Roberto Assagioli’s “prison diary” Freedom in Jail is an autobiographical account of the month he spent in prison under the fascist regime in 1940. His conclusion is entitled “A Hymn to Inner Freedom” where he writes about every man and woman’s power to inwardly free themselves.
One does not need to be incarcerated to feel imprisoned. Part of the human condition, at different points in our lives, is to find ourselves enslaved by some uncontrollable situation to which we feel bound. Freedom in Jail shows us that no matter what our condition – be it catastrophe, ill health, old age, and even pending death – we always remain free and responsible for choosing how we actively accept the situation and what attitude we take. The mystery is that these circumstances can also lead us to our Higher Self.
We have many other testimonies besides Assagioli’s of “this experience of the deepest Self” paradoxically occurring while in prison. Two of his contemporaries particularly come to mind: Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychoanalyst and the founder of logotherapy as well as a friend and colleague, and Etty Hillesum, the Dutch writer and mystic.
Like Assagioli, both were European-born Jews caught in the traumatic events of World War II. While each had their own personal journey to endure (Frankl survived four concentration camps, Hillesum died in the Auschwitz gas chambers), all three wrote about how essential one’s inner attitude is to achieving true freedom.
It is important to acknowledge that, Assagioli hesitated to share his experience, knowing that others had suffered more severe circumstances and horrific tragic loss. As he modestly says, “A month’s imprisonment without any physical hardships or suffering is in itself a trifling uninteresting incident.” Nevertheless, as Frankl generously states, suffering (as well as joy), no matter what the size, “completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, … making the ‘size’ of the actual human suffering absolutely relative.”
That said, with regard to one’s inner attitude, Frankl writes that he observed sufficient proof while living in the Nazi concentration camps that: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
Similarly, Hillesum eloquently wrote in her diaries and letters, published decades after her death, about time spent waiting in a crowded Gestapo hall:
“At that moment the circumstances of all our lives were the same. All of us occupied the same space, the men behind the desk, no less than those about to be questioned. What distinguished each of us was only our inner attitude.”
Frankl confirms out of his own experience that this inner attitude allows us to “preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom and independence of mind” under the most terrible and stressful conditions. Freedom, however, is not necessarily the final triumph.
For all three, acceptance of their physical constraint seemed to aid in their development of inner freedom, which then mysteriously invoked higher realizations and deep wisdom. While spending time in Westerbork barracks, a detention holding center in the east of The Netherlands, Hillesum tells us about being:
“… jam-packed [into] hangers of drafty slats, under a lowering sky… And there among the barracks, full of hunted and persecuted people, I found confirmation of my love of life … Not for one moment was I cut off from the life I was said to have left behind. There was simply one great meaningful whole.”
Her confirmation of love among persecuted people echoes Frankl’s description of a transpersonal experience he had while enduring brutal working conditions one dark, icy winter morning:
“I clung to my wife’s image … Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. For the first time in my life I saw the truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret… The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Like Frankl and Hillesum, Assagioli clearly felt that his freedom was innately bound to the attitude he assumed and that he was responsible for this choice. He writes:
“I had the clear sure perception … that I was free to choose any or several of these attitudes and activities; that this choice would have definite and unavoidable effects which I could foresee and of which I was fully responsible.”
Assagioli also shared the others’ revolutionary awareness of love, which he describes as:
“a sense of boundlessness – of no-separation with all that is, a merging with the self of the whole.”
Discover “Freedom in Jail” – An Umbrian Retreat
From 15-19 September, you too can experience “Freedom in Jail” during a four-day retreat in the heart of the Umbrian Apennines. Together, as a small group, we will spend time living and preparing our meals in rustic conditions. Like Assagioli, you will have a chance to be alone, in silence, without any clocks, watches, or internet connection. We will read and contemplate Assagioli’s Freedom in Jail, and on Sunday morning read a canto of Dante’s Paradiso, a book that Assagioli read while in prison. Exactly 76 years after Assagioli’s release from jail, we too will end our time in “prison” on 19 September.
For more info, visit poeticplaces.org
 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, New York: Pocket Books, 1984, p. 64.
 Frankl, p. 86.
 Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, Translated from the Dutch by Arnold J. Pomerans, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996, p. 258.
 Frankl, p. 86.
 Hillesum, p. 527, 589.
 Frankl, pp. 56-57.