THE ROOTS OF PSYCHOSYNTHESIS and the HEART OF ASSAGIOLI
[Picture: Panorama Florence]
Looking back, I feel blessed that my five year journey into Psychosynthesis has run in parallel with my coming to know the man who founded it – Dr Roberto Assagioli.
It’s through the latter experience I’ve begun to appreciate how radical a paradigm shift Psychosynthesis represents. And why the world so needs it now.
That seed first took root in me at the Assagioli Appreciation Day in London, July 2016. I arrive curious as to who initiated this fascinating, eclectic, invitational school of thought that speaks to me so strongly. A curiosity that’s quickly both salved and stirred when Assagioli’s biographer, Petra Guggisberg Nocelli, seems to conjure into the room her subject’s uncommon combination of genius and humility.
In her biography The Way of Psychosynthesis (2017) she relates how from interviewing so many people who knew Assagioli there emerged a vivid picture of “a simple and serene man who managed to maintain these qualities even in the most difficult and painful moments of his life … He totally embodied his message … After getting to know him [people] were not the same, not so much by what he was saying but by how he was” (1)
I leave the Appreciation Day with more than just an appreciation of Assagioli. I leave with a
lighter, more hopeful heart – and also a touch of anxiety as to whether this evocation of
Assagioli is too good to be true.
Two years later I am fortunate to meet and talk with Isabelle Kung who had met Assagioli in 1960, training with him in Florence in educational psychology and self enhancement through psychosynthesis. In her 70s and still sparkling with wit, wisdom and zest for life, she speaks of her experience of Assagioli: his humility, his humour, his unquenchable curiosity, appreciation and compassion for everyone he met, irrespective of status.
She lights up as she recounts how powerful it was for her own self development to observe him taking notice, and then deeply engaging with, people who others (including herself) tended to overlook or ignore. She remembered witnessing the shift in people following such encounters, how being truly seen, genuinely met, would touch them, move them, deepen them.
Perhaps, I wondered, Assagioli is one of those exceptional cases where soul meets intellect, and, as Aubyn Howard suggests in his new book, his “lived example can be seen to be wholly consistent and congruent with his ideas and teaching” (2)
Earlier in 2018, my wife, Harriet, and I, while on holiday in Italy, made a pilgrimage to
Casa Assagioli in Florence, home to Assagioli until his death in 1974. At the time I felt myself still walking the foothills of Psychosynthesis, Harriet had many years of exploring its landscape, and we were both thrilled to visit its source. Casa Assagioli is kept immaculate, and largely as it was when Assagioli died, so that in stepping into a room, it is easy to imagine that the great master has just stepped out moments before. His spirit lingers too in the warm welcome, and unforced enthusiasm of our hosts, the Gruppo Alle Fonti (“Group at the Well Spring”), the dedicated women curating Assagioli’s legacy.
[Photo of Assagioli notelet]
Their work includes cataloguing and collating thousands of small notelets, like elongated
post-its, on which Assagioli spontaneously wrote down evocative words, leaving them scattered around his office and workspace. The Gruppo Alle Fonti refer to these small bits of
paper as Assagiolini. To me they are delightful breadcrumbs of insight; synaptic sparks of
inspiration or wisdom or both. Assagiolli I’m told, when asked about these notelets, smiled,
and said, “they are accumulators of energy!” (3).
The archiving of these, and planting them online (4), speaks to the devotion Assagioli inspires to this day, and of an ongoing mining for meaning and revelation in his legacy. And each spontaneous spark of insight scribbled onto paper also speaks to his agile, creative, playful and mischievous mind.
[Picture Assagioli’s Library]
The desk in Assagioli’s Library would have once been coated with Assagiolini, like sentient autumn leaves. Their removal for filing seems to be the only thing that has changed since 1974. As befits a man with an insatiable appetite for all sorts of ideas, insights, theories into who we are as humans, Assagioli’s bookshelves are alive with the works of wise and provocative thinkers from across the world and down the ages.
As my eyes scan the spines, they speak to me of the sheer breadth of Assagioli’s passions: ranging near and far, from Jung or Tagore; back in time to Plato and Dante; extending out from the academic to the esoteric and the spiritual. I pick up an early work by Abraham Maslow, Eupsychian Management , and open to a page on which sentences are marked and underlined. By Assagioli I imagine. ‘’Just as it is possible to say bluntly and unmistakably that the purpose … of all psychotherapy is growth toward self-actualisation … so also can we say that this is the function of any good society’ (5).
In my career I have led a mental health charity and various projects which bucked a
prevailing local and national culture of rivalry, competition and fragmentation to weave
threads of connection and collaboration. In doing so we tapped into two hidden resources –
the abilities and potential that people forget they have when taught to define themselves by
their disabilities and problems, and the resourcefulness and creativity of the communities
they live in when spurred to act collectively.
So this Assagioli-marked Maslow passage sings to me. It seeks to integrate the unique individual system of self that each of us are, within the context of the complex human systems and cultures we form together, micro and macro, psychosynthetic and socio-synthetic. And recognises that each nourish the other. Now, two years on from my reading Maslow’s observation, in a year of eco, race-relations and pandemic crises – his words sing even louder.
[Picture: Casa Assagioli Display board of Assagioli’s Connections]
A large display board in the reception area of the Casa Assagioli echoes the same inter-connection of diverse minds and souls evident in the Library. The board celebrates the names and photographs of outstanding thinkers and innovators with whom Assagioli forged links, and often friendships.
As I write this, from the perspective of a COVID Lockdown in November 2020, I’m struck by the similarity of that grid of photographic portraits to the Zoom screen of one of those online conferences that have taken off in the last eight months – the Embodiment Conference or Coaches Rising .
Just imagine if all the faces in that gallery of Assagioli’s collaborators, friends, and inspiring contemporaries could be magicked into digital life – and the quality of the virtual debate that would ensue. Jung, Freud, Maslow, Buber, Indian philosopher and Polymath Tagore, esoteric English pioneer Alice Bailey, Educationalist Maria Montessori, Buddhist explorer Alexandra David-Neal, founder of the Western Sufi Order Inayat Khan and more … a smorgasbord of fascinating perspectives on and insights into our Human Nature brought to life in this House of Synthesis.
What would that be like? There would be conflict for sure. And also mycelial strands of inter-connection. Sparks of recognition, flashes of insight, synaptic junctions lighting up, illuminating new possibilities.
In this moment I find myself imagining what faces would have been on that board of connection were Assagioli alive today? And also musing on what my desired wall of connection might look like? And further wondering, who would yours include, dear reader? For me – top of head – there would be Frederick Laloux, Charles Eisenstein, Kate Raworth, Richard Schwartz, Greta Thurnberg, Stephen Porges, Dr Gabor Mate, Bjork resuming her friendship with David Attenborough, and, with some time-bending magic, a triptych embodying the power of creativity featuring Maya Angelou, Stormzy and Grayson Perry.
Until visiting Casa Assagioli I’d still been framing Psychosynthesis as an unusually expansive branch of Psychology and Psychotherapy.
But that wall of inter-connection speaks to how Assagioli himself viewed Psychosynthesis, not as another school of thought in a crowded field of competing explanations of who we humans are, but as a space to invite in everyone with something valuable to offer, so that they dance together to illuminate and celebrate the complexity and wonder of being human. And I’m moved to ask whether we Psychosynthesists still carry that torch now? Are we a closed and separate system, or an open and invitational one?
For me Psychosynthesis, even in its name (think ‘a synthesis of the psychologies’), rewrites the dominant paradigm of ‘competing schools of thought’ and in doing so is as relevant in our time of crisis and polarisation as it has ever been. Assagioli never declared a formal school of psychology or an exclusive method. It was never just another Grand Idea pitted against other Grand Ideas, another ‘magic bullet’ competing with a fusillade of others. It was
rather a complete paradigm shift, an invitation to, and container for, all ideas and perspectives and theories of value that are useful to our understanding of what it means to be human.
‘Our concern is the synthesis of all areas of the personality. That means psychosynthesis is holistic, global and inclusive’. Assagioli 1974 (6)
Which isn’t to say that anything goes. Though Assagioli embraced a vast variety of theories and techniques, there are caveats as to who and what are invited. And these also have much to say to the times we are living through now. In his interview for Psychology Today US a few months before his death in 1974, Assagioli explained, to his probing and initially skeptical interviewer, Sam Keen: ‘[Psychosynthesis] 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’. (7)
At the heart of what Assagioli considers as useful for our understanding of human growth is his view of our capacity for Will, and he is dismissive of theories that deny this. I find the description he gives Sam Keen of the circumstances that can awaken Will particularly apt for our time of multiple crises.
“Modern psychology [has] a deterministic view of man as a bundle of competing forces with no centre. This is contrary to every human being’s direct experience of himself. At some point, perhaps in a crisis when danger threatens, an awakening occurs in which the individual discovers his will. This revelation that the self and the will are intimately connected can change a person’s whole awareness of himself and the world. He sees that he is a living subject, an actor, endowed with the power to choose, to relate, to bring about changes in his own personality, in others, in circumstances. And this awareness leads to a feeling of wholeness, security and joy”. (8)
When I first began exploring Psychosynthesis, I was surprised to find how, even in the community of Psychosynthesist coaches and therapists, explanations varied as to what is distinctive about Psychosynthesis.
For some it is the psycho-spirituality dimension; for others the centrality of Self and Will and the rejection of deterministic views of who we are. Some feel a need for a more clearly defined or more ‘modern’ methodology given the wide range of approaches within it, others wishing for a better honed USP for marketing, one which would give psychosynthesis a more competitive edge in the market of modalities.
Having been blessed by my encounters with the spirit of Assagioli – visiting his home, meeting someone who worked closely with him, hearing his biographer speak of who she ‘met’ in exploring his life, I’m left with the sense that his gift of Psychosynthesis offers something more urgent and necessary than maybe we realise – even we adherents. I see it as a catalyst for transformation in a world, post-COVID, which is awash with threat and potential.
I’d like our use of the term to be unapologetic. Its value as a counter to many of the mindsets and myths that limit and obscure our vision is immense.
Faced with the reductive, fear-stoked dynamics of polarisation it invites polarities to synthesise. Faced with the pervasive view of humans as fundamentally selfish and cynical , a view embedded in our economics and amplified in the echo chamber of social media, it reminds us of our higher selves, of our capacity for love, joy, creativity, connection. Faced with overwhelm and fatalism it activates Will . And when we scale up the value of individual synthesis and integration and apply it to the socio-, eco-, and macro realms, it invites not only each of us to connect to Self, but also to a transformation of human systems, and an allegiance with like minds at the systemic as well as individual level.
I’m currently hosting a ‘Collective Conversation’ of psychosynthesis coaches drawn together by the catalyst of COVID to look to the future we desire and how the paradigm of Psychosynthesis can catalyse individual and systemic growth towards that future.
Inevitably the nature of our call to action, one I’d love to hear echo throughout the realm of Psychosynthesis, is beautifully articulated by Assagioli himself, not just in his books and papers, but in one of his scattered seeds of wisdom, his Assagiolini: handwritten note AS 11503: ‘Let us realise our unavoidable responsibility and our wonderful inspiring opportunity to re- create consciously ourselves and help to re-create the world’ Roberto Assagioli. Evocative Words . (9)
Paul Clarke, November 30th 2020
1) Nocelli, Petra Guggisberg; The Way of Psychosynthesis (2017).
2) Howard, Aubyn; Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching: A Psychology of Being for a Time of Crisis. (2020)
3) Rosselli, Massimo; ‘Roberto Assagioli: a Bright Star’, International Journal of Psychotherapy Vol 16, No 2, Article 02 (2012)
5) p.39 Maslow, Abraham; Eupsychian Management p.39 (1965)
6) Assagioli interviewed by Sam Keen, Psychology Today USA 1974
7) Keen interview, 1974
8) Keen interview, 1974
9) Assagioli, Roberto. Evocative Words handwritten note AS 11503