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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.

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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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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…)

Mina Loy

In 1913, women with psychological problems were usually diagnosed with ‘hysteria,’ but Assagioli was remarkably different. According to Loy’s biographer, the 31-year-old artist found Assagioli (who was six years younger than herself)  “particularly sensitive to the spiritual concerns of women.” A Christian Scientist, she also felt that Assagioli was perhaps the only man in Italy interested in Christian Science, meditation, and theosophy.

To help cure Loy’s bouts of depression, Assagioli prescribed “daily rest in a dark room and vapor baths followed by cold compresses.” Loy found Assagioli to be a “reassuring friend and counselor.” Assagioli helped Loy become aware of the will and to visualize what she hoped to change. His belief in spiritual evolution was also “a possibility that Mina found reassuring.” But perhaps the most interesting detail about the young psychoanalyst’s gift was that Loy found “his presence itself soothing.”

Soon after seeing Assagioli for treatment, Loy published her first poems and exhibited her paintings with the Futurists in Rome. (Her poetry was admired by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein and others.)  In 1914, World War II broke out alongside Loy’s affairs with both Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944) and Giovanni Papini (1881-1956), two major figures in the Futurists movement.

Papini, like Loy, was also a poet, novelist and a friend of Assagioli. Papini and Assagioli participated in the Florentine group called Leonardo, which was formed to “emphatically interpret the need for radical change in the cultural outlook of Italian society.” In 1903, Papini and Giuseppe Prezzolini (1882-1982) founded the magazine Il Leonardo and would go to publish La Voce. Assagioli contributed articles on psychoanalysis and psychology as well as provided financial assistance to both magazines.

Marinetti was the founder of the Futurist movement. He is best known as the author of the Futurist Manifesto, which was read and debated all over Europe upon its publication in 1909. Futurism was an artistic and social movement that emphasized speed, technology, youth, and violence, and objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city. Fundamentally, an intellectual movement, it was spurred by young people’s disillusionment with the liberal Italian state. Although it was largely an Italian phenomenon, there were parallel movements in Russia, England, Belgium and elsewhere.

In response to Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto and the debates within Futurism on the issue of the Futurist woman, Loy wrote her own Feminist Manifesto at the same time that she was meeting with Assagioli. This work, which was published posthumously in 1982 (!), begins with a direct call on women in no uncertain terms, even for today:

“Women if you want to realize yourselves—you are on the eve of a devastating psychological upheaval—all your pet illusions must be unmasked—the lies of centuries have got to go—are you prepared for the Wrench—? There is no half-measure—NO scratching on the surface of the rubbish heap of tradition, will bring about Reform, the only method is Absolute Demolition. Cease to place your confidence in economic legislation, vice-crusades & uniform education—you are glossing over Reality.”

As for Papini, he would inspire one of her most famous works. Published in 1915, “Love Songs,” otherwise known as “Songs to Joannes,” consists of thirty-four poems related to her failed relationship with Papini. Her writing at the time was influenced by the bloody accounts of World War I and her feeling that sexual love was yet another casualty. Here is an excerpt:

We might have coupled
In the bed-ridden monopoly of a moment
Or broken flesh with one another
At the profane communion table
Where wine is spilled on promiscuous lips

We might have given birth to a butterfly
With the daily news
Printed in blood on its wings.

One has to wonder how Assagioli managed to fit himself into all this intrigue!

Excerpt from Mina Loy’s letter where she talks about the superconscious.

We have some evidence from Loy’s letters to her friend Mable Dodge Luhan (1879-1962). In one note, Loy writes that the ‘inward dimension’ is the ‘fifth dimension’, an idea she most likely got from Assagioli. Like Assagioli, Loy thought that this dimension was the source of great art and literature and where genius resides. In another letter, she refers to the superconscious.

After a long and turbulent life, Loy died in relative obscurity in Colorado at the age of 83. At her funeral, a reading was chosen from her papers that echoed Assagioli’s emphasis on higher consciousness and how psychosynthesis is not just limited to “the basement of the human being”:

“We are but a ramshackle edifice around an external exaltation, a building in which the moralities are a flight of stairs whose bases dissolve in the wake of our ascension.”


Happy International Women’s Day!


References

Beauchamp, T.A. (2014). Enemies of the Unconscious: Modernists Resistances to Psychoanalysis. Dissertation for a PhD in Philosophy in Comparative Literature from the University of California Irvine.

Burke, C. (1996). Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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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Lessons from the Classrooms of Tagore and Assagioli

This is a brief excerpt from my article recently published in the AAP Psychosynthesis Quarterly that explores the educational philosophies of Rabindranath Tagore and Roberto Assagioli. To download this article, please click here.

One of the most compelling worldwide impacts of Covid-19 is the abrupt and profound change in how children are being educated. What can psychosynthesis bring to this radical change in education? To start, we might turn to two great figures from the last century: Rabindranath Tagore and Roberto Assagioli.

During their lifetimes, Tagore and Assagioli were both participants in a larger educational movement during the early 19th century, a time of social and political upheaval, technological and industrial revolution, World War I, and the flu epidemic of 1918.

Rabindranath_Tagore_reading_to_others_(1)

Rabindranath Tagore reading to others.

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The Vase in the Ladies’ Toilet

It’s August again and in Italy that means “Tutti al mare” (Everybody to the sea)! While I’m not at the seaside, I am taking some time off. So, we return to Ireland in 1998, when I found myself working as a waitress in a little café in the popular tourist town of Kinvara. Nestled in a crook of Galway Bay in the West of Ireland, Kinvara is a place of megalithic tombs, holy wells, a 14th century castle, ancient cairns, Irish music, and weekly set-dancing. Out of my experience, I wrote the book “God is in Rosaleen’s Restaurant.” For the next few posts, I’ll be sharing passages from this book along with Rosaleen’s artwork.

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Artwork by Roseleen Tanham, http://kava.ie/rosaleen-tanham/

Rosaleen’s Restaurant, 170 years ago, was a Temperance Hall, a place where Irish men and women (segregated into separate meetings) gathered to proclaim the evil of drink and to swear abstinence from its impurities.

Did the spirits of these early pioneers sit among the clientele as they drank their Merlot wine? I often tried to imagine them talking together. What would the hardy women of old in their heavily layered frocks have to say to their cigarette-smoking, scantily clad daughters? How might those ancestral mothers react to the uneaten spuds left on their children’s plates? Continue reading