Category Archives: The Higher Self

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

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.”

Continue reading

Divine Supply

thumbnail_image1(1)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

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

Heavenly and Earthly Desires


The Journey of the Three Magi. Postcard from Assagioli’s Archives (ID# 010305)

Desire, in all its dimensions, is beautifully woven into the Christmas story. This word desire can evoke so many different images and feelings. Assagioli saw desire as an integral part of ourselves and subject to both our personal will and the will of the Higher Self.

In fact, the word desire fundamentally holds this idea of a higher or transpersonal will.  I was amazed to learn that the word comes from the Latin roots dē, which means to “come from” and sīdus which means “heavenly body.” In other words, our longings literally “come from the heavens.” This idea may have originated from astrology, which attempts to understand how the heavenly bodies – stars and planets alike – can define who we are and what we want to become. Continue reading

An Ordinary Extraordinary Christmas

breakfastThe day started out normal enough. Breakfast of homemade bread and jams, creamy sheep cheese from Sardinia, ricotta, and peanut butter from a large jar brought long ago from the Netherlands, all swallowed down with cappuccinos in our usual breakfast cups. That morning we were just a bit more rushed, hurrying out by 8 am to attend the morning mass at the Monastery of St. Luca in Fabriano.

Benedictine nuns in the sober habits sang the psalms in clear – sometimes wavering – voices accompanied by one of the sisters playing the dulcimer. A monk priest said the mass. Afterwards we stood around the 16th century pews listening to Don Ephrem tell stories of when he was first ordained as a priest in Syria. Barely speaking Arabic, he was sent off to a high mountain village to say the Christmas mass.

But first he had to hear confession. The problem was nobody spoke Arabic, they all spoke a mountain dialect. Behind the confessional screen, he begged for mercy, asking the elderly women penitents to recount their sins in a language he might understand. French, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, slowly spoken simple Arabic? No, none of those. Only mountain dialect, a slowing dying blend of indecipherable Arabic and language once carried on the wind.

Continue reading

Talking to Strangers

Internet AddictionI spend last Saturday talking to strangers. As a volunteer for the charity Caritas, I spent two hours in front of a local supermarket asking people to donate food to the Italian National Food Bank. This experience meant that I wore a plastic yellow bib (which declared my legitimacy) while dangling plastic yellow bags in front of passing strangers.

Those who were interested in helping, took the bag and filled it with rice, pasta, tomato sauce, olive oil (this is Italy after all!), baby food or canned vegetables. The donated goods were then collected, boxed and sent off to the local food bank.

I startled most of the shoppers that day with my distinct American accent. “Buon giorno!” I called out cheerily. “Would you like to participate in our food collection for the poor?” I asked this at least 100 times that morning and, as you can imagine, the reactions varied. Some simply said ‘No.’ Some said they had already donated at another supermarket. One man said that he could actually use the yellow plastic bag, thank you very much. Continue reading

Spring Breath of God

With standing room only, the bus sped down the freeway on a bright warm morning. Once we turned onto the bollenstreek, long ribbons of intense blue, mauve, and white stretched to the near horizon. At the same time, the colours seemed to invade inside and pour over us. Fields of yellow daffodils blared spring’s final triumph over the particularly long winter. Every head on the bus turned and gazed. And then suddenly, quite spontaneously, everyone sighed together, “Aaahhhhhhhh.” A breath song of collective awe.

We were headed to Keukenhof Gardens, near the Dutch town of Lisse, famous for its variety of bulb flowers, especially tulips. I was feeling particularly triumphant because I had two Dutch people in tow. My husband had finally run out of excuses and decided to appease his American wife. Along with us was a friend who had actually lived near the gardens for the past 35 years and had never visited them before. Continue reading