Interview with Dr. Piero Ferrucci A version in Norwegian was published in Psykosyntese 2015.
“The will is democratic!” Professor Ferrucci looks poignantly at me. Mind you, he is not only the author of many Psychosynthesis books, the direct student of Roberto Assagioli, and a long-term psychotherapist of Fiesole outside Firenze. Piero Rosso Ferrucci is also a citizen of Italia, a country with a particularly troubled, most colourful history of dictatorships and brutal wilful masters, sometimes strolling into fascism, which goes back thousands of years.
“Life may not be fair – some are born poor, others rich, some in good health, others in sickness, some powerful, others weak, some appear beautiful, others not…some people are just luckier than others. However, the will is really for everybody, even for those who find themselves at the very bottom of things.
“Persons who are just not very lucky can develop their will. It may not be possible for all to become very rich or powerful overnight but it is in our power to become more wilful, more capable, taking more meaningful decisions, become constructive. And that makes us equal, and it is good that it is so.”
In 1968, after completing studies in philosophy at the university in Torino, Piero left old Italia to visit his aunt Laura, the then widow of British author and celebrator of expanded consciousness Aldous Huxley, in Summer of Love-stricken California. Laura was heavily into the Human Potential Movement of the day so the visiting nephew got ample opportunity to acquaint himself with various methods and techniques for realizing higher and deeper states of human consciousness and being. While spending time at Esalen, the then hotbed of all things new, weird and wonderful, Piero met people who knew of Dr. Roberto Assagioli and his ideas, so much that when he returned to Italy the year after he presented himself at Assagioli’s institute in Firenze. The rest is history; Piero stayed put, studying and working with the old master until Assagioli’s passing in 1974.
“He invited me to study with him and I decided I would. It was a very fruitful time for me. We are six or seven persons here in Italy who received this inheritance of Psychosynthesis, and I am one of them, the students who knew and studied with Assagioli.”
So here we are, 40 years on, in Piero’s astounding studio in Fiesole, a hilly village overlooking Firenze some 20 minutes drive away. In addition to the climb from the regional capital, those seeking consultation will have to ascend the steep staircases of an old three-stories house. The rewards are most visible: A 270-degree view of magnificent Tuscan scenery. On the ground floor there is a small caffeterria facing the village road winding its way further up hill. There is little, in this loft studio looking out and away from the village, which calls civilization to mind. With its large windows opening to infinite expanse, Piero’s office has a definite aura of timeless simplicity to it. Most thinkers and eremites throughout history may have fared worse.
“I got this place right after Assagioli’s death,” Piero declares quietly, staring out in the direction of the nearby township of Sesto quite possibly, perhaps all the way to busy Prato, Tuscany’s textile power house and second in command to Firenze, where the Bisanzio river twists and turns its way to join the great Arno downstream of the Renaissance capital.
“And after marrying my wife Vivien (of Australia, the current translator of his books) we established our home in another area of Firenze where our two sons still live with us, one a pianist, the other a mathematician. All the while I kept renting here, and one day the opportunity to buy presented itself,” he smiles, looking further around, evidently contented.
“After Assagioli’s passing we continued to teach and develop Psychosynthesis. The good thing about Psychosynthesis is that it is not a dogma. It is more like a seed that can be developed, applied, explored, so that all possibilities may be found in each one of Assagioli’s teachings.”
Is it happening – the exploration, the findings, the realisations?
“I think so. If we compare Psychosynthesis of today to what it was back in the 1970s, I think it has developed. Various factors, institutes and journals have evolved to take up and develop various aspects of Psychosynthesis. For instance, Assagioli elaborated on the value beauty. Since long beauty had been of little concern to conventional psychology but it played a significant role in Psychosynthesis right from the beginning. I therefore decided to write a book about beauty but my book has only gone so far. Today’s neuroscience for instance carries this work still further. Therefore we decided to organise a conference on beauty coming Friday in the marvellous library in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which itself is a place of great beauty.
“The subject of beauty is very relevant to therapy. Contact with beauty heals people, stimulates them, and changes the way they relate to other people, evokes all kinds of ideas. Beauty touches us and the contact with it doesn’t leave us unchanged.
“The developing branch of neuroaesthetics shows that beauty has a clear correlation with brain activity. I do believe there is such a thing as aesthetic intelligence, a capacity to perceive beauty in a piece of music, a painting, a person’s inner beauty, poetry, nature, and so on. Some people have more aesthetic intelligence and others less. It could be a boon if we learn how to develop this intelligence, it would make people happier.
“In fact, extensive research was carried out in Norway on the effect of reading books, visiting exhibitions, seeing movies, going to the library, concerts – what it does to people. I think they involved some 50.000 people in that research. A main finding was that people who enter into such activities, which are of course closely related to beauty, are happier, live longer, are healthier. So beauty stands to be measured, the effects of it.”
Clearly, having being born and raised in the heartland of the Italian Renaissance hasn’t harmed Psychosynthesis either. Piero himself was born in Torino. Indeed, Piero’s ancestry includes Francesco Ferrucci, a celebrated Italian hero who defended Firenze against imperial forces in the 16th Century.1 Piero himself may be termed a planetary thinker. The autobiographic material on his personal website is titled The Spheres of Indra:
“One of my strongest convictions is that we are constituted by other people: the relationships we have had in our life form the very fabric of our being. This means that our parents, friends, colleagues and teachers, and all the other people with whom we have interacted, live inside us. Others are in us, we are in others: it is like the heavens of the Indian god Indra, where glistening spheres mirror one another, and also mirror the mirroring, and so on to infinity.”
The will, which is the subject of your latest book, is it a power?
“You won’t find the expression willpower in that book. Willpower has often been thought of as coercion; many regularly think of it in some fascist way, they associate it with effort, sternness. That is not what will is in Psychosynthesis and in my work.
“First of all, will is about finding your centre. This is very different from willing from another point in you, such as a sad place, a depressed place. In your centre you have your sanctuary, a timeless place. If we are not in touch with that then we are in trouble. At night, if a person is away without a reference point to find the way home, he or she may have to sleep under a bridge, or anywhere subject to unpredictable circumstances. Being off centre means to be imbalanced, and willing from a place in us other than our centre may not only be useless but outright harmful.
“Psychologically, such a person would shift from one emotion to the other, one stimuli here, another there, skip from one event to another…life would just be scattered without having learnt to come back to ourselves, here and now, to a place where we are in some way protected, where we are at centre irrespective of the state or circumstances we are in. There we are in peace, we cannot be pushed around, not in a hurry. When we cannot do that we soon get tired and restless.
This personal centre sounds like a very good idea. How does one get to that place?
Well, luckily these are not just words. There are plenty of exercises on how to get there that you can find in most books on Psychosynthesis that are around. ‘The Temple of Silence’ is one such exercise. You close your eyes and imagine you find a temple where there is complete silence. Upon entering that temple you enter into that silence, listen to that silence, and become that silence. If you do that you will probably be closer to your centre and carry out real act of wills with genuine meaning and purpose.
Are such exercises to be done with some regularity?
“Some people really enjoy inner work, meditation and so on. Then there are others who do not enjoy such things. They may be more extroverted, they do not believe in, have never experienced it, and do not feel that such exercises are suited to them. People like that may do other things. For instance, if they go for a pleasant hike in nature, or if they have a vegetable garden to take care of, it would be something similar and akin to meditation on silence and one’s centre.”
Your own book on the will (see end of article) is distinctly different from Assagioli’s The Act of Will. How did you arrive at its structure and main concepts, such as ‘breathing’, ‘finding one’s centre’, ‘freedom’, ‘depth’, etc.?
“Look, I didn’t want to just repeat what Assagioli said, and I don’t think he would have liked that either. He did not like ‘parrots’. To me, the substance of what he said is most important. The content of my book emerged as a result of my own exploration – within myself, from working with clients, going through scientific literature, and more. Assagioli, in his day, stated that the will was the ‘Cinderella of modern psychology’. Today we wouldn’t say that because research on will has taken off. Maybe it’s not always called will, but ‘executive function’, ‘autonomy’, ‘self-causation’, etc., which is basically the same thing.
“Also, at the time of Assagioli, if you went to academia with the message that the brain changes, they would simply contradict it and say that ‘the brain doesn’t work that way, it stops changing after adolescence’. Today, we know that the brain changes plastically throughout life, a quality Assagioli ascribed to the unconscious. Today we know that human beings and our brains are plastic in the sense of being mouldable, malleable. In this sense, as in numerous other ways, Assagioli was a prophet, ahead of his time.
“Yes, the brain and our consciousness change all the time. There was a huge gap between psychology and neurophysiology back then. I have written a paper on it.2 Whether or not we may become able to use more of our brain, still today we all use it in different ways. It has become quite clear to present thinkers and practitioners that we may direct our own evolution, such as when generating greater love, greater awareness, greater intelligence, creativity, sense of beauty, improved relationships, better ways of using our mind, capacity to reflect – there are so many possibilities.»
Thinkers such as Martha Crampton situated new frontiers within the Psychosynthesis framework and developed new exercises to go with it. At the same time Assagioli’s core exercises remain fundamental due to their ability to go deep and harness great strengths. At some point it even came to pass that the original disidentification exercise generated some sort of controversy within Psychosynthesis circles. How is that?
“Yes, one reason why disidentification sometimes evokes resistance in people is because it incurs some type of death. Not death in the funeral sense, but in the sense that if you want to change from what you have been you need to allow the new to spring forth. This is akin to what Zen calls allowing room for your original being from before birth; a free, contentless state, which is a good starting point to build on, our centre.
“Another reason why people resist disidentification is that it goes against their ideas. It seems absurd to them: ‘What – I am not my body! What are you talking about??’ But this is because they remain identified with their ideas including the idea of living in the body one way or the other. If one would be able to disidentify from such reactions to the exercise it would be very helpful as it would strengthen one’s ability to disidentify from one’s habitual ideas.”
Is there an element of fear of dissociation in it?
“Well, dissociation is something that happens involuntarily and unconsciously. Such as when something happens to me and I use this defence mechanism and say that it really didn’t happen, this does not belong to me, etc. But this is something altogether different from disidentification; rather it is quite the opposite. It is true that it can be very important for us to go deeper into our body, be our body, be our emotions, be our fears, be our ideas… In fact, this becomes much easier if we are already familiar with practising disidentification. We may then be able to just jump into it and then jump out of it – it is important to move on!
“Difficulties start when we get stuck in a rut – always the same feelings, same reactions, pain, mental habit. The concept of ‘false self’ comes to mind; the officially recognized, commonly accepted social self, so to speak, that gives us an acceptable identity and power. Now, if I can see that I am not that, I may temporarily have had such a reaction: ‘What do you mean I am not a professor! I have worked hard all my life to be a professor and now you say I am not. So what am I then??’ That would be sort of panicky for most professionals. Still, it is important, essential, to see that the professor is just a vehicle. It’s like having a car and you use that car and you go wherever you want – but you are not that car. Otherwise, when you retire and you are not a professor anymore, you would get into trouble. Many people get into such trouble when the role they have been so much into slips away from them due to temporal, spatial, personal changes and so on.
Does all this mean that anyone who finds their centre also find their will?
At least they find a possibility of willing. It is also true that if you will, you sort of feel unified, you feel that you have come back to yourself. Willing means returning to your centre: Whenever I want to come back to my centre, I do an act of will and I do something new and genuine. You sense that subjectively, you are awake, powerful, you are in charge. You are not decided by something or someone else. You are in control, in touch with your inner strength.
More than four decades have passed since Assagioli published his magnus opus on the will (1973) and there hasn’t really been much fresh Psychosynthesis literature on the will until your book now (2014). Has this been a long pregnancy for you, or did you return to the will only recently, having written much other material in the meantime?
“I have always worked on the will, even in my practice, and I knew that sooner or later I would write a book on it. My books start a long time before their writing. But I had much less affinity with the will than with the other two main subjects of my recent literary work: kindness and beauty. In some ways they were easier to write. And the book on children was written when I spent much time with my own little children. It was like writing a diary of those days. And so it was with kindness and beauty, as they are subjects naturally close to my heart.
“The will, important as it is, has been a different cup of tea however. I myself am not a particularly wilful person. Nonetheless, I recognize the value and importance of the will. So it was more of an uphill task for me – my will project, to use an Assagiolean term. I had to think more about it and use the exercises to get around it. And I think for all of us here in the West, not the least in Italy, deep down we have ambivalence towards the will, a deep-set suspicion that battles with Psychosynthesis’ assurances that the will is not authoritarian. So while working on this book I had to look at my own resistances and then I was able to write the book, and I decided to write the other books first.”
So this particular book is not a labour of love?
“No-no, it is a labour of love, absolutely! For me writing is both hard work and I love doing it. And I love getting into a sort of state of being, I keep thinking on things for long time and then it clicks. But here I had to continue this process for a longer time. The concepts of kindness and beauty were more natural to me. Perhaps this book on the will is a more mature work, as I had to go deeper into the process to write it.”
Writing is by necessity partly or wholly a solitary process. What do you have to say on being alone and not feeling lonely?
“Well, these days I have of course a family and have had it for so many years, but even before that I lived on my own and spent much time like that. It is a question of character, I think. Some of us enjoy immensely being immersed in people, chatting, relating, and spending time with others. Still, I think we all need some time to ourselves and I believe that need is not recognized properly in our society. This is also why some people get into trouble, they get sick as they have no time to breath fully, to be themselves, on their own, to think by themselves. Possibly I have that need to a very high degree. Perhaps I was a monk in my past life – or not!
“Relating it back to the subject of disidentification, when you do that properly even your inner realities somehow become externalized, as you dive deeper into your existential core. I suppose disidentification becomes an easier task for a person who is as introverted as I am. I enjoy being with people but I have an extremely strong need to spend time to myself. And as I said, I think we all have that need and it will help us to lead a more balanced life. It would be the path to the realisation of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship.”
You begin the book with the chapter on Freedom…
“Yes, the will is free will, that which makes us responsible; allows to choose between good and bad, the ideas we want to support, how we want to relate to other people. It is something to be taken very seriously, for if we don’t feel free we will become sick. So I thought that should come first, and then the chapter on centring. That is where to start. Then the chapter on depth; today we live our lives on the surface. I thought that was needed. The state of grace ends it. There is this dualism; people say: I don’t want to cultivate the will. I just want to be and enjoy the grace. But that doesn’t happen all the time, only in special moments. We should first of all be able to function well in everyday life, then grace will come.”
There are so many wonderful stories in this book, in every chapter, from all over the world, from all kinds of traditions.
“You know, stories have been with mankind since very early on. First we came up with fire, and then we sat down around it and started to tell stories. Hanging around is not exactly a new thing…and that was probably when language started. Telling stories is the story of our evolution! That’s why we are so enticed and attracted by storytelling. And that is probably when we started to become really human. So yes, I love stories and I see that when I tell a story people get more attentive, it keeps people awake during my lectures.
“I hope these stories and my book will inspire others to do the work. Reading is never enough. One has to apply oneself and make the effort, the sadhana as it is called in Sanskrit. Just as we make time for eating, cleaning, exercise, etc. there should be time for devoting ourselves to inner work. I am sure in future, just as we do not go to bed nowadays without brushing teeth, etc. people would feel uneasy if going to sleep without having disidentified properly from worries and other troubles that occurred through the day. ‘Oh, I don’t want to take these things with me into my sleep! Let me be carefree and properly relaxed…’ I think they will reflect in that way and that day will come soon, I think.”
Piero Ferrucci’s latest book Your Inner Will; Finding Strength in Critical Times is available from general bookstores. Interview and photos by Trond Øverland at Fiesole, Tuscany, 3 October 2014. © Psykosyntese 2015
1 The interested reader may find more material on Piero and his work, including some stunning floral photography, on his personal web site.
2 Psychosynthesis in the light of neuroscience (2012). www.pieroferrucci.it/neuroscience.html