A conversation between Assagioli and a group of students about the spiritual experience and the nature of the spiritual Self.
By Roberto Assagioli, date unknown. The original is a corrected typed extract, Pages 7 -11 of a longer verbal discussion. Translated and Edited with Notes by Jan Kuniholm Doc. #23390, from the Assagioli Archives in Florence. Original Title: Esperienza Spirituale (dibattito)
Cirinei: It seems to me that these experiences are extremely varied, and that there can be experiences of the aesthetic type rather than the “will to power” type; that is, experiences of the awakening of very different tendencies in human beings, which can all be called spiritual. Every experience of inner empowerment is spiritual. What then are the specific characteristics of an experience that can be called spiritual?
Assagioli: Here we enter a somewhat difficult field, but one that gives me the opportunity to explore a very interesting point, even though I disagree with it. One could say that every human manifestation — even non-spiritual or anti-spiritual — is but the reflection, the “de-gradation” (in the etymological sense), the descent or perversion, or distortion, of something that is originally spiritual. This diagram gives me a way to illustrate this concept clearly. As we have said, our reality, our true reality, what we are in spirit and truth, is our spiritual Self, our spiritual “I,” which then is in communication, is a particle of the great Universal Reality.
Now this Self , this spiritual “I,” projects itself, manifests and descends — so to speak — into personal consciousness . And this point here is precisely its spark, its projection: the personal “I” or self. Unfortunately, it happens that the personal self does not know or does not recognize its origin, does not know that its very existence descends from its origin, and then it closes itself in the shell of its own selfish, self-centered personality, and this is no longer spiritual because it is on a totally different level. The will to power of the personal self or “I” is a vague echo, a sense of having powers and potentialities in oneself, and the “I” seeks to assert them over others and against others. But precisely in this it has become a perversion or an inversion of the power of the spiritual Self or “I.” And so it is for all other expressions. For example, the spiritual, universal, generous and radiant love of the spiritual Self becomes a selfish, hoarding, possessive, jealous love, etc.; and so for every other aspect of human personality. So potentially and originally as a deep sense they are all spiritual expressions, but in personal, individual and collective life, they actually become non-spiritual or anti-spiritual.
Antonucci: You often speak of a spiritual self and an objective universal order to which this “I” would refer, from which it would spring. That is, this spiritual, unchanging Self, as you also said in a lecture, has its reason for being in an objective universe of divine character, in a transcendence.
Assagioli: As I have said other times, the paradox — which seems like a contradiction on the level of purely human logic, but is instead a wonderful reality — is that the spiritual Self is both individual and universal. It is individual insofar as it “in-forms” and pervades, or tends to pervade, the conscious and nonconscious individual; it is universal insofar as it participates in, emerges or derives from Universal Life, Universal Reality. There is no contradiction, it is a self-limitation, so to speak.
Antonucci: No, I meant to say that if a person for example, from the critical philosophical point of view, questions the existence of a spiritual and universal Self . . .
Assagioli: Oh, many deny it, or do not recognize it, the ordinary person ignores it.
Antonucci: No, I’m not talking about those who ignore or deny it. Questioning is different from denying, because I can deny the divine existence, in this sense — that I’m sure that God does not exist; or, I can doubt the divine existence.
Assagioli: Ah yes, it is a different question: the negative one, or the agnostic and doubting one.
Antonucci: Well, the agnostic position completely takes away the basis of this moral distinction that you made, that is, the self-centered, selfish self and the altruistic self have a basis in this spiritual world. Once this spiritual world is questioned, one can, for example, argue — as Nietzsche did — that the will to power is not less valid than other impulses. I do not want you to misunderstand me: personally, I have no inclination toward those who exalt the will to power. I am just trying to see what is the objective basis of the question, because I am interested in giving an objective foundation to morality, which can really contrast it with the will to pleasure or the will to power.
Assagioli: First of all, a clarification is needed here: fortunately, neither experience nor faith in transcendent Reality, in God, is needed to have moral feelings and drives and altruistic love; they are not necessary. Selfless feeling, the drive toward selfless action and generous, selfless love, can exist dissociated from knowledge, or without knowledge. And in fact there are positivists, even atheists, who have a keen moral conscience — indeed in a sense they are even more worthy than others — because they do not have the help of faith or knowledge. All this brings us back to the fact that fundamentally these things are neither theories, nor beliefs, nor philosophical doctrines: they are experiences. So you can have full or partial spiritual experience, you can have the mystical experience or spiritual love without that of knowledge at all; there have been saints who had no great intelligence; you can have the selfless impulse, even heroism and the spiritual impulse with a primitive mindset, and without any knowledge or doctrine.
So what is synthesis and fullness at this level, becomes dissociated here, descending into various rivulets, various manifestations, various partial experiences. I have been talking about the spiritual experience as a whole, and as Prof. Cirinei says very well there are various kinds of manifestations, even dissociated from each other, as I mentioned just now. Today I wanted to give just a panoramic and general view, framing all these differences, not only of psychological types but even individual ones. Everyone’s experience in a sense is unique and is not repeatable, but they are all framed in this panoramic view.
Antonucci: Yes, but the problem is not solved here. When it comes to experiences, inner experiences, one may have the dominant inner experience which is will to dominate, or even hatred, or even fury against all other men, as Hitler may have had; another may have instead the inner experience of the saint, the altruist, or the ascetic. Now I ask, how can this subjectivity be removed, because for one the experience of the will to power is the essential experience, it is the most objective; just as for another the most objective is the experience of human cooperation, of love for others. Now how can one find a criterion that is not subjective, that is, that is not based only on inner experience, but that is something more rational, something whereby the saint can say to the man of the will to power, “I am right,” or even the opposite?
Assagioli: There, I can answer you right away. The solution of psychosynthesis, but which was not invented by psychosynthesis, is something that so many times occurs spontaneously: and that is sublimation. Sublimation consists in rising from the level of the egoistic personality to — and in the extreme case up to — the origin, to the spiritual Self; therefore, neither the will to power nor the other drives, even instinctual drives, are to be condemned or repressed, but they are all to be brought back to their origin. And there man loses nothing, indeed he gains much; he does not lose his power, which indeed becomes more powerful, but he becomes so at a higher level and it is no longer antagonistic, but constructive.
Cirinei: You could say perhaps — I don’t know if I am saying it right — that between two men who have two conflicting conceptions, the one who has a higher conception is the one who is able to understand the other.
Assagioli: Very good — indeed I would almost say “to dominate the other,” in the good sense. Then as for the varieties of experience, there is this: that the psychological function of the intuition of identification, of what can be called empathy — which is now called empathy in psychology — that allows a participation in the experience of others, even without having it spontaneously or directly; precisely because everything potentially, in germ, is in everyone; it is only a matter of latency or expression. The experience of others can evoke a resonance in us, and open the door to a similar experience; hence the usefulness of this empathy. A very simple means of activating it is reading the biographies of great men, of great beings. If one allows oneself to empathize, one shares in it, and this evokes in the best part in someone.
Draghi: To connect to the first question, this adjective “spiritual” that you attribute to the Self, you say “the spiritual Self,” you attribute an adjective to it; but can’t we also attribute the adjective “divine” to it?
Assagioli: If you prefer. That depends of the individual experience. The religious individual can also attribute the adjective “divine” to a spiritual Self; the individual who does not have a religious experience can attribute another adjective to this spiritual Self, for example “transcendent,” which he can still attribute to it because it transcends the person. Whereas in a religious person it will have a religious “coloring.”
Draghi: However, the polyvalent adjective is “spiritual.”
Assagioli: Precisely, that’s why I adopt it, because it is neutral, no doctrine, no theology.
Draghi: So there is no need, in my opinion, to have to also admit…
Assagioli: Quite right, that’s why I spoke in neutral terms of transcendent reality, cosmic intelligence, which are all neutral terms that everyone can…
Draghi: But for someone it may also be essential to consider it divine, because you destroy this Self if it is not divine.
Assagioli: This Universal Reality is a given, everyone can interpret…
Draghi: Yes, it is a fact. I also wanted to ask — so, aside from the question asked by the Doctor — if the Jungian term Selbst is the same thing as you mean, or if the terms do not match perfectly.
Assagioli: Well, as you guessed, they don’t match perfectly, because the attitude I would say is a little bit different. Jung keeps himself in a rigidly empirical field; that is, he talks about states of consciousness, and Selbst is a state of consciousness, but he doesn’t tell us anything about its transcendent reality. In [Jung’s exposition] I would say that the conception of the Self appears a bit confused and not always the same: sometimes he calls it an archetype, sometimes a symbol, sometimes a unifying function between conscious and unconscious. Now all of these may be qualities or attributes of the Self, but they are not the Self. In short, he does not cross what in the philosophical sense can be called the metaphysical or mythological barrier: he sticks to empiricism, and of course he has the right to remain in this empirical agnosticism. But on the other hand — I repeat it because it is essential — the spiritual Self is not [something] postulated by a system, it is a lived experience, and those who have had it cannot doubt its essentiality — not of its existentiality or experience, but of its essentiality; that is, reality in its own right. Now, to this [conclusion] Jung does not come, or does not want to come. There, that is the distinction. While on the contrary Frankl gets there, Frankl fully admits what he calls the noetic or mythological dimension, and so Frankl goes beyond Jung in this sense, while Jung has so many other things that Frankl does not.
Antonucci: I would like to ask the lady a question: what do you mean by “transcendent;” that is, something that transcends the individual, that is the same for all people? Or something that transcends the very life of humanity?
Draghi: Yes, this is the distinction between… It is so difficult to answer on the spot.
Assagioli: It seems to me that this is beyond our already quite broad field. Here we do not enter into either religious or metaphysical questions, understood as conceptions; here we limit ourselves to what is experience, and that is already a great deal.
Antonucci: You say that the spiritual Self does not need demonstration. If you say it’s indemonstrable then I agree, but if you say it doesn’t need demonstration that’s quite different.
Assagioli: This is ultra-rational, it is not rationally demonstrable; it is one of those — to repeat a beautiful expression of Bergson’s — an immediate fact of experience, of knowledge. Like sensations: red, green, yellow, can neither be demonstrated nor conveyed, they are an immediate datum. So is moral consciousness, so is aesthetic consciousness, so is the experience of the Self. All these are immediate data of consciousness which, for those who have had them, need no demonstration.
Cirinei: What could one say to a blind person who said, “Prove to me that there is light, I don’t believe it?”
Draghi: You can’t even convey it.
Assagioli: What you can do is to point out the means to have a similar experience, but not…
Antonucci: But it is always a subjective experience. In a sense it is arbitrary: if you say there is a spiritual Self and I say no, we are both right.
Assagioli: No, we are not, the one who affirms an experience is right insofar as he has had an experience, but the one who denies cannot say . . . the agnostic position is justified, but not the negative position. What the other can say is, “I have not had the experience of the spiritual self.” If one went to America and the other didn’t, the one who went to America says “I saw this and this,” while the other says, “I didn’t go, and therefore I don’t know.”
Antonucci: But it may be that someone says, “I within me have the experience of annihilation, death, destruction;” that is, the opposite of the spiritual experience. Up to a certain point the spiritual experience can be said to be the experience of immortality, whereas the negative experience is the experience of death, annihilation. Someone may have within him a negative faith that comes from his inner experience. One continually has the experience of anguish, despair. And this anguish, this despair, is an equally felt, living experience, just like the spiritual experience.
Assagioli: But it depends on the level. At the personal level, the physical level, the emotional level, etc., death is a reality, of course; nothing is permanent, and in fact existential anguish depends among other things on the sense of the inevitable impermanence of all that are the contents of the purely personal level.
Antonucci: But someone who feels anguish, despair, annihilation, not only for his individual existence, for his physical existence, but also for his spiritual and moral existence, and also for the existence of human values, that is, he feels destruction as. . .
Assagioli: But this is an aprioristic denial.
Antonucci: No, it is an inner experience, that is, he feels within himself that everything goes into destruction, as another feels immortality. So it’s hard to say whether this one or that one is right, it’s hard to say whether St. Augustine’s experience or Leopardi’s experience is right, objectively; or whether a living experience like Friedrich Nietzsche’s , the experience of negation, is as valid as the Buddha’s.
Assagioli: These cannot be put on the same level, it is not possible, and this I would say scientifically, not as a personal conviction. All negative experiences do not go beyond this level, and at that level they are authentic — they are justified (((“yeah, but how to prove it?”))), but they ignore the higher level where there is no impermanence, where there is no negation, where there is no shadow.
Antonucci: But Nietzsche says just the opposite, he says that the experience of the divine, of the spiritual Self, is illusion, while his instead is the description of reality. It is the opposite of what the religious person says: the religious one says that Nietzsche’s experience is on a lower level, while Nietzsche on the contrary says that it is that of the religious that is on a level. . .
Assagioli: You see, what is a wider experience cannot be denied by those who have a narrower experience.
Antonucci: But Nietzsche’s experience is precisely that of a vastness. I believe there has been no other philosopher who can be said to be broader than Nietzsche, who has analyzed all states of mind, all psychological states of man, who has criticized. . .
Assagioli: You have to distinguish very carefully, you see. Meanwhile, Nietzsche had various phases, he contradicted himself and was very complex. Nietzsche had some dazzling spiritual insights and then he had distortions, some interpretations. If you did a psychoanalysis of Nietzsche you could clearly show just what I was saying earlier, which is that dazzling intuitions from above were distorted and perverted into nihilistic and negative conceptions by his sick and unbalanced mind.
Antonucci: However, the negative conception in this particular case runs through the [. . . ] of humanity as well as the positive, and has engaged minds of great creative power. In short, in both the one and the other camp there is great creative power, and the one refutes the other to be at higher levels of experience. The religious one says that the other’s experience is only an anticipation, whereas religious experience is a maturation; the other says that the religious person has abandoned himself to illusion, that he has closed his eyes to reality.
Assagioli: All this is simply on the rational level. One could discuss it for hours, without concluding anything, and this is completely sterile. The Buddha expressed this very well. He did not give a doctrine, he just pointed out a Way: those who walk it come to certain experiences. And this is exactly our attitude as well, not because psychosynthesis is related in any way to Buddhism, but it is the same attitude. There are paths, methods, disciplines, that lead to certain experiences: those who have not walked them or had these experiences spontaneously have no say in them, cannot talk about them, have not reached that level; just as a mountaineer who has gone to the top of a mountain has experiences that those who have not gone to the top of the mountain cannot have and cannot deny. Speak, Madam.
Draghi: Referring to Nietzsche, there is a phrase that is the proof of the non-validity, that is, the relative validity of his experience compared to that of a religious person, for example a St. Augustine; and that perhaps derives in isolation, from his aristocratic exasperation, so much so that Nietzsche’s purpose is the proof of this, an aristocracy opposed to the instinct of communication, the instinct of living together — then no one lives together anymore
Assagioli: Let’s leave Nietzsche alone because. . .
Draghi: No, because it’s very difficult to find the yardstick to prove which experience is more vast and which is less vast.
Assagioli: This is something intuitive. What can be said is that the difference between big men and little men is not measured in centimeters, but there is a universal consensusin recognizing geniuses, heroes, saints and distinguishing them from ordinary humanity — indeed it’s one of the clearest, most certain things there can be. Is there anyone else?
Zanotti: [. . . ] he said to distinguish the word “spiritual” from the religious sense; this can be very appropriate. We should find another word — young people could do this; that is, find another word that would replace “spiritual,” because spiritual is very much linked to the religious sense, to the divine sense.
Assagioli: You see, unfortunately this is one of the many examples of the intertwined nature of language: each word can be taken in very different senses, and I think it would take a desperate effort to find a single word that does not lend itself to misunderstanding. I don’t think the way is to find a new word; I think the way is precisely that of the science of semantics, which always insists on defining as exactly as possible what sense is given to a word when it is used. That is the basis of a refined scientific method: to specify, and that is precisely what, for example, I tried — not thoroughly — to do today; that is, to say in what sense I meant to speak of spiritual, as opposed to other terms. Ideally we should always do that, but no word can avoid misunderstandings and misconceptions; the most common words, such as life, love, etc., are regularly taken in the most different senses.
Zanotti: But you yourself said recently that new words must be found to express not new ideas, but new meanings, and I believe that the word spiritual should be replaced.
Assagioli: Yes, in fact for example Frankl has tried to do that, and he talks about the noogenic sphere, he talks about the level of logos. “Logos” is taken from the Greek precisely to avoid this risk; but if you then go and look by consulting in the encyclopedia the meaning of “logos,” as I did yesterday, you see that it too has had very different meanings, and not only historically; but even the one who used it most — that is, Philo of Alexandria — himself gave it very different meanings. So one must always specify the meaning of a word; but to think of finding one that is free from ambiguity and confusion, I think, is very difficult.
 Editor’s interpolations are indicated by [brackets]; Pauses or missing text is indicated by an ellipsis.—Ed.
 Usually translated into English as “self.” —Tr.
 It should be clear from the foregoing that Assagioli uses the term “experience” in a way that goes beyond what he terms “empirical.” The former term includes inner experience, whereas the latter term is limited to measurable exterior phenomena, such as that in his earlier discussion of Jung’s concept of selbst. —Ed.
 Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is considered by many to be the greatest Italian poet of the 19th century. He was also a philosopher, essayist and philologist, of whom Schopenhauer wrote that “no one else has treated the subject [of the world’s misery] “so thoroughly and exhaustively . . . everywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence.” —Ed.
 Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), German philosopher, prose poet, critic and philologist. —Ed.