What is Psychosynthesis?
Psychosynthesis was born in 1910 when the young Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli, a student of Freud’s psychoanalysis and a colleague of Jung, saw that psychoanalysis focused solely on the lower unconscious and neglected what are called the “higher” aspects of human nature. Assagioli did not reject analysis in his conception of psychosynthesis, but instead added the dimension of synthesis, an understanding of how our psyche becomes whole.
Freud said, “I am interested only in the basement of the human being.”
Psychosynthesis is interested in the whole building.
In practice, psychosynthesis recognizes and respects that each of us has their own path in life, different from that of any other. It supports us in our quest for a more harmonious and meaningful life through the exploration of our personality and through our engagement with our deepest truth. Assagioli’s vision also went beyond the individual as he stressed the importance of not only inner harmony, but harmony among individuals.
In his seminal book Psychosynthesis: A Manual of Principles and Techniques, Assagioli presented four stages of psychosynthesis. The stages are not a formula to follow, nor a ladder to climb. Each is simply a window into the facets of the journey of one’s life. Before presenting the four stages of psychosynthesis in his book, Assagioli describes an unconscious and reactive life in which some individuals live. He named this the "fundamental infirmity of man." Firman and Gila observed that this was a significant aspect of the lives of many people and chose to call this stage zero, adding a fifth stage to the four stages described by Assagioli.
But it should be made clear that all the various stages. . . are closely interrelated and need not be followed in a strict succession. . . . A living human being is not a building, for which the foundations must be laid, then the walls erected and, finally, the roof added.
In stage zero we are living in what is called “survival.” This is often a painful life that is driven by the conditioning or the wounding that we may have experienced in childhood, and it is a life that is frequently consumed by addictions and compulsions—addictions such as those to substances, and compulsions that are as seemingly harmless as house cleaning.
In stage one we finally awaken from our driven life and begin to explore what underlies our dissatisfaction and suffering. To move to this stage from the prior one, something usually has to occur that shakes us enough in order for us to begin to honestly look at ourselves. This can be an experience such as an accident or the loss of a loved one, but it can also be an out-of-the-ordinary experience of qualities such as love or beauty, commonly called a “peak experience.”
Whatever it is that awakens us, we start to wonder who we really are, not who we were conditioned to be. This inner searching takes us into an exploration of what in psychosynthesis we call the lower unconscious, the repressed realm in us that holds our pain and suffering, as well as the difficult feelings we may have had in response to the wounding we experienced.
At the same time, this inner searching can take us into the exploration and the recognition of our unique qualities, gifts, and talents that were also repressed in response to wounding. In psychosynthesis we call this the higher unconscious. We do not repress only our pain, but our goodness too. As we continue with this exploration, we find ourselves less reactive in situations we encounter and in the relationships we have in our lives, and we begin to recognize the potential to express our unique qualities and talents.
The recognition of the positive, creative, joyous experiences which man may, and often does, have along with the painful and tragic ones.
Stage two is one in which we begin to have a deeper sense of who we are, and in psychosynthesis this sense of self is called “I.” Here we realize that we have choice, that our lives don’t have to be driven by the past and how we thought we should be. We see ourselves more clearly, and can actually help ourselves by better taking care of our needs, and by working out conflicts that may exist between different parts of our personality.
Stages three and four flow together. We now have a personality that is increasingly harmonious, but at this point the question arises: What really matters in life? In stage three we begin to explore more consciously what is truly meaningful to us. In psychosynthesis, we hold that our quest for meaning rests on the relationship between us and a greater Reality, that which in psychosynthesis we call Self. Self can be known by many names, including Spirit, the divine, Higher Power, the Ground of Being, Truth, Source, or Presence. Whatever it is for each of us, Assagioli taught that we can dialogue with Self, “listening” for its messages that can guide us in our lives.
To help us develop our relationship with Self, we may engage in various activities, including talking to others, turning to books or lectures for inspiration, meditating or praying, journaling, creating rituals that support our relationship with Self, or taking a movement class to allow our bodies to commune with Self. The possibilities for developing this relationship are endless.
As our relationship with Self deepens and we have an increasing sense of what is meaningful and the direction we are to take in our lives, the fourth stage of psychosynthesis becomes foreground. Here we take the practical steps to actualize what calls out to us, that is, we respond to the call of Self, and in psychosynthesis this response is called Self-realization.
Let the will of the Self guide and direct my life.
Our contact or dialogue with Self, and our response to Self, are not limited to the grand moments in life, but can occur in the everyday living of our lives, for example, in how we are called to be with our child today, or how we take care of the sadness we feel, or in what way we respond to the needs of a friend. Self-realization is the living of our life in a way that reflects our deepest truth from moment to moment.
The Techniques Used in Psychosynthesis Therapy
Any technique or method that assists an individual in their journey is useful in psychosynthesis. Assagioli wrote that there is no rigid system in psychosynthesis, but instead psychosynthesis responds to the actual need of each person at each stage of their life. He recognized that each of us is unique, and therefore we must use the techniques that meet the needs of the specific individual. In psychosynthesis therapy, the therapist may use guided imagery, gestalt techniques, movement, drawing, drama therapy techniques, sand play, EMDR, and many others.