Thursday, June 25, 2009

Kenneth Sørensen - Integral Psychosynthesis, a comparison of Wilber and Assagioli

My learning team presented for 45 minutes on the basics of psychosynthesis last night, and we barely scratched the surface of this immensely comprehensive psychological theory. I mentioned recently that I felt it was one of the first attempts at an integral psychology. This MA thesis by Kenneth Sørensen takes a look at Assagioli's model in the framework on Wilber's intergal theory in this article.

Be sure to check out the appendixes for some more material.

Integral Psychosynthesis, a comparison of Wilber and Assagioli

Integral Psychosynthesis
Integral Perspectives on Psychosynthesis

By Kenneth Sørensen, MA


This MA-study shows that Roberto Assagioli's original conception of Psychosynthesis is fully aligned with Ken Wilber's Integral Psychology. A careful research into all Assagioli's English publications gives clear evidence of Levels, Lines of development, States, Types and to some degree the four Quadrants.

It also demonstrates that John Firman/Ann Gila's adapted version of Psychosynthesis operates with a very different developmental model, when seen through an Integral lens. The study also explores the benefits of implementing the Integral Approach to Psychosynthesis psychotherapy.

All articles and interviews related with Assagioli has been made available in an online version here:

Background and acknowledgement
This article is an extended and adapted (two case studies is omitted) version of my MA Thesis from 2008 at the Psychosynthesis and Education Trust in London and the University of East London (formal award in June 2009). It is offered to the public with the hope that it can foster a deeper understanding of the Integral features of Psychosynthesis and perhaps facilitate an open debate about the future development of Psychosynthesis and for that matter: Integral psychotherapy.

I wish to thank John Firman and Ann Gila for permission to print his revised Egg Diagram, to Jean Hardy for allowing me to include her model and to Ken Wilber and Brad Reynolds for their contributions. I also wish to thank my tutor Martin Egan for many good advices and Annabritt Jakielski for proofreading it all.


This article will investigate the question: Is Psychosynthesis an Integral Psychology?

Ken Wilber is an influential writer in our time within the field of psychology and psychotherapy. His Integral Psychology provides a framework and an overall perspective on human develop­ment that is synthetic in its nature. Owing to its inclusive comprehensive developmental approach it may be argued that Integral Psychology resembles the approach of Psycho­synthesis. His model provides a method to examine or validate the integral nature of any psychotherapeutic discipline and this will be the main focus for this article in relation to Psychosynthesis.

Wilber works with five basic elements that characterise what he calls an Integral Approach and the AQAL model: Quadrants, Levels, Lines, States and Types, and through that lens I shall investigate whether or not Psychosynthesis is Integral.

I will take the five basic concepts one by one, define them and research into how well Psychosynthesis theory embodies the Integral features and how it can improve Psycho­syn­the­sis Psychotherapy.

It is a great challenge to cover such a comprehensive theory as Wilber’s on the basis of an article. Due to the broad focus that I have chosen, there are some limitations that I have to implement.

It will not be possible to have an in-depth discussion of all the details associated with the Integral status of Psychosynthesis; I will only give enough evidence to make an assumption based on a few relevant facts.

I will not investigate whether Wilber is correct in his assumptions about human development. I will take his findings for granted and focus on testing Psychosynthesis for its fulfilment of the Integral criteria as set out by Wilber.

This is not an article on Integral Psychology, so I will only define the broad perspectives in the Integral Approach in order to use it as a lens in my research.

In order to create a clear focus throughout this article, let me start with an outline of the essential conclusions from my research.

I will demonstrate that I have found several new aspects related to the nature of Psychosynthesis when I applied the Integral model. The most relevant new discoveries are found when we compare Assagioli’s and Firman/Gila’s writings. My conclusions so far are as follows:

  • There is not only one version of Psychosynthesis but at least two very different versions with respect to especially the developmental theory: Assagioli’s original conception and the revised one by Firman/Gila.
  • Assagioli’s version is a height psychological and hierarchical stage model where the self develops through higher and higher levels of consciousness. Firman/Gila’s version is more a depth psychological and a ‘healing the past and recovering the lost potential’ approach.
  • Assagioli’s version of Psychosynthesis includes all the five Integral elements in more or less degree, modern Psychosynthesis is only partly Integral and in Firman/Gila’s version almost none of the Integral concepts are found.
  • Assagioli is well aware of what Wilber calls the Pre/Trans Fallacy, the confusion of higher and lower consciousness. Firman/Gila’s version sometimes falls into this confusion when viewed through an Integral lens.
  • Applying the Integral model to Psychosynthesis, psychotherapy can help us define the hierarchical stages of development, identify the pathology on each level, avoid the Pre/Trans Fallacy, so we offer the appropriate type of therapeutic intervention to a given problem. This is crucial when deciding the type of therapeutic intervention in a clinical session and in order to create a more synthetic approach to human develop­ment.

In the following I will show that the above assumptions can be validated through a careful analysis of the research literature andby applying themto psychosynthesis psychotherapy.

Chapter One: Two Versions of Psychosynthesis

Roberto Assagioli’s Integral Thinking

Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974), the founder of Psychosynthesis, was a pioneer of his time. He was one of the first psychiatrists in Italy to endorse Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and at the same time pointed out its limitations. Later, he became a co-founder of Humanistic and Transpersonal psychology, and many years before Abraham Maslow he presented his own transpersonal concept of man.

Psychosynthesis is a broad and synthetic philosophical and psychological theory. Jean Hardy (1996: 95) argues that Psychosynthesis draws on inspiration from the Eastern as well as the Western spiritual and scientific traditions and in this way it resembles Wilber’s approach.

Assagioli (1975: 11) acknowledges the many sources that have inspired his own writings and outlines the many contributions from especially Western psychology in his first book Psychosynthesis. In Psychosynthesis he claims to offer a “more inclusive” and “plura­dimensional conception of the human personality” (Assagioli, 1975: 17) than many other approaches of his time. Assagioli (1975: 17) does so through his model of the psyche known as the Egg Diagram. Even though Assagioli prefers the metaphor of synthesis instead of “Integral”, I will argue that he actually points to many of the same philosophical concepts as Wilber does, when he uses the word “Integral.” Assagioli (1967a: 6) states:

“The position assumed by Psychosynthesis is a “synthetic” one. It thus appreciates and weighs the merits of all therapies, all methods and techniques of treatment, without preconceived preferences.”

We also find that Assagioli (1975: 20, 30, 66, 196) frequently writes about an “Integral vision”, “Integral education”, and the “Integral conception of the treatment.”

From this we can assume that at least Assagioli attempts to incorporate an Integral Approach in his writings, even though it does not measure up to the standards that Wilber defines. Let us now turn to Wilber’s (2000a: 659) consideration of Assagioli’s contribution to transpersonal psychology:

“Assagioli was an extraordinary pioneer in the transpersonal field, weaving together the best of many important psychological and spiritual traditions into a powerful approach to inner growth. Among many other contributions, he was one of the first to call for an integration of ‘depth psychology’ with what he called ‘height psychology’, and to combine ‘psychoanalysis’ with ‘Psychosynthesis’.

This could be the first suggestion, that at least Assagioli may fulfil some of the criteria of the Integral Map. It is now time to present the five Integral concepts one by one and see whether Psychosynthesis makes use of them.

According to Wilber (2000c: 5), levels of consciousness, also called The Great Nest of Being, are the backbone of the perennial philosophy and is therefore a “crucial ingredient of any truly Integral Psychology.” So let us see how Wilber defines this concept.

Levels of Consciousness According to Wilber

Wilber’s concept of levels is derived from what he calls the perennial philosophy or the common core of the world’s great spiritual traditions. Wilber (2000c: 5) argue that according to these traditions: “Reality is composed of various levels of existence, of being and of knowing, ranging from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit. Each senior dimension transcends but includes its juniors, so that this is a conception of wholes within wholes.” According to Huston Smith’s (1976: 4-5) research, the spiritual traditions agree in the existence of these levels, but disagree in how many levels there are, ranging from three to twelve. In Wilber’s writings he very often uses from three to sixteen levels according to the need of detail.

The diagram in The Great Chain of BeingFigure 1 (Right) attempts to portray how reality according to Wilber (2000c: 6) is composed of a hierarchy of levels, which he prefers to call holarchies, because the basic levels are holons (wholes within wholes) of consciousness. When the self moves through these basic levels of consciousness, as part of its evolutionary journey and development it experiences them as direct experiential realities, reaching from sensory experience to mental experience to spiritual experience. The development of the self is a vertical climb, using a height metaphor, through the different inner levels of reality and increasing complexity.

The levels are not rigid patterns of con­sci­ous­­ness but according to Wilber are more like the colours of the rainbow that inter­penetrate and grade into each other or like waves in the great river of life, through which its many streams run.

Wilber's conception of the levels is also supported by several theories of develop­mental psychology, including: Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, Maslow’s hier­archy of needs, Erikson’s stages of psycho­social development, and Jane Loe­vin­ger’s stages of ego development, to name but a few.

The premodern concept of levels and interior hierarchies are not easily accepted by modern and postmodern science even though they have been partly verified by the tradition and the above scientists. According to Smith (1976: 6) and Wilber (2000c: 61) the levels have been rejected because of a scientific materialism that only needs one ontological level: the physical!

Assagioli is also aware of the cultural hostility towards the term “higher.” He actively uses and appreciates Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Assagioli, 2002: 106-122) (This will be demonstrated in detail in Chapter II) and explains that the hostility is caused by a false moral valuation. Higher and lower are according to Assagioli often associated with an erroneous moral devaluation of “low” as something inferior to be repressed, when it simply just denote an earlier or more basic stage of development. Assagioli concurrently claims that a false democratic ideal of equality makes the concept of higher development problematic: “It seems … almost an insult to admit that there are people of a higher stature, psychologically and spiritually” (Assagioli, cited in Besmer: 1973-74: 219).

It seems that Assagioli and Wilber both defend the hierarchical construct of reality even though it is unpopular, but Assagioli does more than that: he very explicitly refers to levels of consciousness.

Levels of Consciousness in Assagioli’s Writings

When reading through all of Assagioli’s published writings in English (books, articles and interviews) there can be no doubt that “levels of consciousness” is an important concept in his thinking even though he very seldom specifies the inner worlds.

Assagioli’s (1975: 17) definition of the levels is almost always kept on a general level and specified broadly through his Egg Diagram. He presents this diagram in his first book: Psychosynthesis, and in it he discriminates between three vertical levels: the lower, middle and higher unconscious. I present it in detail below, when I compare Firman/Gila’s change in the Egg with Assagioli’s original conception. But for now, let me demonstrate in the following how he presumably hints at the levels and directly defines them.

It seems that Assagioli (1975: 18, 28, 37, 38, 44, 45, 113, 198. 1993: 28- 29, 32-53), throughout his writings repeatedly refers in general to the Great Chain of Being when he talks about the different psychological “levels”, realms” andregions of consciousness.” In Psycho­synthesis he uses poetic language and metaphors to make his point:

“Between the starting points in the lowlands of our ordinary consciousness and the shining peak of Self-realisation there are intermediate phases, plateaus at various altitudes on which a man may rest or even make his abode” (Assagioli, 1975: 24).

It is in his book Transpersonal Development, published after his death, that we find some of his most spiritual articles and a full explanation of his concept of the inner worlds or levels of consciousness:

“The third group of symbols, a frequently occurring one, is that of elevation, ascent or conquest of the ‘inner space’ in an ascending sense. There are a series of inner worlds, each with its own special characteristics, and within each of them there are higher levels and lower levels. Thus in the first of these, the world of passions and feelings, there is a great distance, a marked disparity of level, between blind passion and the highest feelings. Then there is the world of intelligence, or the mind. Here too are different levels: the level of the concrete analytical mind, and the level of higher, philosophical reason (nous). There is also the world of the imagination, a lower variety and a higher variety, the world of intuition , the world of the will, and higher still, those indescribable worlds which can only be referred to by the term ‘worlds of transcendence’ (Assagioli, 1993: 92).

Here Assagioli is aligned with Wilber and the perennial philosophy in his cosmological conception of the inner levels of consciousness and The Great Chain of Being.

Jean Hardy (1996: 195) also comes to the conclusion that: “One source of knowledge for Assagioli is certainly what Huxley calls “the perennial philosophy”’’. In her book A Psychology With A Soul, which has become a Psychosynthesis classic, she acknowledges the influence on Assagioli from e.g. Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism and Theosophy (Hardy, 1993: 115) and states that they all adhere to levels of consciousness.

Imagination, the picture making faculty in man, is according to Assagioli a synthetic psychological function that can ‘operate at several levels concurrently; those of sensation, feeling, thinking and intuition’ (1975: 143). In the above quote Assagioli emphasises the higher aspect of imagination and that is presumably why he places it after the mental level. Wilber suggests the same span for imagination (1999a: 130). In Wilber’s (2000c: 62) AQAL diagram (see figure 12) the lower and higher aspects of imagination is associated with the stages he calls symbol and vision-logic. There seems to be a close parallel between the two thinkers in this regard.

In order to visualise Assagioli’s Great Chain of Being, I have created the summary diagram (Figure 2 - Below), which stresses six important points that Assagioli upholds:


a. Higher levels are higher frequencies of energies that interpenetrate the lower levels (Assagioli, 1975: 199-200)

b. Higher levels transcend but include the lower (Assagioli, 1993: 197)

c. There exists a natural exchange of energies between all levels (Assagioli, 1993: 265, 2002: 62)

d. All levels are reflected on the physical level (e.g. through the brainwaves and behaviour), because matter is the lowest level of the hierarchy.[2]

e. Within each level there exist higher and lower frequencies of energies (Assagioli, 1993: 92, 2002: 98-99)

d. He also suggests that the various levels of reality or energy fields each have their own qualities, powers and laws that need to be mastered by the ascending soul (Assagioli, 1993: 161-62, Undated 2: 9).

Wilber’s first book was called The Spectrum of Consciousness; a term Assagioli (1993: 93) also used to describe the inner levels, when quoting the Psychiatrist Urban.

In Figure 2 I have also suggested a preliminary compari­son between Wilber’s 10 basic levels and those of Assagioli.[3]

Transcend and Include, Myth of The Given

In the introduction we touched on Wilber’s concept of the higher levels always including the lower. Assagioli (1993: 197) comes to exactly the same conclusion that “these ever wider spheres of spiritual life do not cancel or exclude the preceding ones, indeed they assume them.”

When defining the actual structure of the levels, Wilber (2002: 163) stresses the need to be aware of the myth of the given and to integrate the post-modernistic concept of constructivism. Reality is not a pre-given factor but in many ways a cultural interpretation and this also applies to the levels. Many of the pre-modern descriptions of the levels (inhabited by deities and angels) are coloured by the historical and often mythic epoch in which the sage actually experienced them. This in no way cancels the reality of the levels, but we need to be careful with the interpretation of them. Assagioli (1993: 21-22, 65-66, 141-142) agrees wholeheartedly with this.

According to Wilber (2002: 12) the higher levels are rather potentials than a pregiven mold, a developmental space, “still plastic, still open to being formed as more and more people coevolve into them.”

This is also a concept Assagioli (2002: 49-50) upholds. He discriminates between the plastic and conditioned part of the unconscious. There is a large part of the unconscious that has not yet been exposed to stimuli, and he considers it to be like an inexhaustible store of unexposed photographic film.

I believe that I have demonstrated that Assagioli in his original conception of Psychosynthesis works with levels, but for some reason he chooses to be very vague about the cosmological features of it expressed through the Great Chain of Being; perhaps because of the “hostility” toward hierarchies in the academic environment that made him cautious. This I have not clarified. Let us now see how modern Psychosynthesis deals with this issue.

No Great Chain of Being In Modern Psychosynthesis

When reading through some of the most influential Psychosynthesists the picture gets quite clear. According to my research nobody within the Psychosynthesis community has ever implemented the Great Chain of Being in their theoretical conception of Psychosynthesis. This is quite astonishing, because several writers are well aware of this concept, but never use it.

Let me start by qualifying that statement. All of the psychosynthesists that I have researched into, apply the three general levels outlined in the Egg Diagram (see discussion below). In this way they have a clear discrimination between three vertical levels in the personality. All of them, except Firman/Gila (2002: 195, n.5) believe in a natural unfolding development from the lower unconscious to the middle unconscious to the higher and transpersonal unconscious (Whitmore 2004: 6, Parfitt 2006: 24, Hardy: 30, Ferrucci: 43, Brown: 26). In this way they adhere to a stage progression through higher and higher levels of consciousness and align themselves with the Integral Approach.

What they do not do, according to my research, is to postulate a cosmological and collective worldview with a Great Chain of Being. The modern psychosynthesists seem to operate within an individual framework and they only define three general levels, which give a very gross stage conception and an unclear perception of how the levels of consciousness are actually created and what types of energies can be found there, when seen through the Integral lens.

The traditions and Wilber/Assagioli argue that the levels of consciousness are collective and ontological developmental patterns of growth created by Spirit when it descended into matter and created the universe. This is called involution and will be explained below. This is the territory all individual souls will develop through from subconscious to self-conscious and superconscious.

Hardy, as mentioned, fully acknowledges the hierarchical approach in Psychosynthesis and several times points to the Great Chain of Being, but she does not make this explicit when presenting Psychosynthesis theory.

Similarly, Parfitt (2006: 134) is also well aware that Assagioli is influenced by Theosophy and the seven dimensions or levels of existence. Parfitt also uses the Kabbalah to explain Psychosynthesis. Kabbalah is the mystical aspect of Judaism and in this system there is also an inherent notion of the Great Chain of Being. Parfitt never implements this in his presentation of Psychosynthesis, although he operates with the three general levels. He actually contradicts it, when he introduces the idea that the Self (Universal Consciousness) can be found at all levels of existence. (Parfitt, 2006: 229) This is not compatible with the theory of emanation or involution, a core concept in Kabbalah and the perennial philosophy, which explains how the Great Chain of Being has been created and what types of energies that according to that theory can be found in the lower levels.

Neither Piero Ferrucci, Diana Whitmore, Molly Young Brown nor Bonney Gulino Schaub and Richard Schaub use the Great Chain of Being in their presentations. But they all use the three general levels.

John Firman and Ann Gila are two of the most influential writers on Psychosynthesis theory today and have contributed many new additions to Assagioli’s theory. Many of the concepts they introduce are not in line with Assagioli’s original thoughts on e.g. how the Self develops and the nature of the levels of consciousness which I will demonstrate during this article.

I will give their version of Psychosynthesis a prominent role when researching into the Integral nature of Psychosynthesis in modern time. Firman/Gila (2000c: 5) are the only writers who directly reject the vertical development through the levels of consciousness:

“We do not strive for particular experiences of unity, do not aspire to climb some ladder of enlightenment” (2007: 24), and in another important quote by Firman/Gila (2004: 8): “The stage model of Psychosynthesis is not a ladder we climb rung by rung, nor one we climb once and for all time.”

Throughout their work Firman/Gila (2004: 8) are not in favour of a transcendent worldview with heavenly realms, they seem neither to believe in Assagioli’s (1975: 211) “shining regions above” nor in his fascination with Dante’s Divine Comedy, ending in Unity and Paradise.

From the above it seems that we can assume that Assagioli himself acknowledges the Great Chain of Being, and this will be emphasised in another quote below, while modern Psychosynthesis only has a limited use of it and Firman/Gila reject it.

Let us now turn our attention to involution; another of the inherent metaphysical assumptions in Wilber’s Integral Psychology. It is a crucial concept to grasp in order to understand e.g. the inconsistency between Firman/Gila’s version of Psychosynthesis and Assagioli’s. They claim that the higher Self (universal consciousness) also can be found in the lower unconscious, this is not compatible with involution as will be demonstrated now.

Involution – The Great Descent Of Spirit Into Matter

In Wilber’s (1999a: 626) book Up from Eden he outlines the concept of involution in Figure 3 - Below. When Spirit creates and incarnates in the universe or envelops into matter, he calls this process involution or emanation. Involution is in this respect the whole downward movement, whereby Spirit loses and forgets itself in successively lower levels and in this way becomes immanent in creation. But the immanence of Spirit is only a pale reflection of the original spiritual source and when it steps down into matter, which is the densest, lowest, least conscious form of Spirit, it is almost not recognisable (Wilber, 2003: 5-6).


The well-known statement that all is One or what Wilber calls One Taste is only true on the highest Non-Dual level, up till then our union with Spirit is more or less unconscious according to the level of consciousness we are identified with. The higher we climb the closer we get to Non-Dual consciousness and Unity. That’s why Firman/Gila’s claim that the Self can be found in the lower unconscious are not compatible with this philosophy.

From an individual point of view, we as spirits do exactly the same prior to physical birth. According to Wilber (1999a: 250-253), drawing on the Tibetan book of the Dead, we descend from the spiritual regions until we reach the plane of physical birth. After physical birth we, as unconscious spirit, reverse the direction and the inner spiritual nature in the child (inherent in matter) will now, through the stages subconscious, self-conscious, and superconscious, attempt to return to the source, to Spirit. This process is called evolution.

According to my research, Assagioli’s cosmological concept of creation, involution and evolution is fully aligned with Wilber’s version. Assagioli actually writes a lot on these abstruse matters, but I will not go into a deep consideration of all his metaphysical thoughts. I have included some of the most important in an extract in Appendix 1.

For now I will briefly demonstrate that he actually works with involution also called emanation. Assagioli believes that the transcendent Spirit is one and that it can only be defined by what it is not, but as soon as Spirit creates the universe, duality arises between Spirit and matter. In a paragraph where Assagioli (1993: 251) speaks of the “great principle of involution or emanation” he defines it:

”From a basic, original absolute reality, a series of levels of life, intellect, feeling and material life has developed, through gradual differentiation, to the point of inorganic matter. Thus every quality or attribute of the eternal world, of matter itself, and of the countless different creatures is but a pale, obscure reflection of a quality or attribute of the spiritual Reality, the Divine Being.”

This quote demonstrates how Assagioli considers the creation of the levels of consciousness to have happened through involution. Assagioli (1993: 85-86, 102) also considers this process to be true in relation to the individual soul and uses the Biblical parable of the prodigal son to explain the individual cycle of involution and evolution. The soul descends from the star (in his Egg Diagram) in the form of a reflection (the personal “I”) and forgets its origin, but after the long process of going astray in all kinds of “wrong” directions it remembers its father’s house, it searches for it and finds it.

But how does modern Psychosynthesis relate to this concept? I have found no evidence whatsoever, that any of the modern writers have included the concept of involution. Firman/Gila (2004:3) are the only writers who consciously address the question and they reject it: “Human beings are intrinsically at home in the cosmos. We are not visitors from another dimension, alienated and seeking our way home.”

But according to Assagioli (1993: 102) the opposite is the case. He believes with his own words in an: “emanatistic theory of the soul, descending, becoming one with matter, and then returning to its “home”, the heavenly homeland.”

How does this discrepancy in relation to levels of consciousness and involution affect the developmental theory of Assagioli and Firman/Gila? This will be the next research area.

Read the whole thesis.

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