Psychology

Self-Realisation and Psychological Disturbances

Continuing our look at psychosynthesis and how it can help us to navigate a spiritual crisis or dark night of the soul. The process of awakening can be complex and confusing because there’s so much movement going on in the psyche. It can help to have a map and pointers to explain what might be going on.

Here we explore the nature of self-realisation and how it happens, and how it differs from self-actualisation. We also look at how it relates to the idea of synthesis and achieving a mature level of development as an individual. The following notes are taken from Psychosynthesis by Roberto Assagioli:

“A realistic observation of the flow of the psychological life in ourselves and in others shows clearly the existence of a number of differing and conflicting tendencies, which at times constitute the nuclei of semi-independent sub-personalities. Both psychoanalysis and the picture of human beings given by great novelists who were good intuitive psychologists point up these basic conflicts in human nature.”

“One kind of conflict which occurs frequently is that evidenced by ambivalence, and it explains many curious, contradictory manifestations of human beings. Another basic conflict is that between inertia, laziness, tendency to preservation, craving for security (which expresses itself in conformity) on the one hand, and the tendency towards growth, self-assertion and adventure on the other.

“Still another source of conflict is that of the awakening of new drives or needs which oppose pre-existing ones; this occurs on two chief occasions: first, the tumultuous awakening of new tendencies at the time of adolescence, and second, the awakening of religious aspirations and new spiritual interests, particularly in middle age.”

[My note: obviously, a spiritual awakening can begin at any age after the onset of adulthood. For example, my spiritual crisis kicked in when I was 20…]

“First of all, it is well to have a clear idea of what self-realisation is. The term has been used to indicate two kinds of growth in awareness, of expansion of consciousness, which, although more or less related, are different in their nature and have quite different manifestations. The meaning most frequently given to self-realisation is that of psychological growth and maturation, of the awakening and manifestation of latent potentialities of the human being – for instance, ethical, aesthetic, and religious experiences and activities.

“These correspond to the characteristics Maslow ascribes to self-actualisation, and it would perhaps be well to use this term in order to distinguish it from the second kind of self-realisation. This is the realisation of the Self, the experience and awareness of the synthesising spiritual Centre. It is not the realisation of the personal conscious self or ‘I’, which should be considered merely as the reflection of the spiritual Self, its projection, in the field of the personality.

Self-actualisation may be achieved at different levels and does not necessarily include what can be called the spiritual level. On the other hand, an individual may have genuine spiritual experiences without being at all integrated, i.e. without having developed a well-organised, harmonious personality. …” He quotes Maslow’s paper on Self-Actualisation in a footnote:

“…I could describe self-actualisation as a development of personality which frees the person from the deficiency problems of growth, and from the neurotic (or infantile, or fantasy, or unnecessary, or ‘unreal’) problems of life, so that he is able to face, endure and grapple with the ‘real’ problems of life (the intrinsically and ultimately human problems, the unavoidable, the ‘existential’ problems to which there is no perfect solution). That is, it is not an absence of problems but a moving from transitional or unreal problems to real problems”

Assagioli goes on:

Spiritual awakening and spiritual realisation are something different from conscious awareness of the Self. They include various kinds of awareness of superconscious contents, either descending into the field of consciousness or found in the process of ascending to superconscious levels and thus having what Maslow calls a ‘peak experience.’” …

[referring to the diagram] “…the superconscious constitutes the higher section or aspect of the person of which the ego or self (the point in the middle of the circle) is not normally aware. But at times the conscious self rises or is raised to that higher region where it has specific experiences and states of awareness of various kinds which can be called ‘spiritual’ in the widest sense. At other times it happens that some contents of the superconscious ‘descend’ and penetrate into the area of the normal consciousness of the ego, producing what is called ‘inspiration.’ This interplay has great importance and value, both for fostering creativity and for achieving psychosynthesis.

“We are using the word ‘spiritual’ in its broader connotation which includes not only the specific religious experience, but all the states of awareness, all the functions and activities which have as common denominator the possessing of values higher than the average, values such as the ethical, the aesthetic, the heroic, the humanitarian, and the altruistic. We include under the general heading of ‘spiritual development’ then, all experiences connected with awareness of the contents of the superconscious, which may or may not include the experience of the Self.

“It should also be pointed out that the reaching up into the realm of the superconscious and its exploration, while approaching the consciousness of the Self, may sometimes even constitute an obstacle to full Self-realisation, to the reaching of the summit where the personal-I awareness blends into awareness of the spiritual Self. One can become so fascinated by the wonders of the superconscious realm, so absorbed in it, so identified with some of its special aspects or manifestations as to lose or paralyse the urge to reach the summit of Self-realisation.”

Man’s spiritual development is a long and arduous journey, an adventure through strange lands full of surprises, difficulties and even dangers. It involves a drastic transmutation of the ‘normal’ elements of the personality, an awakening of potentialities hitherto dormant, a raising of consciousness to new realms, and a functioning along a new inner dimension.

“We should not be surprised, therefore, to find that so great a change, so fundamental a transformation, is marked by several critical stages, which are not infrequently accompanied by various nervous, emotional and mental troubles. These may present to the objective clinical observation of the therapist the same symptoms as those due to more usual causes, but they have in reality quite another significance and function, and need very different treatment.”

“…the heightened development and complexity of the personality of modern man and his more critical mind have rendered spiritual development a more difficult and complicated process. In the past a moral conversion, a simple whole-hearted devotion to a teacher or saviour, a loving surrender to God, were often sufficient to open the gates leading to a higher level of consciousness and a sense of inner union and fulfilment. Now, however, the more varied and conflicting aspects of modern man’s personality are involved and need to be transmuted and harmonised with each other: his fundamental drives, his emotions and feelings, his creative imagination, his inquiring mind, his assertive will, and also his interpersonal and social relations.”


All of this means that the process of spiritual awakening tends to trigger certain problems in a particular order. These are:

  1. Crises preceding spiritual awakening
  2. Crises caused by spiritual awakening
  3. Reactions to spiritual awakening
  4. Phases in the process of transmutation

In the following posts, we’ll have a look at each of these stages – starting with: Crises Preceding Spiritual Awakening

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