Category Archives: The Higher Self

Harkening Within


Etty Hillesum in 1939

Seventy-five years ago on November 30th, a young Dutch Jewish intellect died at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her legacy of love and reconciliation, as described in her ten diary notebooks and the many letters that she wrote, continues to inspire people around the world. Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) was only 29 years old when she died, but during her short lifespan she managed to live a life of contemplative spirituality and practice in a world that seemed to be falling to pieces around her.

Hillesum grew up in a non-religious home of intellectuals. Her parents were both teachers – her father taught the classics and her mother Russian literature. Hillesum had two younger brothers, both very talented but mentally unstable. She describes having grown up in a “chaotic and sad situation … a madhouse where no human being can flourish.”

Hillesum received university degrees in Dutch Law and Slavic languages. She loved reading literature and was a remarkably talented writer. In 1937, she took a room in a house in Amsterdam, and in 1941, met the psycho-chirologist Julius Spier, who soon became her therapist. Spier had been in analysis with Carl Gustav Jung for two years, and it was Jung who recommended that Spier open a practice.

“I keep being drawn toward Jung”

Hillesum’s inner and outer journey actually began through Jungian psychotherapy. It was probably Spier who advised Hillesum to start keeping a diary, a practice that she found therapeutic as well as a way to nourish her literary talent. However, her notebooks were destined to become valuable chronicles, not only of her psychological and spiritual development, but also of the fate of the Jewish people.

Etty Diary

Pages from Etty Hillesum’s diary.

I very much urge everyone to read her diaries and letters, which have been published in 18 different languages and speak more than ever to our contemporary times. Hillesum was able to poetically recount the daily challenges of her inner and outer life – her personal and spiritual psychosynthesis. Her writing is highly accessible, intimate, imaginative, and full of  subtle ironic humor. Woven along with her own story is the story and circumstances of others she observed, as together they struggled to live under the terror of German occupation.

Hillesum’s spirituality does not fit neatly into any one dogma or institution. Born Jewish in a non-practicing family, she read Jung and loved German poet Rilke and the Russian novelist Dostoevsky. She drew inspiration from St. Augustine and the Bible. When she arrived at Camp Westerbork, the transit camp in the eastern region of The Netherlands, she had both the Koran and the Talmud in her bag. During the last months of her life at the camp, she wrote how she was “cleaning toilets and reading Meister Eckhart.”

“I want to share the fate of my people”

In the end, Hillesum refused to escape Nazi persecution, despite friends offering her multiple opportunities to hide. “I want to share the fate of my people,” she said. Hillesum felt her vocation was to use her skills with people and words, to care for the most vulnerable and to chronicle what she called “their adventures.” In July 1942, she volunteered, through the Jewish Counsel, to go to Camp Westerbork to work in the department of ‘Social Welfare for People in Transit.’ She wrote at that time:

“I will wield this slender fountain pen as if it were a hammer. And my words will have to be so many hammer strokes with which to beat out the story of our fate. A piece of history…”

In the camp, in addition to writing in her diary and letters to friends, she cared for the elderly and sick, and visited people in the hospital. Throughout this time, she refused to hate, calling it a “sickness of the soul.” Hillesum wrote:

“It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it still more inhospitable… I try to look things straight in the eye. Even the worst crimes, to discover the small naked human being amid the monstrous wreckage caused by man’s senseless deeds.”

“God is what is deepest and best in me.”

In the end, her personality was able to synthesize into a radiate presence, full of Love and Light. Part of her practice towards achieving inner awareness and strength was hineinhorchen, the German word for “to harken to.” She reflected:

“What I do is hineinhorchen (it seems to me that this word is untranslatable). Harkening to myself, to others, to the world. I listen very intently, with my whole being, and try to fathom the meaning of things.

…God is what is deepest and best in me… It’s really God who harkens inside me. The most essential and deepest in me harkening onto the most essential and deepest in the other, God to God.”

In my introduction to Roberto Assagioli’s prison diary, Freedom in Jail, I reflect on how such an experience of the deepest Self can paradoxically occur while in prison – an experience confirmed by Assagioli and Hillesum, as well as Viktor Frankl. Assagioli was a friend and colleague of Frankl’s. Since Hillesum’s diaries were only published in 1981 seven years after Assagioli’s death, he would not have known her.


Camp Westerbork during World War II.

All three shared the initial experience of acceptance with regard to their state of imprisonment. Acceptance brought them an inner freedom. And this inner freedom mysteriously invoked higher realizations and deep wisdom. While spending time in Camp Westerbork barracks, Hillesum tells us about being:

 “… jam-packed [into] hangers of drafty slats, under a lowering sky… And there among the barracks, full of hunted and persecuted people, I found confirmation of my love of life … Not for one moment was I cut off from the life I was said to have left behind. There was simply one great meaningful whole.”

“Let me be the thinking heart…”

During the three months she spent living amongst the “mud, overcrowding and people arriving every day in truckloads”, she vowed to become the “thinking heart of the barracks”:

“At night, as I lay in the camp on my plank bed, surrounded by women and girls gently snoring, dreaming aloud, quietly sobbing and tossing and turning, women and girls who often told me during the day, “We don’t want to think, we don’t want to feel, otherwise we are sure to go out of our minds,” I was sometimes filled with an infinite tenderness, and lay awake for hours letting all the many, too many impressions of a much-too-long day wash over me, and I prayed, ‘Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks.’ And that is what I want to be again. The thinking heart of a whole concentration camp.”

The last line of her preserved journals, reads: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.” On the day she left for Poland, she had in her rucksack a bible and Russian grammar. Hillesum managed to write a postcard and drop it through a crack of the cattlecar. The card was found by a farmer who sent it onto the addressee. On it, Hillesum wrote:

“We left the camp singing…”

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941 – 1943. Trans: Arnold J Pomerans. London: Persephone Books, 1999 (Reprinted 2007).

The Only Way Out is Up!

Assagioli wrote the motto of psychosynthesis as:

000193 the only way out is up

Motto of Psychosynthesis: “The only way out is the way up”

During Journey to Places of the Higher Self, September 17–23, we will be doing just that… As we descend into the Frasassi Caves, some of the largest in Europe, we will have no choice… the only way out will be the way up!

grotta di frasassi

The Frasassi Caves, Italy

Assagioli often wrote about how mountain climbing can be a symbol of ascent to spiritual heights… And we promise to bring you to 1000-year-old mountaintop churches in the Apennines. But he also wrote about how caves can be a symbol for “going deeper, descending to the ‘bottom/depths’ of our being.” Don’t worry, we won’t be too long inside the Frasassi Caves, just long enough to “get ready to transform”! Not to mention the promise of a delicious picnic lunch in the Italian countryside afterwards.

Places are still available for this special Journey to Places of the Higher Self. Why not join us? If you have any questions, please contact Catherine at:


Peak Experience3 ClombardTranspersonal experiences have blessed my life for many years. Perhaps one of the earliest and strongest occurred in 1987 while I was living in Japan. After graduating from UC Berkeley, I moved to Fukuyama, about 400 miles south of Tokyo to teach English.

Before I left, my brother gave me the name and address of Takashi (not his real name), a friend of his from business school who lived in Tokyo. Soon after settling in, I contacted Takashi and introduced myself. He replied with the suggestion that I meet him in Kyoto where he was planning a business trip. During the weekend, he would have time to accompany me through the ancient capital city.

I happily agreed to this idea. Kyoto is renown for its numerous temples and shrines. Surrounded by mountains and graced with bamboo gardens and philosopher paths, Kyoto seems to hold the essence of Japan. With a guiding hand, I hoped to touch this essence. Continue reading

Meeting Ourselves in Foreign Lands


Valsorda, Umbria. One of our stops on Journey to Places of the Higher Self, September 17-23, 2018

During the initial interview with every client, I always ask: “Do you have any religious or spiritual practice?”

The following is a typical response:

“I would call myself an atheist. As a scientist, I know that there is no proof showing that God exists. But I also know that there is no proof showing that he does not exist.”

Interestingly, clients’ responses become very different when asked if they had ever had a feeling of connection to something greater than themselves. Without exception, all clients can recall having a transpersonal or peak experience at some point in their lives, mostly while they were in a natural setting in a foreign landscape. Continue reading

Resting on Angel Wings

Mother of Horus Isabelle Bagdasarianz-Küng without saying

The Mother of Horus. (Photo by Isabelle Bagdasarianz Küng)

How can we cope with the overpowering images and messages from the daily news? Hurricanes, fires, mass murder, nuclear threats, and crazed world leaders can be overwhelming, pushing us towards a spiral of negative thoughts. Naturally, we want to be informed about what is going on in the world so we can make clear decisions and activate change. But we also need to find the right balance in our lives so we don’t feel lost in the constant swell of bad news.

The key is to seek equilibrium. Like feasting on salty food all day, when we only nourish ourselves by munching on the news, we can make our hearts and minds ill. We need to refresh ourselves with the taste and sound of spring waters, waters that might help us flush the salty taste from our mouths and renew our bodies and souls.

Continue reading

The Poem that Crossed Borders

Lotus flower 3

Assagioli writes that the Lotus is a symbol of Synthesis.

Next week I will be at Casa Assagioli in Florence, helping Gruppo alle Fonti host their International Meeting. The theme this year is “Synthesis,” a mighty big concept to come to terms with in less than a week. In anticipation, I have begun to reflect on what Synthesis means. The word 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. Continue reading

(Re)Learning to Mother Ourselves

1024px-Mother-Child_face_to_faceRecently I have been taking psychosynthesis lessons from my 3-1/2 year old neighbor Martina (not her real name). She is an only child without many friends who has been wandering over to my garden whenever I happen to be planting or hoeing in the late afternoon. At first she showed up in her electrical jeep, zig-zagging down the country road from her grandparents’ house, alternatively jerking to a halt and zooming full speed ahead, her three dogs chasing after her.

Martina is highly intelligent, strong-willed and precocious. She is an organizer and often explains to me where plants should be placed and what vases and flowers I need to buy and where they belong in the garden. She is also a great storyteller. In true Italian style, her entire body moves while she talks, her hands fly around with precision, and her facial gestures rise and fall with the tone of her voice. Continue reading