A very great vision is needed, and the man who has it must follow it as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky’ – attributed to Crazy Horse1
Among the many things highlighted by the COVID-19 health emergency, two in particular strike me: 1) the now undoubted reality of the globalisation process, characterised by the strong and progressive increase in interconnection; 2) the power and responsibility that each individual, whether willing or not, has been called upon to take up in this scenario. We are experiencing the ability we each have to influence concretely the global situation through our behaviour and actions. What we do (eg respect certain hygiene rules or not) has specific effects on the spread of contagion. Indeed, the pandemic (from the Greek pan, meaning ‘all’, plus démios, meaning ‘people’), concerns ‘all the people’, all the inhabitants of planet earth. Already, the Buddha, more than 2,500 years ago, underlined the profound interdependence that characterises our reality. However, this epidemic has forced us to a collective, unexpected, and therefore potentially traumatic, realisation.
The wellbeing of the global community has always been the responsibility of each of us. It will continue to be so, even when we can (if we can) forget about it again – that is, even when the links of cause and effect between our personal actions and their outcomes on a planetary scale are less obvious and immediate. It will continue to be so every time we choose which values form the support for our decisions: how to educate our children; whether and how to vote; the cultural offerings we support; our preferred means of transport; the projects we promote; how we separate our waste; the inner attitudes we cultivate; our holiday destinations; the food and clothes we buy; the financial institutions to which we entrust our money, and so on.
Responses to the pandemic and the multi-dimensionality of the human soul
How we could and can observe the ways in which individuals are responding to the pandemic are very different. Some feel understandably lost, and deeply uncomfortable. Others savour the restrictive measures as a welcome break. Some enthusiastically emphasise the benefits of lockdowns by affirming the dawn of a new world. Still others have announced a dangerous collapse of our democratic society. And so on.
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One possible key to understanding these different reactions is to consider the multiplicity that characterises our biopsychological constitution. The egg diagram proposed by psychosynthesis (see figure) proves very valid for this purpose. It represents, in a multidimensional and integrated way, our separate psychological levels related to different psychological times (past, present and future) while preserving their specificity.
The most primal aspects of the psyche, corresponding to a pre-personal dimension, react according to genetically and biologically predetermined adaptive patterns, and according to our past history, especially our traumatic experiences. Other responses come from more mature aspects, from a level that we can define as personal. This level is responsible, in the present, the one in which we operate to carry out the normal tasks of daily life, and reflect on our thoughts, feelings, actions and preparation for future activities etc. Other responses, finally, come from a transpersonal (from the Latin translation, meaning ‘beyond’ or ‘through’), dimension. The latter is the repository of the future evolutionary potential of individuals and the species: the highest feelings and values, impulses to ethical action, states of enlightenment, aesthetic experiences and artistic creation, great scientific insights etc.
Added to these three dimensions is a fourth one: self-awareness and will. In the diagram, this dimension is represented by the ‘I’, the transpersonal Self, and the dotted line that connects them. This dimension is fundamental because it guarantees the possibility of building a conscious relationship with all the contents of our different psychic levels, of observing them lovingly, of understanding them in depth, and, finally, of regulating them by choosing to give expression to the responses that most correspond to our authentic being.
Freedom in jail
Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, witnessed in an exemplary way the co-presence of all the different psychic dimensions. He was Jewish and, in 1940, was arrested by the fascists on charges of being a pacifist and an internationalist and imprisoned for some time. He wrote about this experience:2
‘Freedom: I realized that I was free to take one or another attitude towards this situation, to give one or another value to it, to utilize it or not in one or another way [dimension of self-awareness and will].
‘I could rebel internally and curse; or I could submit passively vegetating; or I could indulge in an unhealthy pleasure of self-pity and assume the martyr’s role [pre-personal level]; or I could take the situation in a sporting way and with a sense of humor… I could make of it a rest cure; or a period of intense thinking either about personal matters, reviewing my past life and pondering on it [personal level], or about scientific and philosophical problems; or I could take advantage of the condition in order to submit myself to a definite training of psychological faculties; or finally as a spiritual retreat [transpersonal level].
‘I had the clear sure perception that… I was free to choose any or several of these attitudes and activities; that this choice would have definite and 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: …a responsibility toward myself, toward my fellow mankind, and towards life itself or God [dimension of self-awareness and will].’
A frequent attitude, in the face of calamities, is to promise solemnly to change things, to build a better world, with more humane and just values. Yet we quite easily go back to our usual habits, our inertia and self-indulgence. In fact, despite the proliferation of calls for a profound reform of the objectives, values and crazy economic system that characterise our planet,3 instead of an opportunity for change, for many, the pandemic seems to rather be a brief nightmare from which to wake up as soon as possible. Why? Because, in the face of a stressful event, it is not at all easy to access the freedom to choose, from among the various possible responses, the most mature and creative ones. Despite this, it is urgent to understand if and how this can be done. In fact, only from an inwardly free place will we be able to respond in the best possible way to the precious opportunity offered to us.
Waiting for salvation
Such freedom is not gained once and for all. True change takes hard work to achieve. We must not underestimate the psychic tendency toward homeostasis. We enjoy dreaming of a better world, as long as it is others who will make the effort to build it. We want someone to save us from the effort of growing up and becoming adults, from the frustration of limits, and from the pain of powerlessness. To change, to achieve our essential freedom, we must give up the childish attitude of looking to the future with a debilitating optimism. To be truly free, we must realise that ‘…the future is not the time for salvation, for waiting, or for hoping… Let us stand still and the future will provide: that is not how it works.’4
That is why, in the easy enthusiasm of ‘everything will be all right’, there is something forced that can be deeply troubling. It is not the case that ‘everything will be all right’. If we do not commit ourselves to radical change, everything will not be all right.
Confrontation with pain and reactions to trauma
During this COVID-19 emergency, we are seeing extraordinary demonstrations of solidarity, dedication and humanity. However, we cannot forget that the pandemic is confronting many of us with the pain of losing loved ones, with loneliness and isolation, with economic difficulties, with the fear of contracting or transmitting the virus. Moreover, all these situations, already difficult in themselves, can easily reactivate memories linked to past traumas; previous experiences in which we were deprived of our freedom; in which we felt in danger, alone and abandoned; in which we were not in control of the situation. In such cases, it is highly recommended to find the help of a competent professional as soon as possible, who can support and guide us in processing our experiences.
The key to freedom: having a clear vision
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘When there is no vision, people perish.’5 It is perhaps in this very idea of ‘vision’ that lies one of the possible keys to accessing the inner freedom, so well described by Assagioli. In extreme situations, individuals who have shown themselves able to access the freedom to choose the most courageous, mature and creative responses, seem to have one important characteristic in common: they were all supported and guided by a broad, clear and inspiring vision. From the testimonies of Gandhi, Mandela, Frankl, Hillesum and others, we know that those inspired by a bold vision are more likely to survive and to live positively, even in very intense crises. Having a vision that gives meaning to our experience is therefore of utmost importance, especially in difficult times.
The power of a clear vision
Having a clear vision is powerful because the language of imagery is symbolic. Images and symbols are able to set in motion intense creative and transformative processes in the unconscious. We all know that trying to influence the unconscious with rational procedures is inefficient and inappropriate. To do this, we must instead use its own language: the symbolic one. And nothing conveys it more effectively than a vision.
The use of images and symbols is powerful because it guides us ‘beyond’: beyond the automatic and predetermined responses of the pre-personal level, beyond what we already know of the personal level, and towards new possibilities, new lands to explore. That is why visions are like the stars for sailors: they orient us, guide us and accompany us along our journey. They give us the strength to persevere, despite moments of discouragement and loneliness, obstacles and failures. Visions awaken our desires, evoke the corresponding emotions and feelings, inspire our dreams and give us the energy to strive to make them a reality.6
Vision versus daydreams
As Zygmunt Bauman said, visions are powerful because they lead us to experience, on an individual level, the gulf that exists between what we continue to do and what we should do, and on a collective level, between what matters to those who decide and what is truly important. What makes a vision truly such is its transformative power. An authentic vision is rooted in the here and now, in the real. Otherwise, it is just a daydream, which perhaps satisfies our understandable need for consolation but does not produce integrity and transforms nothing.
That is why, as Assagioli warned, visions must be trifocal; that is, it is necessary ‘…to see and keep in mind the distant goal, the purpose; then to have a vision of the intermediate stages that go from the point of departure to the point of arrival; finally, the immediate perception of the next step to be taken’.8 The global transformation we need requires real and radical awareness, integrity and courage. It will not happen without the commitment of each one of us.
The challenge: to accept the gift offered by these uncertain times
I pointed out at the beginning of this article that the current pandemic situation has highlighted two significant and closely related aspects: 1) the reality of the process of globalisation and interconnection that now characterises life on our planet; 2) the power and responsibility each of us has in determining the wellbeing of the global community. The awareness of this state of affairs is the opportunity that these uncertain times are able to offer. This is an awareness of which we are in great need and which Joseph Campbell has expressed as follows: ‘When you see the Earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come. That is the country that we are going to be celebrating. And those are the people that we are one with.’9
I also pointed out that the possibility of this realisation has presented itself to us with connotations of the shadow, in an unexpected and therefore potentially destabilising way. Because of its traumatic roots, and because of the natural tendency of the psyche to shy away from change, for many people, the pandemic is therefore something to forget as quickly as possible. This is understandable and important to take into account.
The so-called ‘return to normality’ responds to a fundamental human need: it brings a sense of security. It soothes the anguish of our most primal parts and restores the illusion, because it is an illusion, of being in control of our present situation. This is why there is a very high risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Together with our pain and suffering, with our fear and frustration, we might also get rid of the opportunity given to us.
Will we be able to distil from this painful experience the gift that it can offer? Will we be able to draw from it a positive vision? A vision that we can continue to cultivate in a free and conscious way, even when the shadow of the pandemic has loosened its grip. Will we even be able to love this vision? To feel the warmth of sharing it with many other travel companions, perhaps distant in space and time, but close in heart and intention? Will we be able to draw from it the energy and determination to seek a better balance between the satisfaction of our infinite desires and our care for the greater good?
One question above all: will we be able to access the freedom – so well witnessed by Assagioli and others – to choose, among the various possible responses to this planetary crisis, the most mature and creative ones? This is the urgent challenge that awaits us, and we must take it up with courage because on the answer that each of us will give to these questions depends not only the outcome of the current pandemic, but above all the quality of life on the entire planet, as well as our own survival and that of many other animal and plant species.
I conclude by relying on the beautiful and enlightening words of Edgar Morin: ‘Planetarization now means a community destiny for all mankind. Nations have consolidated the consciousness of their communities of destiny with the incessant threat of an external enemy. Now, the enemy of humanity is not external. It is hidden within it. The consciousness of the community destiny needs not only common dangers, but also a common identity which cannot be simply an abstract human identity, already recognized by all, which is not effective in uniting us; it is the identity which comes from a paternal and maternal entity, made concrete by the term homeland, and which leads to the fraternity of millions of citizens who are not at all blood relatives. This is what is lacking, in some way, for a human community to be realized: the awareness that we are children and citizens of our Homeland Earth. We are still unable to recognize it as humanity’s common home.’10
So, what is the vision that orients and guides your life? What destination do you see in the distance? What intermediate stages can lead you there? What will your next step be today? For those who wish to do so, on the YouTube channel of the Associazione Sul Sentiero there is a meditative exercise (The Net of Life) to deepen the reflection.11
1 Crazy Horse. In: Burhardt WJ. To be just is to love: homilies for a church renewing. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press; 2001 (p214).
2 Assagioli R. Freedom in jail. Florence: Istituto di Psicosintesi; 2018.
3 Le Monde. Please, let’s not go back to normal. [Online.] https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/ article/2020/05/06/please-let-s-not-go-back-to-normal_6038793_3232.html (accessed 28 January 2021).
4 Galimberti U. Riflessioni ai tempi del coronavirus sul senso del futuro. GQ, Italian edition; 16 April 2020.
5 Emerson RW. Nature addresses and lectures: the method of nature (volume 1). Boston and New York: Fireside; 1909.
6 Assagioli R. The act of will. New York, NY: The Viking Press; 1973.
7 Baumann Z. In: Ghiringhelli. A Non torneremo più alla normalità?. La Regione, 6 May 2020. [Online.] https://m.laregione.ch/ opinioni/l-analisi/1435923/non-torneremo-piualla-normalita (accessed 31 January 2021).
8 Assagioli R. [Online.] http://www.psicoenergetica. it/psicosintesi.htm (accessed 31 January 2021).
9 Campbell J, Moyers B. The power of myth. New York: Anchor: 1988.
10 Morin E. L’identità umana. Milan: Raffaello Cortina; 2002.
11 Guggisberg Nocelli P. [Online.] youtube.com/ watch?v=XhgKHbudoBc (accessed 31 January 2021).