Maritha on Counseling

Maritha Pottenger

This issue we take up one of the newer, spiritual psychotherapies: psychosynthesis. Psychosynthesis, as the name suggests, is intended to integrate into a coherent, harmonious whole information from a variety of sources about the human condition and its betterment. Sources include: psychosomatic medicine; psychology of religion; psychic research; Eastern psychology; Herman Keyserling’s “creative understanding;” investigations into the superconscious; holistic approaches to personality; active techniques for the development and treatment of personality; inter-individual, social psychology and psychiatry, plus anthropological study of mankind. Dr. Roberto Assagioli, an Italian physician and psychiatrist, is the originator and major proponent of psychosynthesis. He gives references (pp. 14-16 of Psychosynthesis) for each of these major fields. All his writings have ample bibliographies.

Dr. Assagioli recognized, as have many others, that we strive for a model, a conceptual framework to explain reality. As he says, psychosynthesis attempts to correlate similarities, reduce exaggerations, and come up with a conception of the human personality which is “nearer to reality than previous formulations.” (p.16) He emphasizes that all models are tentative and hypothetical and cautions against becoming too tied to one view of reality.

Psychosynthesis falls into the “Third Force” category of psychologies: humanistic as opposed to Freudian or behavioristic. Dr. Assagioli began as early as 1910 to point to what he saw as limitations in Freud’s work. Although Abraham Maslow is often cited as the “father” of humanistic psychology with his emphasis on self-actualization and his focus on growth and positive potentials rather than pathology, much of Assagioli’s work pre-dates Maslow’s publishing. Like Darwin and Wallace, it seems parallel evolution was going on. The time had come for the concepts of the “Third Force” and advocates arose all over, often not discovering their similar messages until later.

Assagioli discusses some of the similarities and differences (which he feels are mostly a matter of emphasis rather than a qualitative shift) between psychosynthesis and existential/humanistic psychology (which borrows much from existential philosophers.) Most “Third Force” psychologies fall generally within the realm of existential/humanistic.

According to Assagioli, both existentialists and psychosynthesists:

1. Start within the person, i.e. the self. Identity is a central concept, as experienced by the individual.

2. Growth and development are seen as constant. One is continually actualizing potentials.

3. Meaning, as given or as sought and searched for by the individual is central.

4. Values (as emphasized by Frankl) are important, especially ethical, aesthetic, religious.

5. We all continually face choices, make decisions and bear the responsibility for those choices and decisions.

6. We need to understand the motivations for our choices and decisions.

7. Human existence is taken seriously. Anxiety is given a place, and it is assumed suffering needs to be faced.

8. The future is important and seen as affecting the present.

9. Each individual is unique. Different combinations of techniques are used for each patient.

Also according to Assagioli, differences with existentialism which psychosynthesis has (mainly a matter of emphasis):

1. Psychosynthesis puts the will in a central position: “as an essential function of the self and as the necessary source or origin of all choices, decisions, engagements.” (p.5) Psychosynthesis analyzes the stages of the will: 1. Goal, valuation, motivation. 2. Deliberation. 3. Decision. 4. Affirmation. 5. Planning. 6. Direction of the execution. (p.8) Psychosynthesis uses techniques to arouse, strengthen, develop and direct the will.

2. Assagioli and others believe one can reach direct experience of the self (pure self-awareness) with out any “content” due to the field or situation. It is seen as a “‘phenomenological’ experience, an inner reality which can be empirically verified and deliberately produced through appropriate techniques.” (p.5)

3. They emphasize peak experiences, and foster them through techniques. Psychosynthesis is against focusing just on painful, tragic experiences.

4. Loneliness is not seen as “ultimate or essential. It is a stage, a temporarily subjective condition.” (p.5) Eventually, one achieves agape (altruistic love, communion, sharing).

5. Psychosynthesis deliberately uses active techniques to: a. transform, sublimate and direct psychological energies; b. strengthen and mature weak or underdeveloped functions; c. activate the superconscious and awaken latent potentials.

6. Psychosynthesis involves planned reconstruction or the re-creation of personality by patient and therapist. The process goes from much activity by the therapist to little. The patient establishes progressively more relationship, dialogue and identification with the Self.

The major contribution I see (personally) psychosynthesis makes is the re-entry of the spiritual into the psychological. Dr. Assagioli sees aesthetic, ethical functions, religious experiences, intuition, mystical consciousness and inspiration as real and factual in the pragmatic sense: they are effective, producing change in the inner and outer world. Psychosynthesis is not associated with a particular religious or metaphysical framework. It does reject materialism. Spiritual realities are believed to exist.

Psychosynthesis is strongly into reconciling the seeming duality of human existence: the experience of separate, conflicted parts vs. the experience of the real unity and uniqueness of the Self. The psychosynthesis vision of human existence attempts to heal this schism. The psychosynthesis “egg” is their description of human experience and personality.

The Lower Unconscious is said to contain elementary psychological functions which direct bodily functions; drives and primitive urges; complexes charged with emotion; dreams and imagination of an “inferior” kind; uncontrolled parapsychological processes; pathological manifestations, such as phobias, obsessions, compulsive urges and paranoid delusions.

The Middle Unconscious has content similar to our waking consciousness, and easily accessible to it. Here, our experiences are assimilated. Mental and imaginative activities develop before becoming fully conscious.

The Higher Unconscious or Superconscious is the source of heroic, mystical, philosophical, ethical, religious, artistic urges. It is the origin of “higher” feelings, e.g. altruistic love, genius. Here are (latent) the “higher” psychic functions.

The Field of Consciousness is basically what we are aware of: sensations, thoughts, images, feelings, desires, etc. We can observe, analyze and judge this content.

The Conscious Self or “I” is the center of our consciousness. Psychosynthesis emphasizes the this is not the same as the content of our awareness. We can have an awareness of self or “I”, which is separate from what that “I” is experiencing.

The Higher Self is seen as beyond bodily sensations, feelings, etc. Awareness of this Self has been described as cosmic consciousness. The personal conscious self is seen as an incomplete and imperfect reflection of this Higher Self, which is a synthesizing center.

The Collective Unconscious is the rest of our environment—people, etc.—with whom we are constantly in a state of “psychological osmosis,” interacting on a psychic level all the time.

Thus, according to psychosynthesis, we experience the “feeling” of two selves, but the reality is actually one. However, the personal self is often unaware of the “Higher Self,” which tends not to manifest itself consciously. One of psychosynthesis’ aims is to strengthen the link between the Higher and personal self, so that we become more of what we are capable.

Dr. Assagioli puts much emphasis on planning and the systematic use of all available techniques. He preaches tailoring the therapy to the individual and his/her life situation. He sees two major forms of psychosynthesis as therapy: personal and spiritual. The distinction depends on where the individual seeking therapy is in his/her developmental path. Assagioli quotes Jung:

“To be “normal” is a splendid ideal for the unsuccessful, for all those who have not yet found an adaptation. But for people who have far more ability than the average, for whom it was never hard to gain successes and to accomplish their share of the world’s work—for them restriction to the normal signifies the bed of Procrustes, unbearable boredom, infernal sterility and hopelessness. As a consequence there are many people who become neurotic because they are only normal, as there are people who are neurotic because they cannot become normal.” (Psychosynthesis, p. 54)

Dr. Assagioli differentiates between pathological symptoms due to “regressive” material vs. “progressive” disturbances. The former occur when people have not yet become “normal.” Inner and outer adjustment for normal personality growth is lacking. There may be excessive dependence on parental figures, or their substitutes. There may be unwillingness to meet the ordinary requirements of love and work, with a retreat to invalidism, or some other regression. There are conflicts between the conscious and unconscious and/or between the personality and its environment.

Such cases call for what Assagioli terms “personal psychosynthesis:” helping the individual to reach the “normal” state. This includes eliminating childish dependencies, repressions, inhibitions. It also covers the development of a rational outlook towards obligations and the rights of others.

People suffering from “progressive” disturbances are given “spiritual psychosynthesis” because they are suffering from a spiritual crisis. Jung pointed out how this crisis often arises in middle or old age—a questioning of the meaning and purpose of life, fear, anxiety, purposelessness, a wondering about one’s place, if any, in the vastness of the universe. But such a crisis is possible at any age. The problems which arise are an outgrowth of working towards Self Realization.

Dr. Assagioli mentions four critical stages in the path of spiritual realization:

1. The crisis preceding spiritual awakening.

2. The crisis caused by spiritual awakening.

3. Reactions to spiritual awakening.

4. Phases in the process of transmuting energies.

As Assagioli points out, materialistic therapists can be harmful to people in a spiritual crisis:

“The lot of the latter is doubly hard if they are being treated by a therapist who neither understands nor appreciates the superconscious functions, who ignores or denies the reality of the Self and the possibility of Self Realization. He may either ridicule the patient’s uncertain higher aspirations as mere fancies, or interpret them in a materialistic way, and the patient may be persuaded that he is doing the right thing in trying to harden the shell of his personality and close it against the insistent knocking of the Superconscious Self. This, of course, can aggravate the condition, intensify the struggle and retard the right solution.” (p.55)

For Dr. Assagioli, the process of psychosynthesis (as therapy) is re-organizing or re-creating the personality around a new center. This includes the following stages (which may overlap): 1. Exploring the unconscious (middle and higher, not just lower unconscious). 2. The disintegration of harmful images and complexes and the control and utilization of psychic energies thus freed. “We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we dis-identify ourselves.” (p.22) This involves “objectification, critical analysis and discrimination.” (p.24) But one must not over-do these techniques, lest we suffocate creative activities. 3. Realization of one’s true Self; discovery or creation of a unifying center. This stage is the longest and hardest, generally. Often, people make an intermediate, external identification, e.g. someone turning a loved one into “God.” Assagioli sees that as OK in some instances:

“In the best instances, the individual does not really lose himself in the external object, but frees himself in that way from selfish interests and personal limitations; he realizes himself through the external ideal or being. The latter thus becomes an indirect but true link, a point of connection between the personal man and his higher Self, which is reflected and symbolized in that object.” (p.25)

(I personally disagree with this position as I have seldom seen such idolatry turn out in a positive fashion.)

4. Reformulation around a new center is the last and final step.

In order to reformulate around a new center, one must first visualize what is to be achieved. Dr. Assagioli emphasizes that this must be authentic and realistic (i.e. possible) not what Karen Horney called an “idealized image” which is neurotic and unreal. With this “practical psychosynthesis approach, one must be careful not to make the “ideal image” too rigid. Be ready to throw it all out, if necessary.

Another possible route, says Assagioli, is the less structured approach. Here one simply aims to remove blocks to the Higher Self by meditation, creative acts, eliminating resistances, etc. Assagioli feels both paths can be effective. The first must guard against excessive rigidity. The second must guard against becoming too passive and negative. It is easy to accept as inspirations and intuitions what are actually (lower) unconscious forces, wishes and desires. Also, one needs strength to hang in there during the inevitable dry periods when conscious communion with the Center is interrupted.

According to Assagioli, practical psychosynthesis (once the ideal model is chosen) has three main parts:

1. Using all available energies. This includes energy released through disintegration of unconscious complexes as well as the development of potentials that were latent until now.

2. Development of those parts of the personality which are inadequate for what we wish to accomplish. This can be done through evocation, autosuggestion, creative affirmation, or by methodical training in the underdeveloped functions (will, memory, imagination, etc.) similar to practicing a piano.

3. Coordinating and subordinating the various psychological energies (especially sexual and aggressive).

Organizing the personality.

Psychosynthesis uses a variety of techniques. It is perhaps best known for its emphasis on visualization through guided imagery (or guided fantasy). Music and art are used in this fashion as well. Assagioli lists most of the techniques commonly employed in psychosynthesis and I think it useful to reproduce them here as an indication of the breadth of the subject. Dr. Assagioli truly tried to synthesize and integrate all relevant information and was open to any tools and techniques that seemed useful.

The following is from Psychosynthesis pp. 62-64:

“Initially, they may use biography, autobiography, diary, various projective tests, questionnaires, associations, dream analysis.”

“Next, comes evaluation of the particular situation and its problems.”

“The following are specialized techniques which may be used: acceptance; acting AS IF; bibliotherapy; bio-Psychosynthesis (or games, sports, movement, physical training); catharsis; chromotherapy (color therapy); concentration (inner and in action); creative expression, dis-identification, graphotherapy (writing as therapy); humor (Smiling Wisdom); hypnosis; imagination (visualization, etc.): reproductive and creative; inspiration, introspection, intuition, logotherapy (speech therapy); meditation and contemplation; Model (Ideal) of oneself and/or outer figures; music listening and performing; objective observation; playful attitude; proportion, sense of (right attitude); psycho-shock; relaxation; repetition; self-realization; semantics; silence (inner); substitution; suggestion and auto-suggestion (direct and indirect); superconscious, awareness of (ways and methods: aesthetic, ethical, devotional and mystical, heroic or through action, illuminative, ritual. Utilization of superconscious energies); symbols; synthesis of opposites; transmutation and sublimation of various psychological energies (sexual, combative, etc.); Will, stages of: Goal, valuation, motivation; Deliberation; Decision; Affirmation; Planning; Direction of execution.”

“Also utilized are directed day dreams (symbolic visualization); imaginative training; evocation and cultivation of higher feelings (love, compassion, peace, joy); series (Grail legend, Divine Comedy, etc.) Personal influence through presence and example can be deliberate and catalytic towards change. Group analysis, psychodrama and cooperative group activities may be used. Also listed are comradeship, friendship; cooperation, teamwork, sharing; empathy; goodwill; love (altruistic); responsibility; service; understanding (elimination of prejudice) and right relations (between individual and group and between groups).”

Psychosynthesis also works a lot with “sub-personalities”—the idea that all of us play different roles with different people, and have the potential for all these roles within. By focusing and paying attention, we can strengthen or lessen any of them. We can choose more consciously who to be when.

In terms of relating psychosynthesis to astrology, I think each has something to offer the other. Because psychosynthesis includes so much, it could easily incorporate astrology as another tool for analysis and awareness. Astrology comfortably deals with unconscious material and is a super map of the underdeveloped and over-developed areas of the psyche. Psychosynthesis’s concept of sub-personalities with ambivalences, conflicts, etc. fits very well into the framework of a horoscope.

I like Dr. Assagioli’s emphasis on models and clear presentation of his belief system. I agree with the basic philosophical premises he lists for psychosynthesis. His insistence of the reality of spiritual issues serves to bring back Jupiter and Neptune principles to modern psychology. His emphasis on the will, analysis and discrimination also suggests Saturn (Capricorn) and Virgo principles.

I admire the openness of psychosynthesis to a variety of techniques. I find many of them useful and recommend them to the toolkits of the astrologer and counselor. I do suggest, however, that people not apply any techniques to clients before having experienced those techniques themselves.

Psychosynthesis is an inspirational therapy, and I suspect we will see many of its ideas flourish and gain increasing use and respect in the coming years. I think it appropriate to close with a few words from Dr. Roberto Assagioli:

“Psychosynthesis may also be considered as the individual expression of a wider principle, of a general law of inter-individual and cosmic synthesis.” (pp.30-31) Also,

“... the Spirit working upon and within all creation is shaping it into order, harmony, and beauty, uniting all beings (some willing but the majority as yet blind and rebellious) with each other through links of love, achieving—slowly and silently, but powerfully and irresistibly—the Supreme Synthesis.” (p.31)

Copyright © 1979 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

back to top