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Dante's PathPractical Approach to Achieving Inner Wisdom
By Bonney Gulino Schaub
GothamCopyright © 2004 Bonney Gulino Schaub
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMaps and Guides
The Divine Comedy is imbued with the universally held religious beliefs of fourteenth-century Italy, which have made the timeless truths it conveys difficult for some readers to recognize. These days, some countries may have a predominant or even an "official" religion, but most people are free to espouse whatever belief system they choose, or none at all.
Personally, we traveled many paths before stumbling upon the road that ultimately took us to the self-development practices and spiritual perspective we benefit from now. Like many others, we'd followed a traditional, inherited religion; we'd given up belief in anything at all for the cynical belief in nothing; and we'd tried cobbling together a selection of teachings from various sources to construct a belief system we hoped would be unique to our needs. Each one of these paths, however, presented a different kind of roadblock. Believing in what others had said didn't lead to our own experiences or to new development. The cynical belief in nothing violated our desire to know more and closed our minds to other possibilities. And belief in our own patchwork construction always seemed suspect even to us-did we reallyknow what we were talking about?
Finally, we came to approach our spiritual search in a practical way. We began to test a variety of spiritual maps and guides with one simple, elegant question: Does it work? "Working," for us, meant helping us to live our lives with more love and less fear.
The kind of love we are speaking about here is not romantic attraction or loving conditionally because the object of your love provides you with something specific that you want or need. We mean the love that is a universal, ever-present, indestructible reality to be fully touched and tasted in the course of mystical discovery but also sensed in even the most humble behaviors of daily life. When you unite with that love, even for a moment-in a relationship, in a work of art, or in a ray of light-its unique quality moves through your entire mind, body, and mood, and when you merge with it, as Dante's Pilgrim did, you come back changed forever.
Although we may not consciously realize what exactly it is we seek, we all, on some level, yearn for this merging, this greater love that will wash away our fears and negativities and make the world right again. One thing the founders of all our Western Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions had in common was their personal experience of mystical breakthroughs that took them into direct contact with the energy of love that, they have taught, is at the core of our reality and the point of our living.
Finding Our Guide
Our own search for "what worked" culminated in our discovery of a wise guide, Roberto Assagioli, whose own seeking has provided our map ever since. Assagioli himself had tried many systems, many methods, many paths, and had corresponded or visited with spiritual teachers and philosophers around the world. Initially, we were intrigued by the fact that he was both a highly educated and scientifically trained Western medical professional and one who was at home in the world of spiritual literature, spiritual seeking, and spiritual experiences. Following his path has allowed us to honor our scientific thinking and common sense while at the same time we explore higher states of consciousness in order to see what we might learn.
Most spiritual thinkers and authors of spiritual literature advocate that in order to deepen your spirituality you must first get rid of your ego (or, even more extreme, that the very notion of self is an illusion). That concept had never seemed practical to us; in other words, it didn't work. If we got rid of our ego, the part of our mind that organizes our multitudinous thoughts and feelings into coherent, intentional actions, we wouldn't be able to focus ourselves well enough to function at work, earn money, and feed our children. Unless we were willing to surrender our autonomy and individuality by joining some kind of commune or cult, so long as we chose instead to continue living in the real world, how were we to pay the rent? Addressing this issue, Assagioli put it very simply by saying, "The human ego is part of a higher organizing process in nature, and so the idea of getting rid of it is silly."
That view seemed to us extremely realistic and based on common sense. The path to spiritual and personal development that he proposed was an open-ended process rather than a specific program that required us to follow rigidly laid down patterns of thought. Assagioli saw spirituality as a natural part of our basic humanity, equal to, but not more important than our physical biology and our social personality. In his view, our biology, our personality, and our spirituality together comprise the basic elements of our nature, and each of those components has its own needs and demands. According to that view, our physical and emotional health require that we respond to the needs of all three. And, in his opinion, it was the education and exploration of our spiritual self that had been the most neglected element of our nature, and the one around which much ignorance and superstition had gathered.
Assagioli's Map of Human Nature
Assagioli formulated a map of our biological-social-spiritual nature that has worked for us. It has, in other words, allowed us to live with more love and less fear without trying to deny or suppress any part of ourselves. We have also used Assagioli's map, as he did, to do psychotherapeutic work that honors the higher needs and possibilities of our students and patients while also recognizing their very real fears and conflicts. By doing that, we have been able to help hundreds of people, and we offer that map to you here as a way to start you on your own journey.
Your biological self is dominated by the need to survive. It wants you to use your attention to look for signs of danger and/or threat taking place either in your body or in the environment. It wants you to worry, to plan carefully so that nothing will go wrong, to get angry and territorial about even the simplest conflicts, to fantasize escape, to think only of yourself, and to be suspicious, even paranoid, about other people as a way of staying prepared. In other words, your biological self wants you to control every aspect of life, and, as a result, it sends you fight-or-flight signals all day long, even about situations that are not really dangerous.
Your social self is dominated by the need to belong, to be approved of, and so it wants you to use your attention to evaluate situations according to whether you are included or excluded. It wants you to compare yourself to others, to judge others, to deflate others and to inflate yourself, to look for opportunities to win more approval, reward, status, or self-esteem, and to adjust your thoughts and behavior so that you can win those things. Like your biological self, your social self fights for survival, but it is the survival of your self-image that is its driving need. It sends you signals of self-consciousness and self-absorption to keep you on track toward satisfying its need.
Your spiritual self is of an entirely different dimension because it is not concerned with the survival of either your body or your self-image. Your spiritual self is connected to creation itself. It knows that all things come and go as part of the natural cycle, and it is at peace with that obvious fact of life. As part of its connection to creation, your spiritual self is dominated by the need to take care of life, to take care of creation, to fulfill your part, your purpose, while you are here. The most human manifestation of this caring for life is being loving, and Mary, Kuan Yin, the Shechinah aspect of God, and other universal symbols are all expressions of this love that is rooted in creation itself.
Your spiritual self wants you to fulfill that loving purpose, and so it tries to keep your attention on its truth and prevent you from getting too lost in false purposes. It is not uncommon for people to misdirect their innate spiritual impulse toward achieving some social goal such as gaining more approval or higher status, and then, when they've reached that goal, to still feel no lasting sense of fulfillment or peace. One of our patients, for example, talked to us about having won an Academy Award and awakening the following morning to a feeling of emptiness. Another described the moment he stared for the first time at his just-completed, huge, expensive home and thought, "And now what?" Both these people had lost their true purpose without even realizing it until they recognized how little meaning their social accomplishments actually held for them.
Just as your biological self sends you fight-or-flight signals, and your social self sends signals of self-consciousness and self-absorption, your spiritual self has its own signals: It sends you a feeling of longing, of missing out, when you are living too disconnected from your purpose, and the signal to start searching again when you have gotten too far from the truth.
As you can see, each of these three elements of your nature wants something different from you, and each wants you to focus specifically on its particular needs. Your attention is constantly being pulled in different directions, and so, when you feel "all over the place"-as many people tell us they do-it's because you are. The elements of your very nature are in active competition with one another. All of their needs are undeniable, and all need to be met. The question then becomes how to coordinate them as best we can, so that we can live with as much internal harmony as possible.
Assagioli died in 1974, and we never got to meet him. But in 1990, after many years of studying and then teaching his work, we felt irresistibly drawn to deepen the bond we already felt with him by visiting his home city of Florence, where his papers are archived. We were both self-employed, and we couldn't really afford to take the time off from work, but we knew we had to go-for us it felt like a pilgrimage-and so we went, determined to stay for a month.
The very day we arrived, we went where all the tourists in Florence go-to the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore, the main cathedral). Crowds pour in through the door on the right and out through the door on the left, but the inner vastness of the Duomo dwarfs all human activity. In such a magnificent space, you wonder where to look first. Our immediate instinct was to go toward a large painting on a side wall, and the result of that fortuitous choice has been both many years of study and the writing of this book.
The painting was di Michelino's Dante and His Poem. It shows the sage and poet Dante holding his poem The Divine Comedy, while depicted around him are the three realms of the journey-descending to hell, climbing the mountain of purgatory, and entering into paradise. We stared at Dante. He stared back at us. He seemed to be saying: "Here is the map of all the human worlds. Take the journey and discover what I found." We felt a deep and immediate emotional connection with that painting but didn't yet understand its source.
Two weeks later, we were sitting in the library archives of Assagioli's home in Florence. We'd come to Florence because we'd instinctively felt the need to be closer to the teacher we'd never met. We'd called to request access to the library as soon as we arrived, but we'd also been told that a previous American student had stolen from the archives and so we knew there was a good chance we wouldn't be allowed in. For several days we got no reply, but then, out of the blue, the library secretary returned our call, and we made an appointment to meet her.
We spoke to her in simple, bad Italian, and she graciously spoke back to us in a few words of hesitant English. Then, in the middle of the conversation, she smiled, turned around, and got us the key. Perhaps our gratitude for Assagioli's work had come through to her.
We returned to that small, sunny library again and again. As we read Assagioli's intimate notes about his early work, his imprisonment by the Fascists, the death of his son, his spiritual experiences, his scholarly explorations, his search for practical methods to help his patients, we began to feel deeply attached to him and privileged to have access to his handwritten thoughts and feelings in a place so imbued with his gentle spirit.
Assagioli had read books in five languages (Italian, French, German, English, and Sanskrit) and had written notes in all but Sanskrit, which made many of them difficult for us to read. We discovered, however, that in his later years, once people from around the world began to seek him out, his notes were increasingly written in English. He referred to many mystics, artists, saints, philosophers, poets, and political thinkers, and he was always trying to synthesize these sources. As his work continued, he arrived at a way of being, an openness to higher consciousness, that brought him increasingly frequent experiences of illumination. Again and again in his notes we found brief jottings that said simply, "Joy, overflowing joy," "Gioia," or "Silent joy."
One day, we were talking with a former student of his, now a doctor in Florence, about our research, when he suddenly asked, rubbing his fingers together, "Can you feel the joy?" To this day, many years after Assagioli's death, his students, now psychiatrists and psychologists all over Italy, still become animated with humor and gratitude when they talk about him.
It was in going through Assagioli's notes that we discovered his deep identification with Dante. Not only with the literary Dante of the Duomo painting or the Dante of the spiritual journey to hell, purgatory, and paradise described in The Divine Comedy, but with the Dante who, despite a life of exile and loss, had emerged as a purposeful and enlightened teacher.
When we returned from Florence, we plunged immediately into an intensive study of Dante and his poem. We read The Divine Comedy many times in many translations and slowly began to get past the obstacles to understanding presented by his fourteenth-century historical, literary, and religious references. We began to see that Dante's hell was a catalogue of our fears, his passage through purgatory was the road to liberation from those fears, and paradise was the realm in which we explore higher consciousness.
Excerpted from Dante's Path by Bonney Gulino Schaub Copyright © 2004 by Bonney Gulino Schaub. Excerpted by permission.
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