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”
The prolific American philosopher and Integral theorist, Ken Wilber, is fond of stating that Integral Theory (his noteworthy contribution toward a “theory of everything” ) is ultimately about waking up, growing up, and showing up. The direct, simple, and profound truth of his statement deeply resonates with me in my personal journey and as a leadership scholar and consultant who views this (i.e., waking up, growing up, and showing up) as the leadership imperative of the 21st century.
Waking up speaks to the urgent need for leaders to reconnect with their spiritual nature or essence. As spiritual teachers gently remind us, we are spiritual beings having a human experience not human beings with an occasional spiritual experience. However, for a variety of reasons including our fast-paced and highly stimulated lives, many of us have lost connection with this deeper dimension of our being. The spiritual realm of human experience concerns our ultimate nature and relationship to self, all sentient beings (people and creatures), our planet, and all that is—seen and unseen for which there are many names (e.g., Spirit, God, Jehovah, Allah, Goddess, Universe, Source, etc.). Consequently, the leadership imperative to wake-up involves slowing down and quieting the mind to befriend one’s innate wisdom, the still small voice that knows who you really are. This reunion requires ongoing cultivation and nurturing. Thankfully, there are many spiritual practices such as meditation and prayer to support our continued awakening. Spirituality and Practice (www.spiritualityandpractice.com ) is an excellent resource containing practices from many different traditions.
Growing up refers to the leadership imperative for psychological and emotional maturity. While I certainly do not make any claims here (or in any realm of this imperative), over the last six years, I have wholeheartedly contemplated what it means to be a healthy and mature human being. In so doing, I have engaged in deep personal work (e.g., meditation, self-observation, coaching, counseling, etc.), and read numerous related books (e.g., The Places that Scare You by Pema Chödrön, Guide to Rational Living by Ellis & Harper, and I’m Okay, You’re Okay by T. Harris). Consequently, I have come to see that one key element of being and becoming a healthier and mature adult and leader is accepting full and complete responsibility for one’s life. It also includes the difficult work of facing one’s shadow (see essay, Leader Self-Development and The Necessity of Shadow Work). While personal responsibility and shadow work take courage, patience, and compassion, it is at the heart of growing up.
Lastly, but certainly not least, showing up. Showing up (what leaders tend to do best!) refers to the imperative to be and become part of the solution to the numerous unprecedented global challenges that threaten the quality of our lives and the lives of future generations. These challenges (e.g., terrorism, climate change, economic uncertainty, gun violence, etc.) call leaders to access more of their potential (through ongoing inner work) then to show up as their unique authentic selves to contribute real solutions to humanity’s global challenges.
The leadership imperative of the 21st century—waking up, growing up, and showing up. What do you think? I think it sounds a little scary. However, American Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chödrön, encourages folks to start the inner journey where they are. This is good advice, advice, which I will heed as I clumsily walk this path called my life and accept this invitation, however imperfectly. Will you join me?
(Revised and reposted 6/17/2016. Previous version posted on former blog, Paradigms4Progress).
Leaders across the sectors are experiencing growing pressures to handle complexity, collaborate with diverse populations, and accept more responsibility for the impacts their organizations have on people and our planet. These increasing demands necessitate transformation of consciousness (i.e., perceptual shifts toward greater complexity and inclusivity) as well as deep inner work associated with surfacing and healing old wounds repressed in the basement of the unconscious (i.e., shadow work).
In his book, “Soul of Leadership,” Deepak Chopra highlighted the necessity for today’s leaders to include shadow work in their developmental plans for success. Chopra’s book is one of the few leadership books that I have read thus far that specifically addressed the critical issue of shadow work in leader self-development and transformation. For example, he cautioned, “Whatever you haven’t faced has power over you. You may set out to do nothing but good, but unless you become conscious of your shadow, the result will be denial. In a state of denial, you will face all kinds of negative effects from the external world, but you will be ill equipped to defeat them. Negativity is defeated only when you can integrate it into the whole fabric of life” (p. 120).
Psychosynthesis, developed by Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974), offers a promising holistic framework to illuminate and instruct a more integrative approach to leader self-development that includes shadow work. Unlike psychoanalysis, the framework acknowledges and integrates a higher unconscious as well as a lower unconscious, middle unconscious, field of awareness, personal self or I, Transpersonal Self, the collective unconscious, and sub-personalities into its model of the human psyche.
In addition to these core elements of psychosynthesis depicted in the model’s “egg diagram” and several other important concepts (e.g., consciousness and will), psychosynthesis includes a dynamic five-stage healing process. Stage zero highlights the predominate stage of humanity characterized by what Assagioli called, the “fundamental infirmity of man.” In their book, Primal Wounding, John Firman and Ann Gila refer 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 healing and development. Without self-awareness, we tend to react out of habitual responses, or what Firman and Gil refer to as, the survival personality. As self-awareness expands, we start to see all the ways we cause pain and suffering for ourselves and others through our habitual patterns, tendencies, and character flaws. Initially, such self-revelations are painful. However, with ongoing compassionate effort, eventually, the fruits of liberation begin to ripen and provide a sweet taste of what is possible—freedom from the chains that bind us from happiness and fulfillment as well as role efficacy.
Thankfully, numerous modern and ancient practices (e.g., meditation, self-observation, journaling, etc.) offer leaders tools to cultivate greater self-awareness and expand consciousness. Over time, such practices help leaders recognize the physiological, emotional, and mental patterns associated with defensive and unproductive behavior, which allows them to begin disrupting old patterns and creating new, more constructive patterns of being and relating (additional stages include disidentification, contact with the Transpersonal/Highest Self, and listening & responding to the Transpersonal Self).
As highlighted by Chopra and other writers on shadow work (e.g., Shadow Dancing by David Richo), becoming aware of shadow elements with acceptance, nonjudgment, forgiveness and responsibility are essential dimensions of this challenging inner work which may require the support of a therapist, support group, or other reputable process or program. Consequently, a key opportunity (and necessity) for today’s leaders is to employ transformative practices (e.g., meditation–see my essay on mindfulness meditation) to both surface and address shadow issues as well as to expand awareness to more include expansive, inclusive, and complex realities as key dimensions of leader self-development.