Choose one of the following models of psychosynthesis: (a) subpersonalities, (b) ‘I’ and the sense of identity, (c) the egg diagram. Discuss and critique its usefulness as a tool for understanding your own development and its possible application to clinical work. This essay will choose to discuss model (b) ‘I’ and the sense of identity, particularly in relation to the work of John Firman.
This essay aligns with the definitions of “I” and Self as outlined by Assagioli (1965), that “I” is one’s sense of personal self, the centre of our consciousness and will, and not to be confused with the psychological contents of consciousness. Assagioli recognized a powerful integrative principle acting within the human psyche – the Self, stating that “I” is a “projection” or “reflection” of Self, seeing Self as the Ground of Being, the luminous Source from which our being flows.
I agree with Firman’s (1997) singular use of the term Self to refer to the entirety of “I”s deeper being. Through the process of psychosynthesis, Assagioli believed that the “I” could become freed up to establish itself as an autonomous centre serving the Self, and it is this “freeing up” of “I” from its surrounding “contents”, including its many constellations of personalities, known as subpersonalities in psychosynthesis, that can allow for a person’s authentic sense of identity to emerge.
This essay will focus on the fundamental nature of empathy in psychosynthesis thought, as an inherent quality of “I”, with its source in Self, and how, through the emerging sense of my own sense of “I”, the development of my own personal centre, this psychological tool assisted in my understanding of my own development, and was in fact utterly key to it. I will then discuss and critique the “I”s possible application to clinical work, especially in relation to the importance of developing empathy.
Empathy in this sense refers to the potential of “I” to be fundamentally loving towards all aspects of the personality (Firman and Gila 2007). This emergence of “I” may be seen as the heart of psychosynthesis therapy, and the pre-requisite for authentic self-expression in the world, as Assagioli affirms, “I am a living, loving, willing self” (Assagioli 1973, 156).
It is precisely the ability of the therapist to provide an authentic unifying centre for the client that Assagioli emphasized as imperative to the development of personal identity, seeing such a unifying centre as “An indirect but true link, a point of connection between the personal man and his higher Self, which is reflected and seen in that object” (Assagioli 1965,25). Thus, the empathic, relational interaction with such an external unifying centre conditions the formation of an inner representation or model of that centre, which can be called an internal unifying centre.
In this sense the inner centre becomes capable of fulfilling the same function as the external one. In psychosynthesis, the “I” is taken as the sense of identity with its roots in Self. Assagioli (1965) affirmed the essential unity of “I” and Self, but he was also careful to maintain a distinction between them, since “I” is one’s personal sense of self flowing from the more universal nature of Self. In psychosynthesis, it is this relationship, between “I” and Self, that forms the very ground of Self-realization, defined here as one’s sense of authentic relationship.
Assagioli’s insight into the nature of personal identity, or “I”, is central to psychosynthesis thought, and he was also clear not to confuse such personal identity with organizations of psychological content. Rather he saw “I” as distinct but not separate from any contents of experience, from any and all processes or structures of the personality” (Firman & Gila 2007, 9). One primary way Assagioli stressed to reveal the nature of “I”, was through introspection, an act of self-observation, attending to the ever arising contents of experience in consciousness. …the point of pure self-awareness (the “I”), is often confused with the conscious personality just described, but in reality it is quite different from it. This can be ascertained by the use of careful introspection. The changing contents of our consciousness (the sensations, thoughts, feelings, etc) are one thing, while the “I”, the self, the centre of our consciousness is another. ” (Assagioli, 1965, 18). Here, a clear distinction is made between one’s sense of identity and one’s personality, a central and profound distinction within psychosynthesis thought.
I began my own personal journey with a great need to establish my own sense of identity. I had a very broken experience of self that many times led me into a crises of identity. It was through the practice of introspection, or self-attention, in the form of continuous attention to the consciousness “I”, or the inner feeling “I”, that I developed my own sense of self. In my teenage years, my sense of identity would constantly move through what was for me, a very fragmented terrain of personality, and I had a very fragile connection to an authentic centre of identity within my personality matrix.
Through the process of self-attention, I was able to establish an authentic sense of identity. Once this sense of “I” had been established as a “good enough” sense of self within me, a process of self-empathy could develop as a result of this, providing me with an “internal holding environment” (Winnicot 1987, 34), of empathy and love, an internal unifying centre, a ground from which to include ever more of my experience, allowing me greater exploration of self, and a centre from which to form such experiences into creative expression in the world.
This leads onto one of the most useful aspects of this model in my experience, which is the concept of disidentification, a necessary requisite of empathic love. This refers to the capacity of “I” to not get stuck in, identified with, any particular contents of experience, such as thoughts, feelings, sensations, subpersonalities, etc, but rather to be able to shift and move through them all (Firman & Gila 2007).
My personal practice of attention to the inner feeling “I” acted for me as an external unifying centre, that over time, coupled with my own therapeutic experience, became the internal holding environment of my own authentic sense of “I”. Through this psychosynthetic approach to identity, one may come to discover that one is not what one sees, that is the contents of consciousness, but rather, one is the seer themselves, the point of pure consciousness embodied within the various contents.
Through this capacity of the “I” to be distinct but not separate from such contents of consciousness, the possibility of self-empathy may be born, whereby one learns to enter into a relationship with all parts of oneself, experiencing each, without losing one’s inherent sense of identity. This was of invaluable use to me in my development as it allowed me to find an anchor as it were, a point of stability, within an ever changing flow of experience.
And for me, it was this process of disidentification that allowed me to disentangle myself from “survival personality” (Firman & Gila 1997), that defensive part of me that had formed as a result of not being “seen” and validated as an “I” when I was a child, due to what self-psychology calls “empathic failures” in my early holding environment. In my case this was due to a mother who “saw” me through a projection of her own self thus resulting in my own core essence not “being seen”.
This led to deep “primal wounding” in me, and from this it becomes clear how Assagioli’s “introspection” may serve as part of what can heal such “primal wounding,” which Firman and Gila define as “an experienced disruption in the empathic mirroring relationship between the personal self or “I” and Self” (Firman & Gila 1997, 89). This may allow for a sense of continuity of being to be established, since the I-Self connection is that essential empathic connection, hinting at the relational source of human being.
In my experience, one of the potential dangers of this model is that the concept of “I” may be taken literally, as a thought, rather than as a person’s authentic experiential centre of being. Here, a danger is that the tool of disidentification could act as a further form of dissociation rather than allowing space for the deeper vulnerabilities of the personality. For me, this manifested in that I would identify with the pure “I” as a single and specific mode of experience that rendered other modes remote, becoming a further aspect of my “survival personality”.
However, since disidentification has been defined as “simple, introspective, self-empathic witnessing…. founded in the transcendence-immanence of “I” – the ability of “I” to be distinct, but not separate from the contents of awareness. ” (Firman & Gila, 1977, 56), it is identification, and not disidentification that is the dynamic underlying dissociation. It is important here to bring in the concept of subpersonalities, that may be defined as the “many constellations of thought, each composing an identity” (Ram Dass, cited in Firman & Gila 1977,63), since the theoretical istinction between one’s authentic sense of identity and the many “subpersonal” identities is essential in psychosynthesis. Firman & Russel (1994) use the concept of “authentic personality” when referring to this “empathic reaching” within oneself to realize the authentic, whole expression of one’s essential nature or “I-amness”, which they argue is akin to the true “inner child”; and they distinguish between what they call one’s true personality “core”, and the varying “ego-states” or subpersonalities.
Psychosynthesis therapy is able to provide a powerful environment of support and nurturance for the emerging sense of a client’s authentic “I-amness”, allowing for the client’s self-expression to begin to express their “true nature”, rather than their sense of identity and self-expression being based on an unconscious attempt at self-defence.
So these ideas are very useful in relation to understanding how a person’s authentic sense of “I” or identity can become enmeshed in “survival personality” due to childhood wounding, and how, through the therapeutic experience of an “authentic unifying centre”, and a “holding environment” that fosters authentic, spontaneous expression of self rather than defensive focus on survival, the emergence of authentic “I” may emerge as the central feature of a person’s personality and identity, potentially allowing them a more creative and authentic life in the world.
The point here is that identity is relational, and not an isolated event, and thus, a clinical setting may provide a holding environment that may allow for a “good enough” healing of a person’s I-Self connection to allow for enough personal continuity of being, begetting a stronger path of self-actualization. In my experience, my own therapist provided me with an external unifying centre that has continued to be a powerful centre for me and my journey into authentic relationship (Self-realization).
My own psychotherapy became for me my first relational experience that allowed me to feel “seen”. “When I look, I am seen, therefore I exist. ” (Winnicot, 1988b, 134), and thus begun my work of personal psychosynthesis with grounded and self-actualizing potency. For me, I realized that my true work lay in the mastery and integration of my total being “around the unifying centre of the “I”” (Assagioli, 1965, 51).
Chris Meriam (1996) makes it clear, as already discussed, that the first principle of empathic enquiry, applied to ourselves, is our willing exploration of our subjective world as a way of understanding that world, holding ourselves as “I” distinct but not separate from all that we encounter. “When we relate to ourselves in this way – simultaneously transcending and engaging the vast array of psychological content…we become more deeply self-understanding, self-empathic” (Chris Meriam 1996, 18).
Applying this to a clinical setting, Meriam speaks of the inner world of the client being engaged in much the same way allowing for the emergence of their own “I” and authentic sense of identity. In this sense, the therapist remains distinct but not separate from the client’s world, also taking the same stance towards the clients “issues”. It is referring to this capacity of empathic “I” that Firman & Gila (2007) speak of “I” as “transcendent-immanent”.
This ability to “hold” the client in their “I-amness” allows them the opportunity for empathic engagement with “any and all” of their subjective experience. Thus, the emerging sense of empathic “I” that is given possibility through psychosynthesis therapy, allows a client to bring to awareness unconscious identifications that may be functional within their psychological patterning, constricting their consciousness and inhibiting their growth. In this vein, Assagioli writes, “We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified” (Assagioli 1965, 22).
Here Assagioli is speaking of unconscious identification where we have become “captured” by our subjective world rather than standing in a “free” position to it. So the empathic “I” or personal self of the therapist allows the therapist to offer interventions based on an emerging understanding of the client’s subjective world as an interpenetrating mixture of higher, middle, and lower unconscious material “-of personal and transpersonal activities and states of awareness-all underscored and held together by a deeper empathic Self. (Chris Meriam 1996, 16) Here again, it is worth noting the potential danger of an individual misusing the idea of transcendence as a form of “spiritual bypassing” (Firman & Gila 2007) of certain unwanted identifications or more “difficult” psychological content, thusly ignoring the deeper “transcendent-immanent” capacity of empathic “I” to engage in the full exploration of subjective experience.
It is to be aware that withdrawal from psychological content as a form of avoidance is dissociating from the very ground of empathic relationship, and thus, authentic personal sense of identity is “disconnected”. However, within proper use of empathic “I” is held the tremendous potential that can be offered through the clinical setting in relation to the development of a person’s “I” and sense of identity.
Here, as Chris Meriam (1996) notes, not only is “I” inherently of empathic nature, but also includes qualities of observation and awareness, responsibility, power, and choice. “I” has consciousness and will. These potentialities of “I”, ever in line with true psychosynthesis, allow for the possibility of an ever deepening sense of identity and self-knowledge, an ever deepening degree of self-realization, and an ever widening field of authentic self-actualization, as one learns to express oneself with, and be guided by, integrity and creative self-expression in the world.
In conclusion, it is clear how utterly central the “I” and sense of identity are to psychosynthesis and psychosynthesis therapy. In my own case, the profound insight into “I” underpinned my connection not only to my own inner and authentic sense of self, helping me distinguish between “I” and my “community of selves”, but also how it also lay down the foundations of my authentic relational experience with others.
In this light, I feel that one of the major aspects of this model, is the understanding of the I-Self relationship as “containing” the very source of empathy, and thereby situating the very “heart” and “core” of personal identity as an empathic and relational experience, rather than an isolated event of personal liberation independent and detached from the relational field altogether, as posed by so many traditional spiritual paths. Also, through “I”s empathic presence in a clinical setting, and with applied echniques such as personal “introspection”, psychosynthesis therapy may allow for an ever more authentic and emerging sense of self within the client. Here the main point brought forth is that the psychosynthetic, psychotherapeutic relationship “works”, fundamentally, because of its allowance and nurturing of the clients emerging sense of empathic “I”, ultimately fostering the development of an internal unifying centre and the subsequent development of authentic personality. Taking this further, we might conclude that empathy is the key to understanding our connection to all forms of life and all existence. We may even have a keen sense that everything from the tiniest particle of sand to the most distant star is held together in empathic wholeness. ” (Chris Meriam 1965, 23) Thus, may “I” offer not only one’s authentic sense of identity, but “I” may also be the very point of relational connection itself, and the very heart of communion with All-That-Is.
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