An introduction to psychosynthesis

Roberto Assagioli was an Italian psychiatrist who, in 1910, rejected what he felt was the psychoanalytic overemphasis on analysing the childhood dynamics underlying psychopathology. Accordingly, he conceived “Psychosynthesis”, emphasising how the human being integrated or synthesised the many aspects of the personality into increasing wholeness. As Jung would do after him, Assagioli became a psychoanalytic “heretic”, refusing to accept Freud’s reductionism and neglect of the positive dimensions of the human personality. Psychosynthesis thus became the first approach, born of psychoanalysis, which would include: the artistic, altruistic, and heroic potentials of the human being; a validation of aesthetic, spiritual, and peak experiences; the insight that psychological symptoms can be triggered by spiritual dynamics (often now called spiritual emergency); and the understanding that experiences of meaning and purpose in life derive from a healthy relationship between the personal self and a deeper or higher self in ongoing daily living, or what is called self-realisation. These concerns were later to place psychosynthesis within the developing fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology.

Whilst Freud believed primarily in exploring the lower unconscious, Assagioli went beyond this (see Assagioli’s Egg diagram of the psyche) to include the need to incorporate a higher unconscious. Assagioli was not just interested in the basement of the psyche but the whole building (including the top floors and sun roof!). Assagioli believed that as exploration of the unconscious proceeded - including the higher unconscious and middle unconscious as well - the individual was more free to develop a conscious relationship with a deeper or higher self beyond the conscious personality or, in Assagioli’s words, “widening the channel of communication with the higher self”.

This stance was in strong conflict with Freud’s reductionist drive theory, his contempt for spirituality and religion, and his insistence on a disengaged attitude on the part of the therapist. Assagioli validated the spiritual and religious dimensions of life on their own terms, and maintained that authenticity and empathic connection were central to psychotherapy. At a most basic level, Assagioli understood the human being not as an isolated individual to be observed but as a subject in continuous, active interaction with a larger relational field.

As with other contempory psychological movements psychosynthesis upholds the notion of a transpersonal self or higher self, higher unconscious or superconscious, subpersonalities, identification, disidentification, and the observing selfor “I”. As psychoanalysis moved in this relational direction, it increasingly perceived the person not as the isolated object of Newtonian mechanics but as an interactive part of a relational system or field.

In sum, psychosynthesis embodies a profound respect for the fundamental spiritual nature of the human being and a supportive attitude towards the development of this dimension of human experience.

This is not to say that psychosynthesis is itself a spiritual path, a metaphysical philosophy, or a religion. Rather, its purpose is to remain a psychology, a “nondenominational” psychology, so to speak, and thus available to any and all spiritual paths. According to Assagioli:

'At this point the question may arise as to the relationship between this conception of the human being (psychosynthesis) on the one hand and religion and metaphysics on the other. The answer is that psychosynthesis does not attempt in any way to appropriate to itself the fields of religion and of philosophy. It is a scientific conception, and as such it is neutral towards the various religious forms and the various philosophical doctrines, excepting only those which are materialistic and therefore deny the existence of spiritual realities. Psychosynthesis does not aim nor attempt to give a metaphysical nor a theological explanation of the great Mystery-it leads to the door, but stops there'. (1965a, 6-7)

In short, psychosynthesis is not a doctrine or teaching in which to believe, nor a religion or spirituality to be practiced; it is an open, developing psychology that seeks to facilitate human growth within the context of a person’s own deepest aspirations and life path.

Assagioli, R. 1965a Psychosynthesis: A Manual of Principles and Techniques. New York and Beunos Aires: Hobbs, Dorman

Firman, J. and  A, Gila. 2002 Psychosynthesis-A Psychology of the Spirit Suny Press

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