The Rebirth of the soul, interview with Roberto Assagioli
An 85-year-old prophet leads the way past a wilderness of instincts and complexes to mans highest reaches
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The Rebirth of the soul, interview with Roberto Assagioli
An interview by Stuart Miller, source Intellectual Digest, August 1973
For the past 60 years Roberto Assagioli has worked as a doctor, psychotherapist and teacher. He lives in an old stone house on the outskirts of Florence, where, at age 85, he continues to put in a ten-hour day. Recently, Assagioli's ideas have attracted increasing international attention. They combine such diverse elements as common sense, Freudian psychoanalysis and concern for the highest reaches of human nature. Last October, Intellectual Digest published the first major American article about his work, "The Will of Roberto Assagioli, "foreshadowing his book, The Act of Will, which is being published this month by The Viking Press as "An Esalen Book."
Here, Dr. Assagioli talks about his current project, a volume tentatively entitled "Height Psychology and the Self" Playing on the phrase "depth psychology," Assagioli maintains that psychology needs to recognize man's highest qualities in order to complement and complete the prevailing emphasis on man's instincts, drives, complexes, pathology and so forth.
The central, but subtle, concept in this height psychology is the notion of the "Self' with a capital "S." From a certain point of view, "Self' and "soul" are the same. This new book will attempt to return the concept of the human soul to the center of empirical psychology.
Assagioli: In classical or philosophical psychology, the soul was a central concept. But with the advent of modern psychology, one was likely to hear that "souls are out of fashion." Well, they remained out of fashion for a considerable time, but now a curious thing is happening. Much to the disgust of many psychologists, various independent thinkers are returning to the concept of the soul.
This is gratifying, but the word "soul" is rather unfortunate because it is used in different and contrasting senses. The traditional concept of soul is that of a spiritual entity - it is at the core of the Christian religion and also of an important branch of Indian philosophy, Vedanta. But elsewhere in religious language, "soul" is used in a different sense, more or less as a synonym for the ego, personality or consciousness.
Philosophers and psychologists have also used the word "soul" with different meanings. The German philosopher Keyserling equates "soul" with the emotional nature in general. Jung described his rather complicated concept of "soul" in his book Psychological Types:
With the same justification as daily experience furnishes us for speaking of an outer personality are we also justified in assuming the existence of an inner personality. The inner personality is the manner of one's behaviour towards the inner psychic processes; it is the inner attitude, the character, that is turned towards the unconscious. I term the outer attitude ... the persona, the inner attitude I term the anima, or soul.
In popular parlance one speaks of "soul" of a nation and so on. Therefore I find it better to avoid, as much as possible, using this word (or at least to qualify: each instance to bring out the particular meaning desired). In general, it is more useful to employ, instead, the term "Self," distinguished by a capital “S.” The ordinary word "self' is usually used to refer to an individual's personal self as it is discussed in relation to such concepts as "self-identity," "self-actualisation" and so forth. I am not speaking of that level when I speak of Self but rather what can be called each person's Higher or Transpersonal Self.
The diagram clarifies this distinction. My students have taken to calling it the "egg diagram." Their levity is a way of underscoring that the diagram is only a crude map and not the territory of the human psyche. Still, I have found it to be a useful aid. The lower level corresponds to what Freudian psychology calls the unconscious: the fundamental drives, complexes charged with intense emotions and so forth. The central band represents the Middle Unconscious – those things that are latent, quiescent; or active in our personality but that we are not aware of at the moment. An above that is the Transpersonal or Higher Unconscious, the Superconscious, which is the source of much that, we consider to be the best of the human: artistic inspiration, ethical insight, scientific intuition and so on.
The circle in the center of the diagram represents in a rough way the area of our existing awareness. The contents of the Lower Unconscious, new data from parts of the Middle Unconscious and also impulses from the Superconscious pour into this area of awareness.
The personal self, however, is represented as a point, independent of any particular contents, data or impulses. Each of us has this central point of personal awareness, which we can experience simply by acknowledging that we are aware of various contents of consciousness, but we are not those contents. That is, we experience our emotions, but we know, in a fundamental way, that they are not us. We have thoughts, we are aware of having thoughts, but they are not us. We have bodies and aches and pains and ecstasies, but they are not us. How else could our emotions or our thoughts or our bodies change ,so often, while we retain a fundamental sense of our identity? In fact, by deliberately and carefully disidentifying from all these passing contents, these acts of awareness, we can become aware that we are aware. And that awareness is self-awareness-the awareness of the personal self. This personal self is the human core at the ordinary level, the level of personality. It is the center of our ordinary psychological functions: mind, emotions, sensation, imagination, etc.
Likewise, at our higher human level there is an entity that is at the center of the higher functions -artistic inspiration, ethical insight, scientific intuition. This is our real core: it is there in all of us, but the personality is generally not aware of it at the ordinary level. Hence, in many cases, it does not affect the feelings or thoughts of people. But often it does. In fact, the personal self can be considered as a reflection of this higher reality, and the personal self and its usual functions (emotions, mind, sensation, etc.) can become infused with vital energies from one's Transpersonal Self [see diagram]. When a great artist gets a major inspiration, that is roughly what happens - the artist's Transpersonal Self, acting through the Superconscious, sends energy into the personal field (the central circle); This is true for all kinds of major inspiration.
Q: Is this experience reserved only for great artists and scientists and religious geniuses? Or can "ordinary" people experience it too?
Assagioli: We not only can, we frequently do: but the "farther reaches of human nature," as Abraham Maslow calls them, are subtle reaches, and it is often useful to refer to well-known people, at least as a point of departure. Thomas a Kempis, provides an example in his book Imitation of Christ. From the psychological point of view, we can say that the "Christ" with whom Thomas talks is Thomas' own Higher Self. This is not to deny that there are realities beyond the individual. As you see in the diagram, the star of the Self is located partly within the oval of the individual and partly without, indicating that the individual Self is in contact with what might be called the Universal Self.
In any case, thousands of individuals, millions perhaps, have had the experience of the Self and have given testimony to it. In India it, is traditionally called the "Atman." Some of the deeper Christian mystics have been aware of it and have called it variously, the" divine spark" of the person, the "apex," the "base," the "center" and the "innermost essence." I am fond of Auguste Gratry's description of contact with the Transpersonal Self because it is so vivid:
I felt as [if] it were an interior form ... full of strength, beauty and joy ... a form of light and flame, which sustained all my being: a steadfast, unchanging form, always the same, which I recovered again and again during the course of my life; yet I lost sight of it and forgot it at intervals, but always recognized it with joy and the exclamation: "Here is my real being'"
There are many other accounts, but most of them are colored by the individual's particular experience, and are confused by such elements as the means of the experience, its results or the individual's particular religious beliefs. This is due, in part, to the fact that the Self is a most difficult subject to speak about or understand. It can be, and has been, experienced as an immediate fact of consciousness. But it is outside the pale of rational conceptualization. It is, like aesthetic sense or intuition, an immediate conscious experience, outside the mental and intellectual realm.
This is not to say that it is "irrational" in any negative sense. I might coin the expression "para-rational" and, for certain cases, "supra-rational."
Q: I take it this soul or Transpersonal Self can be thought of as an inner voice from on high. Can you distinguish the voice of the "Higher" or "Transpersonal" Self from' a more familiar. psychological concept - the superego or Freudian conscience? Are these the same with a different name?
Assagioli: No. The Self is different from the superego or "conscience." To begin with, it is structurally and ontologically different. The superego, unlike the Self, cannot be considered to be an "entity." It is a composite, made up of different elements having diverse origins. Freud describes the superego as being formed by the sum of introjections and commands and inhibitions and feeling of guilt and condemnation, all derives from the words and actions of parents and from the "moral" attitudes of a particular culture. To activate the living relationship existing between the Self and the personality, I frequently ask my clients to do an exercise. It consists of entering into written dialogue with one's Higher Self and hoping for and expecting a response. This disarmingly simple technique often has good results, if on is wary of false messages intruding from other parts of the personality.
Recently, one client, a 35-year-old American professor, set himself to write this dialogue. He found that he began to get glimpses of his Self, and then gradually his Self began to "speak" rather clearly and wisely. My client spontaneously brought up the difference between the Higher Self and the superego:
The Higher Self, insofar as I know him, is not like the superego. The Higher Self does not issue orders, he is not compelling, he is not harsh. He makes suggestions, he indicates ways - he is more mental, in a pure sense of the word. The superego, on the other hand, has a lot of emotional voltage. He pushes and urges … The Self appears serene, clothed in white strong (though dimly seen) and radiant - like Fra Angelico's [The Transfiguration]. He speaks to me ... He has the quality of a teacher. Interested and concerned but detached. If he demands anything, he demands to be embraced. He opens himself to that. Take him or leave him, is what he says. He is there. He is to be CHOSEN.
I imagine my superego, instead, as dark, more fleshy and even stonelike. There is a scowl on his face, a hammer in his hand. He bangs and chips away. He threatens and coerces. He exhausts me and he compels me. One is the principle of Freedom and Love, the other the dark principle of Bondage ....
This is an evocative piece of writing but it is only one way of experiencing the difference - conditioned by the author's particular circumstances. The mention of Fra Angelico, for example, comes from his visits to the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where I recommended that he study Angelico's paintings. This use of inspiring artworks is another technique, among many, to evoke the Self. The client was in what Viktor Frankl calls a "crisis of meaning," and both these techniques, together with other work, were helpful in summoning his highest inner resources to him. I would, however, amend his evocative description by saying that "the superego is not all bad" and leave this paradox without further explanation here.
Q: How does Jung's conception of the Self differ from yours?
Assagioli: Jung's concept of the Self was not very definite and changed with the development of his psychology. Without entering into a lengthy discussion, one may say that it is different both from Freud's superego and from the conception of the Self as having a substantial reality of its own.
Q: What is the use of this reality? To what extent are we talking about something practical?
Assagioli: One major reason why the Self is coming back into currency is the tremendous search for self-identity. Formerly, an individual took himself-so to speak-for granted. He accepted himself as he was, or, more frequently, he identified himself with the group to which he belonged-family, tribe, clan, class, nation-or, if he was religious, with some great Being or with God. But in our time, which may well be a time of total crisis, all these identifications fall away, and the individual is thrown back on himself. This baffles him, he does not know who he is, and this is the chief reason for the widespread "existential anguish." Now this search frequently takes people into a whole set of new identifications-with some temporary group, or with their sexuality, or with their profession or with a hobby. But sooner or later these identifications fail, and the crisis returns. The way out of the crisis is through the investigation and discovery of who we are-through the awareness of the personal self independent of all identifications and, further, of this self as a reflection of the Transpersonal Self.
To answer your question in another way, I can say that the Self becomes a source of guidance, of illumination and inspiration, and, if you will, of developing human potential. I see clients who are quite "normal" in the ordinary sense, even personally and socially successful. But they are not satisfied. Their interest is in further development. This has two levels. One level is the development of their personalities in a rounded way - an ordinary human way - bringing emotions, mind, intuition and so on into harmonious functioning. This has been called "self-actualization." I use the term "personal psychosynthesis."
For many this is enough. But others feel "calls" - to use the old language. They are attracted by the possibility of expanding consciousness into the farther reaches of the Superconscious, up to the experience of the Self. This is true Self realization, what I call Transpersonal or Spiritual psychosynthesis.
Many of the young - and the not-so young- are in crisis over this realm Some try to induce experiences of high states of consciousness through drugs or other means. Frequently they have these experiences spontaneously. But such experiences are temporary; these people fall down to the ordinary level and then they become disillusioned they wonder why they cannot stay "on the heights." What has happened is that they have entered, to some extent, into what Richard Bucke and others have called "cosmic consciousness," a state reported by men of all times and cultures But their personality is inadequate to deal with these high experiences, and so they experience a sudden or gradual fall. For these people the awareness, first of the personal self and then of the Transpersonal Self as living realities, provide a needed structure that permits a steady and gradual ascent. From such awareness also comes an understanding of the nature of the spontaneous or induced experiences, leading to their assimilation into the other aspects of the personality.
Therefore, the normal and safe procedure would be: first, preliminary work of personal psychosynthesis, including psychoanalytic phase, though not necessarily a formal, detailed psychoanalysis After that, and sometimes also concurrently, comes experience of Self-awareness. Then, the Self can be called on to guide the whole long process of human development. And to be most practical indeed in answer to your question, the cultivation of Self-awareness on a wide basis will serve to bring into human life the highest human energies and inspirations. And we sorely need to tap these sources. That, I think, is obvious.
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