For the last 26 years, I have lived and worked with a synthesis of Roberto Assagioli’s psychosynthesis and Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects. These days I am focusing on the Work That Reconnects, although I continue to teach psychosynthesis courses on-line and bring its principles and practices into my counseling and coaching. In this essay I want to acknowledge how these two “schools” have contributed to my life and work, separately and together, and share some thoughts on why the Work That Reconnects calls me more strongly at this time of global crises.
Psychosynthesis caught my attention way back in the 1960s because it recognized and included the spiritual dimension of our lives, without adhering to specific religious teachings. I wondered then, as now, how any psychology that ignores or denies the spiritual dimension can be considered valid or complete. Psychosynthesis brought together my interests in psychology and Eastern philosophies, which were of increasing appeal in the West at that time.
I also appreciated its experiential emphasis, offering practices and models through which to explore one’s personality and inner life. It seemed very open and validating of each person’s unique understanding and experience. In the years of study and practice since, my appreciation of its basic principles has deepened—principles such as disidentification, subpersonalities, the will, and the central role of intuition and imagination along with emotions and thinking. I still use many psychosynthesis practices for my own personal growth: disidentification, journaling, writing a letter to Self, subpersonality dialogues, and creative meditation.
Although psychosynthesis is no longer the primary focus of my workshops or writing, it continues to provide me with a context or a platform for whatever I do in the world, including the Work That Reconnects. Psychosynthesis functions as a psycho-spiritual reservoir upon which I draw.
Now in my seventies, my attention is increasingly called to the global “Great Unraveling” of our life-support systems (described in the 2014 edition of Coming Back to Life,[i] which I co-authored with Joanna Macy). I can no longer turn away from the catastrophes unfolding around me: climate disruption, species extinction, systemic racism, economic injustice, mass incarceration, industrial destruction of whole ecosystems, massive pollution of air, water, soil, and food, democracy undermined by money, and sociopathic politicians rising to power. The Work That Reconnects has become my path for addressing this, helping my sisters and brothers to renew their gratitude for life, honor their pain for the world, see themselves and the world with new eyes, and find their own paths of heart for the Great Turning.
In many ways, the Work That Reconnects is a logical extension of my years of work in psychosynthesis, taking very similar principles beyond the personal to the realm of social activism. If a psychology that ignores the spiritual dimension can be considered incomplete, if not invalid, I believe the same could be said of a psychology that ignores our relationships with other humans and with the natural world. Psychosynthesis principles can be applied effectively to the larger world in which we live, and many of us in the psychosynthesis community have attempted to do so over the years. Still, I hunger for a greater commitment among psychosynthesis folks to recognizing and addressing our grave global crises, a commitment I have found in the Work That Reconnects community.
Similar Principles and Processes
The Work That Reconnects provides not only a theoretical framework for social activism, but also a powerful workshop methodology for its application. One of the things I have always appreciated about psychosynthesis is its emphasis on experiential learning, which the Work That Reconnects also employs. Both schools teach us to honor and respect individual experience as a source of guidance and wisdom within us. In the Work That Reconnects, we come to understand that our personal experience arises with our interconnectedness in the web of life. So actually, my personal experience is not mine alone: it is Life experiencing itself.
Joanna Macy so often says that people most need to hear from themselves, because we are all experts on living on Earth in this time—if we pay attention! By attuning to the feedback coming to us through all the myriad channels of our connectedness with all life, we discover how much information is actually available to us—about what is happening, and how we are called to respond.
Psychosynthesis and the Work That Reconnects both emphasize the need to attend to what is going on, both within us and around us. Both recognize the power—and necessity—of observation, attention, awareness. We tend to focus that attention on ourselves and our own inner processes in psychosynthesis; in the Work That Reconnects, we pay attention to what’s happening in the world around us as well as to our own emotional response to it. We receive feedback from the world instead of ignoring it—or actively blocking it because of the pain it brings.
Responding to a “call”
Psychosynthesis and the Work That Reconnects support people in hearing and responding to an inner calling. Psychosynthesis might speak of the “call of Self,” while the Work That Reconnects would see this call originating in the web of life itself as it manifests in each being. Bill Plotkin, who draws on both psychosynthesis and wilderness experience, speaks of this as one’s soul work. I believe all these approaches are describing the same phenomenon: a sense that each of us has a unique role to play in the world for its healing and transformation. We are not here just to make money and promote our material wealth and status.
Transpersonal Self and Ecological Self
I believe we are called today to move beyond individualism into seeing ourselves as parts of a greater whole, to which we are responsible, and from which we receive our very lives. In psychosynthesis, however, there has been a tendency to emphasize the individual as an entity, guided by the Higher Self—and all too often, we conceptualize “my” Higher Self as distinct from “yours.” We may even think of “it” as an entity, a thing, rather than an interconnected dynamic living System. Classical psychosynthesis teaching is that the Higher Self is at once individual and universal, yet the universal aspect often remains in the realm of abstraction.
On the other hand, the Work That Reconnects has helped me understand myself as an interference pattern[ii] through which life, intelligence, energy, information, and love flow, setting off vibrations or resonances of ideas, emotions, intuitions, sensations, and even actions. I see “myself” as a nexus of flow-through rather than a self-contained entity, more of a verb than a noun.
From this perspective, I understand “Transpersonal Self” of psychosynthesis to be quite similar to “Ecological Self” of deep ecology, which Norwegian ecophilosopher Arne Naess believes is the fruit of a natural maturation process. With maturity, we not only move on from ego to a social self and a metaphysical self (Transpersonal Self), but an ecological self as well. Through widening circles of identification, we vastly extend the boundaries of our self-interest, and enhance our joy and meaning in life.
…The requisite care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves.[iii]
Personally, I have found it useful to think of Transpersonal or Higher Self as Ecological Self, because when I tune into my deepest wisdom, I believe I tap into the wider, deeper wisdom of Life itself. I feel guided by a very grounded, practical, incarnate Intelligence. (I avoid using the article “the” for any of these terms: Higher Self, Transpersonal Self, or Ecological Self, not wanting to reify them in any way.)
Meeting the Challenges of Today’s World
In a recent beautiful essay in YES! Magazine,[iv] Derrick Jenson writes of the “embodied intelligence of the world and its members.” That phrase speaks to me deeply. There is something about exchange, mutual co-arising, mutual causality, that is largely missing from many psychosynthesis conversations today. Jenson writes “Buffalo bring back prairies by being buffalo, and prairies bring back buffalo by being prairies.” How can we in the psychosynthesis community more effectively emphasize this mutuality, this radical interconnectedness, in our thinking and teaching? I believe we can do so without departing in any way from essential psychosynthesis principles and concepts. I imagine Roberto Assagioli cheering us on!
Overcoming denial and social conditioning
Unfortunately, social conditioning hinders us, urging us to think of ourselves as separate, competitive, and vulnerable to attack from Others (other people, other cultures, other living beings). We can see this fearful worldview acted out dramatically by too many politicians in the United States today.
Yet all the while, the ubiquitous cell phone is bringing us images of police violence and fatal shootings directed at unarmed black men and women, waking us up to the systemic and brutal racism in our country. We are called to face the horror of a national history of genocide and slavery still operating in 21st century America—in the form of perpetual warfare across the planet and mass incarceration at home. We are called as well to comprehend the enormity of economic and environmental collapse already underway and intensifying month to month and year to year.
The Work That Reconnects, with its emphasis on “honoring our pain for the world,” helps me face and understand these and other horrors. In our workshops, we address them directly, and allow ourselves to plumb and express the full range of our emotional responses: grief, anger, fear, and numbness. This inevitably creates a community of caring people ready to support one another in “seeing with new eyes” beyond our cultural conditioning, and to heed the call to loving service for a suffering world. The Work That Reconnects cuts through the endemic denial of our society and economic system, and encourages us to respond according to our unique gifts, resources, and life situations.
This is why I focus my teaching and workshops these days on the Work That Reconnects. As powerful and effective as psychosynthesis can be, I don’t see the community fully stepping up to the plate and addressing the multiple collective challenges we face across the planet. I invite everyone in the psychosynthesis community—actually everyone reading this—to get involved, learn about the full extent of systemic racism, income inequality, human-caused climate disruption, species extinction, corporate take-over of democracy, and other crises, and then bring your will and passion to bear in your communities and beyond. The Great Turning to a Life-Sustaining Society needs our intelligence and heart in action.
Psychosynthesis is a great foundation; now it’s time to bring it into service for the world, to build a sustainable and just future. The Work That Reconnects can empower and support us in this critical endeavor.
[i] Joanna Macy & Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life: An Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects, New Society, 2014.
[ii] This metaphor is based on a phenomenon described in physics, wherein waves–oscillations of any kind–interact either to cancel each other (“negative interference”) or augment each other (“positive interference”) depending on their relative frequency and amplitude. In most cases what happens is some combination of negative and positive interference, resulting in a more complex pattern than that formed by any of the component waves.
Applying this metaphor to the entire world of phenomena can imaginatively transform what appears to be a collection of static, solid objects, moved around by unchanging, isolated forces, into a vibrant, pulsating, interactive dance of infinite complexity and potential. (Explanation from Jim Brown)
[iii] Seed, Macy, Fleming & Naess. Thinking Like a Mountain, New Society, 1988, p. 35.
[iv] Derrick Jensen. “When I Dream of the Planet in Recovery.” YES! Magazine, Spring 2016, pp. 48-49.