Synthesis occurs when a pair of opposites continually interact until they are brought into equilibrium. Ultimately the opposites are transmuted into a transpersonal quality. But synthesis is even more than the balancing of opposites. Assagioli writes that:
“Synthesis is not just between two opposites, but between multiple and heterogeneous endpoints. All syntheses of polarities are true but partial syntheses. Complete syntheses unite several elements into one organic unity.”
In this light, bread becomes a beautiful metaphor for synthesis – the unification of many diverse ingredients into a higher organic form that gives life. Bread unites a multitude of opposites – dry, earthy flour with the fluidity of water. Sugar (to help the yeast rise) with salt (for taste and preservation). Air within the dough is heated by the fire in the oven. Finally, the baker’s two hands, one heart and skillful will bring them all together so they might ultimately be transformed into nourishment for body and soul.
Bread as my Teacher
I have been baking our bread now for more than fifteen years. This weekly ritual arose out of desire. When we were first living in Italy, I longed for darker, sweeter and more savory variations of bread than we could possibly buy. So I started slowly with a book of bread recipes from around the world. I made nearly ever recipe, experimenting with different flours, in various proportions – whole wheat, buckwheat, spelt, garbanzo, grape-seed flour, stone milled, finely milled, coarsely milled. Each flour has its own character, bringing a unique flavor and texture to the final delectable bite of bread.
Then there is the yeast. For many years, I kept a “mother yeast,” feeding it whenever I needed to make bread, watching in wonder as it fed the bread in turn. This natural yeast is active even after the bread is baked, deepening the bread’s flavor overtime. Unfortunately, my mother yeast died from neglect. When we moved from Germany to Italy, I had too much to do to be present to this living life source. Mother yeast needs to be regularly fed with flour and warm water, but instead it stood alone in the back of my refrigerator, forgotten and lost as I started to unpack 300 moving boxes.
Besides flour and yeast, bread can include a multitude of extra ingredients – seeds, nuts, dried fruit, egg, butter, herbs, tomatoes, olives, cheese…the list is as long as your imagination is wide. Friends sit in my kitchen, taste my bread, and often sigh. Many of them tell me how making bread takes so much time. But I have learned that this is not really the case. A typical bread requires: 10 minutes to gather and mix ingredients together, 10 minutes for the first kneading, and 5 minutes for the second kneading. That’s about it. A total of 25 minutes altogether. Most people need at least that much time to run down to their bakery and return home with a fresh loaf.
Bread, like synthesis, doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time. But bread, like synthesis, does take complete presence. The bread needs you to be with it. This is the hard part, because during a busy day it is very easy to become distracted and forget that you are also in the process of making bread! You must be conscious – almost “one with the bread” – to determine when it’s been kneaded enough to activate the yeast. You then need to select an ideal place of warmth for it to rise. After the first rising, you must be aware of how much the bread needs to be “knocked back” and kneaded again in order to rise a second time to its final majestic form.
You absolutely need to be awake whenever the bread is rising! Many times, I have fallen into an internet stupor and forgotten all about my bread, only to find the dough puffed out and slumped over its tin in a gooey mess!
And then there is the baking. Depending on the temperature of the oven, the humidity of the dough, its height and composition, each loaf takes the time it precisely needs to become golden. Once removed from the hot oven and given a firm tap to its bottom, bread yields a hollow thud. This sound is subtly different depending on the density of the bread, how wet it was to start with, how hot the oven was, how attuned you are to its depth.
Bread and Synthesis – A Continual Attitude
The word bread comes from the Old English word for “bit, crumb, morsel,” deriving from the Proto-Germanic word braudsmon meaning “fragments, bits.” Oddly enough, while the word bread signifies “pieces” of food, synthesis indicates a unity (of many pieces). It comes from the Greek word syntithenai, which derives from syn meaning “together” and tithénai meaning “to put, place.”
Bread, its making and the concept of synthesis are not just a final quality or a state of being (or a mouthwatering bite of sweetly baked dough), but a continual attitude, a continual presence to what is and what is becoming.
In addition, both bread-making and synthesis is a dynamic, creative balance of tensions. Tension is something we often try to avoid, sooth, cover up or ignore. But without it, we can never achieve synthesis. Assagioli noted that it is our task, our duty to work (and play!) with this tension. Through the work of psychosynthesis, we learn to become aware of and to practice harmonizing and transmuting our inner psychic and spiritual tensions.
You can think of the yeast in bread as the tension held in synthesis. Yeast activates, stimulates, and slowly enables the flour, water, salt and sugar to grow into an elastic dough. Without yeast, the flour can never rise and transmute into another form. When we knead the dough we are working – playing! – with this tension, easing it into a positive force for good.
It is important to remember that synthesis cannot be forced, coerced or planned. But we can learn to cooperate, enable, and encourage it. Similar to our working with yeast when we bake bread, we can use our skillful will to either help or hinder the process, not actually make it happen.
The fundamental and organic processes of both bread-making and synthesis are complexification and convergence. Both processes are highly organized and hierarchical. Bread does not simply happen. It requires certain events and interactions to occur within a certain timeframe and space before its simple everyday ingredients can merge, mingle, coerce each other and synthesize into a final golden loaf.
Being present to bread and its making has helped me to understand synthesis and how it demonstrates perfect unity in diversity. Perhaps the ultimate synthesis of bread is when it unites within us, giving us sustenance and earthly satisfaction. Or when it unites us together with others over a cup of tea, a shared sandwich, or a religious ritual. Or when it unites us with nature as we toss those leftover crumbs joyously to the birds.