The Will, interview with Roberto Assagioli by Stuart Miller
The will is the dynamic part of the self and has the role of directing all the other energies in man. In order for it to be efficient it must be skillful, strong and good.
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The Will, interview with Roberto Assagioli by Stuart Miller
By Roberto Assagioli and Stuart Miller, Source: Intellectual Digest, october 1972
A pioneer psychotherapist probes the will and discovers a liberating force
For some 50 years, Roberto Assagioli, M.D., an Italian psychotherapist, has quietly elaborated a notion of the will, which he fully describes in his forthcoming book, The Act of Will. Until very recently, the will has not been fashionable. Disgusted by the Victorian notion of the will as “will power”, many intellectuals joined the revolt against the will that in many ways characterizes our century. Permissiveness, spontaneity, release became the watchwords of art, psychotherapy and education. With bitter abandon, many thinking people embraced their sufferings as the inevitable price of having their joys. Emotions, impulses and desires were to be embraced because the truth was in them, The Victorians had repressed their impulses and the Victorians had suffered the twin punishments of psychological disease and social hypocrisy.
In recent years there have been signs that people are looking anew at the will. Not the least of these signs has been the stream of foreign, especially American, visitors to see Dr. Assagioli, whom Michael Murphy, president of Esalen Institute, has called, quite simply, “a sage.”
In 1910, Roberto Assagioli participated in the beginnings of psychoanalysis in Italy. Simultaneously, he began to elaborate a larger system of psychology, “psychosynthesis,” which included analysis but put it in a broader human context. That context includes not only the will, but also the notion of a “higher unconscious.” While Freudians have tended to emphasize man’s latent biological drives and urges, they have largely neglected man’s other hidden resources: the unconscious sources of creativity, ethical and religious inspiration and scientific discovery. Assagioli argues that we need a “height psychology” as well as a “depth psychology.”
For 60 years he worked as a doctor, psychotherapist and teacher. Now he lives in an old stone house on the outskirts of Florence, where, at age 84 he still works about ten hours a day. His office is cluttered with books and piles of notes representing decades of activity. He reads and speaks half a dozen languages in the course of his work, keeping himself conversant with the latest developments in psychology and education. In addition, he conducts a vast correspondence with psychosynthesis centres around the world.
He speaks very slowly and very simply. Too simply, some of his students feel. People who have worked with him have learned to listen and to read his writings with great attention, to mull over what may seem, at first, to be fairly obvious points. Far from being obvious, they are often profound and even revolutionary in their implications and applications.
Psychosynthesis is becoming an increasingly more important part of the work at Esalen Institute. Here is what Assagioli said recently to Stuart Miller, a director of Esalen and editor of the Esalen Book series published by The Viking Press.
On the cultural and scientific level, the return of the will is due to the development of humanistic psychology. That is, a scientific psychology that is truly human, including what Abraham Maslow has called the “higher reaches” of the human. Previously, scientific psychology ignored many basic human subjects: love, joy, inspiration, intuition and will. Maslow and Michael Polanyi, among others, have enlarged the notion of what is science and the scientific method, and I applaud this. On the general human level, the return of the will can be attributed to our growing realization of the results of the uncontrolled manifestation of drives, urges and emotions. People are now becoming aware of the need for some regulation and control, some order and harmony, instead of chaos in human life.
By way of an aside, it is important that I make clear that in no way do I advocate repression, a quality frequently and wrongly associated with will. Freud has taught us the dangers of repression, and there is no room for it in proper psychosynthesis or in the will. The will must be skilful, not harsh and heavy handed.
Another reason for renewed interest in the will is connected with the wide interest in self-analysis, introspection and psycho-analysis. In these activities one is naturally driven to analyze and become aware of all the aspects of one’s inner psychological nature. Through this process, people have found a direct, existential experience of themselves, not only as a central reality but also as a dynamic element. This is a very positive result of the analytic process, I believe. The Freudians themselves have called this reality the “ego”; it is the knowledge that is contained in the statement “I am.” It is the central point of the person. Introspection has shown us that the changing contents of our consciousness (the sensations, thoughts, feelings and so forth) are one thing, while the “I,” the self, the center, is another thing. This is an important awareness.
Now, this center is also experienced as having a dynamic aspect. It has, to use an analogy, force or energy. When we experience ourselves as “selves,” as subjects, we frequently have an experience that can be summed up in this sentence: “I am a force, a cause.” This is an experience of the human will.
The star diagram [right] (1.) helps to show the central position of the self and the relation of the will to it. The will serves, quite simply, as the directing energy for all other psychological functions. We find that the discovery of the self is frequently connected with the discovery that the self has a will - is even, in a certain sense, a will.
As with other important experiences, like the aesthetic one or the religious one, the discovery of the will must be lived. How, for example, can one communicate to others what the aesthetic sense is and how it is awakened? It can be a sudden revelation: contemplating a particular sunset, the iridescence of the sea, the panorama from a mountaintop. It can come from looking at a child’s eyes, or from looking at the Mona Lisa, or reading The Divine Comedy or listening to Vivaldi, or Bach or Wagner.
So with the will. It can come to awareness when one is confronted with a danger, when the instinct of self-preservation tells you to flee or fear paralyzes the body; then, at such moments, from the bottom of our beings, a force, unexpected, can make us take the dangerous step forward or confront an aggressor courageously. Before the threats of a superior, when our self-interest tries to wheedle surrender from us, this force can make us say, resolutely, “No.” Even before seemingly sweet temptations that creep upon us, the same force can erupt, shake us, above all, liberate us. Will is freedom. That is the important thing.
In most cases, the discovery of the will is not so dramatic, but we do discover it in action. When we are making a physical or mental effort, when we are working against some obstacle, we can feel a power, a special energy in us, and we experience the sense of will or willing. In these cases, however, it is often mixed with a welter of impulses, desires, hopes.
As I said, one keynote of the will is freedom - freedom to choose and to act the way we want to. During the war, for example, I was imprisoned by the Fascists for about a month. For many reasons, I was placed in solitary. I was free to choose an attitude: rebellion, or sour submission, or indifference or cheerful acceptance. Nobody could interfere with my inner reaction. I chose acceptance and asked myself what use to make of the opportunity. The best use was a retreat. The conditions were ideal! No noise. No interruptions. Regular meals, I meditated, read. Quite happily. And I had good results from my meditations. The central experience can be summed up: freedom in acceptance.
Choice is one of the stages of the act of will, one of the most important. And this is an illustration that often an act of will is effortless. I had to use no strength of will at all to make that decision. It was completely spontaneous, authentic; it was just an application of my general attitude toward life. So it was an act of will because it was a choice, a conscious choice, but without the slightest effort.
Generally, will is thought of as associated with strength and effort, and very often it is, but not necessarily. To repeat, the will is not something hard, rigid, imperative and excluding. Rather, it has basically a regulating function. It is the psychological function that directs and regulates the play of all the others. An analogy is the conductor of an orchestra, who does not play himself but directs the players of various instruments.
This helps distinguish the will from what the Victorians called “will power.” Another analogy may help: the automobile. The Victorian will, which gave such a bad press, so to speak, to the concept, was like a man who wanted to go somewhere placing himself behind his car and trying to push it toward a destination. The skillful will, the properly trained will, is analogous to the more efficient and rational procedure of the man getting into the car, seating himself comfortably, turning on the ignition and operating the controls so as to use the energy of the gas to get him where he wants to go!
Naturally, the will can have a central function in all the various human enterprises - education, business, daily living and so forth. In therapy, one can first explain to the client the true nature and functioning of the will, and second, arouse in him his own will to get well. This is very important. Due to the multiplicity of human nature and to the ambivalence in all of us, a client may wish or want to get well but not will it. The client may cling to the advantages of being ill. Or he may want to be healed by external means, by the doctor or by medicines, and not do his share in getting well. Third, the therapist can assist the client to train his will himself and to use it and not to lean on the therapist.
The therapist, you see, has two major roles: the motherly role and the fatherly role. The motherly role of the therapist is in order in the first part of the treatment, especially in the more serious cases. It consists in giving a sense of protection, understanding, sympathy and encouragement. What a wise mother does. It is a direct helping by the therapist of the client.
The fatherly role, on the other hand, can be summed up as the training to independence. The true fatherly role, as I see it, is to encourage, to arouse the inner energies of the child and to show him the way to independence. Therefore, the fatherly function is to awaken the will of the client.
Some people feel that the concept of will conflicts with much current teaching, such as that of psychoanalysis, encounter groups, Zen, primal therapy and so on. The notion behind such methods, they claim, is that through the freeing of the self from resistances, complexes, body armor, blocks, the real self will be brought to light. This is the path of letting go, of allowing, of release. It has been called a left-hand path, as opposed to the right-hand path of discipline. These people ask me whether the return to the will, and psychosynthesis in general, is a move to the psychological right.
First, let me say that these two ways are not opposite. They can integrate each other and have their respective purposes and functions. In the past, particularly in Victorian times, the right-hand path, the path of discipline, was abused. Active techniques for personal development, so important to psychosynthesis and in the training of the will, were imposed on people by others. But these techniques, these purposive techniques, must rather be used freely by each individual and group. The techniques ought merely to be taught, not imposed: this is the correction to the Victorian view. There is the free decision of the individual to use these techniques or not, how to use them, which to use, to what extent to use them. Then there is the problem of combining them with what is called the left-hand way.
The great usefulness and necessity of the left-hand way, the path of release, is to relieve people of all shackles and inhibitions and prepare the way to the realization of the Self (with a capital S), the experience of the Transpersonal Self. This, I believe, is its purpose and a most important one. The peak experiences, experiences of great joy, ecstasy and illumination that people frequently report in encounter groups, for example, have to do with getting in touch, however briefly, with their Transpersonal Selves. This Transpersonal Self differs from the personal self or ego we spoke of before. It can be called a “Higher Self,” though the new word Transpersonal is better because less apparently judgmental. In older times the Transpersonal realm used to be called the spiritual realm, but I mean not only the realm of specific religious experience but all experience possessing values higher the average: ethical, aesthetic, heroic, humanitarian and altruistic.
Now, the experience of the Self, frequently realized through a left-hand path, is not an end in itself. After having had the release and the experience of the Transpersonal, people face the matter-of-fact practical problem of how to harmonize their whole existence, their whole being, including the body, with that level. And this explains the fact that people who two or three years ago were urging total release now feel it is not enough. They feel the need to add to their techniques of release, active techniques to develop a fully synthesized human being. By fully synthesized, I mean the central aim of psychosynthesis: the development of all the psychological functions (see the star diagram) in harmony, of a full, actualized and realized personality, a human being, including the body.
In many fields, especially in interpersonal relationships, there are urgent tasks for the will. The first is to control and utilize the aggressive and combative urges - the will to dominate, which is so prevalent in our society either openly or in disguise. Here one has to take into account various and even contrasting aspects of the will. It is good will, or the will-to-good, which must regulate the selfish or egocentric will.
The will bears directly on the great problem of war and peace. I have little faith that treaties, pacts, armies, power balances and other external manipulations will achieve any solution to this problem. War, from the psychological standpoint, can be called the letting loose of aggressive and combative energies. The will must be found first to dominate, then regulate, then utilize those energies in many constructive ways. Knowing the methods of arousing and training the will gives one the clearest realization that war is the most primitive, stupid, wasteful way of attempting to solve problems. I believe that we shall see and end to war only when men will learn to dominate and transform their inner energies. The methods for these transformations have proved to be effective both in individuals and small groups. They can well be applied on a larger scale for the peaceful solution of collective human conflicts. This means working toward, and eventually achieving, the psychosynthesis of humanity.
WILL, THE CENTER OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE PSYCHOLOGICAL FUNCTIONS
The triangles starting from the central circle represent the psychological functions: 1. Sensation; 2. Emotion - Feeling; 3. Imagination; 4. Impulse - Desire; 5. Thought; 6. Intuition. Will (7) occupies a position indicated by the circular area surrounding the point of self-consciousness (8), the “I” or Ego.
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