Visions of Daniel

Spiritual Development
An Interdisciplinary Study


Papers link


from Chapter One
Psychological Accounts of Spiritual Development


Assagioli's Psychosynthesis (pages 12-19)

Roberto Assagioli's Psychosynthesis provides the richest study of spiritual development in a psychological context that I have found. As its subtitle indicates, Psychosynthesis is A Manual of Principles and Techniques . Yet it contains important theoretical sections. Assagioli's topic is clearly spiritual growth. He distinguishes two major phases in the process of psychosynthesis: personal psychosynthesis and spiritual psychosynthesis. The first treats the very issues considered to be spiritual development in the works already cited. Furthermore, personal psychosynthesis is the presupposition of spiritual psychosynthesis, and so the two are part of one process. Thus, despite Assagioli's particular use of the term spiritual , his entire work can be considered a study of spiritual development.

An understanding of Assagioli's specific definition of "spiritual" presupposes his "pluridimensional conception of the human person."45 First, the field of consciousness and the conscious self or "I" represent the contents of ordinary awareness of the conscious subject. Then, as Freud was significantly instrumental in showing, there is also the "lower unconscious," which contains drives and primitive urges and all dreams and imaginations of an inferior kind and lower, uncontrolled parapsychological processes. Beyond this there is the "higher unconscious or the superconscious." The superconscious is the source of all higher intuitions, inspirations, and feelings-artistic, philosophical and scientific, ethical, and altruistic; it is the source of genius, the source of states of contemplation, illumination, and ecstasy, and the realm of the higher psychic functions and, presumably, of the higher parapsychological processes.46 For Assagioli, the term spiritual is a correlative of the superconscious and refers to any experiences that would be rooted there. But "spiritual" also refers to experiences of the "higher Self." Thus, "spiritual" is defined by experience both of the superconscious and of the higher Self, but clearly the greater emphasis is given to experience of the superconscious. The exact relationship between the superconscious and the higher Self is not made clear. Here is a basic ambiguity in Assagioli's understanding of "spiritual."

Nor is it clear what Assagioli means by the "higher Self." The term is one of those undefined metaphors, so common in "spiritual writings." Assagioli's attempted definition47 mixes psychological, metaphysical, and mystical considerations. He further confuses the issue by insisting that the duality between the conscious self and the higher Self is not real: "There are not really two selves, two independent and separate entities. The Self is one. "48 Assagioli relates the Self to the "Supreme Spirit" and to the "universal Self" of Vedanta philosophy: "'Tat Twam Asi' (Thou art That)"; but he is unconcerned whether one conceives the individual Self and the universal Self ''as identical or similar, distinct or united."49 It appears, then, that for Assagioli the term "higher Self" is supposed to indicate some transcendent principle internal to the human.

An analysis of Assagioli's understanding of spiritual growth and its goal confirms the above interpretation of the "higher Self" and highlights again the ambiguity in Assagioli's understanding of "spiritual." The goal of psychosynthesis is "organic unity,"50 the integration in "a harmoniously functioning organism" of the "different drives and the various psychological functions within the individual."51 Talk of integration presupposes that all the "drives" in question are internal to the human. This integration occurs in two phases. The first, called personal psychosynthesis, entails "the development and perfection of the personality"; the second, called spiritual psychosynthesis, entails the personality's "harmonious coordination and increasing unification with the Self."52 In other words,

"The basic purpose of psychosynthesis is to release or, let us say, help to release, the energies of the Self. Prior to this the purpose is to help integrate, to synthesize, the individual around the personal self, and then later to effect the synthesis between the personal ego and the Self."53

Note that here Assagioli defines spiritual psychosynthesis by reference to the higher Self. But he fills out the meaning of spiritual psychosynthesis by reference to experiences of the superconscious. Incorporating into his understanding Abraham Maslow's conception, Assagioli refers to this second phase of psychosynthesis also as "self-actualization" and means "psychological growth and maturation,... the awakening and manifestation of latent potentialities of the human being-for instance, ethical, esthetic, and religious experiences and activities."54 Assagioli specifically intends Maslow's55 meaning of the term "self-actualization" indicating a development of personality that frees one from preoccupation with deficiency problems of growth and the unreal, neurotic problems of life and directs one to the real, existential problems of life. Insisting with Maslow that the phase of self-actualization is not a static state of already perfect integration, Assagioli speaks of "the successive stages of self-actualization."56 In question is spiritual growth.

Introducing a further clarification, Assagioli contrasts self-actualization with Self-realization (upper case "S," referring to the higher Self), "the realization of the Self."57 Self-realization is also a goal of psychosynthesis. It is the subject's momentary experience of the higher Self. It is what is generally referred to as a "religious" experience or a mystical experience. Assagioli describes it in detail:

"Self-realization, in this specific well-defined sense, means the momentary or more or less temporary identification or blending of the I-consciousness with the spiritual Self, in which the former, which is the reflection of the latter, becomes reunited, blended with the spiritual Self. In these cases there is a forgetfulness of all contents of consciousness, of all which forms the personality both on normal levels and those of the synthesized personality which include superconscious or spiritual levels of life and experience; there is only the pure intense experience of the self."58

Now, in what may stand here as a summary of Assagioli's understanding of the "spiritual" and of "spiritual development," he writes,

"We are using the word "spiritual" in its broader connotation which includes, therefore, not only the specific religious experience [self-realization], but all the states of awareness, all the functions and activities which have as common denominator the possessing of values higher than the average, values such as the ethical, the esthetic, the heroic, the humanitarian, and the altruistic. We include under the general heading of "spiritual development" then, all experiences connected with awareness of the contents of the superconscious, which may or may not include the experience of the self."59

With that background, the ambiguity in Assagioli's understanding of "spiritual" and so of "spiritual development" can now be pinpointed. For Assagioli the second phase of psychosynthesis, spiritual psychosynthesis, is specifically spiritual development. It is defined by reference both to the superconscious and to the Self. It entails both self-actualization and self-realization. But self-actualization means integration of the superconscious into the permanent personality, while self-realization means the blending of the Self with the personality. Self-actualization is an ongoing process; self-realization is a momentary experience. The two are significantly different, yet Assagioli confuses them. Are they related? Assagioli evidently thinks they are. In fact, he as much as identifies the two when he defines spiritual psychosynthesis as the personality's "harmonious and increasing unification with the Self";60 for in this statement the distinction between superconscious and Self and the distinction between self-actualization and self-realization collapse. Yet if here spiritual psychosynthesis means "increasing unification with the Self," elsewhere spiritual development "may or may not include the experience of the Self."61

In summary, Assagioli has two understandings of "spiritual" and of "spiritual development." One relates to the superconscious and the other, to the higher Self. Assagioli never clearly distinguishes, relates, or reconciles these two.

Assagioli notes four stages in the attainment of the goal of organic unity.62 First, Thorough Knowledge of One's Personality: One comes to know both the empirical conscious elements in oneself and especially the hidden dark forces of the unconscious. Second, Control of the Various Elements of the Personality: One generally appropriates all of what one is but does not identify with it all; one allows that there is a self beyond what is happening to it. Third, Realization of One's True self-The Discovery or Creation of a Unifying Center : In a series of intermediate stages or plateaus, one strives to become one's Self by identifying with external models or ideals. And fourth, Psychosynthesis: The Formation or Reconstruction of the Personality Around the New Center: One builds a new, coherent, organized, and unified personality either by projecting an ideal self-image and trying to live up to it or by more spontaneously following a call from within.

What Assagioli calls "stages"63 are not intended as discrete achievements along the way to spiritual integration: "all the various stages and methods mentioned above are closely interrelated and need not be followed in a strict succession of distinct periods or phases."64 These "stages" rather represent general aspects of a growth process and could conceivably be relevant to the transition between any real stages of spiritual development that might be discerned.

That same applies to the second and different account of "four critical stages" that Assagioli relates to disturbances that can arise during the process of spiritual growth.65 First, an upheaval of normal living, often occurring with no apparent cause, results in despondency, lack of meaning and purpose in life, and serious questioning. What Assagioli describes here sounds like the classic "mid-life crisis," popularized by Gail sheehy. Second, a breakthrough, "the spiritual awakening," brings an emotional high.66 Third, cessation of the initial high causes doubt, confusion, and discouragement. Assagioli sees reference to this effect in Plato's account of the pain of the prisoners in the cave when they first see the light and in John of the Cross's account of the Dark Night of the Soul. And fourth, acceptance of the necessarily transitory nature of the initial experience allows one to begin the long process of restructuring the personality in light of the already experienced goal.

As noted above, these two different accounts of four stages offer no help in delineating really discrete stages of spiritual development. Rather, as suggested above regarding the traditional "three ways," they seem to describe the experience of passage through the transition of any stage whatever. However, Assagioli's distinction between personal psychosynthesis and spiritual psychosynthesis does provide some help. Despite the generality of definition given these two "phases" of psychosynthesis and despite the far-reaching ambiguity inherent in the description of spiritual psychosynthesis, the delineation of these two phases stands firm. These phases find some correlation with the stages of development proposed by the developmental psychologists to be considered in Chapter 3 of this essay.

Furthermore, Assagioli's notion of increasing unification of the personality with the Self and his notion of the reconstruction of the personality in view of that unification suggest development of the intrinsic structures of the personality-an understanding highly compatible, if not identical, with Loevinger's conception of ego development. Assagioli's conception also suggests heuristically the ultimate goal of that development, namely, that the personality become a perfect expression or reflection of the Self. At that ultimate point in development one would have attained not a momentary but an abiding state of self-realization. These notions, though not consistently presented by Assagioli, are a part of his thought. They are valuable contributions for an understanding of spiritual development.

Four other aspects of Assagioli's position are. relevant to the goal of this essay. First, Assagioli presupposes that psychosynthesis is an adult affair. That the first stage in the process is thorough knowledge of one's personality confirms this reading. Likewise, the conception of intentional integration of all aspects of the person, that is, eventual reconstruction of the personality, also confirms this reading. Assagioli's overall presentation and his recommendation of specific techniques are obviously geared toward adults. He notes that there are two periods of particularly intense upheaval during life: "first, the tumultuous awakening of new tendencies at the time of adolescence, and second, the awakening of religious aspirations and new spiritual interests, particularly at middle age."67 The latter is Assagioli's concern. Note that Grant, Thompson, and Clarke indicate these same two periods as critical and explain the crises in terms of alternations in the generic Jungian functions, perceiving and judging.

Second, Assagioli adopts an explicit, neutral stance toward religion. Of course, Assagioli is concerned about religious or spiritual experiences, but not about the religious formulations of those experiences nor about institutionalized religion.68 Assagioli's indifference about how the higher Self is related to the universal Self, as noted above, is evidence here. Psychosynthesis is a "scientific conception" and does not "appropriate to itself the fields of religion and of philosophy.... 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."69 Assagioli's position represents a clear and nuanced insistence that certain aspects of spiritual development can be adequately treated apart from theological presuppositions.

Third, Assagioli insists that there are "higher urges within man which tend to make him grow towards greater realizations of his spiritual essence."70 He relates these "urges" to the Self and the superconscious, namely, to what he describes as the spiritual. Assagioli holds that "spiritual drives or spiritual urges are as real, basic and fundamental as sexual aggressive drives."71 Although Assagioli's account of these spiritual urges in terms of the Self and superconscious is basically ambiguous, as noted above, his insistence on them provides a valuable clue about the nature of spiritual development.

Finally, given his insistence on the reality of the spiritual, Assagioli argues for a conception of psychology broad enough to deal with spiritual development. He explains, "We are not attempting to force upon psychology a philosophical, theological or metaphysical position, but essentially we include within the study of psychological facts all those which may be related to the higher urges."72 Assagioli's presupposition squares with that of this essay, namely, that certain aspects of spiritual development can be treated within a psychological perspective when adequately conceived. However, I am less optimistic than he that this goal can be achieved apart from acceptance of a particular philosophical position. This is not naively to suggest that psychology as presently conceived does operate apart from philosophical presuppositions.73 It is simply to suggest that to deal adequately with spiritual-that is, with human!-issues, psychology needs a different philosophical foundation.74 Moreover, unlike Assagioli, I would not lump together philosophical and theological concerns.

For more on Assagioli, see
Chapter Two toward the end.

45. Assagioli, Psychosynthesis, 16.
46. Ibid., 17-18.
47. Ibid., 18-19.
48. Ibid., 20.
49. Ibid., 44-45.
50. Ibid., 37.
51. Ibid., 36.
52. Ibid., 30.
53. Ibid., 65.
54. Ibid., 37.
55. Maslow, "Critique of Self-Actualization."
56. Assagioli, Psychosynthesis, 39.
57. Ibid., 37.
58. Ibid., 202.
59. Ibid., 38.
60. Ibid., 30.
61. Ibid., 38.
62. Ibid., 21-28.
63. Ibid., 21.
64. Ibid., 29.
65. Ibid., 40-53.
66. Cf. also Groeschel, Spiritual Passages, 73-75.
67. Assagioli, Psychosynthesis, 37.
68. Ibid., 194-195.
69. Ibid., 6-7.
70. Ibid., 193.
71. Ibid., 194.
72. Ibid., 193.
73. Woolfolk and Richardson , "Behavior Therapy."
74. Doran, Subject and Psyche, Psychic Conversion.