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An interview with Stuart Miller, the first Vice President of Development at Esalen Institute, gives his thought about psychosynthesis.
This interview was published in a US magazine; however, I (KS) have not been able to identify it. This is a translation of an Italian version, and it says: Published in Popular Psychology Magazine – California. Translated by Gordon Symons from the Assagioli Archive in Florence.
What is Psychosynthesis?
It is not a technique, nor a specific psychological or philosophical theory. Animated by a pragmatic spirit, psychosynthesis includes techniques, makes some important statements, but remains distinctly unsystematic. It takes into account with an open mind all known facts about human psychological life.
In a certain sense, as has been said, psychosynthesis with a lowercase “p” is a natural process, something that takes place continuously, and psychosynthesis with a capital “P” is the sum of all the knowledge we have to favor and speed up that process.
What process are you talking about?
I mean the process of harmonizing the personality. Two of the key principles of psychosynthesis are the self and personality functions. The idea of harmonizing the personality is ancient, but here it is treated with a modern psychological language. Much of Assagioli’s contribution is just that: updating our understanding of ancient and sometimes lost notions.
By “Self”, Assagioli means first of all the center of the personality: what Freud himself called ego, which comes to the mind when we say “I”. For Assagioli it is above all the experience of self-awareness.
We fall asleep at night and this experience disappears; while upon awakening we immediately regain it. Now, part of the problems we have is that we often forget ourselves even while we are awake. We identify with the contents of our consciousness or with the parts they represent.
Why is this so bad?
It is not necessarily harmful, but it can put us – and frequently does – in trouble. Here is a simple example: a businessman, instead of identifying with himself, can for example identify himself with the “role” of a businessman; in this way he believes that his Self, his true identity, depend on being successful; which, of course, is an illusion.
His ego is his, he exists; the mistake consists in not remembering it. So we see businessmen who forget it, to the point of getting ulcers and even going so far as to commit suicide. We remember the millionaires ruined by the financial crisis of 1929, who threw themselves out the window. They forgot who they were.
The trouble is that many of us are so attached to identifying with parts of our personality that we forget our Self; we become the student, the mother, the child, the player, the lover. All of this works when things are good, but terrible when they are bad.
What you say suggests that we are talking about the fundamental fact of human freedom.
Yes. The Self is the seat of human freedom. Remembering the Self, staying steadfast in the awareness of the experience of self-awareness, makes you free in the face of life. For Assagioli, this is fundamental, and frequently leads him to use the image of the conductor. If one can work from his self-conscious center, remembering who he is, then he can use the various elements of his personality instead of letting them use him. So he can choose at will to be a teacher, or a lover, or a businessman, and detach himself from these “roles” at will.
How do you learn how to do it? It sounds easy to say, but difficult to apply.
Indeed it is difficult, and reading Assagioli we should not delude ourselves, thinking that what he talks about is easily achievable. He himself says that while he tries to write simply about such things, it does not mean that they are easy to carry out. On the other hand, they are not even that complicated or difficult. I mean, we have found that a little regular effort, even a few minutes a day, can pay off.
One way to begin is to learn first of all to recognize the Self, then to disidentify from everything that is not the Self: that is, the emotions, the body, our thoughts, all the “parts” we play. For example, many believe they are their own thoughts, but a moment of introspection will indicate to them that there is someone behind their thoughts. I mean that everyone can observe their own thoughts. So who is the observer? The Self, of course.
Learning to self-identify can form the basis for becoming the conductor of the personality orchestra. At this point, this diagram used by Assagioli can help:
The Self, in the center, can gradually extricate itself from the various functions of the personality and learn to master and harmonize them. In this way, for example, instead of being a victim of one’s emotions, one can learn to dominate them.
I am amazed to hear all of this about emotion control, as well as about control in general. After all, if Esalen has become famous for anything, it is for the wisdom of letting go of control, letting go.
This is a subtle and remarkably complicated issue, but I’ll try to give you a short answer. A problem that many have in today’s society, and one reason why so many come to Esalen, is that they are overly controlled. Therefore many of them say they cannot “hear”, and wish to learn how to do so. Others say their bodies are too tense and that they want to let go. Still others say they think too much and want to free their heads.
They are right, of course: they are dominated. But it is not them, it is not their Self that operates the dominion; instead it is their identification with one or the other psychological role or function. The hyper-intellectual engineer who comes to Esalen saying he wants to “free his head” is dominated by certain aspects of his mind and his subpersonality that identify him with functional thinking. In the diagram of the star he would be all mind, and the other functions only overshadowed; the Self would be completely outside the diagram. So, the first thing he has to learn is that he has feelings, he has imagination, and so on; that he is more complete than you think. To learn this he must let the thinking subpersonality that dominates him set him free. In this process, a curious thing happens: people become aware not only of unused psychological functions, but also of having personal power, of being themselves.
This is all in the field of the conscious, done with conscious intention. Doesn’t Assagioli recognize the unconscious and all its demons?
Surely. In fact, Assagioli was one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis in Italy in 1910. He collaborated with the first psychoanalysts and with Jung, and believes that the unconscious is one of the great discoveries of modern psychology. But he has a far-reaching conception of the unconscious. Freud, and many of his followers in psychoanalysis, accentuated the lower aspects of the unconscious: animal impulses, etc. Assagioli instead believes that there are approximately three levels of the unconscious, and uses another diagram to illustrate it.
The lower unconscious (number 1) is the one that Freud was most concerned with. It corresponds to primitive man, both individually and as a species.
The average unconscious (2) contains elements similar to those that usually occupy our consciousness, and that enter or leave it with ease.
The higher unconscious is still relatively unexplored by modern psychology, but it is a powerful ally, if mobilized, in the process of making ourselves everything we want to be. The superconscious, or higher unconscious, is the source of artistic inspiration, ethical inspiration, and religious experience. It may seem that it is even outside of us. Thus, poets traditionally refer to the Muse as the source of their inspiration.
One of the things that a number of people are realizing right now is that the superconscious can be cultivated, that ways can be found to bring its contents into consciousness. Much of the enthusiasm for the various meditative techniques, for the guided imagery technique and for the training of creativity, comes from this recognition.
By evoking those higher energies – some call them transpersonal – one acquires a powerful ally in the process of attunement of one’s personality.
This may seem superficial. What can it say about Freudian demons, the dark forces within us? Are they ignored?
Not at all. In practice, psychosynthesis, when applied by an educator or psychotherapist, begins with an “analytic” phase. This means that we try to analyze what “blocks” personal development, and then to look for the causes. The techniques of classical psychoanalysis can also be used: free associations, etc. However, we are not limited to Freudian techniques to unblock obstacles. Many active techniques can be used to put a childhood problem into perspective and to solve it; for example the relationship with one of the parents.
Therefore, not only free associations and dream analysis can be used, but also psychodrama, cathartic techniques, free drawing, and even more positive techniques such as the “ideal model”, that is, imagining and acting as if one were already solved your problem.
Of course we must take into account what Freud says: that the repression of problems is not the solution. On the other hand, and this is my second point, one must not remain immersed indefinitely in childhood memories, subjecting the patient to the practice of the sofa for ten years, to try to clean up all the garbage of the past.
This is too often the method of psychoanalysis, and personally I think this is an illusion and a waste of time. It is obvious that Assagioli would not use such words; he is in fact serene and of good temperament. But I think that one of the advantages of psychosynthesis is that it makes use of psychoanalysis, but is not exhausted by it.
For me, as one of Esalen’s directors, one of the most inspiring things about Assagioli’s theories is that they give way to all of our approaches to human development: ‘dating’, psychoanalysis, meditation, sensory consciousness, therapy gestalt, the myriad of physical disciplines, transactional analysis, rational-emotional therapy, and so on.
Any and all of these methods can be useful to particular people at particular times in their personal development. Therefore, a person may need at different times to analyze the various “blocks”, or to learn to feel their own emotional energy in “encounters”, or to use their imagination by means of guided imagery techniques.
What can you say about the concept of the “Higher Self” shown in the diagram?
I am happy that you ask me this at the end, as it allows me to say that there are a huge amount of fundamental issues that we have not touched on in this short interview. Anyone interested can read them in full in Assagioli’s books. The Higher Self or Transpersonal Self is one of the more subtle concepts, but I can indicate it in the following way. I believe that each of us knows that in him, in some way, in relation to his purest identity there is an energy, perhaps we could say a being, which represents what is superior in him. In the old religious language, it was used to call spirit, essence or soul. From a certain point of view it is a mystery.
But one of the things that are most striking in Assagioli’s works is that he has brought this mystery to the center of modern psychological thought, without ever neglecting all the most earthly realities with which each of us has to do.