After Freedom in Jail

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.

Perhaps now is a good time to see what we might learn from Roberto Assagioli’s experience after he was released from prison on September 19, 1940. Imprisoned for praying for peace and inviting others to join him, along with “other international crimes,” Assagioli spent a month in Regina Coeli prison in Rome. Notes that he wrote about his time in prison can be read in the book Freedom in Jail. In a 1965 interview with Julie Medlock, Assagioli said:

“One of my most gratifying experiences has been the month I spent in jail in 1940. In order that I should not have a bad influence on other prisoners I was put in a solitary cell. This greatly pleased me because the privacy offered me a welcome opportunity for a spiritual retreat. Such pauses or interludes from the wear and tear of modern life are very helpful and I greatly recommend them (although not necessarily in prison!).

I made use of the seclusion for performing a series of exercises of meditation, contemplation, etc. Through them I attained new heights and intensity of spiritual realization.”

While it’s clear that Assagioli experienced freedom during his time in prison, we can also see that he lived this inner freedom, not only soon after his release but during his entire lifetime.

Freedom Under Surveillance

Ministero dell'InternoAfter Assagioli’s release from jail, his physical freedom was curtailed for years. Upon leaving the prison, he was officially declared “a person dangerous to the security of the State.” Consequently, he was held under house arrest and kept under surveillance by the fascist government for the next two years. This meant that he needed police authorization to travel any distances from his home and was forbidden to leave his house between sunset and sunrise. (These restrictions, oddly enough, might feel slightly familiar to us by now!)

While his family was living in Capolona in Tuscany, Assagioli was forced to remain in Rome and spent the first months after his release in a pensione run by Nina Onatzky, the wife of Evhen Onatsky who in 1943 was also thrown into Regina Coeli prison (but that’s another story…). Meanwhile, Assagioli and his wife Nella wrote a letter to Mussolini, asking that Assagioli’s political status be reviewed and he be set free. In this letter, dated November 19, 1940, the Assagiolis wrote:

“The undersigned reaffirms that he never was a ‘pacifist’, because, with his understanding as a psychologist and psychiatrist of human nature, he has never had the illusion that peace can be founded on external means and with legal treaties as demanded and attempted by pacifists.”

In fact, this statement almost verbatim appears years later in his “Introduction to the Will Project”, at the end of his seminal book The Act of Will. He further explains: “The effective means to change men’s inner attitude, both individual and collective, is the constant application of good will.”

Freedom in Hiding

Nearly six months after leaving prison, Assagioli was officially released from police surveillance and was able to return home to Capolona. However, the fascist police continued to keep an eye on him. Then in 1943, when the Nazi’s came into power in Italy, things became substantially worse. Assagioli and his family had to flee their home and hide in the Apennine mountains north of Arezzo.

Until the end of the war, they lived underground in drafty old barns and stables outside of remote mountain villages. They managed to survive leaky roofs in the winter and fight off swarms of mosquitoes in the summer. Together they shared their food and company with English and American soldiers who had escaped concentration camps, an English parachutist, British Indian soldiers, Austrian Jews, and Italian partisans. Twice they were nearly caught. Their home at Capolona was ransacked and blown up with dynamite and their home Villa Serena was ransacked and damaged by cannon fire. But like so many allied prisoners and Jews during this time in Italy, they were protected and fed by the local peasant families (like those pictured above) who risked violence and death.

Freedom under Liberation

Letter to Friends

Assagioli’s “Letter to Friends”

Upon Italy’s liberation, Assagioli wrote humorously about this time in hiding in his “Letter to Friends” dated September 1944. This letter was translated in full for the first time in Freedom in Jail.

Assagioli’s story of inner freedom continued after the end of World War II. Due to the poor living conditions they had to endure while in hiding, his son Ilario, who was already suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, became even weaker. After the war, medicines and other cures such as those found at sanatoriums were difficult to come by, and on November 6, 1951, Ilario died.

A few days after his son’s death, Assagioli said:

“His eyes now see quite a different sun.”

Lessons We Might Learn for Post COVID-19

What might we learn from Assagioli’s story of freedom? Once he left prison, things seemed to go from bad to worse. His two homes were destroyed, his papers and libraries ransacked, he and his family had to go and live in cowsheds to hide from a regime that wanted to kill him, his son Ilario became weaker and then died.

But throughout it all, Assagioli retained the inner freedom he experienced while in prison. Perhaps, his time in prison was the best preparation for the sufferings that were to come. Years later, while lecturing in Rome, Assagioli said that it is a mistake “to think that suffering can be eliminated from life.” Only by our wiliness to accept and understand suffering can we redeem it and make it a source of joy.

We might want to consider our lockdown as a gift – the time and space we need to best prepare for what is to come. A time to learn how to accept, be patient, deliberate, choose, and become inwardly free – so that we might be best prepared to redeem whatever suffering will inevitably come and transform it into the smiling wisdom of joy.

You can now listen to excerpts from Freedom in Jail (in both English and Italian) at this YouTube site.

Many thanks to Casa Assagioli, the Istituto di Psicosintesi Firenze, and especially Lucia Bassignana, Paola Marinelli, and Susan J. Allen for their efforts in producing the audio files of Freedom in Jail.

Author’s Note: This account of Assagioli’s time after his release from prison comes in part from “Le carte della Polizia Politica fascista” by Laura Ferrea, published in: Roberto Assagioli, Libertà in prigione. A cura di Catherine Ann Lombard, Firenze, Italia: Istituto di Psicosintesi, 2018, pp. 89-104. All translations from Italian into English are mine.

Finding Freedom in Jail

Regina Coeli Snijder

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?

Archive announcement

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: Books are also available from the Psychosynthesis Trust London by contacting

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

Transpersonal Experiences

Assagioli described some of his transpersonal experiences while in prison, including Love, Joy, and a deeper realization of the Joy within himself.

Love: Doc #7785, Joy: Doc # 7787, Joy – A deeper Realization: Doc # 8438

A Week under Lockdown

Lockdown in Pieve 2In Umbria, it all happened gradually. Like contracting the virus itself, I suppose. One person wearing a mask at the supermarket and everyone trying to act normal about it. The fervent washing of hands upon entering home. The silly jokes. Do you know the latest Italian slogan? Meno tasse, meno tosse (‘Less taxes, less coughing.’ But in Italian it’s funnier because it rhymes.) The collective denial when everyone shook hands as they offered the Sign of Peace during Sunday Mass.

Then things started to heat up. Like the feverish heat of the virus, I suppose. We were only allowed to go out to work, for food shopping and emergencies. Signs warned us at the supermarket to stand at least a meter apart while waiting on line. But I wondered about buying fruit and vegetables that anyone could handle and easily sneeze on. All the flour was missing from the shelves and the mozzarella nearly gone. Schools were all closed, but bars were open and restaurants too. People were still making plans to meet for dinner. Continue reading

Celebrating Women in Psychosynthesis

Olga Froebe Studio Assagioli

A spiritual portrait of Assagioli painted by Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn and hanging in Assagioli’s studio in Florence.

Assagioli is often criticized for his controversial essay, “The Psychology of Woman and her Psychosynthesis.” in which he describes “womanly functions” such as the maternal function and the wifely function. His recognition of the differences between men and women in this essay can cause anxiety among psychosynthesis psychologists today.

But in a 1965 lecture on the same topic, Assagioli explains why this subject raises our suspicion and/or fear. He says that many people think that when you recognize these differences, that you are implying that men are better than women. These differences, however, do not imply that women are of less value or inferior to men. Assagioli actually said such thinking is “simply stupid”! Continue reading

Harriet Tubman: Mystic Freedom Fighter

Harriet the conductorIn the USA, February is Black History Month, and I would like to take advantage of this extra last day in February to celebrate Harriet Tubman. Tubman (1821-1913) is famous for being an escaped slave who became one of the most successful conductors on the Underground Railway. She helped lead 60 to 70 fellow slaves into freedom, risking her life 13 times as she clandestinely traveled from the Northern states down to Maryland and back again, ultimately arriving to Canada with her people.

But Tubman was even more than a courageous abolitionist. During the Civil War, she worked as a cook and nurse. She then became an armed scout and spy and was the first woman to lead an armed raid in the war, successfully liberating more than 700 slaves in Combahee Ferry, South Carolina. After the war, she was active in the woman’s suffrage movement and established a home for the care of elderly African Americans, where she died of pneumonia. Just before she died, she told those in the room: “I go to prepare a place for you.” Continue reading

Facing Life’s Ambiguities

ambiguityAccording to Roberto Assagioli, the first stage of any decision is to ascertain the purpose driving us toward our desired goal. During all the subsequent stages of an act of will — deliberation, affirmation, choice, planning and execution – we can often gain energy by returning to reflect on our initial purpose.

However, there may be times when we find ourselves in a difficult situation and unable to understand exactly what we are doing or why. We may feel stuck in a particularly uncomfortable situation.  Or we may have to interact with challenging (sub)personalities, who only trigger our own unresolved issues! Nothing around us seems to feel right anymore. Nothing seems to fit with our ideals or desired aims.

We might be asking ourselves: Whatever are we doing here? Whatever could our purpose be?

Figure 1 Assagioli and Palombi

Roberto Assagioli and Ida Palombi

Eighty years ago, Ida Palombi (1905-1981) posed this exact question to Roberto Assagioli. Having graduated from the University of Rome, in 1939 she found herself working as a social worker and translator for the Ministry of the Interior of Rome under the fascist regime. At the same time, she was regularly attending lessons Assagioli was offering at his home on the Aventine. Continue reading

Assagioli’s Favorite Exercise Routine

J.P._MüllerJorgen Peter Muller (1866-1939) had a reputation for being everything from pornographic to a world famous hygienist and physical fitness guru. The Danish sportsman was, in fact, all-round champion athlete, Danish Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog, and author of the international best seller My System, published in 1904.

My System is a complete step-by-step guide to 18 daily exercises that nearly anyone can complete in 15-minutes. The book sold 2 million copies and was translated into 25 languages. Muller became famous for traveling around Europe and demonstrating his exercises while wearing only a loincloth and displaying his tanned, toned body. Shocking by all Victorian standards!

Continue reading