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'Being Relational' in Aotearoa New Zealand

Photo: Chris Sisarich


The New Zealand Chapter of the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy invited 6 psychotherapists to speak to this theme at a day-long seminar, in September 2014. This was the presentation I gave as a psychosynthesis practitioner.

Assagioli,1 in speaking of psychosynthesis said:

It is a scientific conception, and as such it is neutral towards the various religious forms and the various philosophical doctrines, excepting only those which are materialistic and therefore deny the existence of spiritual realities. Psychosynthesis does not aim nor attempt to give a metaphysical nor a theological explanation of the great Mystery – it leads to the door, but stops there.

Assagioli, like Freud, was a neurologist – and understood that to have his system of psychological thought accepted within the relatively new discipline of psychology, he needed to position it as a scientific approach that was ‘empirical and phenomenological’. Assagioli included the spiritual dimension of life because he considered an analysis only of ‘the basement of the human being’ as a limited enquiry. But really, it is an impossible task to talk coherently about spirituality if it is constrained within the dominant Cartesian-Newtonian scientific paradigm. It is hard to talk about spiritual realities, this has long been acknowledged in religious and spiritual traditions. It is hard to speak about what is invisible, to know its identity.

Transpersonal psychology, which emerged in the 1960’s, did attempt to do this. It tried to focus on ‘humanity’s highest potential, and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual, and transcendent states of consciousness.’ It used the epistemic strategy of privileging individual experience as a valid means of knowing through consensual validation of an ultimate spiritual reality. These knowledge claims were grounded in the perennial philosophy. This is the doctrine that holds there is a single eternal Truth that underlies the apparent plurality of spiritual traditions. And though Assagioli claimed metaphysical neutrality, his own esoteric beliefs were clearly based on this philosophy, and informed psychosynthesis ideas of identity and self.

Our London training in psychosynthesis had a whakapapa2 of psychoanalysis, Western ‘depth’ psychology, Eastern ‘height’ psychology, and North American transpersonal psychology. In 1986, that was an eclectic brew to bring back to Aotearoa New Zealand, and encounter a cultural and political landscape considerably different from the land we had left in the mid 70’s. As we began to become sensitized to the post-colonial discourse, we realized how important it was to engage in bicultural partnership and multicultural conversations. We resonated with the Maori psychological models of health being developed, based on their cultural perspective that considers physical, mental, social and spiritual dimensions of experience in interconnected wholeness. We too had models of interconnected wholeness, but we gradually understood that if we kept psychosynthesis identified with perennial philosophy assumptions about the nature of reality and identity, we were not truly engaging in partnership.

Because this philosophy often privileges nondual, monistic spiritual traditions that have historically devalued ‘body, women, nature and indigenous peoples’.3 We can find evidence of this devaluing of body in psychosynthesis, most obviously in the basic practice of disidentification. Assagioli’s original wording is: I have a body but I am not my body, I have feelings but I am not my feelings, I have a mind and I am not my mind. I am a centre of pure self consciousness and will.4When I was taught this practice when I began psychosynthesis training in 1979, it did not made sense to me, particularly as a feminist. We were fortunate in that one of our teachers, Father Micael O’Regan, challenged the psychological implications of this linguistic strategy of the via negativa, of negation, based on the idea that the body is a ‘vehicle’ into which the higher self incarnates. He suggested the strategy of affirming ‘I am my body and I am more than my body’, etc. We think this practice is an elegant way of acknowledging transcendent and immanent dimensions of experience inclusively and relationally.

Since founding the Institute of Psychosynthesis NZ in Aotearoa, we have always taught the practice in this way, as we consider the BodyFeelingMind system can be ontologically considered as dynamically cohered Spirit-as-form. This approach means our version of psychosynthesis articulates an embodied, immanent spirituality as well as transcendent spirituality that goes beyond our four dimensional time/space. This means we hold a quite different perspective from that of Assagioli and other psychosynthesis centres round the world, but it is what feels authentic to practice in this land. If we kept an underpinning of a spiritual worldview that constructed identity as essentially separate from our world, that place and person are separate rather than profoundly interconnected, in a way we would be perpetuating a colonising dynamic. (I was really touched when I spoke at a Conference in Rome in 2012 about how we were developing psychosynthesis in this way, and many people – not just from Brazil and Japan, also from Europe – came up to me and said this is the expression of psychosynthesis that also makes sense to them .)

It was not that we changed our spiritual worldview because of partnership, it was that our world view was similar to that of Maori. I have always experienced the interconnectedness of all the worlds. Raised without religion, in the countryside, it made sense to me to be participating in an animate world, where I spoke with the trees and the rocks and the great mystery enfolded us all.

Western psychological notions of autonomous, individual personal identity are different from indigenous understandings of identity as profoundly interdependent and interconnected with all that there is – but perhaps these models no longer have to be polarised as our understanding grows about the relational nature of our world and our cosmos. The simple genius of Winnicott’s statement: There is no such thing as a baby – a baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship; Assagioli’s assertion a person is always in a social context; Hubbard’s statement ‘..there is always individual-and-environment immanent in each other, be it an individual, or family or community or ethnicity or species. Or mountain or water. We are always in context.’, demonstrate that we do have therapeutic understandings that identity is relationally complex. But we have become attuned as we work with more intercultural awareness of different worldviews that most therapeutic understandings about identity and belonging are still not consciously interconnected with, and grounded in the sensual, animate world. We believe this is an essential aspect of spirituality, which is about relatedness with all that there is, and is inclusive of immanence, as well as transcendence.

We began to really crunch down on the assumptions of the perennial philosophy as we got more interested in postmodern analysis. By this I mean the unfolding cultural perspective that recognises human knowledge as subjective and locally determined, and as unable to be fully known by empirical enquiry. Perhaps there isn’t a supreme ultimate nondual reality, perhaps it is also indeterminate and multidimensional. We need to stretch our mental fields to encompass this contradiction, so we are not caught once again in an excluding duality that only one possibility is ‘true’.

We experimented with psychosynthesis language – Assagioli uses the term the Higher Self. We have never used the wording Higher Self, just The Self, which we identify as the luminous source both ‘of and ‘not of’ our four dimensional experience – but then we dropped the definite article and just use the word Self, with a capital S. This is because when we use ‘The’, we are reifying something, we are making the thing an object, it gets edges. It’s why we changed his term ‘The ‘I’’, which he said is the reflection of the Higher Self in the personality. We use the term ‘Personal Centre of Identity’ as an attempt to focus on an essential function of human being, expressing our capacity through consciousness and will. If we use the term ‘The I’, we are using a metaphysical construct that becomes philosophically problematic to justify by knowledge claims privileging individual subjective experience. Placing the emphasis on functioning and capacity draws attention to the process of relational connecting.

And then we discovered an emancipatory and participatory paradigm that cohered multiple knowledge pathways. Jorge Ferrer’s5 description is:

participatory knowing refers to a multidimensional access to reality that includes not only the intellectual knowing of the mind, but also the emotional and empathic knowing of the heart, the sensual and somatic knowing of the body, the visionary and intuitive knowing of the soul, as well as any other way of knowing available to human beings.

It was such a relief to find the epistemological tools to help us articulate psychosynthesis theory in ways appropriate to our experience living here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Ferrer6 suggests that spiritual experiences can be framed as multilocal epistemic events that can emerge in an individual, a relationship, a community, a collective identity, or a place. We are no longer constrained by the Cartesian model of knowledge that can not encompass the profound relational complexities of interconnectedness.

Ferrer takes a popular perennialist metaphor – that spiritual traditions are like rivers leading to the same ocean – and suggests that the ocean is not that of a pregiven spiritual ultimate, but rather, the ocean of liberation from self-centredness. He proposes the metaphor of the Ocean of Emancipation having many shores. The ‘many shores’ refer to the multiplicity of transconceptual disclosures of reality as well as the enactments of different spiritual ultimates through participatory knowing. This elegant metaphor has profound resonance for us living here in Aotearoa New Zealand, and our geographic reality of the Pacific Ocean and its many peoples. It offers a potent contextual frame for a participatory spiritual pluralism that is respectful of difference and diversity. Participatory knowing also chimes with Assagioli’s vision of a pragmatic, metaphysically neutral psychology that acknowledges all aspects of human experience – the physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual. It also accords with indigenous models of health and well-being.

Our approach is based on respectful acknowledgment of the diverse frameworks people hold of the divine Mystery, dynamically and creatively unfolding in spiritually transcendent and immanent multidimensionality. Karen Armstrong,7 one of my favourite writers about spirituality, advocates practising the pragmatic wisdom of the Axial sages: ‘What mattered was not what you believed but how you behaved’ (p.xiii). How to behave is encapsulated in the Golden Rule: ‘do not do to others what you would not have done to you’ (p.xiv). These are key will-in-action statements. When sound clinical psychological understanding and therapeutic praxis underpins respect for the ‘many shores’ of different spiritual paths and ultimates, and supports aspirations to consciously swim in the Ocean of Emancipation, both transcendent and immanent knowing can be grounded in life-enhancing and transformative behaviour, with consequent social, political, and ecological equitable outcomes.


1 Assagioli, R. Psychosynthesis A Manual of Principles and TechniquesTurnstone Books Wellingborough, Northamptonshire 1980 psychopathology. pp 6-7

2 «Papa» is anything broad, flat and hard such as a flat rock, a slab or a board. «Whakapapa» is to place in layers, lay one upon another. Hence the term Whakapapa is used to describe both the recitation in proper order of genealogies, and also to name the genealogies. The visualisation is of building layer by layer upon the past towards the present, and on into the future. The whakapapa include not just the genealogies but the many spiritual, mythological and human stories that flesh out the genealogical backbone.

3 Rothberg, D. & Kelly, S. Ken Wilber in Dialogue Quest Books Theosophical Publishing House 1998, p.405

4 Assagioli, R. The Act of Will Turnstone Press Wellingborough, Northamptonshire 1984, pp214-217

5 Ferrer, J. N. Revisioning Transpersonal Theory State University of New York Press 2002 p.121 (his italics)

6 Ibid. p.144-145

7 Armstrong, K. The Great Transformation Atlantic Books London 2006

Helen Palmer trained at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London, and worked in private practice and with groups for many years in Britain before returning to New Zealand in 1986 to found the Psychosynthesis Institute there. Helen has a private practice, trains and supervises professionals, teaches psychosynthesis. She is an ordained Interfaith minister, marriage and civil union celebrant.