The Golden Mean of Roberto Assagioli

By Sam Keen

More than half a century ago, when Freud was creating psychoanalysis in Vienna, Roberto Assagioli, M.D. was developing psychosynthesis in Italy. Until recently his work was not much known either in or outside Italy, but in the last decade institutes of psychosynthesis have been blossoming around the world and Assagioli’s books are being translated into many languages.

Estimates of his accomplishment vary widely. Some believe he has returned the fact of will to psychology, elaborated a viable notion of the transpersonal self, and assembled a therapeutic technology that reflects the best wisdom modern psychology can offer. Mike Murphy and Stuart Miller of Esalen think psychosynthesis provides a comprehensive vision that is likely to effect a marriage between humanistic, transpersonal and research-based psychology. Others see Assagioli’s idea of will as a Victorian throwback, his transpersonal self as a thinly disguised borrowing from idealistic theology and his techniques as an eclectic mish-mash.

A Miasma of Moderation.

On first reading I found Psychosynthesis and The Act of Will inclusive, ponderous and soporific. Assagioli’s analyses were so balanced, his diagrams so inclusive and his solutions so global that everything bogged down in a miasma of moderation. Aristotle’s golden mean may produce a mellow life but it makes for undramatic prose. The vision of “a complete and harmonious development of the human personality” and “the elimination of all conflicts and obstacles that might block this development” seemed optimistic at best and naïve at worst.

And what do you make of a psychotherapist who borrows the best insights and techniques from a dozen competing varieties of psychology? On the American therapeutic scene we are accustomed to psychological warfare, regular shootouts at the “you’re-not-OK” corral between members of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Humanistic Psychology. (Is it all right to touch? Is shock therapy more humane than sleeping with a client?) Balance and harmony seemed tepid fare compared to primal screams, M&Ms, and free ($$) association. I wondered what an aristocratic gentleman with a spirit of conciliation could say to us aggressive ones. Psychosynthesis did sound grand and methodical but a little too heroic. Shouldn’t psychotherapy be more modest? It might be better to avoid grand visions and concentrate on the glory of coping. I had my doubts about psychosynthesis. But the alternatives are even less promising.

An Invisible Glory.

A few weeks and a transcontinental flight later, I found it hard to remain critical and objective. The Renaissance oozes from every inch of Florence that is not covered by Fiats and tourists. Michelangelo’s David testifies to the classical vision of proportion. Botticelli’s Venus is still rising from the sea with almond-shaped, olive eyes not unlike those of a salesgirl in a small shop on the Ponte Vecchio. Il Duomo stands as a monument to an invisible glory that was once at the heart of the city. Before I entered the Institute for Psychosynthesis at 16 Via San Domenico, I was vulnerable to any hope of a majestic psychology to support the modern spirit.

Assagioli’s office is a small room in his apartment, which is above the headquarters of the Institute. Books like two of the walls: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Keyserling, Abraham Maslow and Carl Gustav Jung seem to be favourites. On the next to the bottom shelf Jonathan Livingstone Seagull is perched between Rollo May and Erik Erikson. The desk is antique and covered with objects and papers (talismans of the shaman): fresh-cut flowers (like tiger lilies I knew in Tennessee); a barometer; a clock; a kitchen timer; scales; a flag of the United Nations; a star globe; two word-cards – ENERGY and GOOD-WILL. The walls, once white, have now yellowed like old bones. A stuffed Victorian love seat squats in one corner of the room.

Assagioli rises to greet me. He is old, fine-boned and frail, but the liveliness and delight in his face make his presence vigorous. His pointed goatee and salmon- coloured-velvet smoking jacket lend an air of old-world authority.

Roberto Assagioli: I must ask you to write the questions that you would like to ask me because, as you know, I do not hear.

Sam Keen: (This is going to be a strange conversation. I will have to carry on two separate dialogues: one with the tape recorder and one with Assagioli. In order to keep track of his answers I will have to read my written questions onto the tape. I will also have to record my elaborations, metaquestions, doubts and occasional voices. It will be hard to capture nuances because he can only respond to specific questions. But the, most people are deaf to the metaconversation, the thoughts beyond the words. There are four parties to every dialogue. Two are silent.)

Keen: What are the major differences between psychosynthesis and psychoanalysis?

Assagioli: 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 behaviour 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. Take sex for example. There is no sex per se. Sex is connected with every other function. So-called sexual problems are often caused by power conflicts between two persons and can only be solved by unravelling the complex interactions between them.

Keen: The features you have mentioned so far are largely theoretical. Is your therapeutic technology any different than psychoanalysis? (It was always a shock to the reader of the rhetoric of Logotherapy and existential psychotherapy to discover that they introduced no noticeable innovations in therapeutic practice – which may mean they made no practical difference.)

Assagioli: 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, muysic, 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.

Keen: Did psychosynthesis develop from psychoanalysis? Assagioli: Yes. In 1910 Freud was unknown in Italy. My doctoral committee

was reluctant, but they finally permitted me to do my doctoral thesis on psychoanalysis. I went to Zurich to study with Eugen Bleuler, the inventor of schizophrenia. When I returned, I practiced psychoanalysis in Italy but I soon discovered its limitations.

Keen: What was your relationship to Freud and Jung? Assagioli: I never met Freud personally but I corresponded with him and he

wrote to Jung expressing the hope that I would further the cause of psychoanalysis in Italy. But I soon became a heretic. With Jung, I had a more cordial relationship. We met many times during the years and had delightful talks. Of all modern psychotherapists, Jung is the closest in theory and practice to psychosynthesis.

Keen: What are the similarities and differences? Assagioli: In the practice of therapy we both agree in rejecting “pathologism,”

that is, concentration upon morbid manifestations and symptoms of a supposed psychological “disease.” We regard man as a fundamentally healthy organism in which there may be a temporary malfunctioning. Nature is always trying to re- establish harmony, and within the psyche the principle of synthesis is dominant. Irreconcilable opposites do not exist. The task of therapy is to aid the individual in transforming the personality, and integrating apparent contradictions. Both Jung and myself have stressed the need for a person to develop the higher psychic functions, the spiritual dimension.

Perhaps the best way to state our difference is with a diagram of the psychic functions. Jung differentiates four functions: sensation, feeling, thought and intuition. 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.

Keen: (Beware – dangerous ground – whenever desire is opposed to will a tragic conflict appears that can only be solved by the intervention of the strong man. I suspect the iron hand of will-power lurks under the velvet glove of synthesis.) Why do you place will at the centre of the ego? Are you advocating a new form of voluntarism? Should we amend Descartes to read: I will, therefore I am?

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