On the Threshold of Mystery

An essay by Piero Ferrucci

This essay is for those who are interested in psychosynthesis and its expression. Although this is a fairly specific subject, it touches on themes which are relevant to everybody: collaboration, awareness of one’s boundaries, money, the words we use, the relationship with students, patients, clients; and the mystery of existence. I would like to start with a quality of Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, a capacity that greatly impressed many of those who met him. Face to face with him, you would immediately feel you were endowed with great value; during and after that encounter you were in touch with your best qualities, with your most beautiful potentialities, activated and ready to flourish.

In this way a warm, vital connection was generated, and you felt you were participating in a work that was vast, effective and beautiful. Assagioli believed in the possible evolution of our society, which needs the participation of a great number of people from various backgrounds: an evolution of consciousness, the culture we live in, our way of conceiving a human being, and the quality of our relationships. Exactly for this reason he often liked to tell the people he met: “We are doing the same work”. It’s like in the well known story of the stone cutter, who realizes he is not doing just banal work, but helps to build a cathedral.

At the same time for Assagioli it was crucial that everybody should just mind their own specific area of competence, without interfering with other people’s work, without judging or telling others what they should do or how they should behave. Chacun doit cultiver son jardin, says the French motto from Voltaire he was fond of quoting, each one must cultivate his or her own garden, which means work on yourself and be at your best in the work you are doing. And then stop right there. To keep a balance between these two complementary tendencies, the inclusion of the world around us, and the rigorous respect of one’s own limits, is a task that accompanies us through our whole life. It is easy to lose that balance, but essential to conquer it again each day.

People practicing psychosynthesis often follow other teachings as well. For instance they appreciate the value of two different entities: esotericism and psychosynthesis (but also: Kabbalah, Vedanta, Buddhism … and psychosynthesis). They have experienced their authenticity, and received guidance and nourishment from both. So they don’t see the point of keeping them separate. They try to join them. But two good things do not necessarily make one greater and better thing.

Roberto Assagioli devised psychosynthesis so it would be independent of any religious creed. Psychosynthesis takes people to the door of the mystery, but the responsibility of taking the next step is their choice: I wish to clarify that psychosynthesis, as a scientific conception and as bio-psychotherapeutic activity, does not take any specific position, neither metaphysical nor religious; it bestows the greatest value to these activities of the human spirit, but in no way does it try to invade their field; it arrives at the threshold of the mystery, and there it stops, (“Psychosomatic Medicine and Bio-psychosynthesis” Rome, 1967). I believe there is great value and great humility in these strong words: it’s about knowing where to stop. When I was for some time in America in 1972 I wrote Assagioli asking for clarification on the relationship between psychosynthesis and other forms of spirituality. In his reply he wrote:

As you know, I had tried to create a “wall of silence”, but it had, and has, many breaches! Now I am convinced that it is not so much a question of keeping this “wall”, as to clarify and keep a clear distincion between the scientific field and the others (esoteric, spiritualistic, but also religious and philosophical systematic). One should make everybody understand that psychosynthesis has a positively scientific character, in the empirical and experiential sense. It is based on, and remains adherent to the reality and the situation of each individual. Therefore it abstains from formulating theories and creating “systems” or doctrines, even of a scientific kind, or believed to be so.

This “doctrinal neutrality” of psychosynthesis presents the great advantage that all can place psychosynthesis, and use it, within the framework of their own extra-scientific convictions (religious, metaphysical, etc.) Everybody has the right to do that, just as any surgeon or engineer can join any religion, philosophy or spiritual movement outside his or her profession, and be active in it.

In my opinion this matter touches on six crucial issues. One is language. Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great Austrian philosopher (I quote the phrase in German because it sounds so beautiful in that language, almost like a poem). It means that the language I use defines, actually signifies, the world I live in. Psychosynthesis uses words that are neutral: self, subpersonality, unconscious, psychological functions, etc. The language we use defines our limits.

Limits are not a bad thing. They are an affirmation of what we may and may not do, what we want to talk about and what we do not want to talk about. It constitutes a field. This endeavour requires rigorous discipline. We have to keep within the boundaries of our own area of competence. The language we use is the scientific language (in the broad sense of the word, i.e. empirical). The subject is human experience. That’s what we have, and that’s what we study.

From an esoteric standpoint any human event can be viewed in an incomparably wider context. For instance, according to Alice Bailey’s Esoteric Astrology, and I am quoting with the greatest respect here, our planetary life is influenced by the constellation of the Great Bear, The Pleiades, Sirius, the seven solar systems (of which our is one), the seven sacred planets (of which ours is not one), the five hidden planets, the seven planetary centres, the seven centres of force in the human etheric body, and the twelve zodiacal constellations, plus two great stars, Betelgeuse and Antares.

Now imagine communicating these ideas to a group of hardboiled neuroscientists in a psychotherapy conference, or teachers in search of practical ideas, or stressed nurses and doctors looking for a way to deal with burnout, or disgruntled househusbands who come to you at the end of a hard day after they have said good night to the kids, and just want to learn how to be a bit less frazzled. Esotericism anyone? Perhaps for some of these individuals it would be a wonderful revelation. But for others it would be a source of confusion and dismay. It would not be what they are looking for. And this we do not want to happen.

Let’s remember that the language esotericism uses is symbolic.Saying that Betelgeuse or the Great Bear influences human lives is not a factual statement, but a device to awaken the reader’s intuition and help glimpse the unity of the cosmos and conceive otherwise indescribable realities. In contrast, psychosynthesis uses a language that is concrete and empirical. They are two hugely different forms of expression.

Likewise, what in psychosynthesis would be called an “insight”, could be interpreted by a Christian as inspiration from the Holy Spirit. And an experience of the “inner voice” may be for someone else Krishna’s whisper reaching her amidst the outer tumult of life’s battles. That is an entirely legitimate point of view, if you adopt the standpoint of any of those systems. But it does not work anymore if you donot belong to them.

The second issue is a matter of method. Psychosynthesis always starts from the individual’s world – the empirical datum. From that world it moves to the universal – that is, describes processes which also happen to other people, and attempts to find common patterns. This is the method of science. For psychosynthesis the Self and transpersonal experiences are natural events. They are not supernatural, but phenomena to be studied just as you study the flow of water, the orbit of celestial bodies, or the development of plants.

Esotericism starts from the universal and ends with the individual. This is an entirely different trajectory, and you cannot put the two together (unless you are competent in each, and embrace both). Esotericism starts from the cosmos as an interplay of energies, then moves to the solar system, the planet, humanity, finally you and me. Psychosynthesis is playing one game, esotericism is playing another game. You can play soccer, and you can play chess. But you cannot play the two of them at the same time.

In my experience and to my knowledge, psychosynthesis was created with this criterion in mind. If we mix it with our pet theories, we dilute and weaken it. It will become unrecognizable. If we acknowledge psychosynthesis for the autonomous school of psychology which it is, with its boundaries, its methods and language, its aims, we will contribute to keeping it strong.

Thirdly: the source. Psychosynthesis is an autonomous school of psychology. You can hear it said sometimes that psychosynthesis is an offshoot of esotericism or a translation of esotericism into exotericism. You can also hear people that exhort us: Be brave! Show your true creed, your real roots. This is where the psychology of the future is headed! Move forward! Be audacious!

I strongly dispute that. There is no doubt that Assagioli was inspired by Theosophy and Alice Bailey. However, he conceived of psychosynthesis as an autonomous system, meaning that it has its essence within itself. Its ideas and its spirit do not come from another source. Believing that psychosynthesis derives its truth from a source other than itself is misleading. It weakens psychosynthesis, turns it into some kind of poor man’s esotericism, which it isn’t. On top of that, it does not look as if contemporary psychology is moving in that direction. On the contrary. Rather, it is moving towards more severe methodological criteria, more precise methods, firmer boundaries, and a greater emphasis on empirical research. Psychology is now much more exacting than when Assagioli was alive.

Back to autonomy. Think of a person who, in order to live normally, needs the support, the counsel, the trust, the energy of another person. This individual would be weak and probably would end up with some pathology. We see that all the time in psychotherapy, and we help patients dependent on outside help regain access to their own wisdom and life energy. The same thing happens with ideas. Psychosynthesis is indeed inspired by spiritual traditions down the ages. But if we conceive it as deriving its raison d’être from another source, a source to which only some people and not all have access, we entirely deprive it of its inherent power.

The moment spiritual authority is elsewhere and not in you, you depend on other people to mediate between that spiritual authority and yourself. I see the whole effort in psychosynthesis precisely as going in the opposite direction: giving to you, to your experience in the here and now, all the value it deserves, using your own language, your own concepts and constructs.

Thinking of psychosynthesis as a version of esotericism for the masses not only gives a false idea of psychosynthesis. It also diminishes Assagioli’s originality as well as the student’s or client’s learning potential. He was a bridge builder, not a translator. In psychosynthesis you can find echoes of many different traditions and systems: to give a few examples, disidentification is an echo of Vedanta; Plato taught the possibility of “psychagogy” (self- education and work on oneself); the idea of descent into darkness and ascent to the Spirit is a strong theme of Dante’s Divine Comedy; the Grail stories celebrate the quest to find the Cup of Love and Supreme Knowledge; in the Jewish tradition the encounter between “I”and “Thou” is foremost. These are all themes that you can find in psychosynthesis, although at times they are radically transformed. For instance Vedanta has a deterministic view of human destiny, whereas for Assagioli it is exactly disidentification that makes free will possible. Assagioli also found in Goethe some poetic themes that contributed to the creation of psychosynthesis; from Freud he received the idea of unconscious, from Jung the insight into archetypes and the collective unconscious; from Hermann Keyserling the idea of teaching wisdom; from the American tradition - Emerson to James to Maslow - the subject of peak experiences and expansions of consciousness. And this is to name but a few.

Not that Assagioli took the pieces and put them together. All these influences inspired him to create an original synthesis. He worked at it from 1909 (or even before) to the time of his death in August 1974. That’s more than 65 years. Why on earth would Assagioli take the trouble to create psychosynthesis, i.e. construct a school of psychology with its own themes and guidelines, enter the tricky arena of contemporary psychology and pedagogy, communing with some of the greatest minds in twentieth century psychology and psychiatry, in this way participating to not one, but tworevolutions in psychology’s short history (psychoanalysis and humanistic-transpersonal psychology), get busy with starting centers and activities and publications throughout the world - if it turned out to be nothing more than a watered down brand of esotericism?

On top of that, of course, one should not forget the enormous progress psychology has made in recent decades. Psychosynthesis can be strengthened and enriched by these developments. In some cases it has anticipated them, and this too should be kept in mind.

In describing differences between esotericisn and psychosynthesis we should also keep in mind the question of allegiance. Psychosynthesis requires no commitment to a system in its entirety; you can choose only the aspects and techniques you find useful and relevant, without a full commitment to a faith and to a vast worldview that covers all aspects of inner and outer life. Not so with esotericism, and religion, which demand on our part a full surrender to an entire perspective on reality. You cannot pick and choose here. Those are two very different kinds of allegiance. The beauty of the psychosynthesis approach is that it leaves people free to embrace any creed, without forcing them to accept a whole bag of beliefs and assumptions. And for people who already happen to have a faith? No problem. Psychosynthesis helps many people understand more deeply any religious or esoteric system they may already hold.

We also have the matter of professional ethics. “Doctrinal neutrality” is actually a must in any helping profession, where you are ethically required to respect the patient/client/student’s worldview, without selling them your own, or using the prestige of your role to convince them of your creed.

When we get to the threshold of mystery, we must stop. Not to do that, and nonchalantly to proceed as if nothing was different, means that (with the best of intentions) you take people into territories where they did not ask to go in the first place. We cannot make these choices for other people without even telling them. It’s like being on a bus that does not stop at the terminus, but keeps going beyond its route and obliges passengers to change their agreed destination.

At other times the opposite happens. People we meet in our work already have been to distant territories, have already made choices and built their own vision of the world. Suppose a patient comes to me saying that she was traumatized in a past life. I would immediately accept her explanation and request to work on the knots. I would move within the construction of that client’s world, and respect it as such. In such a case let me say that I doubt this is really a past life (although I am open to that hypothesis). I would think it had more to do with the client’s own unconscious, which has, as we teach our students, an amazing mythopoietic capacity: the ability to create imaginary stories and make them look so true that one cannot distinguish them from the real thing. The Work of Elizabeth Loftus on false memories also points in a similar direction. Let me also say that Assagioli in general advised against doing “past life” regression (if they really are past lives), on the grounds that in a past life we were less evolved than we are in the present one, so why bother waking up dormant material that would be better left dormant? Always follow the rule of greatest economy. Always go the simplest way. As a therapist I will accept any model of the world a client gives me, and move within it. As therapists, guides, educators, counsellors, we are first of all guests.

Last but not least, we have the question of money. In the esoteric field you usually work without remuneration. This is done to protect you from social dynamics, and to give you an inner freedom which you may not be able to access otherwise. This is not the case with psychosynthesis, which treads the ways of the world, and is often presented as professional work and therefore paid. Money in our culture (more in the Catholic view, less in the Protestant one) often has negative connotations. It is seen as something impure, that corrupts the human spirit. These are historical and social conditionings we have about money, but they are not its essence. As Assagioli shows in his essay on the subject (“Money and the Spiritual Life”), money is a neutral instrument, and the purpose and the qualities we want to give to it depend on us. Work must be paid for. Not doing so takes away its value. This is a subject that often comes up with our students, some of whom feel guilty or embarassed over receiving money for work that should be based on solidarity, empathy, care, generosity: priceless values. To earn money for this kind of work (counseling, psychotherapy, teaching, etc.) seems to some people to be mercenary. Not so. Rather it is an interchange of energy, and if this interchange does not happen, the work is damaged. The payment is not for spiritual value, which is not a merchandise, but for time and professional intervention. This kind of work is not necessarily weakened by money: it can be authentic and of high caliber.

Each of the six themes is, in my opinion, fundamental in psychosynthesis work – in self- realization and care of others. These are subjects in which I am trying to clarify ideas, with no intention of having the last word or interfering with other people’s work.

Read this related post: Beyond the ‘Wall of Silence’ – Psychosynthesis inside and out, by Keith Hackwood


    • Daniela raimes

      As a ‘service user’,’client’, human being i both agree and am relieved to read this well presented clarification.
      My involvement with Psychosynthesis is totally based on a trust in my ‘therapist’ that insists on a clear set of boundaries and I do not wish to be ‘sold’ any religious or esoteric philosophies beyond the human attunement and witness of my councellor, this must remain the founding principal. Alas, it is not money that sullies things but the capitalist way where humans are ‘customers’ and The commercialisation and commodification of ‘therapy’ is the problem. How to remain authentic and honest to principal in this difficult landscape is a problem we all struggle with. Its business also at PT, those rooms need renting out and who or how ultimately can this be policed? Its down to trust in the end.

    • Sally Sugg

      In this article I believe Piero expands beautifully on the core of Psychosynthesis that drew me to it many years ago. The central concept that ‘this is not THE truth’, that Assagioli ‘takes us to the door and leaves us there’ the absence of dogma and the personal freedom this offers is unique and of inestimable value.

    • Keith Hackwood

      Just heard about this new blog, crafted from Piero’s essay published online, and The link made to my previous article (which isn’t working currently from the url used). It might be interesting to explore these themes further, if there’s a will for it?

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