[Mandala by Clare Goodwin]

An exploration of the perception of practitioners of the strengths and limitations of psychosynthesis psychotherapy in application
by Zen Kyle

A review of literature concerning psychosynthesis


This chapter presents a review of the literature about psychosynthesis. It begins with an overview of the professional life of Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, and then progresses to an explanation of his theory. The chapter then goes on to examine the literary evidence portraying the strengths and limitations of psychosynthesis, more recent developments in its theory, and how the approach is placed in the field of psychotherapeutic practice. Finally, the chapter draws to a close by identifying the major issues that arise from this review as a precursor to the author's research.

Roberto Assagioli

Psychosynthesis was developed by Roberto Assagioli (1889-1976), an Italian psychiatrist. His doctoral thesis was a critique of Freud's psychoanalysis, and the latter held him in high regard, hoping that Assagioli would promote psychoanalysis in Italy. Instead Assagioli developed and practised psychosynthesis, believing that, valuable as Freud's work was, it unhelpfully focused more on neuroses and the causes of dysfunction, and this at the expense of accounting for what constituted a healthily functioning human being. Assagioli also posited that in not taking account of what came to be known later as the 'transpersonal' aspects of human nature, the Freudian paradigm offered a limited perspective. He was constrained from publicising his work more broadly by the climate of Fascism in Italy in the 1930's. Indeed he was imprisoned under Mussolini's purge of intellectuals at this time (Firman and Gila 2002).

Assagioli was Jewish by descent and maintained a deep and broad interest in western and eastern philosophies, and esoteric as well as scientific writings. Much of this was apparent in psychosynthesis theory, as well as the exercises he recommended for use in psychosynthesis psychotherapy. Parfitt (2003 p.113) has shown how psychosynthesis was imbued with the "Western Mystery Tradition", with sources such as the Jewish Kabbalah and Christian Mysticism, Gnosticism and the Cathars, and Classical Greek influences. It was equally infused with Eastern thought, such as Tibbetan Buddhism, Hinduism and various branches of Yoga. Assagioli had a life long correspondence with Jung, and was greatly inspired by Abraham Maslow and Victor Frankl. These associates represented three of the major influences in Western Psychotherapeutic thinking in the twentieth century, of Analytical, Humanistic and Existential psychologies (Assagioli 2002).

In the 1960's Assagioli was warmly received in North America where one of the first institutes of psychosynthesis was established outside Italy. World-wide there were psychosynthesis institutes offering education and training in about forty countries, in places as far afield as India and New Zealand. As a psychological approach to human development, psychosynthesis had been applied in educational settings as well as in psychotherapeutic practice (Hardy & Whitmore 2000).

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Assagioli's theory of Psychosynthesis

It had to be taken into account that this author was not Italian speaking and did not access the Italian literature which was available, for example, in the archive of Assagioli's writings in the Italian Institute of Psychosynthesis in Florence, Italy. It was not known whether the Italian sources included research into psychosynthesis or whether the Italian literature included nuances and culturally specific aspects of Assagioli's original meaning and thought, not available in the English literature. There were two primary sources used by the author, which were substantial and seminal texts, and written by Assagioli (1993 and 2002) himself. Crampton (1977), Young Brown (1993 and 2000) and Whitmore (1998) were understood to have studied psychosynthesis with Assagioli, and their literary contributions, used in this study, were considered to have a particular significance. They offered a greater measure of authenticity to a non Italian interpretation of the approach. Overall it was considered that this study was confined, and perhaps could only be directly relevant to the psychosynthesis and counselling and psychotherapy fields, in the English speaking world, and the United Kingdom in particular.

Assagioli (1993) was clear that his was an essentially existential-humanistic framework. That was to say that, psychosynthesis incorporated developmental processes concerned with self-realisation as well as self-actualisation. Psychosynthesis's conception of the human psychological constitution was summarised by the 'egg diagram' (Fig. 1). Assagioli (1993) described three levels of human consciousness: the lower unconscious (1), middle unconscious (2) and superconscious (3). He included in his paradigm, the human mind's relationship with what Jung called the collective unconscious (7), the psychic environment beyond the individual (Crampton 1977). The lower unconscious (1) which corresponded with Freud's unconscious, included energies, primitive instincts and passions, unresolved dynamics and traumas that had not been assimilated by the person. Psychological defences kept all of these from awareness. The middle unconscious (2) consisted of memories, dreams and other psychological processes. It was the region in which "experiences are assimilated" Assagioli (1993 p.17) and processed by means of the person's imaginative and other mental functions. The field of consciousness (4), which was constantly changing, was consciousness in the person, of their external and internal environments, by means of sensations, emotions, desires and impulses which could be directly known and acted upon. The superconscious (3) was the region from which the person obtained inspirations and enlightenment. It was the arena which prompted the individual with their wisdom and potential. As in the case of the lower unconscious (1), the person had defences which kept in check and could deny the influences of this part of their mind (Brown 2001, Hardy & Whitmore 2000, Parfitt 2003).

figure 1
Assagioli's Egg Diagram

According to psychosynthesis, the human psychological constitution also consisted of (Figure. 1) the 'I' (5) and the Transpersonal Self (6), which were representations of the same entity (Assagioli 1993). The 'I' represented pure awareness and will. It was the unchanging "integrating centre" (Crampton 1977 p.3) around which the otherwise fluid personality was configured. The 'I' was the source, as opposed to the more readily known contents of, consciousness. The Transpersonal Self (6), otherwise known as Soul, was the person's most complete alive being. It was the source of the person's wisdom, understanding and love, and was more than, but also inspired, their personality. The experience of this part of themselves, offered a person a sense of "freedom, of expansion, of communion with other Selves and with reality, and there is the sense of Universality" (Assagioli 1993 p.87).

figure 2
Assagioli's Egg Diagram
Illustrating the sub-personality model

In its view of the human personality, psychosynthesis also had a model to describe its disparate and multi-faceted nature. The sub-personality model (Fig. 2 - see 'i's) posited that together with the 'I', which is the integrating centre, there are "small 'i's that speak for the parts rather than for the whole" (Crampton 1977 p.6). The sub-personalities were adaptations, habitual patterns and representations of psychological forces, which the individual used in response to influences experienced in their internal and external environments. Some of these were found to have served their original purpose, and were instead, sources of conflicts and destructive tendencies. The model suggested that a process of transformation and re-integration was required, as the broader work of integrating the personality progressed (Assagioli 1993, Crampton 1977, Hardy 1987).

Several authors attended to the relationship between psychoanalysis and psychosynthesis and in effect highlighted particular strengths of the latter (Parfitt 2003, Firman & Gila 1997, Whitmore 1998, Hardy 1987, Crampton 1977). As a theoretical framework, psychosynthesis "is an antidote to the over-rationalised world view held by psychoanalysis" Parfitt (2003 p.112). By including spiritual and esoteric concepts, psychosynthesis offered a perspective on what Brown (2001) called the transpersonal aspects of the human person. He went on to explain that transpersonal psychologies like psychosynthesis, "are intended to help people explore levels of energy and awareness beyond or on the other side of the mask and patterns of the personality" (Brown 2001 p.104). Firman & Gila (1997) saw another of psychosynthesis's strengths whilst discussing the relationship between psychoanalysis and psychosynthesis, in that unlike psychoanalysis, it emphasised the healthier aspects of the person rather than focusing too much on psychopathology. They also argued that Assagioli sought to give equal importance to the higher and lower unconscious of the human mind, avoiding any form of reductionist tendency. These sources of, respectively, inspiration and repressed conflicts, were as valuable as each other in psychosynthesis's theoretical framework (Assagioli 1993).

Hardy & Whitmore (2000 p.232) contended that psychosynthesis "has proven itself to be highly effective", with people's existential challenges, finding meaning and purpose in life, alleviating the associated stress, depression and sense of alienation. They said that it was especially facilitative for people seeking a broader and deeper self-understanding, and a greater, more creative self expression. This implied another fundamental strength of psychosynthesis as discerned by Alberti (1975) and Crampton (1977), namely its attention to the notion of will, which both claimed, played a "pivotal role in the psychosynthetic process" (Crampton 1977, p.16). Alberti (1975 p.1) stated that, "both so-called scientific psychology and depth psychology have almost entirely neglected or undervalued this important psychological function". He went on to contend that psychosynthesis was instrumental in rediscovering the will and creating a facility in the special type of role offered by the psychosynthesis psychotherapist, by which clients were enabled to enhance their overall functioning through an active use of their will.

It was notable, though perhaps understandable that the literature that was investigated, which was unanimously written to promote psychosynthesis, did not discuss extensively, its limitations. Amongst the brief references to limitations were Tuyn (1988) who cautioned against using psychosynthesis and addressing transpersonal issues with people who were experiencing severe borderline personality disorder. They were less likely to have a reasonably healthy ego structure, which was required to accommodate transpersonal development. In the same text she asserts that psychosynthesis psychotherapy should include work with the person's lower unconscious as well as their higher unconscious, because some people were drawn to psychosynthesis in order to avoid the psychological disturbances they were experiencing. This was linked to the issue of the practitioners' training, in that authentic psychosynthesis psychotherapy depended upon advanced levels of integration amongst those who used it in their psychotherapeutic practice (Crampton 1977).

Psychosynthesis psychotherapy had a long history, comparable to that of psychoanalysis (Hardy 1987, Crampton 1977). It had been practised in about forty countries in the world. However, if the field of counselling and psychotherapy in the United Kingdom was indicative, where at the time of initiating the study, out of a total of 10, 442 registered practitioners only 146 were registered psychosynthesis psychotherapists, then it was argued that psychosynthesis was a relatively minor influence in counselling and psychotherapeutic practice (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, BACP & United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy, UKCP registers 2001). Perhaps it was then to have been expected that as far as this author was able to ascertain from researching the available literature in the English language, no systematic study of the strengths and limitations of psychosynthesis in practice, had been conducted. In the body of knowledge concerning psychosynthesis, there were incidental, anecdotal, and insubstantial case study type reports of the successful application of psychosynthesis (Brown 2003, Gelbond 2003, Weiser & Yeomans 1988). Otherwise, scientifically, it was just not known how effective psychosynthesis theory was in psychotherapeutic practice. From this it was concluded that all of the psychosynthesis literature available in the English language, consisted of the authors' assertions without the support of researched practice evidence.

The lack of knowledge about the effectiveness of psychosynthesis was considered with regard to the history of enquiry into the effectiveness of all types of psychotherapy. The chronicle of this part of the history of systematic research was a testimony to the impact of the expectations of agents external to the field of psychotherapy. Most significantly, those providing health care services who sought evidence concerning the cost effectiveness of psychotherapeutic approaches. It was remarkable that this episode in the history of research concerning psychotherapy had no apparent impact in the field of psychosynthesis and associated psychotherapeutic practice. It was difficult to surmise how this was possible, although other psychotherapeutic approaches as well as psychosynthesis had not been researched for their effectiveness. Perhaps in being less prominent in the fields of psychotherapy and health care, psychosynthesis was not a cause for attention like cognitive behavioural psychotherapy which was utilised in publicly financed health service settings, and thus subject to scrutiny (Toksoz & Karasu 1986, McLeod 1995, Barkham 1996).

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Current ideas and developments in psychosynthesis

The most significant literary evidence which demonstrated the evolution of psychosynthesis theory and practice in the English speaking world, was the publishing of the text by Firman & Gila in 2002, called 'Psychosynthesis A Psychology of the Spirit'. In this text these seasoned writers and practitioners in the field of psychosynthesis psychotherapy, showed how in retaining Assagioli's original thinking, psychosynthesis theory had also been expanded to develop its ideas about pain and growth to incorporate the idea of "primal wounding" (Firman & Gila 2002 p.48). This was an attempt to conceptualise psychosynthesis's perception of the source of the person's psychological infirmity. As such it also represented further advances in incorporating work with the person's lower unconscious, and thus showed psychosynthesis to be more inclusive of the psychoanalytic perspective.

Amongst the array of other advances, most importantly, psychosynthesis was shown to have also evolved with regard to understanding the significant factors which brought about a healing in the therapeutic process. Partly because of the development in understanding the source of psychological disturbance as an "empathic disruption" Firman & Gila (2002 p.5), psychosynthesis was able to develop the idea of the empathic connection in the therapeutic relationship, as a fundamental facilitator of psychological healing. In this one sphere, psychosynthesis had grown to incorporate the insights into the value of the therapeutic relationship that had emerged in theoretical thinking in the psychotherapeutic field, in the latter part of the twentieth century (Clarkson 2002).

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Psychosynthesis as a basis for psychotherapeutic practice

In the field, defining counselling or psychotherapy was a complex continuously evolving activity, with diverging conclusions (McLeod 1998). There was also a continuing controversy about whether or not the two activities were distinguishable. The majority of writers had tended to consider them as broadly the same, in that they both relied on verbal, psychological interactions, and the same theories and techniques (Palmer & McMahon 1997, McLeod 1998, Feltham 2000).

For the purpose of this study, psychotherapy and counselling were considered to be indistinguishable activities. The terms were used interchangeably. What was considered to be happening in both counselling and psychotherapy, was that a person who temporarily assumed the position of client was enabled by a professionally trained practitioner "to explore, discover and clarify ways of living more satisfyingly and resourcefully" British Association for Counselling (1984 p.ii). Also, more specifically, that in this ethically-determined professional relationship, there was the application of psychological theories and interpersonal skills, with the purpose of addressing and making progress with, clients' personal concerns, problems and purposes (Feltham & Dryden 1993).

Psychosynthesis psychotherapy consisted of these same processes and aims. Overall it could be seen to include the personal and transpersonal aspects of a client's development. The aim of the former was to facilitate the development of a healthily functioning integrated personality, and of the latter to bring about a 'Self-Realisation', or the fullest expression of the Self, and the person's purpose in life. The two were not in reality juxtaposed but complementary dimensions of the one overall process of human growth in the therapeutic experience (Petrie 1983, Tuyn 1988, Harvey & Whitmore 2000).

The therapeutic relationship in psychosynthesis had developed since Assagioli first described it as consisting fundamentally of trust (Assagioli 1993). In alerting practitioners to be attentive to the impact of their personality on the client, Assagioli encouraged them to apply a trusting attitude. He cited Carl Rogers (1999) in this respect, who had by the time of Assagioli's writing, developed his therapeutic approach to include the core conditions of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard. For Assagioli, the therapist, contrary to a psychoanalytical counterpart, was actively involved in the relationship (Assagioli 1993) and adopted what was later described as "bi-focal vision - one which sees the client as essentially much more than his or her problems" (Hardy and Whitmore 2000 p.226). The therapist's stance also included being a "wise guiding father" Assagioli (1993 p.231), which involved facilitating the client's processes of self direction and self realisation. This encompassed directing the client on how to avoid the pitfalls on their therapeutic journey. It was later developed by Alberti (1975) and Young Brown (2000) to consist of evoking the client's will and balancing it with love, the will's counterpart at the core of the person's personality. The methods used in psychosynthesis were based on human interactions and active dialogue. Assagioli (1993) included a sophisticated assessment process, with the client's active participation in creating an autobiography and ongoing personal journal. Much of his first seminal text in the English language was devoted to describing a whole range of techniques, their use and contra-indications. It was clear that Assagioli believed that it was important for the therapist to be actively involved in helping the client to explore the unconscious, determine the nature of their psychological problems and initiate changes in conflicts and complexes. Fundamentally though, Assagioli (2002, 1993) viewed as essential, the concurrent development of the person's will at all stages of their psychosynthesis. This was based on two crucial premises: that the will was central to the client's personality, and that as a psychological function, it was the means for making choices, applying and realising them completely, by overcoming all obstacles and difficulties (Assagioli 1993). To this effect the therapist was expected to be directive and educative in facilitating the client through a process for developing their will.

The psychosynthesis literature also showed that subsequently, frameworks for practice varied, which was indicative of the evolution of psychosynthesis as well as differences in how it was applied in contrasting cultural settings (Young Brown 2000). Petrie (1983) emphasised the development of self awareness which was a prerequisite for more comprehensive changes (Young Brown 1993, 2000). Hardy and Whitmore (2000 p.229), offered a framework of three "strategies" used by the therapist, for facilitating the client's purposes. Firstly, as in many other psychotherapeutic approaches, it involved allowing the client to lead the way, determine their aims for the therapy, and disclose their history as a context for understanding their difficulties and challenges. Secondly, by facilitating the client to work through problems and addressing them as current representations of previous dilemmas, which held opportunities for the future. And thirdly, most distinctively to psychosynthesis, therapists enabled clients to embrace the intrinsic potential contained within their originally presented issues, aiming for a further personal evolution and engagement with their life journey.

By comparing the contrasting practice frameworks created since Assagioli's times, what distinguished them was where they were placed on a continuum of directiveness-nondirectiveness on the part of the therapist in relation to the client, and the explicit inclusion of work with the client's will. Otherwise, their respective purposes were the same. Petrie (1983) and Young Brown (2000) included the development of the will as an explicit aspect of the therapeutic process. This corresponded with Assagioli (2002, 1993). The latter, in discussing the place of the training of the will in the therapeutic agenda had said, "psychosynthesis makes much use of various techniques for arousing, developing, strengthening and rightly directing the will" Assagioli (1993 p.3). Any variations in working to enhance the person's will were, according to Young Brown (2000), due to an emphasis on one or other aspect of the person's will. She recommended that a balanced and integrated approach, namely a development of all aspects of the person's will, was the ideal. Otherwise Young Brown (1993, 2000) and Petrie (1983) differed from Hardy & Whitmore (2000) who emphasised the work done in psychosynthesis to enable a client's recovery from psychological disturbances, and made no mention of training the person's will.

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The significance of Psychosynthesis and its distinctive contribution to the field of counselling

Psychosynthesis, in being an existential-humanistic approach was distinguishable from other psychotherapies firstly, by the belief that the core life changing realisation for a person was the discovery of the self as the unifying centre of their experience. Secondly, by its explicit emphasis on the development of the will, which was understood to be the person's ability to make choices and plans, to attend to priorities and act, and so further the purposes of the self in its growth (Assagioli 2002, Tuyn 1988). These distinctive features of psychosynthesis were significant because they suggested that it was essential that the client realised their real and most complete identity, since this is what underpinned their psychological health. 'Know thyself', which is what Socrates taught, was in psychosynthesis facilitative of healthy living. The person's engagement with their preferences, choices, volition and consequent actions which constituted the expression of their will was crucial because this was what actualised their growth and made the expression of their potential more possible (Assagioli 2002).

The significance of psychosynthesis's inclusion of the will was also seen when comparing it with so called 'depth' psychologies. Psychoanalysis, for example, considered that the client benefited from therapy when the unconscious is made conscious (Crampton 1977, Corey 2001). Assagioli (1993) agreed with this but he also saw that a person's potential, their constructive, creative, and expansive abilities were of equal importance in facilitating their needs, whether they were of healing or growth (Crampton 1977). In addition, he differed with psychoanalytic and similar approaches because he saw that the development of awareness and insights were easily lost by clients, unless their will was actively and consistently engaged and trained (Assagioli 1993, Crampton 1977). The activation and training of the person's will were essential if they were going to take responsibility for their life, and translate into realistic, relevant and purposeful action, the insights they had acquired. In other words, the most significant and transforming changes occurred for a person when they chose specific ways to implement, and acted upon, the insights they had gained.

The effects of the transpersonal aspects of the person's personality were considered by Assagioli (2002 p.106) to signify what he called "the transpersonal will". Just as the individual's personality was seen to be a reflection of their transpersonal self, so too their personal will was a reflection of their transpersonal will. The latter was expressed in deeper values, such as altruism and heroic forms of selflessness. The spiritual dimensions of the person or their experiences, whether in the form of the transpersonal self or will, were manifestations of the human capacity to transcend the "limitations of normal consciousness and life" (Assagioli 2002 p.116). Thus psychosynthesis was distinctive from many contemporary psychologies, including transcendent transpersonal ones, in offering a perspective that suggested that the most complete expression of a person's will occurred in its transpersonal form. This dimension of will represented the human capacity to express the more sublime qualities of human nature and experience. Thus, in psychosynthesis, Assagioli re-presented modern psychology, with the significance and importance of the true nature of a person's will, which it had tended to overlook.

In psychosynthesis, the words transpersonal and spiritual were often used interchangeably. These concepts were used to describe the more or less latent attributes of the person, to adapt spiritual or deeper knowledge about themselves, their external environment, and their relationship with it, into realistic action. In this respect psychosynthesis contrasted with other transpersonal psychologies which focused on the transcendent aspects of the ego or personal self. In effect this meant that authentic psychosynthesis psychotherapy facilitated people to live their lives inspired by their spiritual experiences, but in concrete and realistic ways. They were not offered greater spiritual enlightenment divorced from its practical application in the real world. In other words psychosynthesis invited people to embrace the pains and joys of living, and this accommodation was more comprehensive than problem solving, with which, culturally, counselling and psychotherapy had become synonymous (Tuyn 1988).

The term 'psychosynthesis' was also relevant in understanding how this psychotherapeutic approach was distinctive. It was taken to refer to an intrinsic human process whose purpose was to integrate and harmoniously express the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of human nature (Assagioli 1993). The frustration of this process was believed to contribute to "serious difficulties" (Ferucci 1982 p22). Developing psychological health required the client to engage with the inherent process of integration, and being inclusive in their attitude to all aspects of their experience. This was distinctive in the range of psychotherapeutic approaches. It became particularly significant with respect to the human experiences of pain, crisis and failure. These were accommodated in psychosynthesis psychotherapy with the belief that they contained, intrinsically, opportunities for the person's "growth" (Young Brown 2000 p.23). This feature of psychosynthesis stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing climate in health care which was dominated by the reductionist medical model. Thus psychosynthesis with its holistic perspective was positioned amongst those psychotherapies which offered an alternative for people seeking a more satisfactory means of achieving psychological and perhaps more general well being.

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The major issues arising from this literature review

The review of literature concerning psychosynthesis, gave rise to a number of issues pertinent for this study. These were seen to be that, firstly, no systematic English speaking studies had been conducted into the application of psychosynthesis in psychotherapeutic practice. This meant that there was a greater significance in conducting this study, since it was to be the first to present findings regarding the application of psychosynthesis in practice. Such knowledge had the potential of making an important contribution in the fields of psychosynthesis and psychotherapy. Secondly, though this was not an evaluative study, it had the potential of offering for the first time, information that could go towards understanding the ways in which psychosynthesis psychotherapy was effective. The third issue pertinent to this study was whether the distinctive features of psychosynthesis were to be shown to be uniquely significant in psychotherapeutic practice.

This concludes the discussion about the literature concerning psychosynthesis. The following chapter aims to explain the research approach adopted for this study and other methodological considerations that were taken into account whilst preparing and conducting the enquiry, and writing up its findings.

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