Nearly a century ago, Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assaigioli pioneered one of the first transpersonal psychologies, called psychosynthesis. The aim of this work is moving toward wholeness, integrating or synthesizing all the parts of the personality to work harmoniously together. This work incorporates principles and practices from Buddhism, yoga, and other Eastern philosophies, as well as from Western spiritual traditions, philosophy, and psychology. This integrative solution to individual healing has recently been extended into the emerging field of ecopsychology, with the thought that healing our planet also requires an integrative approach.
Psychosynthesis practitioner and author Molly Young Brown trained with Assagioli and is a leading proponent of psychosynthesis work. Molly was the first American to write a book about psychosynthesis, titled Unfolding Self: The Practice of Psychosynthesis, which is used in many training programs. She later wrote, Growing Whole: Self-Realization on an Endangered Planet, which addresses self-healing in the quest for global healing, and has a "workshop in a box" extension for those who wish to undertake self-exploration on this topic. More recently, with a growing interest in deep ecology/ecopsychology, she co-authored Coming Back to Life with Joanna Macy.
MD: Could you explain the basic concept of psychosynthesis as a therapeutic healing practice?
MYB: A basic principle of psychosynthesis is the understanding that we each have within ourselves reservoirs of wisdom, love, and power. Psychosynthesis helps us discover and utilize those capacities more fully in our lives, socially, psychologically, and spiritually. Conceptually, in psychosynthesis we speak of a spiritual "Self" at the core of each person. Assagioli used the term "Higher Self," but many of us today prefer to omit the "Higher" so as not to imply a duality between a "higher Self" and "Lower Self." The important idea is that we are essentially spiritual beings with vast capacities for healing, loving, and wise action in the world.
If you were to give us a guided tour of the higher unconscious and the lower unconscious, what might we typically find in each?
Of course, there are not actual separate regions of the unconscious; speaking of lower and higher is only a way of understanding the different dimensions of it. The lower unconscious comprises all we have repressed-old traumas, hurts, unacceptable feelings and impulses. It may also contain our basic biological drives and instincts-what keeps our heart beating and our digestive juices working. The higher unconscious is seen as the repository of transpersonal or spiritual qualities, such as altruistic love, compassion, creativity, serenity, and so forth. These may be kept out of consciousness because they aren't "practical" or might make us appear weak or sentimental to others. We may also not have had the opportunity to develop these qualities in our lives. But they reside within our unconscious and may emerge in times of crisis or when called forth by extraordinary circumstances, such as the birth of a child. Intuition and extra sensory perception may also reside in the higher unconscious.
Because of repression, both higher and lower unconscious are more difficult to access than what we call the middle unconscious, which holds information that has no particular emotional load, such as what you had for lunch two days ago, or the name of someone you recently met. Some psychosynthesis theorists suggest that if we didn't split ourselves into "good" and "bad," or didn't repress aspects of our experience, we would only have a middle unconscious-and all of this unconscious material would be readily accessible to us as needed.
Do clients often experience a "healing crisis" or a "dark night of the soul" when undergoing such intense internal work, and/or experiences of bliss?
Psychosynthesis work can be seen as moving in cycles between the lower and higher unconscious. A client often starts by talking about a problem, dipping a little way into the lower unconscious. The guide might then ask what it would be like if this problem were resolved, inviting the client to peek into the higher unconscious. With this glimpse of what is possible to motivate the work, guide and client may then explore more deeply what is getting in the way-usually material in the lower unconscious: old wounds, beliefs the client holds about him/herself and the world, repressed fears, anger, or grief. As this material is explored and brought to light, the client often experiences relief and even spontaneous joy; the work can then be said to move into the higher unconscious. So both a "dark night of the soul" and experiences of bliss may occur in a single session, or over a series of sessions. Joy and pain are often buried together, even though conceptually we may think of one being in the lower unconscious and the other in the higher.
How would you characterize Assagioli's concepts of skillful will, transpersonal will, and universal will?
The will is a central concept in psychosynthesis. Assagioli saw the will as having three dimensions: strong will, skillful will, and good will. Strong will is the one we all know about-determination, assertiveness, even aggression. Skillful will helps us move over, under, and around obstacles, rather than simply blasting through them. To quote Assagioli, "The essential function of the skillful will… is the ability to develop that strategy which is most effective and which entails the greatest economy of effort." And good will assures that our choices are in harmony with others and with our environment.
Just as the personal self, or "I," is a reflection of Self, our spiritual source within, so our personal will is a reflection of Transpersonal or Universal Will, the Will of Self. When we can align our individual wills with the more encompassing purposes of this Will, we can live more harmoniously and happily within the web of life.
What are some common outcomes for clients who work with psychosynthesis?
I like to think that psychosynthesis helps people become more of who they really are. I see clients understanding themselves better, learning how to modulate and integrate various parts of themselves, various emotions and attitudes, into a multi-faceted whole. I see clients moving through depression, despair, and anxiety to more joyful and effective lives, enriching their relationships, their work, and their communities in various creative ways.
What inspired you to write the book, Unfolding Self: The Practice of Psychosynthesis, and what does it cover?
I wrote the first version in the early 1980's because there had been no comprehensive book on psychosynthesis since Assagioli published his original text in the 1960s. I had recently completed my training in psychosynthesis (which included three weeks of personal study with Assagioli) and wanted to share it with the larger world. To put it simply, I felt called to this assignment: to introduce psychosynthesis to a wide audience of helping professionals-counselors of all kinds. I revised the book in 2004, to reflect my growing understanding of the concepts, and to set it in a more up-to-date context.
What is ecopsychology, and how does psychosynthesis fit into this concept?
Ecopsychology refers to any psychology that addresses two related issues: the relationship of humans to the natural world, and how we can be supported and healed by nature. After all, we evolved as human beings living close to nature-the kind of civilization that separates us from nature has only been around for a few hundred years, too short a time to affect our genetic predispositions. And in those few hundred years, as we tried to declare our independence from nature, we have systematically damaged our natural life support system. Ecopsychology helps us to understand why this is, and how we can heal that dangerous split.
I personally see psychosynthesis making contributions to the field of ecopsychology, because they both are concerned with interrelationship and interdependence. I also see psychosynthesis as a "systems" psychology for the same reason. I believe I have been able to influence the psychosynthesis community to think more in these terms, and many other psychosynthesis thinkers and writers are now addressing ecopsychological issues.
There seems to be a natural connection between this work and indigenous or shamanic healings, do you agree?
I like to think so! Psychosynthesis uses guided imagery, ritual, and movement to help people connect more with their inner life, to move beyond talking about complexes and problems to working directly with them through imagination, inner dialogue, art, etc. In this way, we are doing for people in our Western culture what indigenous shamans do for people in theirs. I also believe psychosynthesis has much to learn from indigenous traditions and practices.
Please tell us about your book Growing Whole: Self-Realization on an Endangered Planet, and the accompanying Exploring the Wilderness Within.
Growing Whole was my second book project, published ten years after The Unfolding Self. I am currently working on a revised edition of it. I wrote it because I saw a need for a "do-it-yourself" resource on psychosynthesis, The Unfolding Self having been addressed primarily to professionals. The book works systematically through what I understand to be the natural progression of psychosynthesis work, starting with simple self-awareness, strengthening our center, envisioning what's possible, exploring subpersonalities that seem to get in our way, strengthening the will, exploring spiritual dimensions, and finding our path of service in the world. Each chapter has numerous exercises that the reader can do privately to work in these areas. The context is strongly ecopsychological, in that I explore some of the collective challenges we face today and how psychosynthesis can help us face them creatively.
The accompanying audio journal, titled Growing Whole: Exploring the Wilderness Within has many of the exercises from the book on both CD and audiotape, recorded in my voice. There is also a structured journal that readers can use to record their responses to the exercises through writing and drawing.
Image by true2source, used via a Creative Commons license.
What is your vision for the future of psychosynthesis and ecopsychology?
I want the wisdom and power of these psychologies to help people face and address today's serious challenges: global climate change, peak oil, economic crisis, species extinction, political corruption, and on and on. A lot of today's "pop psychologies" are often seen as narcissistic, a pastime for affluent people to become even more self-absorbed. I see psychosynthesis and ecopsychology as profoundly practical, helping people transform whatever holds them back from bringing their gifts into service in the world. I see many people crippled by depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor relationships, and lack of love. Imagine what these people might contribute to their families and communities-even the entire world-if they were healed of these afflictions! I think psychosynthesis could help many of them become more loving, responsible, creative, and fulfilled. Of course, not everyone will respond to psychosynthesis, but it is fortunately one of many powerful approaches to healing and transformation now available. Psychosynthesis can also be used along with other approaches, such as bodywork, shamanistic healing practices, meditation and various spiritual paths.