Roberto Assagioli’s Quest to Understand the Soul

The most glorious and uplifting experiences of my life have presented themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. One such memorable experience occurred during the many days that I spent researching the personal archives of Roberto Assagioli in Florence, Italy, at Casa Assagioli. His home is the headquarters of the Istituto di Psicosintesi.

For the rooms of Casa Assagioli radiated an extraordinary energy of peacefulness that I rarely have experienced elsewhere. A space that still radiated such transcendent energy says something profound, so many years after his passing in 1974, about the type of person who once lived and worked there.

Does the experience of inner peace seem out of reach to you? Does the attainment of world peace seem utterly impossible? I suggest that what is important, to make meaning of life and our purpose here on Earth, are not the goals for inner and outer peace, but instead consciously making the effort to take the journey towards them.

Assagioli’s quest to understand the human soul, and how to find inner peace, I can tell you was hard won. Below I will relate a poignant episode in his life that might have terminated the capacity for love and forgiveness in a less developed soul.

Inner peace is not based on material comfort. Rather, it is the experience of serenity despite the person’s material and/or surrounding circumstances. Serenity resides in the soul, and deepens in accordance with one’s capacity for forgiveness and willingness to bestow love and compassion on fellow beings.

Is that not the message in the Christian remembrance of Easter? In the biblical story, despite the persecution that led to the crucifixion of Christ, He died on the Cross with forgiveness in His heart. How consciously do we practice forgiveness toward anyone who has transgressed us?

Forgiving in itself is a journey that can take years of effort. It requires a process of letting go the emotional and spiritual pain sufficiently and be able, eventually, to feel as if a great weight upon one’s heart had lifted, through developing compassion.

This time of year also is the Jewish celebration of Passover, another biblical narrative. The story, again, unfolds from the human experience of persecution, in relating the epic journey called the Exodus, taken by ancient Israelites freed from slavery in Egypt. The remembrance, as in the best intentions of religious rituals, brings to consciousness our more edifying, spiritual qualities as human beings, such as humility, grace, gratitude and honouring one’s cultural ancestors and cultural histories.

The essence of celebrations of any religious faith and spiritual path, whether exoteric or esoteric, is to offer ritualized opportunities to awaken an intentional mind and a loving heart. Awakening, of course, is a choice always available to exercise personally at any moment throughout the year and, again and again, throughout a lifetime.

Personal narratives of courage and compassion offer us remarkable examples as well (as I have mentioned in earlier blog posts), to inspire and fortify us when we feel paralyzed by personal or world troubles.

Let us look at Assagioli’s plight. The Fascists considered Assagioli, a Jewish/Italian psychiatrist and intellectual, to be threatening, because of his anti-war and internationalist views, according to Assagioli’s student and collaborator Piero Ferrucci. In his book What We May Be: Techniques for Psychological and Spiritual Growth through Psychosynthesis (1982), Ferrucci, psychotherapist and author, cites Assagioli’s description about how he coped with imprisonment – indeed, solitary confinement – in order to withstand the Fascists’ efforts to break his spirit:

“I could rebel inwardly and curse; or I could submit passively, vegetating; or I could indulge in the unwholesome pleasure of self-pity and assume the martyr’s role; or I could take the situation in a sporting way and with a sense of humor, considering it as a novel and interesting experience… I could make of it a rest cure or a period of intense thinking… about scientific and philosophical problems; or I could take advantage of the situation to undertake personal psychological training: or, finally, I could make it into a spiritual retreat. I had the clear, pure perception that this was entirely my own affair; that I was free to choose any or several of these attitudes and activities; that this choice would have unavoidable effects which I could foresee and for which I was fully responsible. There was no doubt in my mind about this essential freedom and power and their inherent privileges and responsibilities” [p. 115].

Friends of Assagioli were able to liberate him and his son, Ilario, from the prison in Rome. Both of them subsequently hid in the woods for an extended period, to avoid being shipped to the Nazi death camps. Tragically, the relentless persecution, and the exposure to the elements, eventually took their toll on Ilario, a frail lad, and Roberto Assagioli lost his only child.

What is remarkable, given that heartbreaking loss – and why Assagioli’s example continues to provide enlightenment – is that he never gave up his vision of possible world peace someday. He continued his life’s work as a psycho-therapeutic and spiritual helper to those who came to him for teaching and guidance, and also pursued his writings.

That is why I decided that Assagioli’s life story ought to be mapped in a documentary film, and why I travelled to Italy, and did trips to the United States, to gather extensive preliminary research, confirm several future on-camera interview subjects and get legal permissions, through 2005 and 2006. Up to mid-2008, I made several efforts to get interest from broadcasters and fellow producers, spending many months on the preparation of funding proposals – with no success. Federal cuts to the arts in Canada in 2008, and the global economic downturn, have undermined our documentary industry, as has the increased TV broadcaster focus on commercial profits in programming choices.

The paradox today for many documentary filmmakers like me, who want to write, direct and produce meaningful stories pertinent to our time, is that conventional funding has largely disappeared, while at the same time growing audiences want to see serious documentaries. Therefore, we filmmakers currently are exploring and re-inventing how to finance our work, and also distributing to venues and media platforms beyond television.

So, while forced to figure out how to pay the bills at all in this economy, regardless, I absolutely am not giving up on the further development, and eventual production, of my film on Roberto Assagioli. Indeed, it took four years of persistent fundraising to complete my first film on a culturally important, yet under-recognized, Canadian subject in Soop on Wheels. However, Assagioli’s film story is an international project that requires shooting in Italy, the United States, and England where he travelled frequently in his work.

His story deserves cinematic attention. Moreover, Assagioli’s legacy continues to evolve through practitioners internationally today. The reason speaks to the beauty of his soul in its humility. For he characterized his contributions as “in development,” and welcomed future generations of psychosynthesis practitioners to develop further the insights that he bequeathed to humanity.

I fully believe the project of our time is the evolution of consciousness, at multiple levels from the personal to the global. Roberto Assagioli’s vision embodies that project, as does the vision of Wangari Maathai as she defined it in her Nobel Peace Prize speech cited in my previous blog post.

Meanwhile, what human beings can, and do, accomplish every day, through acts of free will grounded in love, is amazing. Such simple actions of caring rather than indifference represent taking steps forward in that evolution.

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