is still early, that the friend is still asleep but, in spite of these considerations, the impulse persists and arouses more or less plausible pretexts in the mind and the subject has no rest until he has obeyed what he believes to be his own spontaneous urge, but which instead is the effect of the suggestion received the previous day.
This shows that there is a psychic force in the subject that persists and operates — outside the period of hypnosis — during ordinary wakefulness and sleep, as well as in the genesis of dreams, artistic inspiration, memory, tastes, association of ideas, play of emotions and feelings, etc. In the pathological field, it has been shown that many morbid repercussions which mental life has on physical life derive from the action of the unconscious, as well as the formation of phobias, obsessions, depressions, emotional agitations, abnormal tendencies, ideas and impulses.
Normal Manifestations of the Unconscious:
- Dreams (intelligence – imagination – symbolism in dreams – influence of dreams on wakefulness – waking moods – forgotten dreams that are later brought back by some incident).
- Habitual and intelligent acts that have become automatic and are performed without the participation of ordinary consciousness — [such as] performance of musical pieces — walking the streets while thinking of something else.
- Acts that are performed impulsively, in spite of ourselves; breaking in from a lower level.
- Acts performed for unconscious reasons — a revelation of psychoanalysis.
- We are all always partially hypnotized. The greatest part of our actions are executions of suggestions or autosuggestions that are very similar to post-hypnotic ones.
- Unconscious mental processing — unconscious learning — [such as humming] tunes from memory. “One learns to skate in summer.” [v]
- Artistic and scientific inspiration (Poincaré).[vi] We all experience this sometimes when writing – new ideas arise – writing takes unexpected developments.
- Metagnomic supernormal phenomena: clairvoyance – premonitions.
- Religious conversion.
- Illumination and other mystical experiences – the mysterious region where our Spirit breathes; where the contact, the union between the soul and God takes place. This higher sphere has special characters – it should be considered and distinguished from the others (it is the sky, not the sea) – it has been appropriately called superconscious because it reveals . . .
SCHEME of the levels of the unconscious – proportions: 90 to 95%. Of course, the discovery of this vast sphere of life that exists within each of us has incalculable practical consequences. All problems of self-knowledge and self-mastery are seen in a new light – new unsuspected problems arise in droves – new tasks – unexpected resources – ignored dangers are revealed – wonderful possibilities emerge . . .
For tonight we can stop here. In the next meetings we will consider some of the consequences of the revelation of the unconscious – we will point out methods of studying one’s unconscious – we will see the differences in it among various individuals. Thus we will come to a true knowledge of ourselves and have the necessary elements to act effectively on ourselves, to possess, master and transform ourselves according to our highest will.
[i] Assagioli follows the conventions of his time using only masculine pronouns, which we have alternated with feminine pronouns between paragraphs. —Tr.
[ii] As Assagioli noted in another essay, Greek philosopher Plato was one of the first to use the term psychagogy, or “soul guidance,” coming from the roots meaning “to lead” and “the soul” — what Assagioli calls “the art of inner action.” —Tr.
[iii] The entrance to the ancient Greek oracle at Delphi was marked by an inscription, “Know Thyself.” —Ed.
[iv] The word “hypnosis” was coined in 1850 from Greek roots meaning “sleep” and “condition”. The nature of this phenomenon has been explored considerably since Assagioli wrote this essay. —Ed.
[v] This is a German proverb that Assagioli has also quoted in other essays to demonstrate “the law of delayed effect,” in which something studied may become effective as something learned only later, after a pause in active learning. —Ed.
[vi] Jules Henri Poincaré (1854-1912) was a French mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer and philosopher, who excelled in all branches of mathematics and proposed ideas, such as gravitational waves, that were only confirmed by others many years, even a century, after his death. —Ed.
[i] These are both hand-typed manuscripts without date. This essay probably dates from early in Assagioli’s career, since he generally stopped using the term “psychagogy” after he introduced “psychosynthesis” in 1927. Since the text regard the discovery of the unconscious as something new and relatively unknown, we deduce that it was written within the first decade of the 20th century. We have used Doc. #23281 for this translation. —Tr.
[ii] Editor’s interpolations are shown in [brackets]. —Ed.