Roberto Assagioli gives a precise overview of what constitutes the essential principles and methodology of Psychosynthesis.
By Roberto Assagioli, 1972, from The Assagioli Archive in Florence, translated by Gordon Symons. Original title Psicosintesi – II
Before describing what psychosynthesis is, its principles and techniques, I think it would be good to talk about its place and its function in the current difficult situation of humanity, and in the rapid changes that are taking place. I think that in general it can be said that these changes, and the resulting problems and crises, have been produced by three major events.
1st – The first event was the release of repressed or ignored emotional energies and vital impulses. This began mainly with psychoanalysis, and I don’t need to dwell on it because it is a well-known fact; but lately this liberation has taken on broader and more intense aspects. As you know, there are many tendencies that emphasize the free and uncontrolled expression of whatever is in the conscious and unconscious.
2nd – The second and most recent event was the discovery, or rather rediscovery, and the growing interest in the powerful latent and unexpressed energies in the human psyche. These energies can be compared to atomic energy in physics. There is now a vast movement that emphasizes them, and strives and promises to show how to realize and activate these energies.
3rd- The third event, connected to the second, was the active exploration of, and interest in, the interior space. This has a close analogy with space flight. These last two events are related, but different. One is the discovery of powerful psychic energies, and the attempt to bring something that is dormant into the human personality; the other, on the other hand, is the active enlargement and expansion of consciousness, and the achievement of levels of life and awareness that have not yet been achieved. These are also generically called “altered states of consciousness”.
These trends present great possibilities for increasing human life, but also great dangers. Here, too, the analogy with atomic energy is suggestive, and these dangers and damages are completely evident and create great concern. The most salient example is represented by the energies released by psychedelics and drugs in general. We can use the example of the story of Goethe, of the sorcerer’s apprentice. He had been told by his teacher the secret of increasing the flow of water, but not that of interrupting it at will or controlling it. The result was that he would have almost drowned in water if the teacher had not intervened.
Another way of saying this is that the inner space is assaulted by reckless adventurers, lacking suitable preparation and precaution. However, these strong tendencies cannot be suppressed or repressed, and they shouldn’t be. The problem lies in the use of safe methods to regulate them, direct them towards positive results, and prevent negative ones as much as possible. It could be generically defined as “mastering the irruption of previously latent energies, their assimilation, and their integration into the personality”. Well, this is exactly the purpose and usefulness of psychosynthesis.
I was one of the very first to introduce psychoanalysis in Italy since 1907. I prepared my doctoral thesis in psychoanalysis in 1909 at the asylum in Zurich, headed by Prof. Bleuler, the author of the classic treatise on schizophrenia. I attended the historic Nuremberg meeting where the first public split between Freud and Jung took place.
Freud himself used the word “psychosynthesis” to indicate the reunion of the dissociated parts of the psyche. Freud also spoke of the process of sublimation, and in his book Uber Psychoanalyse, published in 1910, he states that “the elements of the sexual instinct are characterized by a capacity for sublimation, to change their sexual purpose into another of a different kind and of greater social value. To the sum of energies thus gained from our psychological production we probably owe the maximum results of our culture”. This process of sublimation, applied not only to sexual impulses but also to others, and particularly to aggressive impulses, was later developed in psychosynthesis as one of its main techniques. Thus psychosynthesis was progressively developed by me on the basis of psychoanalysis.
Now I will talk about some of the main characteristics of psychosynthesis: first of all this, while including a large number of techniques, should not be considered as eclectic; in fact, it has its own precise model, as will be evident from the following points.
First, the main emphasis is placed on the existential problem of each individual, and a therapeutic plan is organized in order to solve it. Psychosynthesis includes the use of all valid analytical techniques, from the fundamental ones used by Freud (free associations and dream analysis) to other developments such as free drawing, spontaneous writing, guided imagery, etc.
Secondly, the use of active techniques for the integration of the personality. Third, techniques to activate the latent potentials existing in the higher levels of the unconscious. Fourth, techniques for the transmutation and sublimation of psychic energies, which can be considered as “psychodynamics” or dynamic psychology in the strict sense, or psychoenergetics.
Among some of the special techniques I have used I can mention that of the right proportions. A good example of this is given by Theodore Roosevelt, as quoted by his friend Begbee:
“At Sagamore Hill, Theodor Roosevelt and I used to play a little game together. After an evening of conversation, we would go out onto the lawn and search the sky until we found the milky dot beyond the lower left corner of the Pegasus Square. Then one or the other of us would say: “That is the spiral galaxy of Andromeda. It is as big as our Milky Way. It is one of hundreds of millions of galaxies. It is made up of a hundred billion suns, each of them larger than our sun”. Then Roosevelt would smile at me and say, “Now I think we’re small enough! Let’s go to sleep”. (William Begbee, The Book of Naturalists, Knopf).
Then even humor, in its highest connotation of compassionate but objective vision of human weaknesses, is a technique of psychosynthesis. It connotes itself as “smiling wisdom”.
In the treatment, three orientations are taken into account: the past, the present and the future. These are not mutually exclusive, and the goal is to combine them in the right proportions in any case, but the emphasis is on the present; as one author said, “Past, present and future are merged in the inclusiveness of the moment that IS”. This also means that the three short, medium and long term perspectives are taken into account. An illuminating analogy in this regard is that of climbing a mountain. It is first of all necessary to have a clear vision of the summit, of the goal to be achieved. Then the various routes and ascent lines must also be considered. But when you start to climb, you have to pay attention to the immediate step you are taking, in order not to stumble.
Going to the mountains also illustrates the importance given in psychosynthesis to what Maslow called “the ultimate achievements of human nature”. Psychosynthesis aims to try to achieve the expansion of consciousness, to have experiences of the peaks, ecstatic states, and this is a trend that is currently rapidly spreading. It concerns the exploration of the higher unconscious, or superconscious, appropriately defined with the neutral term of “transpersonal”.
Although psychosynthesis takes into account and favors the occurrence of these experiences, its main utility is to manage what happens individually after one has had such experiences of the peaks. The experiences of the peaks are only temporary, and then consciousness drops back to the ordinary level, and sometimes even lower. An experience of the peaks can be compared to a momentary flight on the top of a mountain: but it is not possible to stay there. Instead, what you can do, after returning to the plains, is to gradually and carefully climb the mountain step by step, and in this climb there are certain spaces or shelves, where you can stop for a while, or sometimes stop. even without climbing further. It can be compared to the exploration of space by astronauts, and many writers have talked about the exploration of interior spaces.
One point to which psychosynthesis attaches particular importance is the difference between the various levels of the superconscious or transpersonal, and, at the highest point, the Self. This is illustrated by the following diagram:
The experiences of the superconscious and of the self have usually not been sufficiently differentiated and defined, even by psychologists who have dealt with the transpersonal dimension. I cannot now deal with the subject, except to say that, while in the region of the superconscious many psychological activities take place and psychological functions are active, the Self is instead an immobile point of awareness, which is fixed, immutable, in a certain sense. transcendent, although emanating powerful energies, which can be compared to the radiations of a star or the sun.
I will only mention the question of the relationship between the individual and the Universal Self. On this point in particular, psychosynthesis does not take any theoretical position, but adheres to the existential experience of the individual. Here it is necessary to emphasize that psychosynthesis is essentially empirical; it is based on the description and interpretation of existential experiences, and therefore does not have a specific theoretical setting. It is independent of and neutral towards any philosophical or theological framework, but it can adapt to most of them. So it has been welcomed by people as diverse as a Jesuit Father (Rev. C. Bryant), a Protestant pastor (Rev. O. Brandon), a Vedanta worshiper (J.P. Atreya).
One of the fields to which psychosynthesis pays special attention is the interaction between various impulses, and especially the relationship between sex and self-affirmation. This indicates the need to deal with interpersonal and group relationships, and therefore the achievement of interpersonal, group and social psychosynthesis. This ranges from the psychosynthesis of man and woman, the psychosynthesis of the couple, to the psychosynthesis of the family as a psychological unit, and then in ever-larger groups towards the ideal of the psychosynthesis of humanity.
Therefore psychosynthesis should not be considered only as a therapy, but it has wide applications in self-actualization and education, both in the family and in schools of all levels.
We must also recognize and consider the importance of collective influences and their dangers: we do not realize how much these psychic currents or waves – and what could be called “psychic smog” – affect each of us. This too requires to be appropriately managed, both individually and collectively, what could be defined as a “psychological ecology”.
Psychosynthesis is a scientific conception and practice. Therefore, it adopts a scientific method and procedure, meaning science in a broad sense, as some current scientists do, such as Maslow and others. It is a conception of an open mind, based on facts, on scrupulous observation and experimentation with a variety of techniques: in my book, more than 40 are listed, without any preconceived preferences for one or the other.
Psychosynthesis begins on the solid premise of common sense that before dealing with powerful and unknown energies, one must know well and successfully manage the normal energies of the personality. Furthermore, while the tendencies towards transcendence, of which I have spoken, are widespread and growing, there is the great mass of humanity – one could say the majority of human beings – who are not partakers of these tendencies: either they ignore, or are skeptical about it, or are afraid of it. Their need is to deal with personality issues, interpersonal relationships and the social context, and I think for them to be able to do this successfully is already a lot.
Psychosynthesis began as a comprehensive method of psychotherapy for the average neurotic or the maladjusted; it is a broad field that ranks on the same level as other scientific psychotherapies. But psychosynthesis is not limited to this. It recognizes the other trends and problems mentioned, and tries to meet their different problems and needs. It could be said that there are four stages: first psychoanalysis, which treats the lower and middle unconscious, and this is necessary in all cases; the second is humanistic psychology, which has recognized the existential problems of humanity, which have not been sufficiently taken into consideration by academic psychology; third, transpersonal psychology, which deals with “higher needs”, and with what Maslow calls the ultimate achievements of human nature; fourth, the attempt to arrive at a synthesis, that is, to coordinate and unite these three levels into a harmonious whole, and to use the techniques suitable for each stage.
The techniques used in psychosynthesis include meditation in its broadest sense, which also includes the use of the imagination and its enormous power, and the awakening of intuition. Some of the oriental techniques are also included, because in the East, and especially in India, attention, interest and evaluation of the internal worlds was relevant, but I think that their adoption, as they are, is not only difficult for the current Western mentality and condition but can sometimes produce undesirable effects. Therefore, psychosynthesis strives to adapt them and to make changes that we consider most suitable to exploit the positive contribution of oriental approaches, but in the context of the current personality and of existential and social reality.
Furthermore, I believe that meditation can be more valid and effective when combined with other psychological and therapeutic techniques; not as an isolated technique, but in combination with all the others. The practical procedure in psychosynthetic treatment or training is: first, appropriate preparation and mental information, wise and without prejudice, in order to avoid the unilateral use of each technique; second, a progressive procedure, in installments, so to speak, a gradual assimilation of transpersonal contents, energies and understandings in the normal personality. This is very important, because it neutralizes the dangers produced by the irruption of energies in those who are not prepared to manage them. Third, a progressive training in all of this.
An analogy with building a house, albeit oversimplified, can help here. A house must be built from the ground up, have strong foundations and good drains. But then the subsequent plans can and must be built. The first task may correspond to psychoanalysis. The second is that of the use of active self-training or self-actualization techniques. But then there are the upper floors and the terrace. The trouble with buildings is that they are usually covered with a limiting roof, not a terrace. But the terraces have important functions: during the day they offer the opportunity for sunbathing, and to receive the vitalizing and healing radiations of the sun; and at night to contemplate and explore the sky, both with the naked eye and with telescopes. The foundations and the ground floor, the psychoanalytic aspect, are necessary but not sufficient. On the other hand, there are those who try to live on the upper floors and focus their life on them, which is equivalent to trying to live on a terrace that is suspended in the air without having the rest of the building underneath.
Transpersonal experiences are of two types: those designed to favor the elevation of the personal center of consciousness, that is, of the ego, up to the Self, of which it is a reflection; and those that favor the descent of energies from the transpersonal level to that of the normal personality. They include meditative techniques (understood in their broadest sense) and techniques for inspiration and creativity. The purpose of psychosynthesis is the difficult task of achieving a harmonious integration of transpersonal experiences with the rest of the normal, conscious and unconscious personality. There is much evidence that the breakthrough into higher levels of awareness, or the irruption of energies from the superconscious often create disturbances in the average personality, disturbances that can cause serious problems that go as far as psychotic symptoms.
A special technique developed and used in psychosynthesis is the right use of the will, not as an imposition, as it is usually considered, but as a directive, regulating and synthesizing function.
I will not say more on this occasion, because it is a very large topic. I have written a book dealing with the various types of wills, with its eight main qualities, and with the six stages of the act of will, a book to be published soon by Viking Press, entitled The Act of Will.
I would like to mention another point to which psychosynthesis attaches particular importance. It could be called a “differential procedure”. It is based on the recognition of the great differences existing between psychological types and between individuals. These have been studied theoretically, but in practice they have not been given sufficient importance, both in psychotherapy and in education.
The differential procedure consists of two stages: first, the recognition of individual types. There are various directions of the “libido” or vital interest, which are not only those outwards or towards the inner worlds, but also upwards or downwards (supra- and infra-versions), and towards the past or the future (past or future orientation).
But those who have studied these classifications and cataloging have often tended to give them too much importance: in addition to the types, or within them, there are what have been called “idiographic diversities”, which make each individual a unique being. This was well highlighted by Allport and Maslow. There is not only the uniqueness of the individual constitution, but the uniqueness of the individual situation in the environment, and the relationship between these two uniqueness creates a very complex situation in any case. So in psychosynthesis we take this into account; in a sense we can say that we try to create a new method for each individual, that is, a new and original combination and succession of techniques suitable for his specific situation and needs.
Finally, I will point out that so far I have talked about therapeutic psychosynthesis because psychosynthesis has developed as a psychotherapeutic method, and is used as a psychotherapeutic procedure, but it is not limited to that. Because it starts from the fact – obvious, but not recognized enough – that no one is 100% sick, and no one is 100% healthy. Usually, the medical mindset is to fight the disease; a normal doctor thinks his duty is first of all to diagnose a disease, and then to treat it with effective medicines. There is instead the tradition, established by Hippocrates, which places the emphasis on the healing properties of nature, of the body, and which considers therapy as a help and collaboration with the vital forces of the organism to overcome the problem that in part ails. For example, a wound is not healed by a doctor. The wound has healed, and the reconstruction of muscle fibers and other tissues is done by the wonderful healing action of the body. What the doctor can do is to put the body in the best conditions to do so, that is, avoiding infections, protecting the injured part, administering substances that increase vitality, such as vitamins and so on.
The same attitude can be taken in relation to psychological symptoms, and this represents a revolution in the medical mentality, representing a completely different approach to the problem of the disease. It is not a “patient” who must be “diagnosed” and treated “as a patient”, but a human being who must be helped to get rid of a partial disturbance of his biological and psychological life. From this derive important consequences, namely that the methods of treating disorders are equally valid for self-training, for increasing efficiency and for increasing normal personality. And they are equally valid in the educational field, that is, in helping children, adolescents and young people to grow psychologically in healthy ways and to make the most of their potential in development.
In summary, perhaps the most important contribution of psychosynthesis to the most relevant human problems at the present time is: the transmutation and creative use of aggressive impulses, the exploration and conquest of internal space, and finally mutual understanding, integration and cooperation between the sexes.
Psychosynthesis has developed slowly, but has spread rapidly and widely in the last few years. There are institutes, foundations and psychosynthesis centers in Italy, the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, Greece, India.
The current problem and urgent task of psychosynthesis is the preparation of therapists and educators to meet the need and demand for competent therapists and educators, which is rapidly increasing. That is to say a preparation carried out through a didactic psychosynthesis.