On a quest for the alleviation of suffering, Sophia Prevezanou views psychosynthesis and the transpersonal perspective as bridging psychological work and the spiritual journey
The aim of this paper is to explore what motivates our inner work from a transpersonal perspective that bridges psychological work and the spiritual journey. I will be drawing on Psychosynthesis and the Diamond Approach, as well as my personal and professional experience to illustrate my points.
Psychosynthesis invites us to contemplate the question “who am I?” in as open-ended a way as possible and places our spiritual nature at the centre of this investigation. According to the Psychosynthesis model founded by Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli, we are much more than our personality. We have a body, a mind and emotional world, yet we are more than our body, mind and feelings. This “more than” is our essential identity termed the Transpersonal Self (or simply Self). It is described by Whitmore (2014:14) as “a person’s most authentic identity, the deepest experience of Being”. Psychosynthesis supports the synthesis of the different, often conflicting and disparate, conscious and unconscious aspects of who we are, not necessarily with the goal of creating a harmonious whole but the inclusion of repressed energies and aspects that make up our depth and height.
The Self is our Ground of Being, the source of our life force. It is our Divine nature and is right here, right now. It resembles the notion of the “unmoved mover” in Aristotle’s Metaphysics – it does not move but sets in motion everything else. A core psychosynthesis principle is that we are Self and have a personality. Our conditioning however, leads us to a perceived disconnection from Self and the resulting belief that we are our personality. This results in “primal wounding”, a split between who we are and who we take ourselves to be (Firman & Gila 1997:21). If, by identifying with our self-images and experiences, we lose connection with Self, then by disidentifying from them, we restore connection to Self. This primal wounding is the source of psychological and spiritual suffering, thus psychopathology is reframed as spiritual crisis, without defining the way a person is related to.
One of the core premises informing the development of humanistic psychology is mankind’s inherent drive towards self-actualization. This idea and process was explored in depth by Maslow, who had a direct influence on Assagioli’s thinking and postulated that “a person is both actuality and potentiality” (Maslow, 1999:15). It follows that the Self is not static but dynamic, constantly “knocking on the door” of our consciousness, to be let in and be lived. Assagioli suggested that the Self exerts a “pull” or “call” (Assagioli, 1999:113) which is experienced by the personal self as a longing to turn towards Self. If we listen to the heart’s longing to embrace and become one with Self, we engage in Self-realisation – awakening to the reality of our essential nature and living it in the world. In short, “Everyone is on a path of Self-realisation, however distorted and broken this path may appear” (Firman & Gila 2010:142).
Although the Self appears like an abstract concept, it can be a lived experience in the present. Psychosynthesis therapy can be seen as a conscious attempt to facilitate reconnection with who we truly are, transcending our identifications whilst at the same time being fully immanent within the world. Holding a perspective where transcendence and immanence are two sides of the same coin, enables us to live our lives “being in the world without being of the world”, to quote a well-known expression originating in Christianity.
And this leads us to the inner flame – the felt experience that resembles a flame which burns inside our being, fuelled by the Self. It is what fills us with an all-consuming passion for the inexhaustible mystery of Being. It is what sustains us when we face challenges which make us want to give up on the spiritual journey. The psychosynthesis Self seems similar to what A.H. Almaas, the founder of the Diamond Approach refers to as essence or true nature. I will be using the terms Self and essence interchangeably in the rest of this paper.
Almaas suggests that as our defensive ego structures relax, we get in touch with a sense of meaninglessness. “The meaning that is missing is a sense of experiential significance, a sense of profundity and substance.” He reframes the motive behind the spiritual quest as a “search of the essence of the self” and adds: “the flame of the search is ignited only when we accept our unknowing, and still aspire to discover the truth of our situation” (Almaas,1996:227-228). “Accepting our unknowing” seems key. It reminds me of the Socratic aphorism “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” If we believe that we know, that we have ‘arrived’, if we take someone else’s ideas as the truth, we effectively suspend our spiritual quest. The spiritual quest, as I see it, is an open-ended endeavour and has no fixed goal or outcome.
Very often, however, our need to feel that we are in control leads us to taking one of the following positions. We either try to hold on to a discovery as a permanent truth (which can lead to the formation of yet another attractive but potentially limiting self-image such as “I am a spiritual seeker”), or we dismiss what we find as insignificant or because it threatens our familiar sense of identity. Our ego structure seeks certainty and therefore has an aversion to what is unknown and unmanifested. Eckhart Tolle suggests that “when you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life” (Tolle, 2016:274), emphasising a deep paradox. On one hand, uncertainty is anathema for the ego and yet, if we allow it to be there, it is the very experience and state of being that can push us beyond the edge of our known identity towards Self-realisation.
The metaphor of the inner flame appears in a number of spiritual traditions. A notable illustration is given by Powell Sr. (2010), who elaborates on the meaning of the Hebrew Alphabet letter Shin ש, the letter of fire, which is an abbreviation of the name of God burning in the bush. Powell Sr. (ibid:15) postulates that “the secret of the shin is the “flame (Divine Revelation) bound to the coal (Divine Essence – spiritual entity)”. He continues by noting how “a simmering coal actually possesses an invisible flame within it, which emerges and ascends from the surface of the coal when the coal is blown upon”
This image captures vividly how the inner flame relates to our essence, the coal. When the flame is dimmed or even extinguished, we experience a lack of aliveness, a self-betrayal. We go through each day mechanically, living an unfulfilled life. When that happens, it can feel like a kind of death, psychologically and spiritually.
My experience of the inner flame is a sense of being consumed by a passionate desire to come close to who I really am, as opposed to who I take myself to be. By this I am referring to a process of becoming conscious of the layers of my conditioned self which obscure my essence. Bringing what is unconscious into consciousness is directly related to having choice. One of the contributions psychosynthesis makes to the inner journey is a systematic development and strengthening of our capacity to choose.
The flame has a distinctive paradoxical property. Sometimes it is small, like the pilot light of a gas boiler. It keeps us alive. When we fan the flame it turns into a mighty fire. We feel that we are burning with a passion to live our lives in alignment with Self. At times we fear that the fire, the passion will destroy us, such is its power. There is an element of truth in this fear, because what is burned down in the process is our limiting ideas, the reins which hold us bound to our conditioned self. Engaging with this passion with genuine curiosity can lead to a creative journey of transformation and ceaseless discovery. As I understand it, this is what Almaas defines as “enlightenment expressing itself as a drive” (Almaas, 2014:33)
Responding to and engaging with the inner flame takes courage, insatiable curiosity and joy of discovery. The inner flame is about inclusion, allowing and acceptance: no discovery is better or worse in essence, even though our superego may have opinions about how desirable a discovery is and may want to dismiss experiences that are not in accordance with its intentions. What supports the kindling of the inner flame is being in close contact with our felt experience in the moment. Staying with our experience in the here-and-now invites the next experience. The flame is turned up in order for us to move to a greater depth of exploration and when we reach a deeper layer, the flame becomes stronger. And so the cycle continues.
The inner flame in therapy
A quest for alleviation of suffering often characterises the life journey of individuals attracted to therapy, whether as clients or therapists. The Wounded Healer paradigm suggests that within each healer lies an inner wound which is a significant contributor in vocational choice and in the healing of the client. In the context of psychosynthesis, this idea is supported by research I conducted amongst a number of psychosynthesis therapists, in order to explore changes in perception of the psychosynthesis therapist’s identity, role and purpose as the capacity to work transpersonally is developed (Prevezanou, 2011).
My hypothesis was that an initial identification of the therapist with the Wounded Healer within lessens over time, as the therapist’s deeper motivation to train becomes more conscious. The findings revealed a change in the way the purpose of therapy is perceived and therapy is practised. Therapy is seen as facilitating the client’s Self-realisation first and foremost. Change and healing are not goals to be achieved but may occur as a result of the client and therapist’s ongoing commitment to the soul’s journey and by way of grace. The therapist’s role and deeper purpose, therefore, becomes the (re-) igniting and kindling the client’s inner flame for Self-realisation, without ignoring their presenting issues. Although this may sound as if an agenda is imposed on clients, in practice it is a lens that sees and holds both the ego’s attempts for survival and the Self’s emerging purpose. This perspective is called bifocal vision in psychosynthesis and synthesises being and doing (Whitmore, 2014:68).
The vast majority of clients present with a desire to feel better about themselves and their life situation and view change as a matter of getting rid of unwanted and distressing symptoms, sometimes motivated by a need for ego gratification. From a psychosynthesis standpoint, however, symptoms are symbols of aspects of our essence which are trying to manifest in our lives. If we are fortunate enough in our exploration we may wake up to a new reality, which gives us a taste of our potentialities and may fill us with a sense of satisfaction and trigger a desire to step out of our box. Experiencing a sense of freedom and liberation from the constraints of the familiar, conditioned self is what lights or kindles the inner flame at the start of the inner journey.
Alternatively, if we have a strong self-image of an all-loving person, for example, and we get in touch with our hatred or destructive impulses, we find ourselves in an experience of disidentification with the all-loving person which is not liberating but disturbing because it is ego-dystonic. Firman & Gila (2007:7) term this the “turmoil of disidentification”, which brings the inner work and the process of therapy to a crossroads. In my experience this is a critical point that could result in disengagement from therapy or in a re-engagement guided more consciously and explicitly by the inner flame. This is where the therapist’s role can be crucial – does the therapist collude with the ego’s agenda, or do they hold an open space waiting and listening for what is emerging from Self?
Engaging with the inner flame recalibrates the conventional purpose and function of therapy as a process that might relieve psychological suffering, offers tools for approaching inner and outer conflicts and increases our capacity to be intimate with ourselves and others. I am not suggesting that it is bad or wrong for a client to seek relief from suffering. My intention is to highlight that if the truth of what may be discovered matters more than our preference in terms of what we would like to discover, therapy takes on a completely different meaning and psychological work can be reframed as a form of spiritual practice.
Almaas suggests that “you can love what is true and life can be a love affair that goes on regardless of what is happening” (Almaas, 2002:130). This proposition is freeing to the parts of us that long to surrender to such a love affair and challenging to those parts that – consciously or unconsciously – strive for change and self-improvement and want to be in control of what is arising in our journey of self-discovery.
One of the characteristics of the transpersonal orientation is its emphasis on the premise that human beings are meaning-seeking rather than pleasure-seeking and that every moment is purposeful. It can be revealing to explore questions such as: “What is the nature of my quest when I am engaged in inner work?” “What am I seeking?” “What motivates me to persevere?” “What sustains me when I get disheartened?”
The answers to such questions point towards the possibility that the motivating force of the inner flame can be, and often is, taken over by the ego. Let us imagine, for example, that a state of inner peace arises in our consciousness. When this happens, our attitude and response are significant. Do we attach some special value to this state and strive to retain it, or do we acknowledge it, become present to it and value it as any other state that might arise? The former response is motivated by the ego’s need for gratification, whereas the latter is consistent with being motivated by the inner flame, without ego interference.
The essence of the above questions is: “do we love truth for its own sake?” Such a question can be one of the most confronting inquiries we can engage with. If we find that the answer is “no”, and allow the truth of our “no” to be in our consciousness without judging it, this becomes (seemingly paradoxically) an example of loving the truth for its own sake! Almaas posits: “If you love truth for its own sake, the truth will free you. But if you hope the truth will free you, you cannot be free” (Almaas, 1989:71). This is a succinct, yet profound way of articulating how following the guidance of the inner flame is inextricably linked to falling in love with truth.
To conclude, when the inner flame deepens the longing to reconnect with Self, the therapeutic journey can be thought of as a journey of recovering this connection through ‘re-membering’: working at the level of the personality and ego self, exploring and healing the splits that have occurred in order to survive trauma and adversity in life and putting parts (members) together to create a synthesis. To this effect, psychosynthesis therapists work by cultivating an attitude similar to Maslow’s notion of re-sacralising, which he defined as “being willing, once again, to see a person under the aspect of eternity” (Maslow, 1968, quoted in Clarkson, 2002:122). It seems to me that when Maslow qualifies this definition with “once again”, he draws our attention to the inherent sacredness of the Self – ever present but not always honoured.
Making a difference to the lives of others connects therapists to the quality of service, as illustrated by Ferrucci (1995:135): “The basic expression of the Self is service, having nothing in common with trying to be good and seeking to help”. The therapist’s intention to kindle their own inner flame is what enables them to engage in the therapeutic relationship, being of service with integrity and humility.
Excerpt from the poem “In Praise of Fire” by John O’Donohue (2008)
Let us praise the grace and risk of Fire.
In the name of the Fire,
And the Light:
Praise the pure presence of fire
That burns from within
Without thought of time.
As fire cleanses dross,
May the flame of passion
Burn away what is false.
May we discover
Beneath our fear
Embers of anger
To kindle justice.
Cause our lives to flame,
In the name of the Fire,
And the Flame
And the Light.
Sophia Prevezanou is a psychosynthesis psychotherapist, an integrative supervisor and a student of the Diamond Approach. Alongside her clinical and supervision practice, she is a trainer at the Psychosynthesis Trust and The Minster Centre.
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Image: shadows and reflections by Jocelyn Kinghorn