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.
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!
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.”
It can be encouraging to know that these flu-like fears are not ours, but energies that we are experiencing from the people and society around us. Fear, rage, and vanity are just some of the ‘blocks of primitive mass-emotions’ that Dante portrays as giants in the Divine Comedy. These giants represent blind human forces. They stand in a circle around the well that leads to the final circle of Hell where the betrayers dwell.
In order to deal with fear effectively, Assagioli urges us to eliminate or minimize the fear within ourselves. He also warns us of a vicious circle that can occur – our personal fear can open the door to the influence of external fear, and external fear feeds the inner one. Again he said:
“We have so much fear that is not ours. It’s stupid to let these fears invade and dominate our being!”
To break this vicious circle, we need to use our skillful will to withdraw our attention deliberately away from the psychological poison of fear. Assagioli suggests that we dis-identify from the fear by simply saying, “That’s not me.” At the same time we are dis-identifying from the fear, we need to not suppress it. Most importantly, we should not be afraid of the fear! Otherwise we can quickly descend into a vicious spiral of fear feeding fear.
Once we are able to release the energy that is holding and nurturing the fear, we can then redirect this new-found energy to do the most good in our lives.
Returning to Egypt
I learned about collective fear nearly 20 years ago when my husband and I happened to be living in Egypt. But the day the Twin Towers fell, we happened to be visiting my family in California. Was I afraid to return to Egypt? I HAD been afraid. The week before I was sick with fear. My head hurt, my eyes burned, my shoulders ached. And it didn’t help when everyone around me kept saying, “You’re not going back to Egypt, are you? Aren’t you afraid?”
After careful consideration, prayer, constant check-ins with the US Embassy in Cairo, and reassurances from friends in Egypt, we did decide to return. Once ‘home’ again, everything in Egypt seemed like business as usual. But soon afterwards, I learned of student protests at Cairo universities against the bombings in Afghanistan. U.S. flags had been burnt and there were daily marches at Al Azhar University.
But did I feel fear? Well, some. All the Muslims that we knew in our neighborhood seemed genuinely happy to see us again. Perhaps our return gave them a feeling of normality. Perhaps they were happy because we had brought our U.S. dollars.
Our next-door neighbors in Giza included our landlord Mr. Hussein, his wife, Affaf, and two daughters, Mona (21) and Marwa (23). On our first day back, Affaf came baring gifts of baked chicken and stuffed zucchini and eggplant, which we gratefully received. Later that evening, while Kees was out, she appeared at my door with fresh dates still clinging to their palm stems and an invitation to come into the house to see the girls.
The girls awaited me in the living room with kisses. Usually veiled, they were bare-armed with their curly hair tied tightly back. Hibiscus tea was served with more dates, nutty and woody in taste. Mr. Hussein sat watching TV. During the 1967 war, Mr. Hussein was an Egyptian plane navigator. After being shot down by Israeli fighters, he had to wait for rescue in the Sinai desert.
“You not afraid?” was his only question for me. What, I wondered, did he mean by “afraid”?
“Yes,” I said. “A little.”
The women then engaged me in chatter about our time apart. The summer had been exceptionally hot. Early one morning, Mona and her mother ran out the front gate to rescue a tiny chick from the jowls of a wild dog. The young chicken was now happily roaming the inner garden, undisturbed by their two cats.
Then Mona turned to me and asked, “Were you afraid? Were you afraid to go out of your house? Were you afraid of being bombed?”
What a surprising question! (That AFRAID question again…) None of them were asking if I was afraid to return to Egypt, which seemed to be the only concern of everyone else in my life. The Egyptians, however, wanted to know if I had been afraid to stay in America!
All this made me instantly realize two things. First, one can easily fall into the mass emotion of fear no matter what perspective it is coming from. The second insight was that the amount of fear we experience is often a reflection of the fear we have of our own shadow selves.
If I had assumed all the presupposed fears that had polluted the US national psyche after the 9/11 attacks — fear of returning to Egypt, fear of flying on a plane, fear of living in a foreign country, fear of walking freely in the streets of an Middle Eastern city – I never would have been able to live my life, something I had already been trying to do for years.
Let’s face it. There are a million reasons to be fearful. The human condition hardly lends itself to fearlessness! Only the Higher Self can bring us there.
Start today to consciously starve your fear. Anytime your fear appears during the day, practice using skillful will to redirect your thoughts to something beautiful and positive that you recently experienced. Use the Evocative Word exercise, calling to mind the words: Calm, Tranquility, Fearlessness. At the same time, try to face your own personal fears. They are the fears that we all must individually examine and exhume in their full force. Transmute and redeem to their full glory. Without being fully realized, personal fear bubbles over and is projected outside, contributing to the psychic poisons that are already swirling around us.
Soon after arriving in Egypt that year, I had the opportunity to experience a very special celebration of Ramadan. Remember, once we start using our will to dis-identify from fearful thoughts, emotions, and ideas, we allow ourselves much freedom and new energy to purposively create acts of Love and Will.
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.
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.
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.
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 →
How often have you been awake at night processing what happened to you the day before? Perhaps you were reworking a conversation with a family member or colleague. Or maybe you were wondering how to pay that bill that just arrived in the mail. Or perhaps you are a teacher and were busy (re)giving your lecture again, only in a “better way.”
But at 2:00 in the morning, none of these mental exercises are serving you. You really need to sleep – not figure out how you might have more clearly explained yourself to your boss/students/son or daughter. You are losing energy trying to work out how to pay a bill that’s not due for weeks. But still … you can’t seem to stop. These thoughts are swirling around in your mind, keeping you busy and awake. Continue reading →
The cherry trees behind our house are bursting with fruit. More cherries than we can pick, eat, turn into jam, give away, or freeze. We still have jars from last year – plump cherries bloated by the pure alcohol bath they sit in, waiting to be plucked from the jar, soaked for a few hours in local spring water and eaten. Each fruit tree in the back bares a different type of cherry – white and sour, round and sweet, watery with too much pit. We are doing our best to collect what we can, but many will inevitably feed the birds, ants and insects, or drop to the ground and nourish the grassy knoll which they now adorn. Continue reading →
I can’t breathe. I am the African-American man named George Floyd whose neck you are breaking with the weight of your body. The pressure of your knee is blocking my windpipe. You are crushing the spirit from my soul. I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe. I am the person dying of COVID-19. Grasping for a hand to hold, longing for a comforting word from a loved one. I am alone in my New York City apartment, alone in my prison cell, alone under a plastic tent. I can’t breathe.
Accompanying the stirrings of spring are the stirrings of what life will become after the COVID-19 crisis. To be honest, nobody really knows. But then, nobody ever really knew. We often like to think that we are entirely in control of our lives, our surroundings, our future. But if nothing else, the virus has taught us that we cannot control everything around us. However, we can take responsibility for our inner attitude towards everything from adversity to discomfort to death, and for our own outer actions in how we choose to live our lives. Continue reading →
Photo of Regina Coeli prison by : Pietro Snider/Inside Carceri
Today I read a beautiful account by Jennifer Toon, a 41-year-old woman who spent half her life in prison. Just as she was finally given her full freedom, she found herself living once again under the Covid-19 lockdown. She writes about her time in prison:
“The most important lesson I learned during this time was that I had to accept my circumstances as they were, then change my perspective about them.”
Toon continues to explain how a change in her attitude totally changed her prison experience. Her moving account resonates with that of Roberto Assagioli.
What better time to read Freedom in Jail than when we’re all locked up at home? Roberto Assagioli intended that his “prison diary” might become an account of the time he spent in Regina Coeli prison under the fascist regime in 1940. Throughout his testimony, Assagioli offers a personal example of how to use difficult life events as an opportunity to develop one’s personal and spiritual psychosynthesis.
As most of us know by now, you don’t 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 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.
Okay. Sounds good. I’ve convinced you, but how can you get a hold of a copy? Of course, as the book’s editor, I would love you to buy a book. Not only does it contain Assagioli’s writings, but 160+ footnotes, numerous photos, transcribed citations from Keyserling’s From Suffering to Fulfillment, copies of Assagioli’s official prison records, and a detailed “Introduction”.
But did you know that the handwritten notes that were compiled into Freedom in Jail are actually available online through Assagioli’s Archives?
A Guide to Finding Freedom in Jail
If you are unfamiliar with how Assagioli’s Online Archives work, now’s a great time to explore this treasure trove. I have written a short Guide to Finding Freedom in Jail to help you get started. Now you too can discover the world of Assagioli’s Archives and see how you can find Freedom in Jail.
For those of you who already know your way around the archives or who already have a copy of the book, there some suggested readings from Freedom in Jail at the end of this reflection.
Buying a Copy of Freedom in Jail
Even with all this material available online, I still hope you consider buying the book. Here’s what Piero Ferrucci, Psychotherapist and Philosopher, Author of What We May Be has said:
I am impressed with the splendid work you did with Freedom in Jail. You have turned it into a microcosm, with useful psychological, spiritual and historical material that will benefit many people. Assagioli often would have the inspiration for a book, would write the outline perhaps, then leave it because he was too busy already with something else. But this book represents a milestone in his life and a crucial theme of his teachings. So I am very glad you took care of it in such a precise and complete way. The editorial level is first-rate.
To purchase a hardcopy of Freedom in Jail, please contact the Istituto di Psicosintesi in Florence at: email@example.com. Books are also available from the Psychosynthesis Trust London by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below are some suggested readings from Freedom in Jail. To find them in Assagioli’s Archive, just enter the Doc # in the Quick Search field.
Proposed Readings from Freedom in Jail by Roberto Assagioli
In Jail and Freedom
Assagioli also had to accept his situation and figure out what he wanted to do with this time in jail. Like those of us under quarantine during the Covid-19 crisis, he too faced the uncertainty of how long he would be in jail and even if he would survive. These passages reflect his coming to terms with the uncomfortable situation he suddenly found himself in.
In Jail: Doc # 7670, Acceptance: Doc # 9274,
The prisoners: Doc # 9303, Freedom: Doc # 7664
An Incident and a “Test”
Assagioli did not really spend time in solitary confinement as we might understand it today. At that time, more affluent prisoners, like Assagioli, could pay for private and more comfortable cells as well as better food. Assagioli actually writes about his personal struggle when his money nearly ran out and he faced the possibility of having to share a cell with other prisoners and the idea that he might lose his “‘freedom’ … of solitude and of privacy!”
An Incident and a “Test”: Doc #7687
Assagioli described some of his transpersonal experiences while in prison, including Love, Joy, and a deeper realization of the Joy within himself.