Out of the struggle to discipline the more or less rebellious elements, the consciousness of the I (of the self) develops, as distinct from the various psychic activities
By Roberto Assagioli, 1963, Psychological Exercises And Training, from the Assagioli Archives in Florence. Original Title: Esercizi di Visualizzazione. Translated with Notes by Jan Kuniholm
March 10, 1963
General preface: the exercises will first be described, and then done as a group; finally the results will be reported and commented on. However, if you wish to derive real profit from them, it will be necessary for each of you to continue doing them on your own.
You are in the same position as a piano or voice student. In the lesson the teacher presents the theoretical and practical technique for playing the piano, or for projecting the voice; but success depends on the exercises that the students will then do on their own. So don’t think that doing drills here once a week will be enough unless you keep doing them.
A second general word of caution: you need humility and patience! You have to start with simple, elementary exercises. I am not saying they are boring, for even the elementary ones are interesting; and this is an advantage compared to piano study, in which “doing scales” is frankly boring. However, before doing the more complex exercises and attempting Self-realization, it is necessary to acquire some mastery over simple and normal psychic functions. Moreover, as you will realize shortly, the first experience is quite humbling and disconcerting!
In doing the simplest concentration and visualization exercises you will realize how very little we are masters of our unconscious. But this realization has two advantages: one is to show us the usefulness, indeed the necessity, of these exercises. The other especially is this, that out of the same contrast, out of the same struggle to discipline the more or less rebellious elements, the consciousness of the I (of the self) develops, as distinct from the various psychic activities. For the I or self, noticing that it cannot regulate and dominate them, for that very reason feels different from them, and thus ceases the constant and naive identification of the I or self with its own feelings, thoughts, etc. We are a battlefield: I and my mind; I and my imagination; I and my emotions. So these elementary exercises lead to the disidentification of the I or self from the contents of consciousness — and this is the first step toward liberation and self-mastery.
A final preliminary consideration: given the complexity of psychic life, visualization exercises, like all others, necessarily involve the use of other psychic functions: mental concentration, attention, and especially will. To do an exercise one has to want to do it. So even without being well aware of it, the first motive, which enables the exercise to be carried out, is a volitional attitude: “I want to visualize.” Also, concentration of attention is needed; if attention is drawn to our ordinary interests, the image will disappear. Therefore: will, concentration and attention.
Also, creative imagination. When I tell you to imagine, for example a number, you need to create the image of it. Creativity is also one of the many mysteries of psychic life. So the simplest exercise actually involves the cooperation of different psychic functions; but that is precisely what makes it interesting. You will notice how at a given moment one function prevails, while at another moment another prevails; and the will must intervene to regulate the imagination. Elements coming in from the unconscious come in to disturb you, grabbing your attention; so after a few minutes perhaps you will find that you are thinking about something else entirely.
I will first give a brief description of it to eliminate curiosity and surprise, which might disturb you. We begin by imagining a classroom with a large blackboard set up in a corner; this is the scenario.
Then imagine that a given one-digit number is formed in the middle of the blackboard. We will try to keep this digit in the field of consciousness for a short time, then I will point to another one, then a third one.
I will do the exercise with you, because even for those who have some practice of these exercises it is useful to keep doing the basic ones. Pianists and violinists, every day, before studying difficult pieces, do purely technical finger agility exercises. These are necessary so that they can then devote their full attention to the interpretation of the piece. A great violinist, I think Heifetz, used to say, “The discipline of practice every day is essential. When I skip a day, I notice a difference in my playing. After two days, the critics notice, and after three days, so does the audience.”
EXERCISE: (. . . indicates a pause)
Let’s close our eyes and imagine a blackboard — a large, dark-gray blackboard . . . Let’s try to fix our attention on it, imagining it in the most vivid way, as if it were really in front of us . . . Now in the center of the blackboard appears a number, the digit 5, as if it had been traced with white chalk . . . It is quite large, regular . . . Visualize the blackboard with a white 5 in the middle . . . Try to see it as vividly as possible and keep your attention focused on it . . . You can help yourself by murmuring the word “five” . . . several times.
Now, next to and at the right of the 5, there appears a 2. Focus your attention on the 2 . . . It is white, the same size as the 5, drawn well and regular . . . You “see” with your imagination the two digits: 5, 2, forming the number 52 . . . Then the 2 is flanked by a 3, equal to the other digits: 5, 2, 3, forming the number 523. Try to see the three digits simultaneously: the number 523 traced in white in the center of the blackboard . . . Try to keep this image fixed in the field of consciousness for a few minutes.
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RESULTS: Some of those present were able to visualize, others could not. The majority succeeded partially, that is, imperfectly and not consistently. Here are some reports:
Mrs. M.: While you were describing the exercise, I immediately saw the blackboard, toward the window, and imagined the number 135. I “saw” it clearly, not on the blackboard, but detached. But then when I did the exercise, at first the blackboard moved to the back of the room and I had to keep it away because if it got too close I couldn’t see it anymore and I got confused. On the fifth [attempt] I saw it; however, the edge was in crosswise, which I usually don’t do. But the biggest difficulty was to put the 2 side by side [with the 5], because I could see the 5 or the 2, but they were not together. After the 3, I could see the 23 well, but I could never see the 523. I could see the three digits, but separate.
Mr. C.: I saw a classroom with a window on the left, from which light was coming to illuminate the blackboard and the numeral 5 clearly drawn. But, at a certain moment, school memories tended to interject themselves, reminiscences of real classrooms in which I had been in, and then there was a mismatch between the image I created from scratch and those of the classrooms in which I had actually been.
COMMENT: What happened was predictable; that is, the instability and indiscipline of the images, and the intrusion of pre-existing elements, especially memories and past impressions that interfered with the images of the present. This has great importance, because in our psychic life it happens all the time that the past tends to condition the present. Psychoanalysis insists on this, even excessively so.
Second Observation: the indiscipline of the mind and imagination. One issue drives out the other, or they remain separate; thus there is the difficulty of keeping broader contents in the field of consciousness.
I can say that there are several possibilities: one, that the number is not very vivid, faded, but remains fixed, as if obedient. The second is that the number is instead vivid, but unstable and disappears. In addition, there are people who find it hard to conjure up an image; but if they persist they succeed, and when the image has been formed it remains fixed; not only that, but it also recurs during the rest of the day, even unsolicited. For others, however, success is immediate: they see it immediately, but then it goes away. For some it remains stationary; for others it moves in various ways. For some it is relatively easy to imagine numbers of two, three or four digits as a whole, that is, to expand the field of consciousness, but the digits may be either unstable or faded; for others there may be stability and vividness, but only for one digit, or at most two.
So I recommend keeping a kind of diary of the experiments you will do, noting the differences in vividness, persistence and extent. They increase as you repeat the exercise. There are people who start by being able to see only numbers of one or two digits, and then they can see four or five, or even six; this is a measure of the progress they can make. Such exercises also have great practical utility, as we may have occasion or need to recall images of objects or scenes.
Mr. C.: I would like to know if this exercise could not lead to disturbing self-suggestive formations, i.e., overlapping image formation. Are there any dangers in this exercise?
ANSWER: I don’t think there are any. It is much easier to fail to fix the images, than for them to persist insistently. Normally an image derives its vitality and thus its insistence, even its obsessiveness, from emotional factors. All fixed ideas, obsessive ideas, phobias derive their power from their emotional “charge.” But prosaic numbers (5, 2, 3) have no such charge, unless for us there is some association between a given number and some traumatic or distressing fact or experience, but this would be a special case. If there is, then it would be better not to use a digit that has an emotional tone and choose from the ten some that are not connected with any particular event.
Mr. S.: I was a little disturbed: I could visualize; however, I was disturbed by the noise of the cars. Since I am preparing to get my driver’s license, I was distracted by this thought. So I’d like to ask: since I have some difficulty remembering all the road signs, could I substitute these road signs for the numbers, for when I need to know them to drive?
ANSWER: This is an interesting question, which gives me an opportunity to clarify a point. In the beginning it is preferable to do so-called “useless” exercises; that is, exercises that have no practical use, so that the success of the exercise does not depend on how interesting it is to us. Later, however, after a period of training, visualization can be used for practical purposes. But it is not appropriate to begin with interesting images — or at least only with these — for otherwise one may delude oneself into thinking that one can master and use the imagination, without having really acquired this power. Instead, the main purpose is to achieve the mental discipline to do even uninteresting or boring things!
Ms. C.: Until about a year ago, I found it difficult to learn what was needed for exams and I went there full of fear. Then I discovered the way to remember by using pictures. I used history books, or geography books, etc. for elementary school, which contained many colorful pictures. This gave me a sense of calm; the teachers’ questions immediately evoked the images, which gave me a sense of security. I said this as confirmation of the results that visualization exercises can give.
ANSWER: Very good. That is a demonstration of the usefulness of these exercises. Practical people prove to be more skillful at this than many psychologists and educators. In advertising there is widespread use of images; in schools there is little use of them! Instead, one of the first things a teacher should do is to train students to use images as a mnemonic medium. You have given us an excellent example; but you have discovered this on your own recently, whereas it should be one of the first things that every teacher who has an elementary psychological education should do.
In our civilization it often happens that advertisers and the military are far ahead of scholars! For example, the military is doing telepathy experiments in America. Thus in many instances men of action, driven by personal or collective interests, use certain methods more extensively and effectively that [naturally] would be more directly the province of scholars and teachers. In schools it should be required to teach the methods of learning and reasoning, as well as — indeed even more than — teaching “subjects!”
March 17, 1963
VISUALIZATION EXERCISES – SECOND GROUP
GEOMETRIC FIGURES AND COLORS
These visualization exercises have a purely technical, i.e., training character, but they can also serve as a basis for later exercises, which instead have a psychosynthetic meaning and usefulness. They involve the visualization of geometric shapes and colors. Colors have specific psychological effects: in fact, each color tends to evoke a given psychological quality, and so when one wants to evoke and reinforce the quality, an effective means is to visualize the color corresponding to it.
Geometric shapes also have deep symbolic meanings: the triangle, square, circle, and solids such as the sphere and pyramid, have psychological and spiritual meanings that can be utilized. But before doing exercises to achieve these effects, one must train oneself to visualize clearly and with some persistence. That is what we will do today: we will evoke and try to maintain a image of a color associated with a given shape. When we can do this with ease, that is, when we no longer have to make a great conscious effort of attention, we can make use of it for psychospiritual purposes.
In doing the exercise, we should pay equal attention to shape and color, and then report which of these two elements was easier, or less difficult to visualize.
We will start with three basic shapes and three basic colors. This time we will take a movie screen as our background. Imagine that you are standing in front of a large, white screen that takes up the entire wall in front of you. After visualizing it well, imagine that a green square appears in the center of it: a large, regular square, a nice green neither too light nor too dark, for example, a “pea green.” I will give you a minute for visualization. You can help yourself by whispering “green square” several times.
* * *
The experiment was done twice: once with eyes closed and once with eyes open. The majority visualized better with eyes closed, but some did better with eyes open.
This fact is interesting, as it may give an indication of the individual psychological type. In general, visualization succeeds easier with eyes closed because there are no disturbing external elements. However, those who have an intense psychic life, a very active unconscious, succeed better with eyes open, because the relationship with external reality inhibits that activity. So introverted types find it easier with open eyes; on the other hand, extroverted types — who are more easily stressed and distracted by external sensations — find it easier with closed eyes. The results of today’s experiments confirm this, for in general in modern civilization, and especially in Italy, extroversion prevails. Thus a simple and elementary exercise can also give useful insights into one’s psychological type.
Shape and Color: Some visualized the shape of the image more easily, others the color; but the majority “saw” the color better. This too can give interesting indications: color is indeed connected with emotions, while shape is with the mind.
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Try to visualize for a minute a blue triangle; a large, equilateral triangle with a vividly intense blue surface.
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Visualize, in the center of a white screen, a large circle with a surface of beautiful, vivid, golden yellow.
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These and similar exercises have first and foremost — I repeat — a great general utility: they serve to develop the will, attention, concentration and other psychic functions. They then serve as training for more complex exercises, which have specific purposes. For example, when we do the “ideal model” exercise, we will have to visualize ourselves and “see” ourselves acting and behaving in a given way, in a given situation. But if we have not already trained these visualization skills with elementary exercises, we will not know how to do it. In addition, there is also a “sporting” and fun side to them, which promotes their success. What one does while having fun, succeeds in fact much easier than what one does in response to either one’s own or others’ command. If this fact were taken into account in education, far better results would be achieved!
* * *
Mrs. C.: I didn’t see anything, neither the first nor the second time.
Mrs. G.: What are these exercises for?
ANSWER: A failure should not discourage you, because many people don’t succeed at all in the beginning. Then they gradually come to master their imaginative function. Usually the imagination “goes its own way;” it is one of the most rebellious elements of our being. The French have called it “la folle du logis” (the madwoman of the house). We must therefore try to master it, discipline it and direct it. This is what these exercises are for, among other things: first to show us how little we are masters of our psychic activities, and then to subordinate them more and more to our will.
 This is a “synthetic” essay that combines two separate lectures into a single document, the two essays being shown as Part I and Part II. The exercises were presented at different dates and should therefore probably be practiced on separate dates. —Tr.
 This quotation as presented is a correction of Assagioli’s quote, which was attributed to the conductor Kubelik, and was slightly misworded. This was taken from https://jaschaheifetz.com/about/quotations/. —Tr.