Chapter Five – The Skillful Will: Psychological Laws

Assagioli begins chapter 5 by identifying two mistakes people make about the will. One is that using the will means using a kind of force to oppose other psychological functions, such as desire or imagination. The other mistake is to abandon the will and allow whatever happens to happen. He then goes on to describe the skillful will, that aspect of will that has “the ability to develop that strategy which is most effective and which entails the greatest economy of effort.” It does this by stimulating, regulating and directing other psychological functions: sensation, emotion/feeling, impulse/desire, imagination, thought and intuition.

In the section on “The Psychological Elements” Assagioli presents his famous star diagram.

He discusses the relationships among the psychological functions, distinguishing between those that are “spontaneous” and those that can be influenced or directed by the will.

Then he discusses the nature and role of the unconscious, which has two parts. One part is conditioned. It is ‘set’ and is not easily influenced. The other is more flexible; it is available for new impressions and connections. Interestingly, Assagioli calls this the “plastic” part – and brain plasticity is currently being researched intensively. Impressions that are made in the unconscious, do not just disappear or sit there, they act in the unconscious. We can use this fact to our advantage, Assagioli says. He provides ten psychological laws that when observed, allow us to develop and use our will skillfully.

“The Ten Psychological Laws”

Law 1 – Images or mental pictures and ideas tend to produce the physical conditions and the external acts that correspond to them.

The will can be used purposefully and consciously by the individual to choose, evoke, and concentrate on the images and ideas that will help to produce the actions (s)he desires.

Law 2 – Attitudes, movements, and actions tend to evoke corresponding images and ideas; these, in turn (according to the next law) evoke or intensify corresponding emotions and feelings.

…Through conscious and purposeful movements, one can evoke and strengthen positive and desired inner states. e.g. mudras

Law 3 – Ideas and images tend to awaken emotions and feelings that correspond to them.

…The centrally located will can mobilize the energy of the emotions and feelings through the use of appropriate ideas and images. e.g. “evocative words”

Law 4 – Emotions and impressions tend to awaken and intensify ideas and images that correspond to or are associated with them.

… vicious and virtuous circles — feedback processes

Law 5 – Needs, urges, drives, and desires tend to arouse corresponding images, ideas, and emotions.

… wishful thinking and rationalization

Law 6 – Attention, interest, affirmations, and repetitions reinforce the ideas, images, and psychological formations on which they are centered.

Attention makes images and ideas more exact and clearer

Interest increases the prominence of ideas and images, making them seem larger and of longer duration

Affirming images and ideas gives them more force and effectiveness

Repetition drives in the idea or image and makes it penetrate more deeply, sometimes creating almost an obsession

Law 7 – Repetition of actions intensifies the urge to further reiteration and renders their execution easier and better, until they come to be performed unconsciously.

This is the way habits are formed. “Will and intellect can form habits of thought and will. We are responsible for forming our habits and even when acting according to habits we are acting freely.” William James

Law 8 – All the various functions, and their manifold combinations in complexes and subpersonalities, adopt means of achieving their aims without our awareness, and independently of, and even against, our will.

We can “seed” our unconscious…

Law 9 – Urges, drives, desires, and emotions tend and demand to be expressed.

“Drives and desires are the active, dynamic … springs behind every human action.” Assagioli Sometimes we need to find harmless and/or constructive means of expression for these, as to repress them sends them into the physical or they “come out sideways”.

Law 10 – The psychological energies can find expression: a. directly (discharge – catharsis) b. indirectly, through symbolic action c. through a process of transmutation.

Regarding direct expression – the will needs to deliberate, choose, and regulate the expression

Regarding indirect expression – means of symbolic expression can be chosen, such as physical exercise, using objects, or writing

Regarding transmutation, there are several ways and means:
Elevation – transformation into a “higher” value
Purification – of motives and intent
Interiorization – transmuting a “lower” quality to a “higher” one, eg. pride to a sense of inner dignity
Extension – ripple the energies outwards, eg. self-love to love of family, community, etc.
Outer Expression – crystallizing a value into action, chosen purposefully
The Act of Will. Roberto Assagioli.

Chapter Six – Practical Applications of the Skillful Will

In this chapter are presented some specific psychological techniques for applying skillful will.

I. Realizing the Value of the Will. This technique was discussed in chapter two as well. It relies on imagination to spark desire and emotion to increase the strength of one’s will.

II. Technique of Substitution. Energy follows from giving attention, which has a tendency to increase interest. Thus we can give attention to a substitute for an unwanted thought or behavior, and thereby shift our energy to the new thought or behavior, reducing the pull of the old one.

III. Psychological Breathing and Feeding. We can pay attention to and choose our “psychological environment” to a much greater extent than we usually do. By withdrawing our attention to the “poisons” of greed, violence, fear, and depression we tend to diminish these in the inner and outer worlds. Through cultivation of positive qualities that counter these poisons we help ourselves and the world.

IV. The Technique of Evocative Words. Assagioli points out that words will evoke “the state of mind, the physical state, and the acts that correspond to (them)”. Attention and repetition reinforce the image or idea, and an unconscious activation of what is signified by the word occurs. This means that simply seeing a word that signifies a desired quality will tend to move one toward acting with that quality. We can amplify this in various ways by concentrating on the word, writing it repeatedly, viewing it in poster-sized print, chanting or singing it, etc. Yet, for some people, a particular word may evoke a resistance, ambivalence or other negative reaction, so we have to be careful to notice such resistance and skillfully work with or around it.

V. The “Acting As If” Technique. In some 12-step programs this technique is summarized as “fake it until you make it.” By changing our behavior, facial expression, tone of voice, even our costumes, we can find our internal state changing. More recent work done on facial expression and emotion validates Assagioli’s comments about how putting on a smile can affect one’s mood, or how imitating another person’s facial expression can give entry into their emotional world. Assagioli gives many interesting examples from the lives of people such as the French general Turenne who “marched resolutely in front of his troops going into battle” which gave him a reputation for courage. He acted as if he had it, and so inspired his troops. In this section Assagioli also addresses dealing with very strong fears by working to desensitize them or to gradually build up a tolerance for the activity that generates such fear or reluctance.

This is a guest post about Psychosynthesis, courtesy of Carla Peterson and Hedwig Weiler (

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