Roberto Assagioli's Psychosynthesis: Role in Counselling

09 Apr 2018

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  • Murray Sheret

Students will examine the ideas of one of the theorists introduced in class. They will relate these ideas to their own meaning-making process and their conception of the role of the counsellor and the practice of counselling. The essay will contain reference to the relevant body of academic literature, including both primary and secondary sources.

Roberto Assagioli's Psychosynthesis

“The mystical is not how the world is, but that it is.” - Ludwig Wittgenstein

This essay will explore the concepts and practice of psychosynthesis while relating these ideas to my own meaning-making process and my conception of the role of the counsellor and the practice of counselling.

Psychosynthesis, the practical psychological approach founded by Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli, integrates the wisdom of an eclectic array of psychological and philosophical traditions, including Jungian psychology, psychoanalysis, existential psychology, Buddhism, yogic traditions and Christian esoteric study (Brown, 1983, p. 30).

Psychosynthesis recognises two fundamental dimensions of human growth which are the personal and transpersonal dimensions. The personal dimension is concerned with “the meaning and integration of our personal existence, with the experience of being significant and effective in the world” (Brown, 1983, pp. 30-31). The transpersonal dimension of growth involves “spiritual study and practices, artistic and creative expressions, contemplation and questioning of ultimate, universal meaning in which we seek the meaning and purpose of the larger reality” (Brown, 1983, pp. 31). Included in both the other dimensions is the interpersonal dimension which is integral to achieving balanced growth in both dimensions as it means “fulfilling interpersonal relationships within our families, our circles of friends, and our communities” (Brown, 1983, p. 31).

Assagioli conceived of the individual as being a dynamic interrelation of ; “The lower unconscious, the middle unconscious, the higher unconscious or superconscious, the field of consciousness, the conscious self or “I”, and the higher self” (Assagioli, 2000, pp. 15-17). The attributes of these various aspects comprise of various psychological, emotional, psychic, emotional, sensate and spiritual functions. However, of most pertinence to mention here are the attributes of the - conscious self or “I” which Assagioli asserts is “the point of pure self awareness, the centre of our consciousness which is not to be confused with the changing contents of one's consciousness (thoughts, feelings, sensations etc)” (Assagioli, 2000 p. 16), and the higher self which is “the conscious, permanent, ever present centre - the true self” (Assagioli, 2000, p.16).

Psychosynthesis works to discover sub-personalities which are considered to be “constellations of behaviours, feelings, and thought that are left over from a time when they were needed for survival, to meet lower level needs” (Brown, 1983, p. 27). Once discovered the work then becomes “assisting the “I” to disidentify from the sub-personalities enough so that one can then recognise and honour its initial purpose” (Brown, 1983, p. 27). A multi staged meditation style disidentification exercises are used to achieve this. Psychosynthesis teacher Molly Brown explains the larger aim of this exercise, “The “I” can then reclaim this purpose and its “Will” energy while letting go of the specific behaviours and attitudes that no longer serve” (Brown, 1983, p. 27). A range of psychotherapeutic methods are used to explore the depths of the lower unconscious in order to “uncover the childish images that silently dominate us, the “phantasms” and fears that paralyse us and the conflicts that waste our energies” (Assagioli, 2000, p. 19). The regions of the middle and higher unconscious that house our unknown abilities and higher potentialities are likewise explored.

The first stage of the psychosynthesis process involves ascertaining the “unique existential situation of the client” (Assagioli, 2000, p. 5). The therapist and client work together to jointly gain a thorough knowledge of the clients personality. Then follows the activation of their latent aspects and functions along with the development of the weak ones through the use of the active techniques suitable for each task (Assagioli, 2000, p. 5). Psychosynthesis uses many techniques aimed at the “development and perfection of the personality and it's harmonious ongoing unification with the Self” (Assagioli, 2000, p. 94). Among these are, Self-identification, disidentification, development of the Will, training and use of the imagination, visualisation, auditory evocation of other sensations, technique of ideal models and symbol utilisation and the technique for the use of intuition. Next the individual learns to gain control over the various elements of their personality. The psychological principle this is based on may be formulated as: “We are dominated by everything which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we dis-identify ourselves. The question becomes then “to what extent can we identify ourselves with the true Self and disidentify ourselves from the non-self” (Gerard, 1961, p. 3). The work is then aimed at assisting one to become aware that their “conscious self is not their ultimate reality and identity, this then allows them to realise their true Self, the discovery of their unifying centre” (Gerard, 1961, p. 4).

As psychosynthesis utilises a range of therapeutic approaches it is therefore capable of attending to symptoms at many different levels of consciousness, this approach means the therapist is less likely to interpret a deeper state of consciousness as pathological or to apply an inappropriate therapeutic technique based on such misinterpretation (Brown, 1983, p. 7). I appreciate Assagioli's therapeutic disposition here as this mode of therapy seems to conceive of the psychological and emotional struggles of the client as being symptoms of an existential difficulty with living rather than a pathology awaiting categorisation. The central purpose of psychosynthesis is brought about in concert with the work of developing and activating the various aspects and functions of the individual. Assagioli described this as “the harmonisation and integration into one functioning whole of all the qualities and functions of the individual” (Assagioli, 2000, p.5).

What follows is the development and training of the Will, the concept of which is central to psychosynthesis. Assagioli defines the use of Will as,

“the ability to develop that strategy which is most effective and which entails the greatest economy of effort, rather than the strategy that is most direct and obvious. The most effective and satisfactory role of the Will is not as a source of direct power or force, but as that function which, being at our command, can stimulate, regulate, and direct all the other functions and forces of our being so that they may lead us to our predetermined goal” (Assagioli, 2000, p. 47).

Assagioli asserted that “The Will is that function which is most directly related to the Self- the individual generally is not aware of his Self, and consequently he is just as unaware of the direct function of the Self, the Will (2000, p. 111). The psychosynthetic concept of Will marries beautifully with my understanding of the human condition which I have arrived at through my own lived experience. Seemingly one remains a victim of circumstance when they are operating though old ways of functioning that have become ways of coping rather than living. When old wounds and outdated ways of being are sufficiently apprehended and integrated the individual is offered an opportunity to align themselves with their Will and their spiritual essence, the “conscious self” and the “higher self” as psychosynthesis refers to them. To be aligned with one's Will in this way is to have life live itself through you, the individual becomes more akin to hollow bamboo, a conduit through which spirit may express itself. Though this is an ongoing process of unfoldment rather than a final destination to be arrived at. I feel we are indeed beings that tend towards ever increasing levels of integration and self-actualisation and as such, by denying part of our being or experience we subvert our potential and hinder our capacity for adaptive living. With sufficient attainment one may begin to live their highest purpose with creativity, spontaneity and love. Psychosynthesis teacher Molly Brown asserts that “The development of the Will involves the union of its various aspects, strength, skill and goodness which then becomes loving Will, the expression of love through our willed acts” (2004, p. 121).

There are several stages for the development of the Will, the first consists of setting a goal or finding a purpose to be achieved and then setting an intention as to what purpose or goal towards which the Will is to be directed (Assagioli, 2000, p.113). Then follows valuation and motivation. The consideration of motivation involves “the uncovering of unconscious drives as the function of the Will is to utilise them and insure their cooperation in the attaining of the chosen purpose” (Assagioli, 2000, p. 113). Motivation inevitably implies valuation as the aim or purpose towards which the Will is to be directed must have an intense positive valuation (Assagioli, 2000, p. 113). This process is then followed by a period of deliberation and consideration of various factors relating to the value and attainability of the goal or purpose (Assagioli, 2000, p. 113).

The next stage in the use of the Will involves making a volitional decision, a conscious choice to direct the Will at a particular purpose. Assagioli stresses that this is a difficult stage as it “involves choice and the difficulty in making a voluntary decision is that the individual, either clearly or obscurely, realises that decision involves responsibility, that decision is an act of freedom which inevitably involves responsibility” (2000, p. 114). The next step is affirmation which involves the cultivation of faith. Assagioli avows that “this is not simply a “belief” but a living dynamic faith, even more, an assured conviction” (2000, p. 114). He goes on to affirm that, “At the very least there must be a willingness to “attempt”, to take risks, in a spirit of adventure” (2000, p. 114). The affirmation becomes a “command or declaration made to oneself with intensity as the power of the affirmation determines the degree of its effectiveness” (Assagioli, 2000, p. 114).

Meaning is inherent in this embodiment of choice and responsibility. This is the act of consciously taking command of one’s power and asserting it in the world while perceiving one’s own actions as valuable, meaningful and worthy.

The following stage of psychosynthesis is planning in which one's activity, the steps of which having been previously visualised, is organised in a clearly outlined program that is aimed at the realisation of the ultimate purpose or goal (Assagioli, 2000, p. 114). The final stage is the direction and execution of the action which requires two qualities in particular of the Will, firstly, the dynamic power of the Will (one pointed driving energy), and secondly, persistence or endurance (Assagioli, 2000, p. 115). The culmination of these processes results in one discovering their unifying centre, the realisation of their true Self. They experience psychosynthesis itself, “the formation or reconstruction of a personality around the newly discovered centre” (Gerard, 1961, p. 4).

The process of psychosynthesis speak directly to my highest ideals of counselling as I was once pulled aside by a wise man who put me through a similar process. Aside from giving me the opportunity to face the limiting beliefs I had long held about myself he gave me permission to take myself seriously. This was a profound act. I was compelled to disidentifiy with many limiting sub-personalities and thought forms that had kept me from living my purpose. What more meaning could there be than to identify one's authentic path in life and set about dissolving that which is not in service to it. While the healing of emotional wounds is a worthy initial goal for counselling the directing of the newly integrated self towards it's highest purpose is a much richer objective. To see people not only heal but to consciously expand and thrive is the raison d'etre of my work as a counsellor.

As each has been shaped by their subjective experience, the therapist and client may have widely different ideas about the social meaning and function of therapy. A client may only recognise therapy as a service capable of little more than lessening the effects of troubling symptoms, though I would consider the lessening of one's symptoms to be a small part of their larger process of 'becoming' or self-actualisation. However, such notions need not be made overt in the course of therapy if they are irrelevant to the contextual needs of the client.

By its very nature, counselling confers an obligation on its practitioners to reflect on their own ideologies and refine their epistemology. A therapist must wrestle with the existential reality of being, to confront the nature of suffering, love, death, hope, emptiness, consciousness and transcendence. Assagioli argued that “a human psychology cannot be complete without including the so-called spiritual dimension, our relationship to the cosmos and to our highest ideals” (2000, p. 34).

Constructivist psychologies' orientation towards the exploration of human beings tendency toward “creating systems for meaningfully understanding their worlds and experiences” (Raskin, 2002, p. 1) is a positive element to be adding to my therapeutic approach, though the schism between differing constructivist positions must first be resolved. A therapy that values above all the primacy of the client's felt experience is able to transcend the dichotomy that exists between realism and idealism, epistemological constructivism and hermeneutic constructivism while still engaging the utility each unique perspective provides when it’s appropriate to the client’s needs. Whether or not we can know a thing independently of the mind or not matters little in the face of whatever the client’s felt experience happens to be. The meaning the client is making of their experience is primary to the therapeutic task. The question of; to what degree can constructions of reality be discovered through observation and to what degree are such discoveries “heuristic fictions” (Raskin, 2002, p. 3) is of far less concern than the lager question of; is the meaning that's being created or discovered by the client life enhancing or life negating? My own opinion is that there are indeed fundamental truths to be known and engaged with. Whether or not these truths exist independently of my mind or not is of little consequence for the purposes of my growth. What matters is that these truths are experienced as fundamental to me, my meaning making, my felt experience, and in this way they may well be, as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “true enough” (1998, p. 43). The hermeneutic constructivist notion that “knowledge and truth are contextually verifiable rather than universally valid, socially negotiated rather than cognitively and individually produced” (Raskin, 2002, p. 4) highlights the lack of capacity human beings have to share “a truth” with one another should they stumble upon one. Philosopher Terence McKenna eloquently encapsulated this sentiment when he said “What hubris it would be to expect that the small-mouth noises of English could encompass being. No, these are lower dimensional slices of a reality that is ultimately unitary, ineffable, unspeakable, and dazzling” (McKenna, 1992). Assagioli affirmed his respect for the ineffable nature of transpersonal realities when he averred, “Psychosynthesis does not aim nor attempt to give a metaphysical nor a theoretical explanation of the great mystery- it leads to the door, but stops there” (Assagioli, 2000, pp. 6-7).

Inspired therapy impels clients towards meaningfully understanding their lived experience as among its treasurers meaning offers understanding, a sense of locating oneself in one’s story and ultimately arriving at the empowering conclusion that they have taken a position of authorship. The practice of psychosynthesis beautifully honours the clients “inner world of subjective experience” (Bugental, 1987, p. 46) by ascertaining and working with the unique existential situation of each client. Psychosynthesis is an act of love which assists the client to identify with their authentic self while striving for the realisation of their highest aspirations - that which is imbued with greatest personal meaning. The various experiential processes enhance perspective and catalyse inspired and adaptive living while connecting one to that function which is most directly related to the Self – the Will. Once sufficiently aligned with their Will a person may experience themselves in a world infused with meaning and filled with purpose. There may even be, in the corner of their eye, beyond their confident stare, a flicker of knowing that they themselves are Willing their own reality into existence.

Reference List:

Assagioli, R. (2000). Psychosynthesis: A collection of basic writings. Massachusetts, USA: Synthesis Centre Editions.

Assagioli, R. (1974). The act of will. New York, NY: Penguin.

Brown, M. (2004). Unfolding self: The practice of psychosynthesis. New York, NY: Allworth Press.

Bugental, J. (1987). The art of the psychotherapist: How to develop the skills that take psychotherapy beyond science. New York, NY: Norton & Company, Inc.

Gerard, R. (1961). Psychosynthesis: A psychotherapy for the whole man. Massachusetts, USA: Synthesis Centre Editions.

McKenna, T. (Speaker). (1992). Hermeticism and alchemy. (Digital recording). Colorado, USA: Sounds True Publishing.

Raskin, J. (2002). Psychology, radical constructivism, and social constructivism. American Communication Journal, 5 (3) 1-4.

Wittgenstein, L. (1998). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York, NY: Dover Publication Inc.


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