Psychosynthesis is a holistic approach to psychology, developed by Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974) that incorporates psychoanalysis, but significant transcends it by emphasizing health, development, and spirituality. Assagioli illustrated his view of the human psyche in his “egg-diagram” (see Figure) with seven elements:
Figure. Assagioli’s Egg Diagram
Source: Kenneth Sorensen, https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/. Used with permission.
1. The Lower Unconscious
The lower unconscious, according to Assagioli, contains the basic psychological activities that conduct the operative and intelligent coordination of the body and bodily functions. This dimension of the psyche also holds one’s foundational drives and animalistic urges, as well as emotionally intense established thematic patterns (i.e., psychological complexes), dark dreams and fantasies, and some pathological disturbances such as paranoid delusions, uncontrollable urges, obsessions, and phobias.
2. The Middle Unconscious
The middle unconscious, according to Assagioli, includes psychological dimensions comparable to waking consciousness with ready access to it. Life experiences are integrated, and standard cognitive and creative intelligence activated in a type of psychological incubation before entering the field of conscious awareness.
3. The Higher Unconscious or Superconscious
The higher unconscious or superconscious is the region that holds our highest inspirations, aspirations, and intuitions for ourselves, humanity, and our world. This realm is also the source of our higher emotions such unconditional love and higher intelligences. It also holds the deeper experiences of insight, contemplation, and bliss, as well as potentials for higher spiritual experiences and psychic abilities.
4. The Field of Consciousness
For Assagioli, the field of consciousness, a term he thought useful but not quite precise, referred to the part of our personality of which we are conscious, including the thoughts, bodily sensations, emotions, desires, and impulses we are able to see and evaluate.
5. The Conscious Self or “I”
The conscious self or “I” is the term Assagioli used to refer to the “the point of pure-awareness,” not to be confused with the field of consciousness highlighted above, which refers to the content of experience. The conscious self or “I” refers to the experiencer. He compared the “I” to a projector light and field of consciousness to a screen onto which images are projected.
6. The Higher Self
Unlike Freud’s psychoanalysis, which only includes a lower unconscious, Assagioli’s psychosynthesis includes the Higher Self or soul depicted above the conscious self in the egg diagram. According to Assagioli, one can experience the Higher Self through the use of psycho-spiritual practices such as meditation.
7. The Collective Unconscious
Assagioli’s collective unconscious, similar to Jung’s conceptualization of the term, refers to universal, nonpersonal common forms or archetypes that surround and influence us on a collective level. Assagioli distinguished between primitive, archaic forms and higher, progressive forces of a more spiritual nature.
Although not depicted in Assagioli’s original egg diagram (though some contemporary illustrations do include it), another key element of psychosynthesis is the concept of subpersonalities. Subpersonalities, similar to Jung’s persona, refers to parts or formed habit patterns in the human psyche, conscious and unconscious, that we repeatedly express in our lives. For the healthy person, subpersonalities are conscious and in the field of self-awareness and self-regulation. In psychosynthesis, subpersonalities may reside in the lower, middle, or higher unconscious, unlike Jung’s persona or false self. Additional fundamental concepts of psychosynthesis, which highlight stages of Self-realization, include self-knowledge, self-control, disidentification, unifying center, and psychosynthesis, as the peak stage in his model.
Disidentification refers to the necessity of separating oneself (the conscious I) from overidentification with everything outside or beyond oneself. Overidentification can happen any time we identify with an aspect of our life experiences such as a subpersonality, our ethnicity, fear, anxiety, or a role to such an extent that it dominates our lives. Thus, healing and growth opportunities lie in seeing when and where one overidentifies and, with the help of exercises and practices, severing the control of the overidentification on oneself or “I.”
Over time, former objects of overidentification can be healthily integrated into the middle unconscious and accessed more intentionally. The unifying center refers to the discovery or creation of an ideal around which one can reach or reorganize one’s life. Psychosynthesis, in addition to referring to Assagioli’s entire approach to psychotherapy, refers to the peak of the developmental process that establishes a new personality around a primary unifying center: one that is “coherent, organized and unified” (2000, p. 23).
Consequently, personal will (the Will) is a highly significant concept in psychosynthesis such that Assagioli dedicated a book on the topic entitled, The Act of Will. The will is an element of Assagioli’s Star Diagram of Six Psychological Functions (see Figure 5-2/Not included in this essay), which he developed later in his life to complement the egg diagram of the psyche. Lamenting the state of psychology in 1958, Assagioli is quoted as stating, “After losing its soul, psychology lost its will, and only then its mind and senses” (2007, Foreword).
Furthermore, Assagioli held the view of the existence of a transpersonal will, which he viewed as a dormant potentiality for most people. Assagioli’s transpersonal will aligns with what Maslow referred to as “higher needs” and the growing field of transpersonal psychology refers to using a variety of terms that include Christ consciousness, unitive consciousness, peak experiences, mystical experiences, spirit, oneness, and other such similar concepts.
As mentioned above, psychosynthesis proposes a dynamic five-stage healing and realization process (see Table—Not included in this essay). Stage zero highlights the predominate stage of humanity, characterized by what Assagioli called, the “fundamental infirmity of man.” John Firman (?–2008) referred to this human condition as “primal wounding”; wounding resulting from not being seen and heard for who we truly are by significant others in our lives. Stage 1 relates to the tuning in of one’s inner experience and the cultivation of greater self-awareness. Self-awareness is the foundation of all growth and development. Without self-awareness, we tend to react out of instinct and habitual responses or what Firman referred to as, the survival personality. As self-awareness expands, we start to see our tendencies, preferences, and shortcomings.
Eventually, we (often with the help of supportive practices or a skilled guide) begin to free ourselves or disidentify from our habitual thoughts, feelings, reactions, and roles, thereby cultivating the witness or individual observer “I” (Stage 2). Over time, we may start sensing a more expansive identity or connectedness to life and begin to feel new vocational urges, creative impulses, or directive promptings (Stage 3). From a psychosynthesis perspective, this involves surrendering and inviting a more intimate, conscious relationship with the Highest Self or soul. The fourth stage of psychosynthesis corresponds to a period in which we are formally responding to the invitations of the Highest Self (in contrast to the personal self or ego in its contemporary usage) and developing more spiritually.
Survival of wounding, exploration of the personality, the emergence of I, contact with the Highest Self, and response to the Highest Self represent the five stages of psychosynthesis. However, Assagioli and others (e.g., Firman & Gila, 2002 and Brown, 2009) cautioned that these stages do not represent a set developmental sequence, but potential responses to the human condition that can occur at any age.
It is important to note that Assagioli presented psychosynthesis in two subcategories: personal psychosynthesis and transpersonal psychosynthesis. The emphases of personal psychosynthesis are self-awareness and self-regulation. The foci of transpersonal psychosynthesis are on the realization of one’s Highest Self/soul and the actual psychosynthesis, the reformation of the personality around a new unifying center or ideal.
Numerous practices and exercises align with psychosynthesis overall and in these two categories. Thus, to identify a narrow set of core practices is inconsistent with this reality. However, it is fair to say that visualization, drawing, self-observation, and meditation are common practices among psychosynthesis-oriented counselors, therapists, and coaches. In addition, as highlighted above, disidentification is a core concept of psychosynthesis and activities aimed at freeing oneself from overidentifying with a dimension of our being or life other than the center of pure awareness or “I.”
Given today’s pressing global challenges and the subsequent demands on human beings, psychosynthesis offers a holistic and hope-filled paradigm for the journey toward healing, well-being, self-actualization, and Self-realization.
Note: Modified excerpt from my book, “Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders”
As the rate of change continues to increase exponentially and our lives become more interdependent, complex, and uncertain, humanity needs holistic or integrative frameworks to better understand and respond to the unprecedented demands of the 21st century. These unparalleled demands include threats to our very survival as a species from pressures of climate change, terrorism, water scarcity, food insecurity, poverty and social inequality, political corruption, and economic instability.
Consequently, U.S. philosopher Ken Wilber proposed that any truly integrative or integral view of human and social phenomenon must minimally include the individual subjective/interior, the individual behavioral/exterior, the collective intersubjective/interior, and the collective interobjective/exterior. Borrowing from Wilber’s All Quadrant All Level or AQAL framework, an integrative approach to leader development addresses the individual internal and individual external dimensions while acknowledging the larger context of leadership development and leadership. Thus, in this more expansive context, an integrative leader-development framework must first consider human existence and well-being from a holistic perspective, as well as the insights and learnings from adult-development theory.
Given that leaders are first and foremost human, the foundation of this integrative leader-development framework is a comprehensive view of human existence and well-being or wellness. Wellness is a holistic and proactive view of health that regards humans as beings with physical bodies, mental bodies, emotional bodies, and spiritual bodies embedded in social and natural environments and dependent on a vibrant planet Earth. Wellness also emphasizes the overall quality of life and not solely the absence of disease. Wellness is highly significant to leader development because general wellness supports full and consistent access to current developmental capacities and provides the “fertile ground” necessary for ongoing self-development. Although various models of wellness exist, a general framework includes physical, mental-emotional, financial or material, spiritual, social, and environmental dimensions.
Physical well-being is a core dimension of wellness and generally refers to the capacity to meet the demands and potential crises of ordinary life. When physical health and vitality are compromised, it is more difficult to be one’s best self or tend to other areas of wellness. Physical wellness includes regular exercise or body movement, healthy weight, strength and flexibility, rest and relaxation, and sleep. It also includes one’s food and beverage choices and how they affect one’s overall well-being, including general health, vitality, energy, mood, weight, body-mass index (BMI), and stamina.
Mental-emotional wellness refers to awareness, constructive expression, and healthy integration of thoughts and feelings. Thus, mental-emotional wellness includes numerous areas that are highly relevant to an integrative approach to leader development such as mental attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, thoughts, feelings, personality, shadow, identity, motivation, will, self-awareness, perceptions, and self-regulation. Financial or material wellness refers to having adequate financial or material resources to meet essential basic human needs (e.g., food, potable water, clothing, and shelter) and support the fulfillment of higher needs (e.g., self-actualization).
Spiritual wellness refers to a sense of interconnectedness or relationship to and with all life/Life (immanent and transcendent), as well as a sense of awe and appreciation for the mysteries of life/Life. Furthermore, spiritual (or existential) wellness relates to the meaning and purpose derived from contributing to ideals or causes beyond the self (e.g., justice, peace, and sustainability). Social wellness refers to one’s ability to have and maintain healthy adult relationships in all areas of life (e.g., intimate, family, work, and community). Also, social wellness refers to a sense of belonging in the world as well as the capacity to engage in authentic, skillful, and constructive self-expression and communication. Environmental wellness refers to the overall quality and stability of one’s social and natural environments.
Furthermore, as highlighted in Wilber’s Integral Theory, the physical body can be viewed as three bodies, not one, which is also highly significant in an integrative leader-development framework. The three bodies are the gross body, the subtle body, and the causal body. The gross body or actual physical body includes all aspects of the body we typically think about—our skin, bones, muscles, systems, organs, tissues, cells, blood, etc.
The subtle body includes energies of the life force associated with human existence. Wilber’s AQAL associates the subtle body with dream states where earthly laws disintegrate. However, the energies of the subtle body are not limited to sleeping states. They are activated and alive in times of vision, inspiration, and creativity. Thus, although still not formally recognized by Western physiology, growing appreciation for and acceptance of subtle energies enlivens our being, as found in Eastern healing and religious traditions such as tai chi, yoga, and Hinduism. Furthermore, as other leadership writers have emphasized (e.g., Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz, 2005 and Bruce Schneider, 2008), leaders who understand the role of subtle body energies will increase their potential for effectiveness, especially in the turbulent times of the 21st century.
The third body, the causal body aligns with deep sleep and an infinite openness, stillness, and formlessness or the Ground of Being. This is the body or state that the great mystics of the ages speak of, as expressed in the poem, “Expands His Being,” by Meister Eckhart (1260–1328):
All beings are words of God,—In Love Poems from God (Ladinsky, 2002)
His music, His art.
Sacred books we are, for the infinite camps in our souls.
Every act reveals God and expands His Being.
I know that may be hard to comprehend.
All creatures are doing their best
to help God in His birth of Himself.
Enough talk for the night.
He is laboring in me;
I need to be silent for a while,
worlds are forming in my heart.
Thus, the three human bodies—gross, subtle, and causal—are highly relevant to this integrative leader-development framework, as addressed further throughout this book.
Note: This essay is an excerpt from my book, “Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders” available on Amazon. An audiobook version is also available on Audible, iTunes, and Amazon.
When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity. John F. Kennedy
As emphasized in the management literature, employees frequently resist organizational change for a variety of reasons to include fear of the unknown. As we all know from our own lives, resistance to change also occurs on the individual level as well as the organizational level. Consequently, individuals and collectives tend to be more open to learning and growth opportunities when they are faced with a personal or professional crisis. When a personal and professional crisis propels a leader to move into unknown territory in and through constructive action, it can serve as a transformative learning opportunity.
Transformative learning occurs when radically new experiences induce a tectonic shift in perspective in the way one views him/herself, others, and the world. Longtime leadership scholar and author, Warren Bennis refers to these types of transformative events as crucibles. He and co-author Robert Thomas wrote in their seminal article on the topic that highly effective leaders are the people who can find meaning in and learn from their most painful and difficult crucibles. Such leaders emerge from the ashes more confident, strong, and more committed to the things that deeply matter to them.
Effective leaders that use their crucibles as learning opportunities have growth mindsets. In her work on mindsets, Carol Dweck makes the distinction between fixed and growth mindsets. Leaders with fixed mindsets view themselves and others as being born with a limited amount of capacity and potential for learning. Thus, the emphasis is on protecting their image and proving themselves. From the fixed mindset, failure is feared and avoided at all costs.
In stark contrast, leaders with growth mindsets hold the view that they and others can build upon the capacities they with which they were born. They see failure as a natural and welcomed dimension of learning and development. Leaders with a growth mindset also know that success does not simply happen to them. They celebrate that success (as they define it) requires passion, effort, training, and yes, failure. The growth mindset is illustrated in the stories shared by the mindful leaders interviewed for my 2015 study (insert link).
At the time, I was really struggling with depression and anxiety, and it had been recommended for me to take that (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) class. And the unexpected side effect was the really powerful impact of helping me create a daily mindfulness practice, which for me is a combination of meditation, daily taking time out for just mindfulness moments, trying to do things in general, everything I do, more mindfully, being more aware of it. (Female middle manager and marketing researcher)
But in terms of my more recent delving into it (mindfulness), it’s been maybe about 3 years, 2 and a half to 3 years where I’ve been seriously getting into meditation, and to be perfectly honest with you, what prompted me was my wife’s illness and being able to get myself to a place of being able to deal with and handle that. The self-awareness, the centeredness, the calm, the ability to sort of control the uncontrolled, I think were the more attractive things about it and just not only that, the relieving of stress was one of the things that attracted me to it, ‘cause I was undergoing a lot of stress and I felt like I needed to get a handle on it. I exercise, I walk, I do those things, but you know, I felt that there was a, maybe a better way to attain that, I think, so yeah. (Male senior manager and administer in higher education)
Thus, leaders yearning to be and become more self-aware and effective turn their crises into opportunities for constructive action. By choosing growth mindsets over fixed mindsets, they open themselves to unforeseen possibilities that alter their lives in powerful and profound ways. So, next time you face a personal or professional crisis, follow the lead of mindful leaders who turned their crises into opportunities to turn inward and experiment with mindfulness meditation and other transformative practices.
Note: This essay is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders by Denise Frizzell, Ph.D. Denise offers leadership and organizational coaching and consulting for spiritual activists, evolutionaries, progressive change agents and their organizations. Visit https://metamorphosisconsultation.com/schedule-a-coaching-appointment/ to schedule a FREE 20-30 minutes exploratory session.