Psychology of the Soul

Psychosynthesis

‘Of so many great teachers I’ve met in India and Asia, if you were to bring them to America, get them a house, two cars, a spouse, three kids, a job, insurance, and taxes… they would all have a hard time.’ (Pir Vilayat Khan)

Life is difficult, and the appendages of modern life do not make it any easier. However, just as it is true that aircraft best achieve lift against the wind, so too can we use the dense energies and challenging circumstances around us to accelerate our psychological and spiritual growth

Our understanding of the Self has indeed grown exponentially since western civilisation first entered the post-industrial age, and this growth has been inherently mirrored in the evolution of psychotherapy, which has come a long way from its reductive Freudian origins over a century ago – when it presupposed the human psyche to be fundamentally ‘broken’, bereft of spirituality, and ‘living’ in the past 

Today, it is a widely held belief that the most effective approach to enhancing our mental wellness, is to recognise ourselves as the self-actualising spiritual beings having a human experience that we are; and to work equally with our attributes derived from the transpersonal realm (or our ‘higher’ unconscious ), as well as those from the personal realm and its associated ego structures

This thinking represents the pinnacle of our understanding of the human condition, and of psychotherapeutic theory; which has developed through 4 main schools of thought over the past 100 years or so – namely Psychodynamic, Behavioural, Humanistic and Transpersonal

In many ways, this developmental ‘journey’ mirrors that of our own, the journey of the soul –  from egocentric separation to divine unity – and it is a journey which was recognised early in the evolution of psychotherapy by the founder of Psychosynthesis,  Roberto Assagioli M.D.

Assagioli was a groundbreaking psychologist who studied Freudian Psychodynamics in the early 1900’s, before divesting himself ahead of those who were later to become his contemporaries in Humanism and Transpersonalism, to which Psychosynthesis was a forerunner

Assagioli originally broke away from Freud owing to his belief that Freud’s focus on the ‘basement’ of the personality was too limited; and whilst he agreed that it was essential to heal childhood trauma in order to develop a healthy ego, he did not believe that personal development should be limited to this practice alone:

He posited that the human being is a ‘fundamentally healthy organism in which there may be temporary malfunctioning’; that as well as a past, we also have a present and a future; and that as well as a basement, we have higher levels of consciousness, from which we are able to connect with divinity, and harness our divine qualities of creativity, wisdom, intuition, will and love – all of which are integral to informing the quality of our personality and our potential for growth

In his own words, Assagioli differentiated Psychosynthesis from Psychoanalysis thusly:

‘We pay far more attention to the higher unconscious and to the development of the transpersonal self. In one of his letters Freud said, “I am interested only in the basement of the human being.” Psychosynthesis is interested in the whole building. We try to build an elevator which will allow a person access to every level of his personality. After all, a building with only a basement is very limited. We want to open up the terrace where you can sun-bathe or look at the stars. Our concern is the synthesis of all areas of the personality. That means psychosynthesis is holistic, global and inclusive. It is not against psychoanalysis or even behavior modification but it insists that the needs for meaning, for higher values, for a spiritual life, are as real as biological or social needs. We deny that there are any isolated human problems’

In relative terms therefore, Assagioli’s ideology was more balanced between a ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approach, and he theorised that for a personality to be effectively healed, both its personal and transpersonal complexities must be recognised, and then addressed as a whole by synthesising its myriad component parts

As a practice, Psychosynthesis may be defined as follows:

An inclusive transpersonal psychology, which empowers the individual to achieve Self-Realisation by elevating conscious awareness, and synthesising the functions of body, mind, and spirit with both its inner and outer world processes

Assagioli himself described Psychosynthesis thusly:

‘Psychosynthesis is a method of psychological development and self realization for those who refuse to remain the slave of their own inner phantasms or of external influences, who refuse to submit passively to the play of psychological forces which is going on within them, and who are determined to become the master of their own lives’

… and added that:

‘Psychosynthesis makes use of more exercises and techniques than it is possible to list here. We have systematic exercises for developing every function of the personality. Initially we explore all the conscious and unconscious aspects of the personality by having patients write autobiographies, keep a diary, fill out questionnaires, and take all types of projective tests (TAT, free drawing, etc.). As therapy proceeds, we use relaxation, music, art, rhythmical breathing, mental concentration, visualization, creative imagination, evocative visual symbols and words, and meditation . But I want to emphasize that every individual is different and no techniques can be applied automatically’

Assalioli’s work on Psychosynthesis was, and remains, pioneering, and is today characterised both; by the practical applications he developed to successfully marry personal and transpersonal concepts within a psychotherapeutic framework; and the beliefs which set Psychosynthesis apart from other notable transpersonal psychologies and psychologists

Chief amongst those was Carl Jung and his theory of ‘Individuation’, which is regarded as a ‘close cousin’ of Psychosynthesis, and shares the same fundamental beliefs, purpose and aim

The two practices are concordant in a number of areas, such as their shared recognition of the reality and significance of an individual’s spiritual needs and transcendental aspects of life; and the belief that the collective unconscious is an integral and informative part of an individual’s unconscious mind

Where Psychosynthesis differs most notably, however, is in the following four key areas:

1 – The role of will within the function of the personality:

Assagolio considered the hitherto neglection of will within psychotherapeutic practice to be ‘the scandal of modern psychology’. It had long been disregarded as a field of study, owing to its negative association with oppressive Victorian ‘willpower’ from which society was then still emerging – but Assagioli placed the function of will immediately next to the function of the self, at the very heart of the personality

He explained that whilst the self may be multiplicitous, ‘the will is essentially the activity of the self which stands above the multiplicity. It directs, regulates and balances the other functions of the personality in a creative way’…’without repressing any of them’, and added that ‘The will is like the conductor of an orchestra. He is not self-assertive but is rather the humble servant of the composer and of the score’

Assagioli believed the will to be a sophisticated and multi-faceted entity, which could be yielding as well as forceful, and also ‘skilful’, ‘good’ and ‘transpersonal’; which plays a fundamental and central role in all the choices we make, and went as far as to say that in fact, ‘we are will’

By comparison, whilst Jung recognised the value of will in the process of Individuation, he did not emphasise it in his work

2 – The concept, role and remediation of sub-personalities within the function of the personality:

One of the key concepts within the practice of Psychosynthesis, is that the personality of the individual is not a set and static singular entity, but is in fact a varied and dynamic collection of sub-personalities which make up the whole

These sub-personalities can be thought of a cast of rigidly formed characters, which can be both preincarnate as well as manifested in the individual throughout the course of its life by thoughts, beliefs and experiences; and which take centre stage in the behaviour and attitude of the individual when it is stimulated by roles, relationships or circumstances which resonate with the cause of their original formation

The practice of Psychosynthesis uses various techniques and methodologies to enable the individual to identify, accept, understand, and subsequently dis-identify with these sub-personalities; as a result of which, a greater level of self awareness can be achieved, the personality can be more effectively directed, and a purer, more authentic self can be cultivated

By comparison, Jung did not work with the concept of sub-personalities, but instead believed that the individual possesses a single ‘persona’, which serves as a mask or public image that the individual uses to present itself to the outside world – and whereas sub-personalities are considered in Psychosynthesis to be internal functioning parts of the personality, Jung believed the persona to be an external identity, derived from an archetypal image and honed by both socialisation and experience

3 – The number of psychological functions of the personality:

Jung believed there to be four fundamental psychological functions – Thoughts, Feelings, Intuition and Sensation, to which Assagioli added the three further separate functions of Imagination, Impulse / Desire, and Will, based on his following rationale:

‘Psychosynthesis says that Jung’s four functions do not provide for a complete description of the psychological life. Our view can be visualized like this: We hold that imagination or fantasy is a distinct function. There is also a group of functions that impels us toward action in the outside world. This group includes instincts, tendencies, impulses, desires and aspirations. And here we come to one of the central foundations of psychosynthesis: There is a fundamental difference between drives, impulses, desires and the will . In the human condition there are frequent conflicts between desire and will. And we place the will in a central position at the heart of self-consciousness or the Ego’

4 – The structure and nature of the unconscious mind:

Assagioli believed that the unconscious was sub-divided into a lower, middle and higher unconscious:

The lower unconscious containing the elemental psychological activities, fundamental drives, primitive urges, complexes and pathological manifestations

The middle unconscious containing the awareness that lies within the periphery of our consciousness; where easily retrievable memories are held, and where imaginative activities are elaborated and gestated before being brought into consciousness

The higher unconscious, (or ‘superconscious’), which is the realm of latent, higher psychic function and spiritual energy, which holds our greater human potential, and is the region from where we receive ‘higher intuition’ and inspiration (artistic, philosophical, scientific), as well as urges towards humanitarianism

Jung did not make such distinctions within the unconscious, and regarded it as a single entity which contains:

Everything that we do not know; everything that we know but are not thinking about; everything we were once conscious of but have forgotten; everything perceived by the senses, but not noted by the conscious mind; everything without paying attention to we think, feel, remember, want and do; all future things taking shape which will come into consciousness; all intentional repressions of painful thoughts and feelings; and all impulses to carry out actions without conscious motivation

As these examples may illustrate, the theories of both Assagioli and Jung remain highly relevant in today’s society, but arguably; it is the additional granularity and sophistication of Psychosynthesis in the above key areas, which makes it more appropriately equipped to meet the growing psychological complexities existent in the modern world;  and perhaps render the practice of Psychosynthesis more relevant and ‘of its time’ now than ever before


Sheldon Reed

THE PATH OF ONE is but one expression of perennial wisdom, hiding in plain sight for all to see when ready

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