Stuart Miller, the first Vice President of Development at Esalen Institute, visited Roberto Assagioli in 1970 and was inspired by his profound authority and “lightness.”
By Stuart Miller (1938-2014), translated from Italian, by Gordon Symons, (Archivio Assagioli – Florence)
Michael Murphy, President of the Esalen Institute, my wife and I were in England in the summer of 1970, looking for new addresses that might be of interest to Esalen. In many ways it was a disappointing visit. The British welcomed with great interest many things that we brought to them: the techniques of “encounters”, awareness of sensations, various forms of meditation, the theory of the development of human potential. But I had hoped to find something new for Esalen and myself.
How disappointed I was, after all the work I had done on myself with the help of Esalen, that I was still so dissatisfied! And then, of course, I doubted somewhat, in the overwhelming London in June, that the enthusiasm with which the British had welcomed us would persist. What we had brought to them was exciting and important, but there was also something incomplete in what Esalen had to offer.
We received a letter from Jim Vargiu in which he invited us to do a week of didactic psychosynthesis with Roberto Assagioli. I didn’t know anything about psychosynthesis, but I knew the name of Assagioli as one of the founders of the Association of Humanistic Psychology.
I thought it was appropriate, since we were in Europe, that we meet him. The three of us flew to Florence, and shortly after our arrival we met with Assagioli for a brief greeting. I received a profound impression: he was a tall man, with slightly curved shoulders for his age. His eyes seemed to look into eternity, similar to what Fritz Perls’ eyes had been, endowed with the same imprint of spiritual authority, but joyful. He was very joyful. Many of the instructors I had come in contact with, including Fritz himself, did not have this air of winged gaiety.
I was puzzled by this, for me, a paradoxical combination of profound authority and “lightness”. We started going to him once or twice a day, and he gave us instructions. We had to write down our questions and show them to him because he was hard of hearing. He was incredibly alert and gave his answers with a twinkle in his eyes. Some of the things he said troubled me a lot: he told me that the fundamental method of psychosynthesis was to develop in people the innate (but not used) ability to act from their own superior center. This sounded so opposite to what is taught in the “encounters” and in the “Gestalt” that I accused him of betraying human experience; I told him that he recommended “falsehood”. He then explained to me that there was not necessarily any contradiction between psychosynthesis and methods such as “encounters” and “Gestalt”, but that first of all it is important to clarify well what is “artificial” and what is “real”. Being real, he explained, is not the same as adhering to a neurosis, or to one’s negative elements. These, he said, cannot be ignored or repressed, but they are not real in the same sense in which our true Self, the part of us that is the seat of our consciousness and our aspiration and higher knowledge, is real. “Of course!”, You will say. But I had forgotten it.
Being all taken up by some of the methods of self-improvement, I had forgotten the purpose of many of the techniques associated with Esalen. The purpose was, presumably, to develop myself, thus making me a better being. It was for this reason that I wanted to learn how to get in touch with my anger in a “group encounter”, or to investigate my demons with “Gestalt” therapy. But I had forgotten the purpose and was lost in mere technique. The first important thing that psychosynthesis did for me was to free me from the bondage of my negative emotions and thoughts. I remembered what I had always known, namely that at the centre of my being, as well as of every other being, there is to some extent divinity, however latent. Since these first meetings, Assagioli and Psychosynthesis have helped me to remember who, essentially, I am in reality, although I must confess that I still forget this more often than I would like. With all this emphasis on the positive aspects of me, the wonderful thing, from the beginning, was that psychosynthesis did not seem to require any great sacrifices.
I should not abandon the explorations to which techniques such as “group encounters”, Gestalt and bioenergetics, had led me. I could use them, but now without losing sight of my higher Self and my fundamental goal, which is to develop my personality in harmony with what is higher in me.
As the days passed in Florence, I began to see, speaking with Assagioli and reading his writings, that psychosynthesis indicated to me a structure in which I could find liberation from the personal “nonsense” that torments me, without denying the existence and the peculiar reality of that “nonsense”. I began to feel that I had a new direction, without having to exclude what I had already learned.
Furthermore, psychosynthesis has a generous quality: just as it does not exclude any aspect of the psyche, it does not exclude other techniques and approaches. I had heard many irritated teachers report the work of other teachers. This had been tough, because I had seen some value in all of them. Assagioli does not rule out any plausible technique, but it seems that he knows a point from which it is possible to judge when, where and for whom a technique can be useful. His openness to Esalen’s diversity of approaches seemed to be based on a firm understanding of the nature of human development. I began to think that his approach could offer a framework for the synthesis of Esalen’s techniques.
So you can see that it didn’t take me long to be impressed by his wisdom, his extraordinary penetration and the magic of his presence. But there was more than that: I was in the presence of a guru who wore a tie, who had a studio, a subtle sense of humor, who lived in a city. There was no white robe, or silver chalice, drums, gong and incense in his house. I have nothing against such things, but in reality, they do not suit me personally. I want to have as much illumination as possible, but at the same time I want to live in a city, have a job, be socially useful, have a family, wear conventional clothes and everything that goes with it. His presence – ever since then – has assured me that it is possible to develop oneself in very, very high ways, yet to remain in the world, and to be, in other respects, rather conventional.
Over time, after reading other things he wrote and studying with him, I came to see that taking proper account of what is normal is part of the spirit of psychosynthesis. This means that for some people it is “normal” to do rather strange things in their spiritual pursuit, but that for many others it is normal to be somewhat “normal” in many ways, but also that it is normal for them to pursue spiritual purposes. Research is normal for everyone, and the necessary means are not necessarily extraordinary: they can be gradual.
Ten minutes of meditation a day is not like locking yourself up in a monastery, but it can be a very useful thing to help yourself and the world, albeit to a small extent. Trying to perform the synthesis of one’s psychic functions for a few minutes every day – and then as a growing attitude in one’s life – is, after all, a small step forward, and in fact such small steps may be enough for many of us. I felt permission from Assagioli and his writings to remain myself, to remain Stuart Miller, and to proceed further from there.
From then on I came to understand and adhere to some of the deeper visions of psychosynthesis, finally seeing it as a natural process that takes place in all men, to which Assagioli has only given a name, offering us a “strategy” to help us. It is an integral process, which unifies the personality in ever more harmonious ways, and which elevates this integration to ever higher levels. If we observe, it can be seen to occur everywhere, not without obstacles and relapses into errors and enormous resistances. What Psychosynthesis does (capitalized) is to suggest the guidelines of an integral method to favor this natural process, using everything we know about human development. This is not a work that Assagioli has completed. In fact he likes to say that Psychosynthesis (again with a capital letter) is only a beginning. I am inclined to think that he is right.
Laura Huxley, Aldous Huxley’s widow, told me long after my first visit to Dr. Assagioli, that she thought that much of what he had to say was “good Latin sense”. There is something right in this. And perhaps the common sense deriving from the collective wisdom of the Mediterranean people is one of the things that many of us can use when we immerse ourselves in the tumultuous current of the movement for the development of human potential. There was much that was “ordinary” in Assagioli, and this was a great comfort for me. I can perhaps say one last thing that can be useful, namely that the depth and subtlety of the work of Assagioli and his collaborators is often not evident at first, since they write and exhibit with a simplicity that can be misleading. I learned that to understand them and grasp their magic, you need a very careful reading, a very slow reading, which is also maturing.
Michael Murphy (one of the founders of the Esalen Institute at Big Sur) is quoted in The New Yorker:
“What Aurobindo called yoga, what Abe Maslow called self-actualization, Fritz Perls called organismic integrity, Assagioli called psychosynthesis. All these share basically the same idea; that there is a natural tendency toward evolution, towards unfoldment, that pervades the universe as well as human sphere, and that our job now is to get behind that and make it conscious. But the disciplines that emerge to deal with this unfoldment have to reflect the many-sidedness of the human psyche, and this is why psychosynthesis is so valuable. Assagioli himself was really a man of very wide European culture. He was the truest sage I’ve ever met.”