By VIN ROSENTHAL, Editor of VOICES, With PAT ROSENTHAL, 1973
In the taxi on our way to his home on the Via Domenico to interview Dottore Roberto Assagioli, we wonder what he will be like; feeling like intruders even though he has been so graciously helpful in our contacts through correspondence and in yesterday’s telephone call confirming our coming. We know little about Assagioli himself other than that he is a physician-psychotherapist who at 85 years of age still works long hours each day with patients, students—and visitors; that in 1910 he had been an early pioneer of psychoanalysis in Italy, later founding Psychosynthesis, incorporating and moving beyond analysis in a direction which today would be called humanistic-transpersonal.
From the dark entry way of the stone house we are led to a tiny sitting room to wait; then on to his study. What a contrast between the height and expanse of the bookshelves and the delicate-appearing man they surround. He greets us with just the slightest hint of formality in unhesitating English, and after a few preliminaries we settle down to being with one another. Though our interview is punctuated by ringing telephone bells and messages from without, nothing disturbs our flow. Since Professor Assagioli has a severe hearing loss, we must write each question and comment we put to him; giving him ample time to reply, requiring us to be precise and to the point. We soon experience his gentle strength, delightful humor, his wise and moving presence. Suddenly we are so full—we sense it is time to leave; a warm, fulfilled—peak—moment.—Instituto di Psicosintesi, 16 Via San Domenico, Firenze, Italia.
VIN ROSENTHAL: I read your book on psychosynthesis”* and I feel that it is most appropriate for our subject, “The Future of Psychotherapy in the World.” And I would appreciate if you would focus some of your ideas in that direction.
ROBERTO ASSAGIOLI: Only that?
R: (Laughter) Well to start, as a beginning. It seemed to me that the scope of your work was so broad—
A: Well, in a general way one could say that the trend is clearly towards more and more humanistic psychotherapy; taking into consideration the whole man and starting from the living subject. Not therapy in the ordinary medical sense, to fight an illness or “symptoms,” but to take into consideration the whole man and his harmonious self-actualization; the specific therapy part consists in eliminating the obstacles to that, eliminating the symptoms created by mistaken attitudes or influences. The attitude is to start with health and to eliminate what has prevented full health.
R: Health is wholeness.
A: That seems obvious and common sense to us, but really to the prevailing medical mentality, it is revolutionary.
R: They’re used to seeing people in pieces. A: Well, a doctor thinks his duty is to “fight an illness.” Let us take a very homely example. If somebody has a bad cold with fever, the doctor first wants to give medicine against the fever, which is non-sensical because the fever is a defense reaction of the organism. And then he gives antibiotics to prevent possible complications of the cold and so he thinks that he is on the safe side, that it is his duty. But antibiotics are apt to be more harmful than the cold. This is an over-simplified example, but that shows the average doctor’s mentality. They think it’s their duty to do that and they do it with the best humanitarian conscience. Instead the starting point is to take into consideration the whole man and help the healthy part of him to become “whole.”
R: What are the characteristics of the whole, healthy person from the point of view of psychosynthesis? What would I be like?
A: I don’t think one can list these qualities because each of us is different and has the right to be healthy in his own way. This is another basic point in psychosynthesis: the uniqueness of each individual; at the present stage of his life and also at different stages of evolution, of development; no generalizing, no labeling. What is healthy for an adolescent is no more healthy for a young man or for a mature man. So it’s very individual; according to the make up of the individual and his stage of development, both outer physical age and inner age, so to speak—the stage of realization. Psychosynthesis is very “individualistic” in this sense. It tries to deal with the present unique situation in the interplay between therapist and patient.
R: Must be some kind of general idea—
A: This is a point of major importance: the emphasis on the therapeutic interplay, the rapport, and not so much on the technique. As you well know, there are many techniques, but they are only “instruments” and should not become an end. In psychoanalysis much stress is put on transference, but this is only the beginning of the rapport. I deal with four stages of the therapeutic rapport, the basic human relationship between the therapist and the patient.
R: I was thinking, in applying psychosynthesis to education, in terms of the future, what kind of goals are implied? How would they work?
A: In a sense children should be “influenced” as little as possible. R: As little as possible. I was thinking that—
A: But to be more specific and coming back to the healthy person, full self-actualization implies the development of all the functions of the human being. For instance, Jung recognizes four functions: sensation, feeling, thought, and intuition. But these are not all. There are also imagination, impulse, and will. Now we are at a rather primitive stage in education. It is mostly mental education: to memorize, to give information, while the emotional, feeling aspect has been neglected in education. But now there is an emerging trend toward confluent education—
A: Confluent education means a confluence of mind with feeling and emotion. But even this is only the first step. Education should include all functions. And therapy the same. So in the assessment of a patient, one should ascertain what functions are underdeveloped, repressed, neglected, and what are relatively overdeveloped.
R: So the ideal is the harmonious, the balance.
A: It is the full actualization of each of the functions. The second important consideration is that each function has a lower and a higher aspect. The mind has a lower aspect—purely analytical, critical, while its higher aspect is reason and the higher mental activities. The same with emotion: there are primitive, coarse emotions and there are refined feelings. And the will: there is a strong imperative, selfish will and the good will, the Will-to-good. Thus each function should be developed to the highest level of possible expression.
R: How hard it is to do that.
A: The harmonious use of all functions and the use of all functions at a higher level. Now generally psychotherapy aims chiefly at solution of emotional conflicts —emotional conflicts in the individual and with other people: that of course is essential, but it is not enough. There are two other levels. One is the biological level which many psychotherapists neglect; one has to deal with the complex interplay of the psychosomatic influences. The other level is that loosely called spiritual, but which it is better now to call “transpersonal.” It includes what Maslow calls the “higher needs.” I’m very much in accordance with that line. I found in my practice a definite difference between those who need only what I call “personal psychosynthesis,” that means that harmonious development of all the normal human functions; and another group, that of those who need something more, a transpersonal self-realization, who have needs which are not merely “normal,” right functioning, but feel the urge to go beyond that.
R: How did you personally come to recognize the importance of the latter? How did you discover it?
A: Direct experience, both mine and that of my clients and pupils. Of course there is also information about it in various books by psychotherapists, but my best teachers have been my patients. The needs of the situation. My attitude is wholly empirical: no theorizing, no concepts, but just drawing the conclusions from the living reality. There is far too much theorizing, I believe, which is limiting.
R: What I was wondering about was, were there experiences in your life that led you to this?
A: My life experience has been a gradual awakening of the higher needs, of what Maslow calls “the farther reaches of the human mind.”
R: Would you be willing to tell me of any such experiences that led to new awarenesses, such as the use of meditation or emphasis on the body?
A: I had some spontaneous insights, but then others came through the use of various techniques of meditation, of what I call “inner action.” And that led to the living experience of the SELF.
R: How did you come to learn them? How did you come to meditation?
A: They are available if one takes the trouble to look for them. The difficulty is that generally they are closely linked with philosophies or religions.
R: Why did you look for them?
A: Ah! It was the inner need. I felt that there were inner worlds to be explored, inner adventures. In my remote young years, my preferred sport was mountain climbing. When I saw a mountain, I felt the urge to go there, for I was sure I would see wider space and from a higher vantage point. And that was symbolic of my inner urge to explore the heights of human nature and the peaks of realization. You see?
A: I felt it was a quite “natural” urge for me and then I went ahead and looked for the means.
R: Am I asking questions that are too personal?
A: Oh no. They are “human.” They are not biographical details; they are the trends of one’s life. There’s one point I should like to emphasize further: generally these techniques for transpersonal realization are bound with specific religions and philosophies; Christianity, especially Catholics, have their techniques of meditation, contemplation, union with God; the Hindus have various techniques: Raja Yoga, Vedanta and others, and so on. Thus people are apt to believe that those practices are necessarily linked with their religion or philosophy. But it is not so; one can use the same techniques without their theological or philosophical, metaphysical framework. Thus I try to take, to extract, the common elements of the various techniques, independently of their respective frameworks. This is important with patients: I can work very well with a Catholic or a Protestant, with an agnostic and anybody else, because the work is empirical; discovery, adventure.
R: Is the world hospitable to psychotherapy? I see you as having spent a great many years developing psychosynthesis—
A: Well, the world needs desperately psychotherapy. And not only individuals, but also group psychotherapy, psychotherapy of the family, of the human groups, of nations.
A: Leaders need it badly!
R: They’re least likely to come.
A: But they are becoming psychotherapy-conscious. If you compare with some ten or twenty years ago, one notices that the movement is accelerating.
R: You remind me of Swami Satchidananda.
A: It’s an honor. Now to be specific on a problem. There is one now much debated: group therapy. I am somewhat wary of group therapy, that is therapists treating a group, because the needs of the individuals are so different and sometimes one patient needs a therapy contrary to that required by others. There may be an over-intellectual who needs sensitivity training and emotional release and, on the other hand, there may be an overly emotional woman or man who need more the mental approach. And this is difficult to make in a group. Group therapy is more suited for not very serious cases and more in a form of teaching. Anyhow in psychosynthesis since the beginning I have encouraged the active cooperation of the patient. Starting from what I mentioned before, I say: “Your healthy part, which may be 90 per cent of you, can cooperate with me to get rid of the 10 per cent of the, let us call it, the diseased part.” I make an appeal to the healthy percentage which exists in every individual, also in psychotics, and say: “Your healthy part allied with me can overcome any trouble.” You see, that is encouraging; it also explains the paradox, that while psychosynthesis has a much wider scope than psychoanalysis, the treatment can be much shorter, owing to the active cooperation of the patient. Often, when I have taught a technique, I say: “Well, go ahead and use it by yourself and then report. And if there isn’t success let us analyze the cause and do better.”
R: Would you give an example of a technique? You just mentioned that you do teach a patient a technique.
A: There are many explained in my book and it is difficult to choose. Let us say, one which is not dealt with at length in the book is that of substitution. It means never to make a frontal attack against the trouble or against an exaggerated drive, but to divert, to channel the energy elsewhere through the power of a new and different interest.
R: Would you give an example of how that would work?
A: Well, it is tied up with another fact that is very important, the transmutation and sublimation of psychological energies. This for me is, in a sense, a central method which I think is too much neglected. In the past, there was all the symbolic alchemy which dealt with transmutation and later Jung had taken it up, but rather in a theoretical way. There are real definite techniques for transmuting psychological energies.
R: Would you give me an illustration?
A: Let us take a very actual one: the aggressive energies are a big problem, individual and social. The attempt to counteract them, or even to neutralize them only through the positive energies of good will and love is often not sufficient. Of course there must be cultivation of the opposite. That’s one of the techniques, to cultivate the opposite, therefore to cultivate good will, love, but that leaves the problem how to deal with and utilize the aggressive energies.
R: By practice?
A: First by an inner attitude and conviction and then by practice. They can be transmuted either harmlessly or constructively. The harmless means are the techniques of catharsis. One of the simplest ways is the use of a punching ball: if somebody feels rage or anger or has aggressive impulses, let him just go to the punching ball and punch it and punch it and punch it until he perspires. Well, he’ll find that his emotion of anger has subsided, it has been transmuted into muscular action.
R: I see. What about substitution, with anger?
A: I’ll quote another illustration which I give in my book. It was a typical case of an adolescent who had a very stern father. The son had fits of rage and smashed furniture. I suggested to him to have ready newspapers and magazines and telephone directories and at the first beginning of his rage go and tear them with delight. He did it and he smashed no more furniture.
R: So that’s substitution.
A: I quote it because it is typical. I have had hundreds of such cases. While that boy was doing this he had a sense of power over his anger and he also realized the humorous side of the performance; during or after it he laughed and smiled. But it had to be just at the beginning of the rage, if not it was too late; so I told him: “Rush to do it just when you feel the anger surging up.” He did it and he succeeded. This is a very simple example, but there are all kinds of muscular action—chopping wood or making a brisk long walk that transforms the emotional energy into physical action.
R: Somehow it seems to me that your presence has a lot to do with this.
A: Yes, I admit that, in part.
R: Someone else could suggest substitution and it wouldn’t work. It’s something about you.
A: That ties up with the importance of the rapport. But I think that the influence you mention is also due to my deep conviction based on experience. I have experimented all these techniques upon myself and when I survived and saw they were useful, I tried them on others.
R: It seems to me that psychosynthesis requires the therapist to be a Renaissance man, plus that he be a real, authentic, deeply developed person himself.
A: That would be an ideal. The preparation of a therapist should be not so much “learning the techniques” as applying the techniques and methods to himself first. Such a training I give to my students and co-workers: to use the techniques upon themselves.
R: I found it difficult to be my best self when I came to a new country because I felt like a child. I felt I didn’t know anything. I was ignorant, I didn’t know how to do anything.
A: It’s fine to feel like a child. All possibilities of development, a renewal.
R: This was the helpless side of the child I felt.
A: Well that’s purely external. Just to look and absorb as children do.
A: This ties up with the psychosynthesis of various ages. When you go back you may ask for my last pamphlet which has just been published, “The Psychosynthesis of the Human Ages” which deals also with the “hot” question of the relation between the young and the old. You can ask for it from the Psychosynthesis Research Foundation in New York.
PAT ROSENTHAL: Are you familiar with Dr. Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis?
A: Yes, I know about it; this gives me the occasion to say that I never give an opinion on any technique because I think it’s unrealistic, all depends on: who applies it, how he does it, to whom, for what purpose. That’s true for every technique. And anyhow, the theory behind a technique for me is not important. Some can do very good work with rather debatable techniques and some can do indifferent or bad work within a good theoretical framework. It is the specific application to each individual; that is distinctive of Psychosynthesis. We have no one pet technique. I accept every valuable technique which I can find. I test it and I see how it works. Making an exaggerated and oversimplified analogy, for clarity’s sake; no dentist uses only one instrument; he needs a whole array of instruments, using one or another in succession for the special need of the cure. The trouble with some psychotherapists is that they use one pet technique and say that it’s best, and applying it to everybody. Instead each technique may be useful and valuable if well-applied and to the proper situation; therefore, psychosynthesis includes every technique. Transactional Analysis had some good points, but it is not the whole; it doesn’t answer all the needs. And that applies to Gestalt and to all others. Each may be useful, well applied by the right person to the right case.
VR: I was impressed that you feel that loneliness or alienation is not inevitable, is not a last point as in the usual existential conception. That people can come to a fuller sense of belonging, of involvement.
A: But of course alienation and separation are essentially an illusion. They’re an illusion. There is no separation in the Universe; cosmic rays are coming all the time in this room and affect us, and also all kinds of other influences, including psychic influences. I believe in the collective unconscious and in waves of collective smog.
R: It feels like separation at times.
A: Of course! It is a very acute and painful experience. It is “real” in a subjective sense. I want to be clear, it is not an illusion in a subjective sense, it is an illusion in an objective sense. And yet it is a valuable experience. It has its meaning, and I should say that it is one of the ways toward union at the higher level.
A: Synthesis doesn’t mean the abolition of differences. It is the balancing and uniting at a higher level. Do you know my pamphlet on “Balancing of the Opposites”?
R: No, I don’t.
A: I’ll give it to you, there you’ll find my answer.
R: I’m curious about how many students and colleagues you have working at the Psychosynthesis Institute. How large it is.
A: It is difficult to say because several come periodically, often from other towns. And students from all parts of the world come here.
R: I know, I know.
A: I cannot cope with all. And new fields are opening to psychosynthesis. Now the next countries to be “invaded” are Australia and Mexico; I have students who are going there to do it. Students come for a while, they get individual training and then go. So here it’s a “commuting center” in a sense.
R: Do they work with you, do you work with them?
A: Oh, they must work; if not, I send them away! I give them much homework; start with them with their autobiography. Then answering the questionnaire which is in my book. Then daily free drawing. Further, a log diary, an intensive diary. If they are not willing to do that then I refuse to accept them. That gives me the elements for a rapid work with them.
A: How much time is often spent in sessions giving information and training that can be done at home by the patient or the student. And it’s good for them. Even if I didn’t read what they write; but I do read it. I am a bad hearer but a good reader. Also often while writing they get the solution of their problems because the super-conscious takes the hand.
PAT ROSENTHAL: YOU think a diary would be good for patients?
A: Yes; not a purely introspective, emotional diary, but a diary of the whole situation and then bring it to me and I can comment on it. Well it works.
PR: Does it. Yes, yes.
VR: What do you suggest they do with the diary?
A: Just bring it to me.
R: And then what?
A: And then if they say really intimate things, I say, just destroy it or I give it back. That depends. It is the fact of writing it and showing it to me that is important.
R: But not an emotional diary?
A: Also, but not only!
R: Ah-Not only!
A: But also! It can be a way of catharsis. Often they begin with emotional outbursts, and then with their own mental assessment of that, and then with questions.
R: I see—getting in all of the points.
A: Yes, express everything of themselves. They can say anything, because in my long career I’ve heard all sorts of things; nothing can shock me! Now another point about psychotherapy in the future. Psychotherapy by a group. Group psychotherapy by one therapist and the group is very difficult. But a therapeutic group I think may be very useful because a therapist cannot know everything (nobody knows everything!). For instance concerning psychosomatic interaction, it is advisable, if the therapist is not an M.D., to have the cooperation of a good clinician; moreover, for the active techniques of bodily movement and other physical therapy, a physical therapist can cooperate. The psychological therapist cannot do everything. And then for family problems a social worker interviewing the family and reporting. So the psychotherapist can hold the direction of the treatment but cooperate with the clinician, with a physical therapist, with social workers, art therapist, musicians and so on. That is what I mean about group therapy—therapy by a group.
R: So the therapist holds the reins of this group of various therapists?
A: And the direction of the psychotherapy. You see that’s the difference with the Balint groups which are now functioning in Europe.
R: What is that?
A: They are groups of various professionals who each studies the case and then they meet and discuss the case and each gives his own opinion at length and often they disagree. That can be valuable, for the therapist.
R: But not for the patient. A: It should be the chief responsibility of the psychotherapist how to delegate and cooperate with helpers but not discussing the case among professionals that is apt to be confusing.
R: So you don’t work in other groups. You don’t see people in groups? Yourself.
A: Generally not. I think the important fact is the rapport, the influence of the therapist; the unique rapport with the patient. But cooperate, yes; that’s quite another matter. Even some part of the psychotherapy need can be delegated to a specialist of one technique. For instance, the technique of daydream. I now have no time to apply it, but I delegate the technique of daydream to one of my coworkers and then he reports.
R: I see, so the patient works with the co-worker.
A: I lead the therapy, only they bring me the result of their application of that technique; that’s different.
R: I believe that each therapist creates psychotherapy in his own image. Would you comment on that?
A: Well, in a sense. Of course each therapist uses only his human assets and in that sense he is conditioned by his personality. But he can see his own limitations and qualities and then delegate some parts of the therapy to which he doesn’t feel fit to somebody who can do it.
R: He still then has to be able to see beyond his view of the world in order to refer it to someone else.
A: Yes, of course. But the most important thing is to evoke the higher, creative energies of the patient or of the pupil and that is not conditioned by the limitations of the therapist. One can teach a patient or a pupil to be creative beyond one’s own capacity. I’ll give you an example. There can be a very good music teacher who makes a pupil able to play concerts that he’s not able to do, and on the contrary, a great piano player can be a bad teacher, impatient and too demanding. It is very comforting that we can help people to go beyond ourselves.
R: That’s what I was just writing down, that the therapist can help the patient grow beyond the therapist.
A: Yes, certainly. For instance, if you have somebody with creative artistic possibilities blocked by an inferiority complex, or other blocks, you can release him and he can become a good artist, one that the therapist would not be able to be. In a sense that could be compared to a catalytic action.
R: Yes, I see.
A: So that keeps the therapist at his own level and not thinking too much of himself. It helps humility, but with a sense of dignity of what he can do.
R: On first reading, Psychosynthesis seemed to me to be over-simplified or common sense. It seemed to include everything I already knew and yet the more I read, the scope seemed so broad, it was anything but simple, I’m sure.
A: —But I did that on purpose! To entice people, not to scare them. Moreover I think one would do well to avoid the technical jargon when one can say things in plain words. So it’s deceptive simplicity; the superficial read it and say, “All right—hmm-fine book,” and leave it at that; but others will read it the second and third and fourth time, discovering new layers. So I’m glad you realized that. So much of the scientific, technical jargon is useless. It may impress but—
R: I really didn’t understand that until I talked with you.
A: You see the value of the direct interplay and it happened with many. But now psychosynthesis is spreading in an “alarming” way (alarming for me!).
R: As a therapist I know such things but it’s still a shock for me to see it happen as I sit here with you. It isn’t that I don’t know that.
A: The difference between intellectual knowledge and factual living contact.
R: I know it with myself.
A: Yes, good!
R: But this was different.
A: I’m very pleased with your understanding and appreciation. So spread the message. You have a great chance with the Academy and VOICES. YOU can do a great amount of good through the magazine.
R: It’s both exciting and frightening to see it happen.
A: I understand, because that opens wider horizons. It’s your opportunity. You have the right preparation. You have grasped well the essentials of psychosynthesis and recognized the value of dealing also with the transpersonal problems of patients; therefore you can cooperate effectively in the development of the inclusive psychotherapy of the future.
R: Thank you.
A: (Looks at copy of VOICES.) I like this, “the art and science.” First art and then science.