He may well be the psychotherapist with the simplest recipe: kindness. According to Piero Ferrucci, freedom starts with being kind. To others. And yourself. History provides the proof: “One of the reasons behind the success of evolution is that we’ve been kind to one another.”
An Italian who writes a book about kindness, with a preface by the Dalai Lama? This can’t be true. Aren’t Italians those lively people who are always in a hurry, gesticulate wildly and drive like maniacs? Surely they don’t have time to be friendly, let alone to write a book about it. Piero Ferrucci has to be an exception—or it’s been too long since I was in Italy.
The latter appears to be the case. In Ferrucci’s Florence, time has not only stood still—you can easily imagine you’re in the Renaissance—but the clock has been shut off on purpose. Italy, after all, is the birthplace of the slow movement: a conscious choice to reinstate traditional values and local customs. No McDonald’s here, but cozy little trattorias where you can peacefully enjoy cheeses, hams, breads, wines and pastas that taste of tradition. People are proud of their old buildings, their beautiful statues and impressive squares and want nothing to do with the cheap luxury of modern chain stores. They take afternoon naps and there’s no real agenda on Sundays. Of course you’ll see scooters careening around the corner, but much more often you’ll encounter a smile, a chat or a friendly gesture.
Piero Ferrucci doesn’t come from Florence, but from the industrial city of Turin, which radiates a much more northern European business-like feeling. When he landed in Florence at the age of 23, he felt at home right away. The unique Tuscan scenery was an important factor, but also the presence of his great teacher Robert Assagioli, founder of psychosynthesis. Assagioli was a colleague of great psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. But Assagioli did more than learn from them. He challenged the emphasis on pathology—by Freud in particular—as the way to better mental health. To him, joy was the basic human condition. He considered synthesis, not analysis, to be key, which explains his interest in spirituality. Assagioli became increasingly convinced that every human being has a core that is filled with beauty.
When Roberto Assagioli died in 1974, Piero Ferrucci stepped into his shoes. In 1990, after nine years of intensive study, he wrote the book Inevitable Grace (Tarcher, 1990). A book that—in the words of Ferrucci—“may not be the book that Assagioli would have written, but deals with the same topics.” In the book Ferrucci goes in search of the peak moments of the great minds through history, such as Wolgang Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci and Rudolf Nureyev. He discovers various paths that all lead to the same magnificence: the wonder of the human mind, the unending creativity and resilience of the individual. Along with his daily work as a therapist, Piero Ferrucci has since grown to become an international authority in the area of psychosynthesis. He regularly gives lectures and workshops and has written several books. His recent book is Survival of the Kindest.
The road to the advocate of kindness passes through the hills just north of Florence. Atop one of those hills lies the small village of Fiesole. Wearing a friendly smile, Ferrucci stands at the top of the stairs on the upper floor of an old apartment building waiting for me. As we shake hands, over his shoulder I see a sloping valley through the window that must have given many a stressed client a moment’s rest. While that landscape—dotted with vines, old farms, a mountaintop monastery, cypress trees—fits perfectly with my image of Italy, Piero Ferrucci bears no resemblance to my stereotype of the macho Italian man. He speaks softly and slowly and initially comes across as somewhat shy. Nor is he wearing a sleek designer suit. Where’s the fiery, fast-paced Italian? He laughs warmly: “Looks can be deceiving. I regularly sit waiting at stoplights that seem to be stuck on red. My phone is ringing and between one ring and the next I’ve sometimes thought: ‘where’s the next ring?’. But I’ve learned to deal with it.”
Better than anyone, Ferrucci knows the advantages of relaxation and friendliness over stress and elbowing. “One of the reasons behind the success of evolution is that we’ve been kind to one another. A friendly person is not a strange mutant in a violent world. He invested a great deal, which has proven its worth in the course of evolution. Kindness is the most economical attitude there is. You don’t waste energy on mistrust, worry, dislike and manipulation.”
But Ferrucci also knows from experience that being kind is not always easy. Particularly not in our current era: “We live in an ice age of the heart. A lot of people no longer feel connected. The human warmth we so badly need is marketed like a product: traditionally made ice cream, old-fashioned baked bread, pasta from grandmother’s era, that type of thing. But this, of course, isn’t real. Nothing heals like meeting a fellow human being. Try experimenting: make eye contact, start chatting about the weather. It doesn’t matter if it’s about nothing in particular. You’ll notice that something shifts, the energy starts to flow, a block disappears. Believe me, it is vitally important.”
He gazes over the valley, beyond the long rows of cypress trees rising in sharp contrast to the blue sky on this beautiful winter day. He says with some graveness, “At this time in history, kindness is not a luxury but a necessity. It is up to each of us to make a choice. Will we go down the road of egotism and hurtful behaviour or will we choose fellowship and friendliness?”
If kindness is our true nature, I inquire, why are we so often unfriendly?
Ferrucci is very explicit on this: “You can only be kind if your past no longer controls you.”
And how do you let go of your past?
“Forgiveness. Someone who cannot forgive is like a city where traffic has come to a standstill.”
But how do you forgive?
“First you have to fully recognize and thoroughly feel your suffering. It is not good to hastily forgive for the sake of forgiving.”
Easier said than done of course, but here too psychosynthesis offers tools to assist us. One of them is meditation, which can help connect you with your healthy core. From a strong inner base, you deal with the pain better. According to Ferrucci, each of us has a core where we are not hurt, where we are healthy, receptive and strong. “I am convinced that even people who have suffered greatly, carry this healthy core inside. Finding this core may well be the most beautiful quest of our lives. If we return to this middle point—even for a moment—arguments and revenge are unmasked as an absurd waste of time. When we find in ourselves the place where we are happy and whole, we have already achieved forgiveness. We don’t have to make any more effort or perform any mental acrobatics.”
One of the biggest obstacles in the process of forgiveness is that we think it’s an admission of weakness, he says. We think it makes us weak. And it’s scary to drop your defences and open your heart to another.
“You have to swallow your pride before you can see that your happiness depends on others,” Ferrucci counsels. “You can rigidly continue to cling to being ‘right’, but what do you gain from this? We may not always realize it, but every one of us craves to be loved and above all to be trusted. When someone opens themselves up to you and puts their trust in you, it is the greatest gift of all. Just think about it: which relationships in your life have enriched you the most and why? These are nearly always relationships in which people gave you their trust, whereby you had the feeling that the other person trusted you. Putting your trust in someone is precious. It is the gift we should be the most grateful for. And it is scary to trust. Behind every act of trust lies a shudder of fear.”
In his book Survival of the Kindest Ferrucci discusses another precious gift: attention. He writes, “People who are suffering don’t need advice, diagnoses, interpretations and interventions. They need sincere and complete empathy—attention. Once they have the feeling that the other person is putting themselves in their shoes, they are able to let go of their suffering and head down the path of healing. Attention—being completely available—may well be the most coveted gift. We silently hope that someone will want to do that for us. Pure attention is given without judgement and without advice. Attention is a type of friendliness and the lack thereof is the worst kind of rudeness. Attention is the means that allows us to let friendliness flow. Anyone who can’t give others attention, will never be friendly. Attention gives energy, while the lack of attention takes it away.”
As we talk, the sun creeps higher against the hills. Just behind Ferrucci’s house is the hill where Leonardo da Vinci performed his famous flying experiments. I’m impressed. In his own way, Ferrucci also conducts experiments with flight. I guess many clients have felt they were leaving his building with a set of wings. Not because all their problems were solved, but because those problems suddenly seemed less heavy—or were entirely forgotten. Ferrucci’s outlines his approach this way, “I focus first on the client’s immediate need, the problem, the suffering. That’s why people come to me. But later I direct my attention to the positive qualities. If you continue to focus your attention on pathology, it becomes huge. I don’t think you can always solve problems, but you can forget them. It often happens that people come here to work on their problems and after awhile they ask themselves: ‘what was the problem we were working on again?’”
Ferrucci actually considers therapy an odd discipline. Paradoxical too, that he is paid to have a good relationship with someone who then bombards him with misery. “People always have the idea they have to talk to a therapist about everything that’s going wrong. Sometimes I see a client on the street who’s having a conversation with a friend. They look completely different then; relaxed and much happier. And they are. That too is real. But in our culture it seems like we have a kind of obsessive attraction to the dark, the bad, the gruesome. The media do a good job playing into this.”
During the study Ferrucci conducted into the peak moments of the world’s greatest minds he repeatedly encountered their instinctual focus on the dark side of life. Artists who must dangle on the edge of the abyss to create their most inspired works, athletes who go to their limit, scientists who nearly lose their minds… According to Ferrucci, seeking danger is also a way of getting to know yourself: “Charles Lindbergh flew endlessly on his own over the ocean. He describes how he was in a space between life and death and how high he is there. That can be very beautiful. I think each one of us unconsciously seeks that out every now and then.”
Even in lovely Florence with its timeless art treasures and slow elegant ambience, you see despair, insanity and pain in people’s eyes. If you can feel hopeless about life here, how easy must it be to lose your way somewhere else? Ferrucci views depression and mental illness in a far different way than most therapists and their colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry. He believes the true disorder lies elsewhere: “We may think that mental illnesses are born out of pain and traumas. But the real sickness is that we deny the most beautiful part of ourselves. We deny our creativity, our joy, our kindness. That’s why we suffer. We not only suppress violence and sex—as Freud said—but more to the point we suppress love and inner beauty because that’s much scarier.”
He leaves me to consider this for a moment. Why is love scarier than violence? Why is beauty scarier than sex? Am I, too, afraid of my own creativity, my potential greatness? He looks at me questioningly, leans forward and says: “It is much easier to be like everyone else. If you’re creative, happy and joyful, you are probably different from others. People might not accept you—and then you’re alone. Moreover, a state of consciousness, such as intense joy, can be very threatening. You have the feeling you are losing yourself and your structure. You go out of your mind—literally. If you have a peak experience, you go somewhere else.”
So we are afraid of our own beauty, of our light—as Nelson Mandela once put it so beautifully. And that’s why we keep ourselves small and dependent. Ferrucci sees this time and again in his practice. He believes that most people are very unfriendly to themselves. “We treat ourselves pretty unkind,” he explains. “And we barely take the time to get to know ourselves better.
“Our culture is suffering from an overdose of action and a shortage of contemplation. I consider contemplation a basic need; you even see it in animals. Just think about dogs and cats. You often see them staring off into space. I think that’s their way of meditating, their way of recharging their battery. We have that need too. But we deny this basic, physiological need—as if an entire society were to forget to go to the bathroom. That’s serious!”
He suggests a little more silence and a little more kindness—not just for others but for ourselves. It could be a doctor’s prescription. But Ferrucci immediately adds a caveat. There are two major obstacles to kindness, he says. “The first obstacle is passing judgement, on yourself or others. The second obstacle: telling others what they should do or who they should be, giving them advice and trying to control them. If we would do that a little less, everything on earth would run a lot more smoothly.” After considering for a moment he adds: “By the way, have you ever seen anyone actually follow someone’s advice? See? Everyone does what they want to anyway.”
Kindness… it seems like such a simple quality, not terribly grand or some kind of keen breakthrough. And yet this single virtue, according to Piero Ferrucci, can save humanity. “More to the point,” he adds. “It is saving humanity. Have you ever wondered why the world still hasn’t fallen apart, despite all its complex structures? Mail carriers, train conductors, newspaper vendors, cleaners, etc… of course they earn their livelihood with what they do, but it all happens largely thanks to their good will, to their kindness.”
Ferrucci looks at his watch. The photographer—yet another person with good will—is due any minute. It’s time to wind up our discussion. But he has one more thing to say: “The most sensible way to look after our own self-interest, to find freedom and be happy, is not to directly pursue these things but to give priority to the interests of others. Help others to become free of their fear and pain. Contribute to their happiness. It’s all really very simple. You don’t have to choose between being kind to yourself and others. It’s one and the same.”