The essential task of psychosynthesis is the discovery of our profound Being, of the Center of ourselves.
By Roberto Assagioli, 1965, from The Assagioli Archive – Florence, translated by Gordon Symons. Original title La Psicologia E L’Arte Di Vivere
There is a fundamental lack and disproportion in our civilization. Modern man knows many things, knows how to use natural forces in an admirable way, but generally does not care to explore the world within him, to conquer what constitutes his most intimate and vital part: his soul.
A few comparisons will give a more vivid and clearer idea of this state of affairs. What would you say about a person who is unaware that the earth revolves around the sun? Or who tried to drive a car without knowing anything about its structure and operation and without having had any lessons on how to manage it? You can easily imagine what errors and damage would result!
Well, without exaggeration, this usually happens with regard to the internal world. We set out in life, we try to direct ourselves and educate others, without having any clear and precise notion, no adequate preparation for such arduous and delicate tasks. And the effects, unfortunately, can be observed everywhere. A list of psychological mistakes that are made all the time would be long …
Man’s energies are many and precious, such as to make him strong, healthy, efficient, to give him joys and satisfactions, to make him an instrument of good for others, yet little and badly he knows how to profit from his wealth.
Very often we squander these treasures of energy in inappropriate, harmful, or at least sterile and vain ways. Not infrequently, on the contrary, moved by unjustified fears or traditional preconceptions, we try to repress or violently fight, condemning them, many vital and emotional energies; while, if we knew how to master them and channel them appropriately, we could use them in constructive and creative activities.
Another serious mistake, which almost all of us commit, is to leave unused the most important, the most fruitful energies that flow in the depths of our being, similar in this to the farmer who laboriously worked an ungrateful land, unaware of the precious oil existing in the subsoil.
Another wrong attitude of ours is to try to stifle the pain, to escape from painful situations, from difficult problems, hunting for distractions and excitements. This escape from ourselves solves nothing and, even if it gives an ephemeral relief, it leaves us as weak and helpless as before.
Other faults, often serious, are committed due to the lack of self-control and a trained will, so that we are overwhelmed by the onset of impulses and passions. We then continually allow ourselves to be influenced and influenced by other people, by newspapers, books, radio and television, so that we delude ourselves into thinking, judging and deciding, while we do nothing but passively obey external influences.
These and many other psychological errors – which we commit out of ignorance of the laws of psychic life, out of inability and weakness in the face of the forces that stir within us – not only limit our activity, they are a source of damage and failure in practical life, but not infrequently they threaten and greatly damage our health as well.
The strong influence that morale exerts on the body was well known to the ancients, and was wisely used by them for healing purposes. Instead, modern medicine, imbued with materialistic doctrines and intent only on investigating the palpable and visible phenomena of the body, has generally neglected this influence. However, the study of certain nervous patients in whom many ailments, including physical ones, have proved to be produced by psychic causes and can be cured by psychic means, has led doctors with a more open mind to give ever greater value to the psychological element (psychosomatic medicine).
Thus it is increasingly recognized that moral factors have a very great importance not only in the nervous, but in all the sick. The psychological influences operate not only directly through the regulatory nerves of the various organic functions, but also indirectly, through the modifications of the external and internal secretions, which have proved, as is well known, to be so important.
The action of moods on secretions is already evident from facts of common observation, such as “mouth watering”, that is, the secretion of the salivary glands at the mere sight of an appetizing food, or “cold sweat” caused by fear. It was then confirmed by a series of physiological studies, such as those of Pavlov on the psychic secretion of the glands of the stomach, those of Cannon on emotional glycosuria and those of Gates, who showed that due to anger and fear poisons are formed in our body.
It is therefore easy to understand how the aforementioned errors can cause real diseases.
But in addition to eliminating these damages, applied psychology offers a series of important positive aids, precious weapons for life.
A first advantage is that of a wise economy and organization of psychological energies. As is known, there is now a vast movement of studies and applications aimed at eliminating the waste of energy, time and money in manual work and in the performance of companies of all kinds. Expressions of this trend are the so-called “Taylorism” (from the name of the American engineer who was one of the initiators), and the scientific organization or “rationalization” of industrial and commercial enterprises.
Now, with the use of various psychological methods, a similar work has begun in the internal world, eliminating the waste of emotional and mental energies, organizing in a more rational, practical and productive way the complex work of our faculties to obtain the maximum performance with minimum wear and tear on the mighty but delicate mechanism of our psyche.
Here are some examples, chosen from the simplest of common experience. The study in general, and particularly the preparation for the exams, are mostly done without method, without even thinking about knowing and respecting the precise psychological laws on which their success depends.
As we all know, the procedure (which does not deserve the name of method) commonly used, especially at the University, is that of the hasty, exhausting and sterile storage of notions in the few weeks preceding the exams; procedure by which it is generally possible to “pass”, showing off some unscrupulous in front of the more or less shrewd professors; but a less welcome nervous breakdown is sometimes added to the “passage”; in any case, there follows a rapid oblivion and therefore the need to start over, when you really need to know.
On the other hand, there are learning methods based on knowledge of the laws of memory, the unconscious and its various relationships with waking consciousness, which allow us to learn what we desire with an incomparably less effort, in a lasting way. This applies to any study, but especially to that of languages, which, instead of being done by dint of yawning on gray grammars, can become a pleasant and ingenious occupation, a fun intellectual game. (1)
Returning to the exams, I will remember that we have – less frequently, but not infrequently – the opposite case, that of well-prepared students, or no less than the others, who, questioned by the professors, are unable to remember the notions, which although they know and that an hour before or an hour after I am able to easily expose to others. In this case it is a question of a bad regime of emotions; fear, impressionability, shyness that are not dominated cloud the mind, paralyze the evocative function of memory. This inconvenience, which is not infrequently a source of serious practical damage, of failures and undeserved humiliations, can be eliminated with suitable psychological methods, which make one capable of disciplining one’s own emotional energies.
Not only learning, but also active work, intellectual and artistic production can be greatly facilitated, made more fruitful and less tiring, by the knowledge and use of the particular psychological techniques with which they should be implemented. There are suitable stimuli to initiate and intensify our creative activities, there are laws and conditions of subconscious processing that must be respected; there are methods to facilitate the birth of the creatures of our imagination.
In yet another field, applied psychology can be of great help: that of discovering one’s own particular practical aptitudes, and therefore of the choice of career and profession.
For some who feel a clear preference, an imperious push towards a given task, the problem is easy to solve, sometimes it does not even arise; but for many others this is not the case. Some, endowed with a versatile nature, feel capable of doing many different things; others, due to excessive distrust in oneself, due to the discouraging suggestions of others or because a slower maturation slows to show their true nature, do not find precise attitudes in themselves. For both groups there is the possibility of harmful hesitation and delays and of even more harmful mistakes, which can result in lost lives, from the point of view of external success and the satisfactions that those who do a job that truly correspond to them have. Well, there are psychological methods with which latent attitudes can be brought to the surface, guidance and guidance can be given for choosing the most suitable job.
So far we have examined the applications concerning our practical efficiency in external life. But there is another group of applications which concern the knowledge, the domination and the development of our personality, which then naturally help and enhance our activity in the world.
A first kind of such applications concerns our own body.
We have seen how badly directed psychic forces can exhaust and make the body sick. Fortunately, it is equally true that with suitable methods, with a wise use of psychological energies, it can be restored and healed.
Thus a new branch of medicine was created: psychotherapy, which has a series of different methods for the various needs and cases: hypnotism; suggestion, which is applied in ever finer ways, until it becomes a direction of the subconscious carried out by the patient himself; persuasion, the various methods of training the different psychological functions; Freud’s much discussed psychoanalysis with the subsequent modifications and various developments made to it by Adler, Rank, Jung, Stekel, etc. Finally, the emergence of a broader and more integral therapy, in which superconscious elements and spiritual energies are also taken into account and used, in which the aim is to achieve a total reconstruction of the patient’s personality, and which is therefore called psychosynthesis.
It should be noted that all of this is of interest and concerns not only doctors, but also, and no less, the general public. Already in every branch of medicine, with the exception of surgery, the part of the patient is becoming less and less passive. The sick person is no longer a person who stays in bed docilely swallowing pills and potions (and they were sometimes breadcrumbs and more or less colored and masked “aqua fontis”!). Now a self-respecting cure consists in a whole regime of life, which the patient himself must implement and of whose reasons it is good that he is as informed and persuaded as possible. And the same goes for caregivers and family members. But this intelligent understanding and willing help is all the more necessary – as it is easy to understand – in psychological treatment. In this field a willing and conscious cooperation and collaboration on the part of the patient is needed, and the more active it is, the better it is for him. In this field, an unsuspecting nurse can compromise care; the agitated and anxious environment, misunderstandings, conflicting opinions, impatience, doubts of family members can do great harm. Furthermore, the knowledge of psychotherapeutic procedures is very useful for preventing many nervous disorders, both in adults and especially in youngsters and children, to carry out an appropriate work of psychic prophylaxis on ourselves and others. It is therefore in everyone’s interest to know the main elements of this new and promising branch of medicine.
A second kind of applications of internal culture methods concerns the domination and conscious use of our vital and psychological energies. It has been found that these energies act and react on each other in a similar way to that of physical energies. Just as heat can be transformed into movement and electricity (steam engines, thermo-electric systems) and, conversely, electricity into heat and movement (electric stoves, electric motors) and movement into electricity, so it can be seen that a passion or emotion can be transformed into external action or intellectual activity, how images and thoughts arouse emotions and feelings, and how in turn external acts can arouse images and emotional states.
In general, this complex and incessant interplay of actions and reactions occurs automatically, without our awareness and direction, and we are often the victims of undesirable, inappropriate and violent effects.
There are many concrete applications that can be done in this field. For example, in this way, and only in this way, it is possible, at least in many cases, to resolve the arduous problems connected with sexual life in a healthy, timely and elevated way.
The methods that teach the use of the immense power of imagination and thought deserve particular mention, for their great unsuspected importance. They are true creative energies, usually used unconsciously and often in a harmful and destructive way, but capable of infinite possibilities for good, if used and used in a conscious and wise way.
A little better known, but just as little applied, are the even more precious methods that teach the education of the highest and at the same time most dangerous faculty of the human soul: the Will.
At this point it could be assumed that the enumeration of the contributions of psychology to the art of living was finished. In fact, in general the works that deal with these themes do not go further. But actually stopping here would mean stopping halfway through the work; indeed, it can be said that the best of the best are missing: the crowning of the building, which gives it dignity and value. So far, a series of particular methods have been examined, each of which tends to achieve partial and, up to a certain point, independent results. Therefore, the synthesis is lacking, that is, the choice and coordination of those methods to an end, according to a vast and harmonious plan for the integral reconstruction of our being. This work of psychosynthesis also has, like the others, two aspects and moments, inseparable, yet distinct from each other: the first of knowledge, the other of implementation.
The essential task of psychosynthesis is the discovery of our profound Being, of the Center of ourselves. This task must be understood in two senses: first, as the discovery of the spiritual element in a universal sense, distinct and superior to all the particular purely “psychological” elements; second, as a discovery of one’s own individual Center, of one’s own specific spiritual “note”, of our “internal vocation”, which is something different from the practical and professional one. These discoveries require a special work, different from analytical introspection; it is an act of recollection, meditation and deepening, in which all the elements in which our true being is lost and forgotten are gradually put aside: the sensational sensations of the body, the wide and varied range of emotions and of feelings, the swarming and tangle of thoughts, up, to create the internal silence and in this we consciously unite with our simple, radiant Spiritual Essence.
In this intimate Center, which is our truest and best self, we can draw the light and strength necessary to endure, without being overwhelmed, the severe pains that sometimes shake and seem to dissolve our personality, to resist attacks, to get up from the falls and resume the Way with new vigor.
This is possible because that inner Center puts us in contact with the mystery that surrounds us, with the Great Realities, with the Supreme Being in whom we live, move and are, and from Whom we can draw all the strength, the help, the love that we are worthy and capable of containing.
From this inner peak, with the light that descends to illuminate the other regions of the psyche, with the inexhaustible strength that we draw from it, the concrete work of knowledge, balance and synthesis of the personality can be accomplished.
The work of understanding exactly our special psychological constitution is neither easy nor simple, given the complexity and frequent contradiction of the elements that compose us, but it is facilitated if it is divided into two parts:
1. To study the various psychological types that exist, and to recognize which of them we belong to. It is the field of ‘differential psychology’ or ‘typology’. This – which until recently was limited to a simple classification of temperaments, to a purely descriptive characterology – has been deepened and refined in recent decades. The different types of extroverts and introverts, sensory, emotional, intellectual, intuitive, among others, have been discovered and described; and the various combinations are being studied.
2. From the recognition of the type to which we belong, it is necessary to proceed to the most subtle ascertainment of the special, singular mixture or combination, qualitative and quantitative, of elements that make each of us a unique being, and which gives humanity its inexhaustible variety and a wealth of individual manifestations. This variety and richness constitute its interest and charm (think how tedious it would be to be all the same or reduced to just a few models in series!), But also create the complications and dramas of the resulting misunderstandings.
Having made this double investigation, it is then a question of choosing, among the various psychological methods we have mentioned, the most suitable ones to correct and develop each type, to solve the particular problems of each individual. It is necessary that each formulate his own “action plan”, that he chooses and creates, or rather, understands and understands, the “ideal model” to which to adapt.
It is a question of “building” one’s personality and making it an agile and obedient instrument; it is a question of creating the most suitable form to manifest and realize our individual “note”, to find the “lifestyle” that is right for us, to implement our “internal vocation”. It is a work of science and art at the same time and is, at the same time, essentially a practical thing. In it lies the secret of satisfaction and success, understood in their broadest and highest sense.
The complexity of this work should not worry or discourage us. It can be implemented in a gradual and orderly, harmonious and serene way. And the joy and the advantages brought by the first successes, from the first conquests, give stimulus and encouragement to continue. Of course, adequate teaching and the help of competent guides can facilitate the task and accelerate its pace.
But psychology has not only personal and individual applications; its range of action extends into the vast field of inter-individual and social relationships.
Here, too, there is first of all a great task of enlightenment to be carried out. If we understand and know ourselves little, we understand others even less. From such ignorance – made greater by the fact that it mostly ignores itself! – derives a sad series of errors of judgment, of misunderstandings, of conflicts, with which we harm each other and – painfully to say – also, and sometimes above all, to those who are dear to us. In fact, a large part of these mistakes are committed within the family.
Let us first examine the relationships between parents and children. In the last few decades, great progress has been made in the physical rearing of children, at least among the educated classes and in welfare organizations. On the other hand, progress has been less in the psychological field. In fact, doctors who deal with nervous diseases have the opportunity to observe how many hysterical and psychasthenic forms have been favored, and sometimes it can be said created, by anxious and oppressive affectivity, by indulgences and weaknesses, or by inappropriate severity, by incomplete violence, from the disorienting inconsistencies of the parents. Even when these errors do not lead to real illnesses, they often produce defects, weaknesses and disharmonies in children that can have harmful effects throughout life.
In a subsequent period, when children have become adolescents and young people, a special type of misunderstanding and conflict often arises due, as well as other causes of a general nature, to the difference in mentality existing between two different generations.
The Turghenieff described, in his well-known novel Fathers and Sons, a type of conflict of this kind, as it existed in his time in Russia, but it can be said that with each new generation a new type of such conflict arises. In them, the misunderstanding is mutual and the resulting errors of judgment and behavior must be ascribed to both of them.
However, a reservation must be made: there are some exceptions. There are parents who know how to keep themselves young in spirit and renew themselves and return young with their children. And vice versa there are young people who absorb the mentality of adults so as to conform to the generation of these and be psychologically old before they were young!
Errors in part similar to these of parents, in part different, are committed by other adults, who take care of children and young people: tutors, teachers, professors. I will only mention the anti-psychological and often unjust way of questioning in exams, used by too many professors – a way that all works out to the detriment of the timid and impressionable and to the advantage of the calm and daring.
A third area, in which the errors committed by ignorance and psychological misunderstanding are the cause of an incalculable sum of evils and unhappiness, is that of the relationships between man and woman, especially in the intimate and continuous coexistence of the spouses.
There are fundamental differences of psychological constitution between the male and female souls, which produce a completely different way of considering oneself, others and life, of acting and reacting, and a perennial source of misunderstandings and of bumps. Oh, if in addition to teaching many things from the distant past and many facts of the mineral and vegetable kingdom – certainly interesting notions but which often do not have immediate reference to our everyday life – the fundamental facts of human psychology were taught, such as that of the different psychosexual constitution, how many unnecessary mistakes, how many sufferings, how many dramas could be spared.
Another series of misunderstandings and collisions arises from the relationships between superiors and inferiors in the various fields of industry, employment, the army, etc. A particular (but general!) Case of this kind, very thorny, is the vexed quaestio of the “servants” who embitter the lives of so many ladies! (2)
Then there are the misunderstandings that almost reach “incompatibility of character” between categories of people of a psychological type and with very different attitudes, for example between artists and practical men, between scientific mentalities and mystical souls, etc., up to misunderstandings and wider collisions between parties, social classes, peoples. These conflicts are naturally produced by multiple and complex factors, but one of the most important of them is the psychological one. Prejudices, antipathies, malevolent criticisms, offensive judgments, impulsive and violent acts, based on the mutual ignorance of classes, nations, races, complicate and exacerbate, sometimes dangerously, the other causes of dissent and rivalries, which could more easily be eliminated with an objective and serene consideration, with a fair conciliation of interests, beneficial to all the parties involved and which would open the way to fruitful collaboration. In this collaboration the vital and psychic energies, previously worn out in combative and destructive activities, could be used for productive and constructive purposes.
This vast work of understanding, harmony, conciliation, inter-individual and social synthesis, cannot be accomplished (contemporary events demonstrate it) only with ideal and abstract, noble but not very effective affirmations, or with legal and formal agreements, too external and generic; it requires concrete action of a psychological and moral nature, based on principles and methods similar to those we have seen exist and apply to the individual. It is a question of knowing, dominating and directing en masse, on a large scale, the same psychological forces that play in individuals. From this results the great value, also social, of psychology.
This overview, however rapid and schematic, shows how the field of action of psychology is vast and varied. It has begun profound renewals and achievements in education, medicine, in the various forms of associated life. Indeed, it points to and teaches us a whole new “art of living” which will effectively contribute to diminishing the great sum of human sufferings; which will make us stronger and better, wiser and happier.
(1) Vedi: R. Assagioli, Come si imparano le lingue col subcosciente. «L’Economia Umana», Maggio-Giugno 1954.
2. See R. Assagioli, The psychology of women and her psychosynthesis. “The Human Economy”. (Milan), March-April 1958.