Author Archives: Catherine Ann Lombard

Synthesis—A Dynamic, Organic Unifier

Lotus flower 3
Assagioli writes that the Lotus is a symbol of Synthesis.

Let’s take a closer look at the word ‘synthesis’. The word psychosynthesis was first used in 1889 by Pierre Janet in his book  L’automatisme psychologique. Freud spoke of the synthesizing function of the ego, but he used this word only in the sense of  re-establishing the condition existing before a split or dissociation due to a traumatic experience or to strong conflicts.

Others, such as Jung and Maeder used the words synthesis and psychosynthesis in a deeper and wider sense as the development of the integrated and harmonious personality, including both its conscious and unconscious parts. 

The word ‘synthesis’ comes from the Greek word syntithenai, in turn deriving from syn meaning “together” and thtehnai meaning “to put, place.”

Assagioli Triangle Equilibramento
One of Assagioli’s triangles from his Archives.

The concept of synthesis is complex because it is not only a quality or a state of being, but also a continual process, an attitude, an approach. I have written a number of blogs about Assagioli’s ideas on the synthesis of polar opposites. Basically, synthesis occurs when a pair of opposites continually interact until they are brought into equilibrium. Ultimately the opposites are transmuted into a transpersonal quality. Assagioli liked to draw triangles to illustrate his idea of balancing and transmuting these opposite energies into higher spiritual qualities.

Synthesis is a Unity of Multiple Syntheses

But synthesis is even more than the balancing of opposites. Assagioli writes that:

Triangles Marble_floor_mosaic_Basilica_of_St_Mark_Venice Paolo Uccello 1430

“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.“

So you might try to imagine Synthesis as an infinite number of triangles (that is, polar opposites transmuted into a higher quality), which in turn are gathered and transmuted again into yet another higher form. This highest form, in psychosynthesis terms, is The Higher Self.

Synthesis is Full of Tension

Assagioli writes that any form of 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. Whenever we work along with Synthesis, we are continually coming closer to ourselves, each other and God.

kneading dough

You can think of tension as being like the yeast in bread. 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.

Synthesis is Dynamic

Assagioli noted that Synthesis is not an end to itself. It is not a static state. He wrote:

“Synthesis itself a part of a greater whole – itself moving to and struggling towards a greater synthesis.”

Even while this process of Synthesis remains dynamic and always changing, it is, paradoxically, consistent. This consistency is the framework that allows us to be creative within its ever-changing dynamism.

Synthesis is an Organic Unifier

000444 Synthesis requires and is maintained by tension

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 will to either help or hinder the process, not actually make it happen. As Assagioli wrote:

“Will is a synthetic power. It dominates multiplicity and wields it into unity.”

In his book The Act of Will, Assagioli writes how our bodies (what could be more organic?) are a marvelous synthesis of activities that entail every cell, organ, and groups of organs. With the higher purpose of keeping us alive and active, the body shows intelligent cooperation between its countless diverse parts and complex interactions. Assagioli reflects that the body is “a perfect demonstration of unity in diversity.”

Pierre Teihard de Chardin 1947
Teilhard de Chardin

He continues by quoting Teilhard de Chardin (1981-1955), French philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist. De Chardin stated that the basis of all evolution – biological, psychological, and spiritual – produces both “complexification and convergence.” These are two of the fundamental and organic processes within any Synthesis.

Synthesis Operates Under a Unifying Principal

Synthesis is not random, but rather highly organized and hierarchical. Similar to how the body has a regulatory nervous system, Synthesis is also governed by the unifying principle of syntropy. Syntropy, as described by the mathematician Luigi Fantappiè (1901-1956), counterbalances entropy, which is the idea that the universe is gradually declining into disorder and unpredictability. Syntropy, on the other hand, “is a universal pattern of omnicontracting, convergent, progressive orderliness.” But most importantly, Fantappiè believes that human beings have an “anti-entropic reordering function.”

A Synthesizing Poem

All these ideas are interesting enough to reflect upon, but now I want to share a story that I hope will better illustrate (and synthesize!) these various concepts.

Seven years ago, while I was struggling spiritually, I wrote a poem called “Here I am Lord”. I did not think much more about this poem, which was really more like prayer, until I signed up for a voice workshop during an interreligious women’s theological conference. We were asked to bring something to read to the workshop, and I thought this poem might be the right thing.

Hebrew K-L KOL Everything
A medieval manuscript of the Hebrew letters K-L, meaning kol or “everything.”

After I had shared the poem in the workshop, the president of the conference, a Rabbi from London wrote to me:

“That poem reminds me of the great medieval Spanish Jewish poets. Yehuda-ha-Levi and Ibn Gabriel. You capture the same spiritual endeavor. The joy and the despair. The longing and openness.”

What a surprise! And very touching. I certainly never aspired to write like any great medieval Jewish poet!

Then things started to get interesting… Soon afterwards, I interviewed a young Moslem women from Sudan for the university newspaper where I worked. She had been on numerous national councils, administrating environmental projects in Khartoum, especially those concerning women’s issues on health, energy, and education.

000344 Dante and Synthesis
From Assagioli’s archives. In his folder “Synthesis,” Assagioli has notes quoting Plato, Dante, the Tibetan idea of mahamudra, and the Indian concept of Guna.

After the article was published, I received an email from Mohamed Ahmed Shabasha, a journalist and friend of hers from Khartoum telling me how pleased he was that I had interviewed her. He had visited my website, knew I wrote poetry, and asked if he could translate one of my poems into Arabic. I immediately thanked him and sent “Here I am Lord.” When Mr. Shabasha returned the translation to me, he said that he found it very beautiful and meaningful and offered to publish the Arabic translation in Sudan!

The poem did not rest there. A few months later, I found myself dining with a Syrian Orthodox Bishop from Turkey and a priest, a refugee from Damascus. Knowing that they both were fluent in Arabic, I brought them a copy of the poem to read. “This is beautiful!” they both agreed quite amazed. “This is really very good!”

And so this poem had organically crossed many borders – religious, linguistic, geographic and cultural – and managed to synthesize into one human experience. Not only were three faiths— Jewish, Islamic, and Christian – “put together” by the poem, but a multitude of heterogeneous and complex endpoints had also converged. For example, the internet for the exchange of emails, my job as a journalist, my spiritual struggles and the spiritual lives of others, women’s issues, the development of poetic language, and the fact that we all speak English.

To read a copy of “Here I am Lord,” click here.

Burning Old Growth for Joyous Renewal

DSC01928 Burn

In the Umbrian countryside, it is time to burn old growth.

We are now at the end of Lent – a time before Easter when Christians seek purification through fasting, prayer, and charitable acts. The forty days of Lent are, in many ways, similar to the Islamic time of Ramadan, which I was fortunate enough to experience while living in Egypt. During Ramadan, Moslems are expected to fast as well as give alms and read the Qur’an.

Assagioli wrote extensively on what he called “the science of applied purification”, insisting that this work must be undertaken in order to transform the lower characteristics of our personality and bring unity to our soul. He described purification of the personality as a process of re-orientation and elevation of the higher mind. Using our will, we burn the dross of our affective and instinctual energies, habits, tendencies and passions. Once clear of the obstacles that prevent us from receiving our higher intuitions, we are free to receive wisdom from the Higher Self. In other words, purification is a necessary process that we all must endure along the journey towards personal psychosynthesis before we are adequately equipped to seek spiritual psychosynthesis. Continue reading

Giving “Birth to a Butterfly”: Assagioli’s Feminist Patient

Wall painting by Mina Loy, Peggy Guggenheim’s Villa, Pramousquier, 1923

In 1913, Mina Loy (1882-1966) was living in a rented villa in Florence when she found herself in a torpor and depressed. Her photographer husband had just set sail for Australia, abandoning her with their two children. A painter herself, she was artistically stalled and still mourning over the death of her first child who had died in infancy six years earlier.

Enter Dr. Roberto Assagioli!

Yes, Mina Loy – feminist, bohemian, poet, and playwright – was one of Roberto Assagioli’s first clients.

Over the course of her lifetime, Loy acted, wrote feminist and utopian tracts, created lampshades, and painted – including a lost portrait of Assagioli. Loy was born in London. Her mother was British and Christian while her father was a Hungarian Jewish tailor who had escaped Budapest’s antisemitism. Loy would end up having two husbands, four children, and several complicated love affairs. (More on two of these later…)

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Two Black Women’s Voices Once Heard

Jarena Lee and Julia Foote

They were two women preachers during a time when only men preached. They were black preachers who preached to both slaves and slave-holders. They were black women preachers who inspired men and women, believers and ‘backsliders,’ Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists and Presbyterians, lawyers, doctors and magistrates.

Their names were Jarena Lee (1783–1855?) and Julia Foote (1823-1901), two of the first African American women to achieve the right to preach in the newly formed nation. Overcoming both gender and racial barriers, both women preached widely over great distances. A widow and mother of two children, Lee traveled 2325 miles, walking many of them, to preach 178 sermons. Defying her husband and parents, Foote was a deacon and minister for five decades, traveling to the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic region, California, the Midwest, and eventually Canada.

“I had nothing to do but open my mouth and the Lord filled it.”

Jarena Lee
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When an Ideal Model Goes Wrong

Painting by William Blake

My mother used to always say: “Nobody’s so bad that they can’t be used as a bad example.” One might find this advice startlingly judgmental, but surely Mom was referring to people like the last US president. He was and still is ‘bad’ and hence a perfectly good ‘bad example.’ And yet, many of the 74 million people who voted for him still believe he has the right to be president. Many love him. Some even see him as their Savior.

Trump is not just a good ‘bad example,’ but also a good example of an ideal model gone wrong. Assagioli emphasized our need to have what he called ‘ideal models.’ He wrote:

“Hero-worship … is a natural and­ irrepressible­ tendency­ of human beings and, at the same time, one of the most powerful stimuli towards the elevation of consciousness.”

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Writing to Awaken

During this past year, many of us have faced deeper questions about our lives and its purpose. So the beginning of 2021 might be a good time to start a spiritual diary.

Writing a spiritual diary is different from writing a memoir or a diary in general as the focus is on your spiritual life – in other words, what is happening inside your soul. Besides a blank notebook and pen, it requires you to have some courage and a great deal of honesty. By focusing on what’s happening in your inner life, you allow yourself to more carefully observe the small changes that are happening in your heart and mind. In your written reflections, you can work through troubling issues, set new spiritual goals, and discover higher qualities like patience, determination, and beauty that have always existed inside you.

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Gifting Ashes, Gifting Oil

The Olive Harvest

Lately, I have been attending a series of talks about the Maternal Gift Economy. It’s an interesting concept that challenges our preconceptions of how the exchange of services and products must take place.

Some might say we have an exchange economy, but the reality is (and has been) that the global economy is an exploitive economy. As Assagioli wrote we are driven by Original Fear – fear of not having enough food, fear of hunger – and by Original Greed, which fundamentally is the desire for unlimited growth. Hence our tendency to consume and purchase, possess, save and hoard.

In contrast, a gift-based economy is grounded in the values of nurturing and care rather than competition and greed. To begin with, we might change how we talk about our services rendered. For example, when speaking about the medical staff who are having to deal with the onslaught of Covid-19 patients, we say they are ‘sacrificing’ themselves. But what changes inside us when we exchange the word ‘sacrifice’ for ‘gift’? Try saying: “Our doctors and nurses are gifting their expertise, care, time, and lives” and see how that feels.

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The Virus of Fear

Assagioli’s note from his archives.

Let’s talk about fear. How arbitrary it can be. Besides personal fears and anxieties, Assagioli writes about “waves of collective fear and panic.” These waves appear daily in our news headlines – the pandemic, ongoing climate disasters, financial injustice, racism and political upheaval. These are some of the external fears that can so easily feed our internal ones.

Assagioli calls this collective fear a widely diffused psychological poison or smog. He says:

“So often when we feel a sudden fear with no apparent reason, it is not ours at all. It is a psychic infection —like a virus.”

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Where’s my umbrella?

The Covid-19 pandemic has quietly seeped an undercurrent of violence into our lives. The young children who are isolated in their rooms because a playmate’s father has tested positive. The youth who feel like no one is listening and no future awaits them. The small business owners who are left only with shuddered doors and back rent to pay.

And then there is Roberto (not his real name). Roberto and I met a year ago, and I have fond memories of our chatting away at a conference. Roberto is in his early 60s, a quiet and gentle Italian homeopathic doctor who has healed many people with herbal medicine, massage, and loving care. I was particularly delighted at the time because he knew about psychosynthesis.

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Joyfully Suffering the News

Yesterday I met Lucia for the first time. She is a 7-month old solid soul who has nothing but gurgling smiles for the world. Between bites of chocolate ice cream, her mother became quietly despondent. “Hasn’t the news been terrible lately?” she asked.

Headline

Yes, the news has been terrible. The news is always terrible. That’s what news is. Terrible. It is either full of suffering or full of rich, happy, famous people. Sometimes it is full of rich, unhappy, famous people suffering. But usually it consists of poor, unhappy, non-famous people suffering. In fact, Assagioli once told a student of his that, while it was important to read the news, one should only do so in homeopathic doses!

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