Category Archives: Italy

The Box of Dates

After two years, aren’t we tired by now of hearing, talking, reading about but mostly fearing Covid-19? My biggest heartache is witnessing the disintegration of the social fabric that once united the villagers where I live. Many of the agricultural traditions were already wobbling on creaky foundations. It’s as if the big bad wolf of fear has blown it all down.

Located in the heart of Italy, the village has about 100 inhabitants; nearly 30 of whom are over 70 years old.  The town’s activities revolve around feast days and holidays, mainly associated with the village’s Catholic Church. Nearly every month there used to be a celebration with most of the villagers gathering for a communal meal afterwards.

The spring feast of Ascension had us in procession around the town’s fields, blessing the earth, sun, and rain for providing us with nature’s abundance. In July we honored the local Franciscan Saint Marzio with porchetta sandwiches and homemade wine. August brought the entire village together for the three-day preparing to make gnocchi Sacra di Gnocco. In early December, we climbed the hill out of town at dusk with lit torches, song and prayer to celebrate Saint Barbara, her statue atop the shoulders of four strong men.

But all these celebrations have since disappeared. Even the village’s most famous – the day long Feast of the Madonna of Monte Camera celebrated on the Tuesday after Easter. Ironically enough, in 1647 when the pest was devastating the village population, the town dwellers who were well enough went in procession to this sanctuary (about 6 km away) to pray to the Madonna so that she might intercede on their behalf.

When they returned to their village, everyone who had been sick was miraculously cured. For 372 years, the villagers have returned in procession to this chapel – without fail – to commemorate the miracle. Every year… even during the last century’s World Wars, even during the time of Napoleon. Every year… except for the past two. Even though such a miracle is needed more than ever.

Personally during these past two years, I have witnessed many of the Italians I know tightly close ranks around their family life, walling themselves inside a circle of quiet desperation. Rarely does someone pause to chat with me anymore. What few smiles remain are hidden behind our masks. I am no longer invited in for a coffee and chat. All kisses are gone. The spontaneous touch of a hand is only a distant memory. We stand at a ‘safe’ distance, feeling unsafe.

An Open Door, An Open Heart

And then one afternoon, Maria Grazia[i] deeply touched me and my soul.

Maria Grazia is 91 years old. She grew up in the village, worked with her family on the land, married the village carpenter, had two children and now lives alone (her husband died three years ago). She is one of the few people whose attitude has not changed towards me. Always happy if I stop in to see her (along with my dog), Maria Grazia always insists on giving me something… creamy chocolates wrapped in shiny foil, a few fresh eggs from her chickens, and one time a small pot of honey from her son-in-law’s beehives.

Last week, I decided to pay her a visit. With all the fear that is running wild in the world, and despite her vulnerability, Maria Grazia attends to a quiet fearlessness. The key to her front door is always in the lock. As usual, I rang the bell and before any answer could come, I simply walked in. Maria Grazia was sitting next to her wood-burning stove, her legs up on a chair and covered with a blanket, rosary in hand. Despite my interrupting her quiet prayers of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, Maria Grazia welcomed me inside.

She did not quaver from my touch or worry about my wearing a mask or not. She was simply glad to see me. In fact, I often had to slide the mask to my chin and repeat myself, her slightly deaf ears unable to decipher my heavily accented Italian. We had met briefly the day before when I went to the mass for Saint Anthony Abate, the patron saint of domestic animals. As always, the villagers brought their animal feed to be blessed by the priest after the mass, and I too had attended with buckets of chicken feed, dog and cat food for the ritual sprinkling of holy water.

“I’m always so happy to see you in church,” was the first thing she said. I can’t remember when anybody told me that they were happy to see me anywhere! Slightly embarrassed to be caught with her legs up on a chair, Maria Grazia explained, “I have fibrosis in my legs.” She lifted up the blanket to show me her swollen, discolored calves and ankles, and then, despite my protests, insisted on getting up.

Hobbling to her cupboard while supporting herself against her kitchen table, she brought out a box of dates and insisted I take them with me. “But don’t you like them?” I asked.

“Oh yes, I like them. But I have another box,” she said. “And besides, I want you to have these.”

Maria Grazia put the box of dates into a plastic bag. I gratefully accepted them and thanked her. We kissed each other goodbye on both cheeks and I went on my way. As I was leaving, she sat down again by the warm stove. I offered to help her replace the blanket over her legs, but Maria Grazia insisted that she could do it herself.

The box of dates meant little to me, but her loving attitude of just being present, without terror in her eyes, without my having to feel awkward or afraid to be with her, was her true gift.  Nothing between us had changed, despite the world being so radically altered. It was a moment when everything felt normal… when human relationship once more felt peaceful… We were just two human beings – with all our limitations – together, acknowledging each other’s presence, the beauty of each other’s soul.


Artwork by Mary Beth Volpini. See more at drawntocolor.com

The Pandemic of Collective Fear

Assagioli writes how “waves of collective fear and panic” are like 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 virus-like fears are not ours, but energies that we are experiencing from the people and society around us. 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 says:

“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. 

You might start today to consciously ‘vaccinate’ yourself against 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. You can also 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 whirling around us. 

Let’s face it. There are a million reasons to be fearful. The human condition hardly lends itself to fearlessness! But with patience and Love, along with the guidance of the Higher Self, the virus of fear can be cured.

Assagioli’s note from his archives.

[i] Maria Grazia is a pseudonym.

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To read about how two former clients overcame their personal fears, see Starve Your Fear! and The Healing Paradox.

COP26, Tagore, and Human Truths

Franco, who is blind, cuts his grass with a scythe.

After the COP26 ended in Glasgow, and I couldn’t help feeling like a lemming caught in a mass migration off a towering cliff. It’s difficult to stay grounded and hopeful when faced with the empty actions of our political leaders and the 100+ coal, oil and gas company lobbyists and their associated groups who welded influence during the conference.

Even though the U.S. military pollutes more than 140 countries combined, their emissions are not included in any calculations (due to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol decision to exclude them). And since the 2015 Paris Agreement, 1005 land and environmental defenders have been murdered, with one out of three being an Indigenous person.

According to scientist Ken Anderson, “net zero,” is meaningless rhetoric (or more simply Blah, Blah, Blah) that allows us to move the burden in reducing emissions from today out to future generations. He said, “Net zero is Latin for kicking the can down the road.”

On a personal level, I have struggled with watching in quiet desperation as neighbors cut down their trees for firewood. My nearby neighbors are a farming family, four generations that have lived here for more than a century. They own most of the surrounding land and they do not hesitate to cut down trees and hedges, in order to turn fields into plowable acreage, which they mindlessly kill with fertilizers. Continue reading

Searching for Funghi, Finding Myself

Now is the time to walk into the Italian hillsides and search for edible mushrooms. Nearly twenty years ago, I experienced my first expedition for these savory funghi while living in Italy. During this search, I realized how much my life had changed. Signora Maria was partly to thank for this revelation, for it was she who invited me to venture into the bosco (forest) with her to search for funghi.

I have recently had a story published about this adventure entitled Sacred Journeys: Buried Treasure. This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Unity Magazine; unitymagazine.org.

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Running Against All Odds

According to the Olympic record this year, Marcell Jacobs (26) is the fastest man on earth. He ran the 100m race in 9.8 seconds. (Usain Bolt from Jamaica has the all-time record at 9.58 seconds). Jacobs’ win brought joy to many Italians, especially since this is the first medal for Italy in the 100m race. The odds were 30:1 against him.

As a child, Jacobs always dreamt of winning an Olympic gold medal. He started out as a long-jumper, but after an injury three years ago, switched to running. While training in Rome, he built a team around him that included a chiropractor, nutritionist, and mental coach.

Jacobs is Italian, but he is also African-American. Born in El Paso, Texas, he immigrated to Italy when he was six months old with his Italian mother. At the time, his father, who was in the US Army, was transferred to South Korea, and so ended the marriage. Jacobs said he lost contact with this father after that. “I never saw my dad from that time on,” he told the press.

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Beauty as a Divine Imprint

John
As an expression of beauty, awe, and awakening, art has always played a great part along our journey to our Higher Self. Throughout the world, holy places have been built to hold the polar tensions of spirit and matter, inner and outer space and light, as well as the community that shares the transcendent experience within the architectural space.

Assagioli noted that:

“Matter is the highest form of Spirit and Spirit is the lowest form of Matter.”

In this way, spirit seeks matter to express the full beauty of the transcendent. Assagioli also noted that Plato, Plotinus, and Christian mystics have recognized and proclaimed that “beauty is the essential attribute of the Supreme.” Continue reading

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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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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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. Continue reading

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: istituto@psicosintesi.it. Books are also available from the Psychosynthesis Trust London by contacting enquiries@ptrust.org.uk.

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

Freedom

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