It is difficult not to respond in some way to the terrible events that happened in Paris on Friday night. I see photos of the victims, most of them smiling profiles downloaded from social media pages. They all seem to be young, a diversity of faces. I see slogans and calls for justice, twitter handles and French flags – Peace for Paris, #PrayforParis, #ParisisaboutLife.
I see that on Sunday night French fighter jets launched their biggest raids in Syria to date, targeting the Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa. Taking off from the United Arab Emirates and Jordan and in coordination with US forces, the jets dropped 20 bombs on the city that night.
I see that the French president, François Hollande, said, “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless.”
Oh God. Where to begin with all of this?
I immediately thought of Assagioli’s reflections on peace that I discovered recently in his archives. During that hot September weekend in Florence, I spent most of my time reading his notes about the time he spent in jail. These notes are kept in box labeled “Acceptance.” While reading them, I felt like a dear friend had sent me many intimate letters, inviting me to also ponder and reflect upon life’s most troubling challenges and mysterious joys.
I started to write everything down, but soon the task overwhelmed me, pulling away from the experience at hand. Instead, I began to more carefully choose what to write – those insights that I felt most precious to me, to my life.
Peace is Fundamentally a Psychological Problem
Naturally, Assagioli wrote about peace. He had been jailed for a month in 1940 for praying for peace and inviting others to join him, along with “other international crimes.” Today, it’s important to remember the context in which he lived. For a Jew living in a fascist state during World War II, the world was being turned upside down, and evil seemed to be encroaching upon daily life.
One afternoon, alone in his jail cell, Assagioli watched pigeons fight outside the small barred window of his room. His observations led him to reflect and write the following about peace:
“I am deeply convinced that peace is fundamentally a psychological problem. I believe that there is in man a fundamental fighting instinct and tendency deeply rooted in his animal nature. This tendency is connected with self-preservation, self-assertion … but at times it appears almost “pure” – i.e. “the knight” … Therefore, the real problem is: how to deal with this fighting tendency in men so that it no longer produces wars.”
Assagioli continues to state that, psychologically speaking, an instinct (as demonstrated by the pigeons fighting in his windowsill and too readily exhibited throughout history by humankind) is a passion that cannot be forcibly controlled. Our instincts always emerge, no matter how much we try to repress them.
“The true solution,” Assagioli states, “lies in the fact that psychological tendencies and urges can be transmuted and sublimated.”
He continues by stating that, in fact, this idea of transmutation and sublimation is the true contribution of psychosynthesis! If we look back to 1910 (when he was only 22 years old), we see that these two bold ideas – psychosynthesis along with transmutation and sublimation seemed to emerge for Assagioli at the same time. For it is during that year that he first expounds his concepts of psychosynthesis and also presents his report “Transmutation and sublimation of sexual energy” at a conference in Florence.
We Can Transmute our Fighting Instincts into Higher Aims
In his notes about his time in jail, Assagioli sums up his idea of transmutation and sublimation:
“[Sexual or combative] urges can be re-directed to different and higher aims, expressed in more refined ways, and particularly utilized for constructive purposes.”
We can see that his idea about knighthood (an archetype with immense symbolical meaning) of is one example of how the fighting instinct can be expressed in a more refined or “purer” form. But how does this work? How can we garner these strong instinctual energies and use them more constructively toward higher aims?
In his article, Assagioli instructs us on how we might do this. The first thing we must do is activate our will towards this end and affirm our decision. Then we must move resolutely towards external action. Assagioli writes:
“Throw yourself into the new activities which are likely to draw to you the energies for transformation. Immerse yourself in those activities with a lively interest, with zeal and enthusiastic commitment. It is then that all our energies flow in.”
Most importantly, we should not repress or struggle against the lower energies (sexual or otherwise) but bring them under control with “calm firmness” while at the same time giving free reign to the expression of higher energies. In the end, it is not about fighting or loving less, it is about fighting and loving better.
How to Change Weapons into Plowshares
What are some useful external activities for transforming our inner and outer combative instincts? Watching and participating in sports is one possibility. Another is fighting injustice, social ills, and environmental degradation. Or you can be creative – draw, write, dance, sing – but always with a higher aim in mind. If all else fails, go somewhere safe to scream.
Personally, I have often used gardening to relieve my excess anger. Yanking out weeds and digging up soil are both wonderful ways to transform combative energies into constructive action that regenerates both me and my garden into a place of peace.
Don’t get me wrong. Such transformations are not easy nor are they free from other possible and undesirable consequences. Throughout the process, one needs great will, consciousness, and undying practice.
I have come to the understanding that I can’t do very much for Paris or Syria. I can’t even do very much for my closest relatives or friends. We all have our own lives to live, to mess up, to suffer through, to inch forward and to leap towards joy.
To create a garden of peace in my heart often feels like a tough fulltime job. If I can manage to sublimate and transform the terrorists who abide within me, who can fill me with fear and doubts, stop me from being fully free and at the same time connected to God … well … perhaps that’s enough.
Dear Paris and Beirut, Baghdad and Ankara, and wherever else, I promise I’m doing my best. To pray. To love all life. To create peace. To move towards Joy.
Assagioli, R. (1910). Sublimation and Transmutation of Sexual Energies. Downloaded from http://www.psykosyntese.dk/a-197/
Assagioli, R. (n.d.). Acceptance: Freedom in jail. (Unpublished Manuscripts) Archivio Assagioli. Firenze: Istituto di Psicosintesi. Box 2.27.1
Berti, Alessandro. “Roberto Assagioli 1888-1988.” Published by the Centro di Studi di Psicosintesi: Firenze.