Self-consciousness involves our being a witness – a pure, objective, loving witness – to what is happening within and without. Roberto Assagioli
Psychosynthesis has its roots in psychoanalysis. Before founding psychosynthesis, Dr Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974) was a member of the Freud Society in Zurich in 1910 and together with various other pioneers of the psychoanalytic movement was among the first to bring psychoanalysis to Italy. A contemporary and student of Freud, Assagioli was more aligned with Jung’s approach to psychology.
Influenced by Raja Yoga (concerned with the cultivation of the mind and meditation) and Karma Yoga (concerned with intention, action and will), as well as the writings of Alice Bailey, Assagioli studied philosophy and theology, drawing on Buddhism and Jewish and Christian mysticism for his thinking.
Psychosynthesis is part of a wider movement of psychospiritual development, exploration and enquiry. It’s sometimes called a ‘transpersonal’ approach because it integrates the spiritual aspect of human experience.
Working in a psychospiritual way means meeting and including our challenges, pain and shadow, as well as our light and joy. It means including the full range of human experience and working with the present moment.
Psychosynthesis is a liberating discipline – a map to help navigate human experience, and a toolbox for life.
The Psychosynthesis approach affirms the reality of spiritual experience as an integral part of human experience. Psychosynthesis acknowledges our individual uniqueness and our connection to the whole. Where suffering can be caused by a loss of contact with who we really are, the psychosynthesis approach seeks to restore and renew this contact.
The first step in psychosynthesis is the acquisition of self-knowledge and the ability to move within our inner world with ease and confidence. For this to happen, we must first enter into relationship with those feelings, thoughts and memories that society tends to alienate us from. We can then contact aspects of ourselves we’ve repressed because we found them too painful to experience, or because they conflict with the conscious image we have of ourselves, or with the dominant cultural norms. Instead of being consistent and unchanging, in this work we find ourselves to be a mix of contrasting, changing elements, which in psychosynthesis are termed subpersonalities.
In the words of Assagioli:
We are not unified. We often have the illusion of being so, because we do not have many bodies or many limbs, and because one hand does not fight with the other, but in our inner world this is actually the case – various personalities and subpersonalities struggle continuously with each other; impulses, desires, principles and aspirations are in continual tumult.
Our essential task is to bring clarity into this confusion.
Through acquiring self-knowledge we discover that there are many aspects, roles and attitudes we identify ourselves with, to the point of forgetting or repressing the rest of our personality. When we identify with one part of ourselves, we’re ruled by it. For example, we’ve all seen someone dominated by anxiety or depression, prejudice or ambition, and we’ve all felt ourselves at times to be prisoners of psychological patterns that appear to be beyond our control.
Such identification can be reversed only by disidentification: a process through which we detach ourselves from all the various aspects of our personality and allow ourselves to discover our true ‘I’ or centre. This gives us an experience of inner freedom and helps us to get to know who we really are.
Self-knowledge, particularly when it leads to an awareness of our true centre, is a step forward. However, even after we’ve exposed and understood them, old complexes often persist due to years of unconscious repetition. Psychosynthesis recognises that even deep and thorough self-knowledge may not be sufficient to cause lasting change; it must be accompanied by the discovery and use of the will.
Psychosynthesis sees the will as being basic to mental health. At times we may experience our will instantaneously, when we perform an act of courage or make an irrevocable decision; at other times we may feel it as a flow of energy, as when we concentrate our attention on one subject, or when we persevere with a project we’re determined to complete, despite its difficulties. At these times we discover within ourselves the capacity to choose and direct; and this is the will.
In rare moments we may have an intuitive vision of the nature of the universe, an intense experience of a sense of unity with all beings, a profound understanding of the meaning of life, or an outpouring of creativity – moments in which we transcend the limits of individuality and glimpse a universal reality. These and other phenomena belong to what psychosynthesis calls the superconscious: the level of the unconscious that generates all that’s highest and most meaningful for a human being.
While various schools of contemporary psychology often ignore the superconscious, in psychosynthesis particular attention is given to studying these aspects of our experience, observing their effect on the rest of our personality, and using techniques to facilitate these energies and their integration into everyday life.
The desire to act freely, in harmony with our own nature, rather than being at the mercy of external forces, exists within us all. This manifests in the desire to become an individual and affirm oneself in the world. Alongside this need is a complementary desire to feel part of a larger whole and transcend the limitations of individuality, giving rise to the need for friendship, tenderness, and love.
Both these needs must be recognised and met for true psychological health to occur. The need for autonomy is satisfied as the personality frees itself from past conditioning and expresses itself fully. However, this alone is not enough; we must also learn to satisfy our need for contact with others and belonging. In this regard, focusing on the individual alone, though necessary, is not always sufficient by itself. We also need to develop other skills, such as the ability to communicate clearly and directly, the experience of empathy, an accurate perception of others, a creative approach to interpersonal conflicts, and the capacity to attain sincere relationships, free from ulterior motives, expectations and fears. In this field too, psychosynthesis offers effective tools for growth.
There’s an inherent tendency within organic matter to fluctuate and organise itself in a coherent manner. This can also be seen to operate within the individual; an innate propensity of the psyche to order itself and become a harmonious whole. When the various elements of our being are in conflict, our energy becomes blocked, and this causes pain. However, when a synthesis of two or more parts of our personality occurs, energy is freed and we experience a sense of well-being. This is the essence of psychosynthesis: the harmonious integration of all our component parts around a unifying centre.
The tendency towards synthesis is inherent within us. Rather than being an artificial imposition of techniques, psychosynthesis unblocks and stimulates a process that’s more closely allied to us than any other: becoming who we are.
Psychology today presents a curious panorama, which distinguishes it greatly from other, older sciences. On the one hand, subdivision into contrasting schools, on the other, especially in the field of therapeutic practice, a disorganised eclecticism in which theories and techniques are brought together indiscriminately, with no vision of wholeness. This is natural, as science historian Thomas Kuhn has demonstrated: every science in its initial phases – and psychology is still very young – presents strong internal differentiations. In time, the situation evolves, with the contrasting tendencies moving towards resolution.
In this context, psychosynthesis presents itself not as another school, but as a movement towards unification. It has its own structures, methods, and working hypotheses; but in addition it serves as a point of reference for the co-ordination of many other ideas, attitudes and techniques which can contribute, on an individual or social level, to the universal actualisation of human potential.