“To Know, To Dare, To Will, To Be Silent”
Within the Psychosynthesis community it is reasonably well known that Roberto Assagioli had, let’s say, an esoteric aspect to his nature and work. There are hints aplenty, starting with his mother’s theosophical beliefs, with various mature friendships (for example with the astrologer Dane Rudhyar or the Zen teacher DT Suzuki) and of course in the fabric of his life’s work, Psychosynthesis itself. A disinterested contemporary observer, if so minded, could infer the presence of any number of veiled esoteric leads within Assagioli’s published materials – from the primacy of the Will (a core competence of the Western magical tradition) to the I-Self axis (with its Kabbalistic palette and Christian mystic insight) and the typology of the Ways (a theosophically informed riff on the Seven Rays). It can seem as though, to post-Post-Modern twenty-first century ears, Assagioli and Psychosynthesis are just a Google search away from being rendered in the garb of any meta-system of one’s choosing, from Raja Yoga to neuroscience – and of course, this proceeds out of the profoundly open, non-dogmatic nature of Psychosynthesis, as we have it.
That said, such surface-surfing, whilst exhilarating, can mask an awareness of certain other aspects of the material. Why is it that in speaking of Assagioli, and to some extent, of Psychosynthesis too, one is often seduced into speaking of other parallel but unconnected sources, or of other pioneering figures? Start writing about Assagioli and very soon there is little to say, so one brings in Jung, or Büber, or Wilber, or Almaas. Why is it so hard to write at depth about such a fascinating and evidently brilliant pioneer, and indeed, of his contribution to a thriving field? Why would a recent American Encyclopaedia of Psychology commission an entry on Psychosynthesis, but choose to omit a specific entry for Assagioli on the grounds that ‘his thinking was too derivative’? Where is the real Roberto Assagioli? And why are some strands of the DNA of Psychosynthesis, to this day, veiled in mystery, or should that be in shame? Or perhaps it’s just me?
At this point I should confess that I am co-writing a book on Assagioli and have, quite possibly, lost any perspective on my quarry. Put another way, it has become of the utmost importance for me to gain some traction on the issue of Assagioli’s influences – can we, then, recreate Psychosynthesis from, say, Freud+Jung+Keyserling? To what extent does it require Theosophy, the Alice Bailey material, the direct written correspondence of a discarnate Tibetan Master (Djwahl Kuhl) and the extensive spiritual astrological prognostications of The Considerator (Assagioli’s astro-pseudonym)? In pursuing such questions I have been fortunate enough to make three visits to Casa Assagioli, and, through the beautiful efforts of the Grupo Alle Fonte and the permission of the Istituto di Psicosintesi in Florence, to spend many days combing the files and papers and library of Assagioli himself. The rest of this blog draws substantially (and most gratefully) on that experience.*
Here is Assagioli, in astrological mode, from a paper prepared for students of his ‘Leo and the Will Project’ class in 1963:
‘Please pay attention to the distinction between the ESOTERIC PAPERS and the EXOTERIC PROGRAMME – we have to keep this distinction very clearly and keep the ‘wall of silence’ – as I have said and written in the past – about the presentations. Truth is One – but its presentation is diverse and so different levels, according to the kind of people to whom we address ourselves. One has to talk to each in their language. We have to be polyglots psychologically and spiritually, learn to be translators, i.e. to translate esoteric teaching in exoteric language’
One can sense straight away that there is an absolutism to the injunction, a ‘thou shalt not’ in tone as well as instruction. Whatever our nuanced understanding, is this not also just a little patronising? Patriarchal, certainly.
It appears again in a reminiscence noted in Michael Schuller’s 1988 book ‘Psychosynthesis in North America’ where he recounts Jim Fadiman’s visit to Assagioli and a conversation arising from Fadiman noticing a portrait of Madame Blavatsky on the wall of the study (it remains there to this day). As they discussed the necessity of silence about ‘esoteric affiliations’ Assagioli said “It is my religion and until I die I want silence about it”2 . And so it came to pass that this ‘Wall of Silence’ went up, stayed up, and continues its boundary keeping function to this day, forty years after Assagioli’s death.
Temperamentally, I should own, I have a problem with such walls, be they in the sphere of ideas or on the grosser material plane. It’s not that I’m a hopeless iconoclast, or that I can’t appreciate their function, or even the desire that informs them, to create stability and offer a protective environment (perhaps), it’s more that aesthetically to my eye they visit distortion and division upon the landscape (psychically or physically). And surely, at the very least, there is an irony in the great work of synthesis with its permeable membranes and eggshell delicacies, resorting to an interpsychic Berlin Wall, dividing inner from outer, those in the know from those kept out. For this is always a function of wall-building, however unintentionally, the cost of the illusion of reinforced ‘security’ being the loss of crazy-wisdom spontaneity. Something goes arid and a bit joyless next to such a structure.
Besides, if one motivation for Assagioli’s ‘wall of silence’ was to protect his esoteric sources becoming exposed, and to protect Psychosynthesis from being laughed out of psychological respectability by its wacky ancestry, it is arguable that it failed on both scores – the Psychological mainstream never took Psychosynthesis into the fold anyway, and ever since the internet the wall was rendered a kind of Maginot Line, admirably anachronistic and utterly useless. Like it or not, the world’s wisdom traditions and esoteric texts, from Auttarayoga Tantras to the Keys of Enoch via the Perennial Wisdom are now all just a click away. Not that mere access grants understanding or replaces the essential need of a wise guide or initiator, of course. But at least in this democratisation of the ‘innermost’ one is now able to see that from which one is excluded!
Coming back to Assagioli though, I want to draw on a paper from the archive written for (presumably) Assagioli’s welcoming remarks to the Ascona Summer School, 1-31st August 1930 on the shores of Lake Maggiore. In it he remarks:
“we don’t invite you to a theoretical and academical study, but to a vital experiment, to inner action”
revealing again this resolve, his yang side, if you will, seldom glimpsed. He continues:
“this discipline will necessarily be severe and exacting (it is an illusion to believe that there can be short cuts to spiritual realisation)”
So the work will be rigorous, only for those of sufficient dedication and seriousness. He then develops the theme, describing the extensive programme that delegates will follow for that August. What strikes me most here are the concluding remarks, having ranged across the topics to be studied (from the Moral Preparation for Yoga, The Religion of Universal Brotherhood, Occult Meditation and the Teachings of the Tantras), and having introduced Alice Bailey, who’s workshops dominate the programme for that year, he goes on to consider developing a new psychology:
“it must not be a ‘Psychology without Soul’, a mere Behaviouristic psychology. It must be a new spiritual psychology founded on the synthesis of the Western positive science and the Eastern esoteric wisdom”.
Finally here we have a glimpse of the Psychosynthesis project in context and alive, a snapshot from Assagioli himself pertaining explicitly to the ‘innermost’. Assagioli, the World Server and chela (Theosophical disciple), conceives of Psychosynthesis as a spiritual psychology founded on a union of Western science and Eastern esoteric wisdom. Later, and publically, he will emphasise the Western science and downplay the Eastern esoterica, but it won’t matter – the phenomoneology of Psychosynthesis betrays its true nature at every turn, and the wall building is always retrospective, already too late. The Trojan Horse approach of slipping in esoteric truth via a surface scientific cover, proves flawed. Pitching Psychosynthesis as all ‘respectable psychological science’ and hiding the esoteric engine in a locked upstairs room is also disingenuous, not to mention on potentially dodgy ethical ground – what works as a standard procedure for esotericists, hermeticists and magicians may not be appropriate praxis for clinicians, therapists and doctors. Magic is not Psychology.
On the flip side of this wall of silence, and considering organisational or institutional forms for a moment, one effect it has had is to disconnect the rank and file Psychosynthesis practitioner from the source of much of the richness of the method – it has been hard work to uncover the deeper story of Psychosynthesis, and more so that of Assagioli the man. It has also created a hierarchy of those ‘inside’, those identified as being worthy to carry the innermost gnosis of the tradition. An inevitable pathology of ‘specialness’ and ‘exclusion’ ensues, much to the detriment of Psychosynthesis as a force in the world, part-starved of its own creative potential. Wall as choke chain. I also gather from speaking with various people who were at one time formally inducted through the ‘wall of silence’ that the prevailing sense of anticipation and fulfilment they felt growing in them was inevitably punctured by the mundanity of the insight revealed – for of course, as always, the innermost sanctum, the holy of holies, the Sanctum Sanctorum, is empty. It could not be otherwise.
In conclusion then, and by way of balancing right proportions (another key means to understanding Assagioli’s motivation both in generating Psychosynthesis, and in creating the Wall of Silence)2, I do not mean to seem disrespectful of Assagioli’s choices nor of his intentions, in fact I esteem him higher now than I ever did when I was studying Psychosynthesis. He faced tumultuous times, mass awakenings of shadow and of colossal violence (which he presciently wrote about in 1930, identifying Mussolini and Hitler as ‘The Persuaders’, mass-consciousness manipulators, along with the advertisers of the age), and he did so as a highly sensitive and attuned magical instrument – so I do not judge his felt need to build the wall, I merely point out the way in which it has harmed his legacy by unintentionally constraining his gift to the world.
I do feel, however, that it is very telling that forty years since his death the structure still stands (though undermined in places, and with a few more breaches). So should we preserve it for posterity, or in deference to the wishes of the long-gone founder? Or shall we call, Reagan-like, upon some virtual synthetic-Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’? Will it become our canvas for protest and impassioned psychic graffiti, or persist as a ‘peace wall’ or West Bank barrier, a thing of apparent substance that we can lean our backs against? You see how such walls get binary and dualistic very quickly, imposing the architecture of oppression.
For me there is something for us in the quote, usually misattributed to another prolific esotericist, Isaac Newton (but actually from a Nobel Peace Laureate speech of Dominique Pire3):
‘Men build too many walls and not enough bridges’
So, shall we proceed as if the Wall of Silence is now more properly a Bridge of Contact?
Keith lives in Newport, South Wales, and works as a Psychosynthesis therapist, Supervisor and Mindfulness teacher in private practice. He is currently co-writing a book on the life and work of Roberto Assagioli.
*The Gruppo Alle Fonte organise an annual study event each September for Psychosynthesis enthusiasts from around the world to spend time at Casa Assagioli, working on the archive material and library. They are also engaged in an ambitious indexing and archiving process, and will be making the papers available online in scanned form. They give their time and translation skills for free, and through their dedication and enthusiasm make the work of drawing nearer to Assagioli more possible and much easier. They can be reached via the Istituto di Psicosintesi http://www.psicosintesi.it/attivitaistituto/eng/5028 or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/allefonti
1 Assagioli note to self, Florence archive – a variant of the Western ‘Powers of the Sphinx’, found in many sources e.g. Eliphas Levi: “In order to DARE we must KNOW; in order to WILL, we must DARE; we must WILL to possess empire and to reign we must BE SILENT”
2 Schuller, Michael, Psychosynthesis in North America, monograph 1988 published by the author
3 “PS is in a sense the Science of Relationship, in another sense it is the Science of (Right) Proportions” (Assagioli, handwritten note to self in Florence archive)
4 December 11, 1958 Dominique Pire, a Belgian Franciscan friar, delivered his Nobel Lecture entitled "Brotherly Love: Foundation of Peace"