Occasionally it may happen to notice a feeble and diffused grief emerging from the encounter with the other, a little pain which shyly arises from different individual stories. It occurs when we consider the other as human being, perceiving him with a mist of sadness, joy and fear. It is a deep contact with our own and the others’ soul which corresponds to the meaning of the Latin verb patire, suffering together. We feel this suffering when we admit we join the same nature but also when we realise, by a breaking sense of insoluble solitude, that we are so completely different. We all are alone, that is why we keep looking for each other. Sometimes we meet, feeling very close, at times we deny the other, some other time we get simply lost.
Acting in the aiding relationship, whatever educational or therapeutic, is not a special mission carried out by special people, it is rather a very delicate and difficult job, which requires specific professional skills as well as the use and the training of mental and emotional forces along with special relationships, whose strength is proportioned to the complexity we are willing to support.
Meeting the other means being capable to welcome what there is making this moment relevant. Therefore, if we are really interested in helping the other to do the same, it is important to become efficient in managing our mental, emotional and energetic condition taking care of our physical and mental health. It is a matter of fact, we often forget; it is a necessary passage, we often skip.
We may regulate our emotional balance both being alone and with other people. In psychological terms it means that, thanks to these two possibilities, we act on our intra-psychic and relational status. While interacting we usually consider the other with special regard to the imbalance he/she causes to our emotional condition as well as to the related consequences. So we promptly and very often unknowingly act to re-establish our balance, in other words we manage to feel at ease again, without being menaced by too much intimacy or by an excess of proximity, coldness or indifference, according to the circumstances.
Thus we regulate ourselves and the other by modulating distance and proximity in order to understand and be understood . The more relevant the relationship may be, the larger the number of variables we will be able to consider in terms of evaluation and regulation of such distances. We constantly deal with our and the other’s emotional intensity and we regularly module our availability to intimacy.
A healthy relationship exists when this attempt to self and etero-regulation is acted by both parts without too much anxiety, excessive demands or anguish. That is when the attempt of regulation occurs in a flexible and relaxed way and the mutual need for solitude and encounter is met. We can also state that an adult relationship is healthy when the mutual intolerances as well as the needs, which usually fit the peculiar nature of that specific relationship, find the way to be conveyed in the attempt to receive a response from the other.
Again a relationship can be considered healthy when you are not too afraid of the imbalance it may cause, nor too scared of falling nor, instead, of moving the other away from his/her comfortable condition. In so doing, we implicitly realise that both moving towards and remaining stable are indispensable. All this shows the existence of a good inner and relational maturity level which can be measured by an achieved efficient capability to differentiate ourselves. Differentiating means that we let the other have an independent psychic life. In the case of a couple’s relationship that means to stop wanting to have access to the other on command, considering him/her at our disposal for our own security, our delight or comfort. It means to acknowledge the other’s right to make a choice in order to decide whether to be deeply close or emotionally inaccessible, whether sexually available, not appealed at all or unattractive. Differentiating implies never regarding the other as someone who is what we want him/her to be, but only what he/she wants to be. When nothing of this happens and no one is able to achieve a significant change the level of suffering increases leading to an insane, blocked, not growing and restless relationship. In this case there is often the mutual feeling that the roots of all evil is to be found in the other.
Therefore this dynamical and immature dependency clarifies much better the level of difficulty which might be faced in a helping relationship.
From the point of view of the Normodinamica a helping relationship takes on the meaning of individuating oneself within the relationship, focusing attention on the effects that this encounter has on ourselves.
The aim of the call is to enter into relationship and let the other enter it, being able to welcome, observe and recognise the changes that occur in our psychic and physical balance. Helping the other means acting always in an active and conscious way in order to transform and re-establish the balance of relationship starting from ourselves with the intention of maintaining contact with the other.
This possible only if we consider the uniqueness of the relationship basing on two questions: “Who am I in front of this person?”, “Who is this person in front of me?”
That is why we need to identify the forces at play, the meanings, the needs, the fears, the unconscious requests, the projections and the mutual fragilities.
We can take care of our relationships by taking care of ourselves. We need to shift our attention from ourselves to the other, moving from ourselves towards the new growing relationship by going through a circular process. Within this process we do our own effort to personal individuation and distinction and we ask the other to do the same. In so doing real difficulties as well as potentialities of the relationship are gradually revealed. All of this might not certainly be a sufficient agent of change but it represents definitely a strong and real support whence we can meet the other, that is a vital prerequisite to take care of the relationship.
People who suffer sometimes do not want to know why and are afraid of people who ask questions. They prefer to ignore the real reasons, which often reveals itself to be the cause of suffering for themselves and the others. Aristotle maintains that, by nature, all men aim for knowledge whose purpose is truth. But is it true? It sometimes seems to happen the opposite: all men, by nature, aim for ignorance whose purpose is falsehood.
Perhaps the truth, as Aristotle might say, lies somewhere in between: in other words who seeks knowledge will inevitably have to fight the own tendency to deny learning and not everyone is willing to pay the price. The connection is represented by the will: wanting knowledge, refusing ignorance, rejecting suffering. It is necessary to want it and practically to do it. That is why it is so important to raise the issue of what kind of instruments, practice and different ways we use to concretely achieve what we have understood. In Plato’s philosophy askēsis is what joins the logos, the thought, the speech and the reasoning with the ergon, which indicates the action, the fight and the facts.
Refusing knowledge is an attitude which can lead to collusive relationships, which more or less in an imaginary conversation might sound like this: “please take the discomfort away from me, but don’t ask any question and the one who tries to do it is an enemy”. When the psychic suffering becomes unbearable the encounter represents the only hope and so the work can start. The decision of measuring the how and when to pose the right questions, the real ones, is up to the educator and therapist. They bear the responsibility for identifying the questions, for paving the way in order to let them be accepted, for waiting and listening to the answers without predicting nor suggesting or influencing them. In order to pose real questions you need to be able to wait in a sort of no answer condition, an open space where responses have still to come, in other words you need to allow the process to come to a close.
Therefore we can state that the main objective of a helping relationship from the educational point of view of Normodinamica, in terms of the standard evolving process of an individual, remains both supporting the differentiation process of the person and favouring cohesion with due respect for differences. The former fosters the rising of personal uniqueness the latter supports the possibility of an encounter within the relationship. That means leading the other towards a greater individuation, independence and responsibility.
This is a process where it is necessary to provide care, comfort and protection in a conscious and differentiated manner so as to respond to real needs of growth rather than to mutual narcissistic ones.
Narcissism might be manifested in the difficulty of distinguishing someone as different, which means refusing to accept that the other may have an independent life apart from ourselves. This effect might hide the denial of painful and unbearable aspects of our inner world. People who live in such condition will certainly try to adequate their relationships to these misrepresentations using manipulation and illusory projections. This will lead to a hard, sad and unsolved life ruled by a false and insincere self.
Many aiding professions might be chosen to satisfy a hidden narcissist need, that is why I believe that a formative process should be very selective, profound and serious and should, indeed, work not only on technical, professional expertise but also on the awareness and formation of a person.
Being able to show the others our daily struggle for becoming real and authentic, with all the labour this implies, represents a respectable attempt which bestows hope and reveals healing qualities. Life requires struggle and the relationships demand commitment and labour. The transformative power comes only from the ability of being a real person. Being able to change means taking the responsibility of our own life
and means to be capable to mark more suitable personal boundaries within relationships.
Thus a healthy and desirable concern may rise: who really is this self facing a person who asks for support, help and professional education? What kind of askēsis will he need?
The word askēsis in its original meaning indicates all the chosen actions required to pursue our aims in terms of personal transformation and development: in other words it refers to the ability of the subject to deal with the truth, which means feeling committed to working on the self.
In the fields of human development askēsis has a triple value :
- It fosters the autonomy of the subject, highlighting the early matrix of his will as a prerequisite for facing the labour and the struggle which the educational process entails.
- It emphasizes the necessity of a disciplined system of practices, through which the educational aim may change into real action and authentic lifestyle, far away from being a mere discourse or a simple learning.
- It calls for the irrepressible value of learning through which the individual may build a relationship with the knowledge of reality and the daily deeds.
Askēsis conveys the perfect integration between thought and action and therefore all which concerns the educational aspect of a person becomes real, ensuring that it does not remain pure speech or mere action. An educational context becomes real when it offers the opportunity to make a new awareness to be followed by coherent actions, so that every experience might be the source of new consciousness. This is a virtuous circle which sees the transformative and learning forces be always active.
Therefore, we can state that askēsis seen both as the capacity of self-learning, as personal research and as an instrument itself may suite to different needs, as for example:
To Apply what has been learned.
To understand our own mental as well as deep psychological functioning.
To refine, correct and cultivate our own character.
To support the dedication and intensity of the psychophysical labour.
To generate mental and physical awareness.
To keep the personal attitude of mind open and the emotional balance stable.
Concretely this means knowing what we really can afford in terms of what is really important to do in order to keep our mind open by ensuring all sort of personal qualities, technological skills as well as required knowledge for an adequate performance of our duty. These personal qualities are to be considered essential also to maintain a good physical and mental health.
So we can say that according to Normodinamica and particularly to the Periagogè Method we may identify three different application levels of askēsis , which represent a way of approaching experience in order to get through it actively. They are the ordinary, the formal and the specific one within two kind of actions: the usual and unusual one.
The usual ordinary practice concerns all the daily aspects of life which have become routine on which we can directly act starting from the observation of the way we usually deal with them: some of these aspects may involve our relationship with money, time, food, space, the others, God. It concerns a practice of ordinary attention which aims to focus on the way we deal with our deeds and on the meaning we give to them. The aim is to change the way we act if our deeds are not consistent with our thoughts and expected results.
The unusual ordinary practice aims, instead, to create a difference from the daily routine. Without this difference we would not be able to perceive reality with its ever changing circumstances, so that any learning and understanding would not simply be possible. It is a way to build particular skills and attitudes consistent with our needs and evolutionary objectives. The category of the unusual ordinary practice concerns also all those activities which require a daily discipline, in other words, which demand a dedicated study and time, beyond usual habits. According to our School it includes the study of the dynamics of the fight, the practice of meditation and body-mind disciplines as well as sporting activities as running.
Courses of humanistic Art therapy, and the attendance at groups which are concerned with autobiographical relational analysis are also part of these activities.
The usual formal practice is a form of discipline which takes on sense in searching for beauty, depth, breadth and continuity of the practice itself. The idea is to keep a space for practice which is not necessarily devoted to the achievement of an immediate benefit or focused on specific objectives. It is rather a time much more devoted to research and self-listening, which allows to approach dimensions more closely related to Art. In so doing, it becomes possible to cultivate insight and extraordinary attention in order to meet our personal finest needs.
It is the time we can reflect upon the profound experience emerging from every training and study activity and that we can devote to free practices such as: meditating, playing music, painting, fighting, running and dancing. During these activities we focus on form and its details as well as on the meaning conveyed by the different possible experiences it allows and considering the various significance the practice offers in relation to the context.
Due to this, we can experience the integration of mind and body through the significance of the gesture linked to its meaning. It is time for meditation, for art and prayer.
The unusual formal practice includes all these three levels of experience and aims to create an additional difference by increasing intensity and depth of what is already known. All this in order to defend the genuine evolutionary nature of this practice by producing an extraordinary level of attention and concentration. The free participation in unusual contexts such as journeys, special events and retreats, which usually breaks our usual routine belongs to this category of activities.
The usual and unusual specific practice is represented by a conscious relationship to reality without any intended purpose. We act welcoming what there is and seek for full mental awareness, spontaneity and authenticity. It is a specific practice because it has to adjust to each situation without the help and the limits of coded forms and contexts. Beyond this threshold both experimentation, voluntary training , simulation and the usual practice find an end, leaving way to a complete free and willing daily life consistent with our values. It is the ethical life.
Each of these conditions includes the other and all of them take on particular significance only if mutually jointly present. Identifying different levels of practice is very useful to study with method and gradual approach and it also helps not confuse the levels. In fact, while practicing it may happen to confuse emotions, thoughts, and the feelings emerging from physical and emotional labour with what should transcend them.
It is very important to be able, thanks to experience, to recognise the essential difference between one emotion and the other, between perceptions and sentiments, which are something completely different from what may leave way to a pneumatological dimension of the individual.
Practicing to improve emotional intensity is very useful in order to achieve immediate relief but it is not the ultimate aim. There is an essential difference between doing an exercise to increase personal knowledge hoping to change our personal condition and dancing, meditating only for the pleasure of it, as well as having a fully aware conversation to meet the other.
Discipline is worth only if it allows the individual to achieve greater freedom, because a form can be broken only through experience and after mastering it well.
Lastly there is a last level: life. In this case Askēsis wants to merge with existence and looks for its own way within the real and unique life of every single person. What would otherwise be the point in all this labour? The purpose is not to become robots but interiorly free persons.
With regard to discipline Paolo Menghi used to maintain:
“People need a lot of discipline to be able to emerge from the usual point of view so as to live for a moment without any restriction. We can talk about a constant practice when a person voluntary undergoes the experience of self-constriction. The latter is the highest and fullest expression of freedom: thus to impose limits on ourselves without any obligation. In complete freedom. A continual practice introduces its results directly into the laboratory of the Self. Methods and contexts may be different but the objective is to develop comprehension, which means to remain interiorly open, to com- prehend.
Comprehension implies acceptation, in other words it means leaving the window open in order to let things enter and leave. Letting things enter implies complexity ; while letting things leave implies simplification, which gradually leads to surrender and has not to be seen as suffering but rather as the lightening of a burden. The more things we let go the more they may come. Deciding to keep on practicing, regardless whether or not we want it, corresponds to the decision of being willing to face crises as well as stopping to try to avoid them. Keeping this decision stable allows to know and to achieve, through several psychic conditions, a profound knowledge by a constant action.
Whenever I tell the truth I am on the safe side. My energy is higher than my tiredness. My discipline aims to increase my freedom. My discipline is part of my gracefulness and my gracefulness is part of my discipline. The place where I am awake is more comfortable than a womb. I am really happy for being outside the womb”
All in all, we can say that the full significance of the askēsis , seen as the work on the self as considered by Normodinamica, lies in the importance of being considered as a necessary discipline which allows us to increase our freedom of choice along with the possibility to meet ourselves and the other more consciously. This means that we become willing to undergo a peculiar way of training our conscience, our mind as well as our body, a training which grounds in the power of will, in the involvement of the entire physical, mental and spiritual sphere, where feeling is as important as acting and understanding.
Askēsis paves the way to reality.
This text is a summary of several lessons prepared for a small number of people engaged in long life and updating learning at our school. It is the result of a detailed exchange of information with some of them concerning weather it is appropriate to share several issues, different kinds of communication and contents with anyone. Many comments, criticism and questions have been risen about these lessons and their meaning, about the value of culture and the sharing of it, about the fear of being copied, misunderstood, plagiarised, or worse, of being virtually swallowed up by the chaos of the web. These risks are real but it is now clear that the web takes on the form we like.
On the contrary, I firmly believe that we need to insist on sharing qualified and open reflections, without claiming to be the only best, in order to allow thought and culture to circulate freely on the world wide web agorà. All this has the task of raising the awareness of those who want it, in the belief that it may be useful to avoid the tendency towards the lowering of consciousness along with all values. We need to study and we need culture along with strong questions and free thoughts. We need people both with thoughts and a great heart, who love freedom and therefore seek for it. We need to risk to speak our mind if we really want things to change for the better. In the meanwhile, thanks to this little blog, many important opinion exchanges with other educational, psychological and philosophical institutions are raising, which seem to be as much interested in research and in our reflections. In sharing my opinions with my colleagues I had also the idea of stimulating their sense of responsibility asking them to come out so as to make them concretely act what I was writing about. Regarding askēsis and imbalance, I needed to talk to someone so as to give life to relationship and to make the opinion exchange profitable. The latter has generated a lively and complex response in our relationships proving once more the importance of being able to individuate ourselves within the relationship by speaking a true word.
I want to say a special thank you to Valeria Vicari, Fabiana D’Onofrio, Francesca Dal Lago, Angela Cervera e Federica Angriman.
Translated by Angela Cervera
Leggi la versione in italiano di “Per un’askēsis Normodinamica”.
*Antonio Ricci, psychopedagogist, is the founder of the «Centre of Educational and Pedagogical Studies Periagogè», School of Normodinamica of Rome, Italy.
 Seminar dated September 1991, pubblished on the TTT Magazine of Normodinamica nr. 13/1992.