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The spheres of Indra
A formative autobiography

One of my strongest convictions is that we are constituted by other people: the relationships we have had in our life form the very fabric of our being. This means that our parents, friends, colleagues and teachers, and all the other people with whom we have interacted, live inside us. Others are in us, we are in others: it is like the heavens of the god Indra, where glistening spheres mirror one another, and also mirror the mirroring, and so on to infinity. This means that the music we have loved, the books that have moulded us, the landscapes, paintings, movies and architecture that have impressed us, are all part of the vital substance of our existence. Thus, without Dante and Kafka, without Mozart's concertos for piano and orchestra or Piero della Francesca's frescoes, without Plato and Chuang Tzu, I would be a very different person to the one I am. Of my original family I must straightaway say that I had two mothers, since my aunt Emilia lived with us and dedicated her life to us. What I learned from my family above all was to be honest, work hard, always think of others, be punctual, and share the cake equally with everybody else (I learned all this; whether I always put it into practice is another story.) To all my family I owe a great deal. I fully realized how much my parents did for my sister and me only when I had children myself – only when I undertook this huge, demanding, wonderful and impossible task. And when I think of my parents, I reflect that they too had parents. We have four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great great grandparents, and each of them in some way lives in us. If we go back fifteen generations (less than 500 years), we are talking about thousands of people. What are all these people doing inside each of us – all these destinies, these DNAs, these souls, that merge in each one of us? Who are they and who am I? Peasants, delinquents, saints, statesmen, scientists, artists, tall people and short people, blond, dark, good, bad: there is a bit of everything. And yet I am one – or at least this is how it seems. A mystery.

My sister, as a young child, always thought herself to be an animal: she would fly, gallop and frisk. Then she began to draw animals, and did it very well. About the unlikely but true story of her selling one of her drawings to Stravinsky, I prefer to remain silent, because the whole episode is complex and involves a clash of worldviews. I plan to write about in the near future.

At this point a doubt starts trouble me: who am I to write an autobiography, albeit a small one? I am neither famous nor a public figure. Yet an idea comes to comfort me: the good thing about any piece of writing is that if you, the reader, get bored, you can stop reading (except perhaps for poor mystery stories, where you feel impelled to keep reading and find out who dunnit). So if you are still reading, it is only because it interests you. (Could this be a justification for all the bad writing of the world? I think not, but let us not split hairs). In truth, I believe every single existence is interesting because it is someone's story. This formative autobiography is a reflection on the mysterious and unpredictable pathways of life, on the manners in which human destinies interweave, on the remarkable fact that each of us lives in others and others live in us.

An essential corollary of this main theme is that ideas and memories other people leave in us keep living and developing even after a long time has passed. The great mystic Ramakrishna uses the simile of the scattered seed. One day a seed from a tree falls onto the roof of a nearby house. It lands right at the edge, on the eaves. For years it stays there, inactive. Meanwhile hosts of events happen in the house, people live and die, years pass. Eventually the house is abandoned and gradually it falls to ruin. The eaves crack and the seed falls to the ground. There it begins to germinate. With time, the shoot grows into a huge tree that houses, feeds and protects many creatures. Ramakrishna uses this simile to illustrate the delayed effects of our actions in past lives. But we can apply it to our encounters as well. The people with whom our paths cross drop seeds in us, and these seeds may germinate – perhaps after a long time – and grow into big trees. The influence of those we meet, what we learn from them, their words and attitudes, continue to live in us – even long afterwards. This is how we become who we are. Thus unfolds the puzzling adventure of our existence.

For me, as for everyone, to talk of my life means to talk of people and realities that have entered and lived in me and woven themselves into a combination that will never occur again. I will start with University. In the faculty of Philosophy at the University of Turin one of my professors was Nicola Abbagnano. Each of his lessons was a masterpiece of clarity. He gave me the feeling that a small, benevolent elf was entering my brain and, with great tactfulness, was tidying the archives, arranging them in sound and logical order. It gave me a feeling of both relief and intellectual strength. Whenever I left the lecture theatre I would feel more intelligent than when I entered. Abbagnano effortlessly raised his pupils to his high intellectual level. As he himself said to us students: I want to help you have a razor–like (tagliente) mind. In the same faculty Luigi Pareyson also taught. He was the author of the book Esistenza e Persona (Existence and Person). Pareyson, too, spoke in a clear and terse way, but whereas Abbagnano taught the history of philosophy, Pareyson expounded his own philosophy, and did it in such way that in the end you thought it could not be any other way; such was the power and stringent logic of his argument.

But the most powerful influence came from another professor, who had already been my philosophy teacher at high school: Pietro Chiodi, then Italy's foremost Heidegger scholar. Chiodi had been a partisan, had fought for freedom, in which he passionately believed, and he taught his students freedom of thought; he was against all dogmatism, against every dictatorship. He believed only in what you could, somehow or other, prove: never because someone says so and commands us to believe it. His was a resolutely empirical stance and the necessary basis for all intellectual work. I recall him telling us a Bertrand Russell anecdote: "If someone were to tell me I had an elephant in my pocket", the English philosopher said, "before saying 'no', I would first look in the pocket, turn it inside-out, and carefully examine it with a lens. If I found nothing, I would reach the conclusion that there probably was no elephant in my pocket". For me, to understand fully the significance of this premise was to multiply my cultural and spiritual possibilities by a thousand. Chiodi almost always strayed from his original topic: he would speak of the time he was a partisan (fighting for freedom during WWII), of the poetry he liked, of politics, of how badly organized school education was, of current events, of whatever came into his head.

For example, once he spoke of how he would organize a course of literature. He would start from the present, the current cultural and political situation, and would walk backwards, like a shrimp. The idea was that the present is what counts for us, is what we relate to most easily. It is where our vital interest is. Then, little by little, you move backwards, till you reach the classics. Then and there he said: "I would call it Shrimp School"! In literature, for instance, he would start with Calvino and Moravia (contemporaries at the time) and would gradually go back till he reached Horace and Homer. I often think of another story he told: he had gone to a philosophy conference, where philosophers of various schools, marxists, idealists of Croce's school, existentialists, catholics, had battled the whole morning, expounding radically different views of the individual and society. Then they all went together to lunch. And that was where Chiodi realized that in this respect they were all the same: whether you are a materialist or a spiritualist, a socialist or a liberal, when you are sitting at a plate of pasta, you eat and digest like everyone else. Just wait till you are hungry and sit in front of food, and you perceive the world of meaning and ideas in an entirely different way. In any event, Chiodi always had a new idea, a different viewpoint, a provocation to tickle us with – it was the opposite of mechanical rote learning; here you learned to think. The freedom to use your own head, without censorship or conditioning of any kind: this is one of the greatest gifts we can receive.

Another professor, then teaching at the university, had great importance for me. It was Oscar Botto, lecturer in Oriental Philosophy. Already interested in meditation, I was greatly impressed by his definitive book on Buddhism, especially the part where he spoke of the Pratītyasamutpāda, the chain of dependent origination, perhaps the central idea of Buddhism. According to this doctrine, everything is a consequence not of one cause but of many causes, continually interweaving in the cosmos: a single cause and effect does not exist; rather, multiple causes intersect on various levels. It is like the underlying thesis of this very biography, in which I describe the reality that I am (and that all of us are) the result of very many encounters and interactions. But the theory goes further to describe the inevitable succession of twelve linked phases that determine our captivity in the cycle of birth and rebirth – a blind and compulsive existence that endlessly goes on like an eternal nightmare, until we awaken and decide to break the sequence, and set off on the road to nirvana. "I show you suffering", said the Buddha, "and I show you the end of suffering".

Philosophy was not my only interest, however. And here we come to a basic distinction in ways of learning and thinking and perceiving the world. Quoting a mysterious verse by Archilocus ("The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing"), the English essayist Isaiah Berlin described two kinds of mind: the one that plunges deeply into a single subject and refers everything to a sole central principle (the hedgehog), and the one which has many interests and cultivates various points of view (the fox). I was then, and still am, a fox. Even before going to university I looked about me. I did not know what to do with my life, my interests were so varied that I risked becoming scattered. Which course should I take? I went around meeting people and discovering ideas. One place I visited was the Mario Negri Institute in Milan, specialising, among other fields, in psychopharmacology research. I was interested in exactly this subject. They received me with great courtesy. The most meaningful meeting was with Professor Luigi Valzelli, who very kindly answered all my questions and on the spot gave me the demonstration of an experiment. He was at the time studying the effects of isolation on the brain. He showed me a white mouse that had spent a long time in isolation. It was much fatter than the others (which were kept in a separate cage and were running about and playing). Valzelli took the lone mouse and placed it with the others. What would they do? Would they greet one another, would they play, or mate? None of the above. Without hesitation, the mouse that had been in isolation threw itself on one of the others, killing it instantly. Isolation had multiplied its aggressive propensity. This experiment made a big impression on me and I straightaway saw how it could apply to human beings. I realized, however, that what I really cared about was not so much experiments with animals: rather it was the unpredictable, sometimes bizarre, varied and unrepeatable unfolding of human life. That was where I felt my interest turn.

My public debut was in fiction. During the university years I wrote some short stories. They were quite strange. For example, in one I found a loathsome extra terrestrial in the shape of a fetus on the living room carpet in our home, and his only sign of being alive was a rhythmic flashing; I called him Aborruomo: something like Abhorman. Every family, I realized, had its own Aborruomo lying somewhere in the house. Another was about an angel who came to fetch me because my life was over. But then he changed his mind and said: "Actually, you have another fifteen minutes, I'll meet you down at the corner café". Yet another one was about a being with a dual personality: By day he was a respectable citizen, by night he became a slimy entity and could move through the pipes and go wherever he wanted, terrorizing people. But he was not aware of his double personality. Fernanda Pivano, the great Italian translator of that time, liked these stories. She thought I was crumbling reality rather than bulldozing it. She encouraged me and introduced me to the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. However, nothing came of that, so she published some of my short stories in a journal she founded called Pianeta Fresco ("Fresh Planet")– of which the "irresponsible director" was the great American poet, and good friend of hers, Allen Ginsberg. She was a very intense, intelligent and likeable woman; besides being an excellent translator, she was a true intellectual. Her encouragement of my writing when I was little more than twenty had a positive impact on my life. Many years later, when I had already published several books in the field of psychology, I met her again. She told me to stop writing the same old nonsense, and to devote myself to fiction. Instead, on I went with the nonsense.

After university I spent some time in America, at my aunt Laura's home in Hollywood. She had emigrated there many years before as a concert violinist, doing her première at Carnegie Hall. Later she married Aldous Huxley, best known as the author of Brave New World. Laura lived in a lovely villa to which I returned each year from 1968. It was right under the Hollywood sign. But Hollywood was different to what we in Italy usually think it is. Like Los Angeles, of which it is part, it is built in the desert, where it rains less than in the Sahara. It is a strong and resilient place. The pungent desert air of that great natural landscape surrounds you – at least it did at my aunt's place. Through the years Laura was an inexhaustible source of ideas and inspiration, not the least because her house was a crossroads where you met an amazing selection of individuals, some of whom were original and creative, others a bit crazy and strange, yet still interesting. One of the greatest influences she had on me was her love of children, whom she perceived in all their beauty and wonder – and also in their utmost defencelessness. In Laura's care Karen Pfeiffer (born in 1974) spent several years, as a kind of adopted daughter or granddaughter. I had occasion to spend a lot of time with her when she was small: it was my first experience of being with a baby, having her with me for long periods at a stretch, holding and carrying her. When I returned to Italy Karen was of course no longer with me: and then I physically missed her. It was as though she had become part of my being: suddenly that part was thousands of miles away. If it is true that all those we meet come to be a part of us, it is even more so with young children. Karen was a magical child with bright blue eyes, which captivated your gaze, and everyone who met her would straightaway fall in love with her. As she grew up I would see her each year when I went to America. At one stage I decided that I would be her guide. At the time I thought you should treat children strictly, for instance put them in bed alone when they were still very young, tell them what to do, and scold them when they disobeyed. Later I radically departed from those principles. But during the time I believed in them, in a surge of severity, I once or twice gave Karen a smack. It was a laughably weak and unconvincing smack. Karen ran from me, and from a safe distance called out her challenge: "It didn't hurt!". Karen is now forty and has a daughter called Kaya, of whom I am also very fond. Kaya is a brilliant young girl who loves to write fiction. I was struck by her statement that she is presently writing two novels at the same time, but has developed writer's block for one.

Towards the end of her life I helped Laura write a booklet, How To Die Healthy, in which she described the main guidelines she considered crucial for living a healthy life. Her idea was that the best gift we can give to those we love is to be healthy ourselves, so as not to worry them and interfere with their lives. Her points corresponded to the five fingers of the hand: breath, because if we do not breathe well, we become ill; movement, because life is movement and if we do not move freely, we remain stuck in our neuroses; plants – yes, plants – which should constitute the biggest part, if not the only part, of our nutrition; forgiveness, because in dragging our resentments around with us, we live in the poison we ourselves produce; and love, love, love, in all its forms: the highest value. For Laura the body was of central importance: it is the starting point. She used to quote William Blake: "Man has no body distinct from his Soul; for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses".

Aldous Huxley was the great nephew of Thomas Huxley, who fought to make people understand and accept the theory of evolution of his great friend Charles Darwin. It is said that when he first read Darwin's masterpiece The Origin of the Species, in a moment of surprise and dismay he exclaimed: "How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that before!" His public meeting with Bishop Wilberforce is legend. The bishop began to tease him, asking him if he was descendent from the apes in his grandmother's or his grandfather's line. The answer is history: "I prefer to descend from apes rather than be a man who obscures the truth." I regard the evolutionary perspective a milestone in the history of thought, an essential element for understanding our place in the cosmos.

Aldous Huxley was also known for being among the first to experiment with psychedelics such as LSD and mescaline, describing his impressions in the book The Doors of Perception (Blake again: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern"). His idea was that psychedelics could become the basis for a deep exploration of oneself, and could facilitate the "visionary experience" that gives access to true understanding. "Visionary" implies seeing something that others, who may be dulled, distracted or otherwise limited, do not yet see. His vision included the possibility of transforming our society by helping people to open their mind, and by showing them the stunning beauty of the universe and of their inner world.

I also took LSD, under Laura's guidance. It was "Sandoz LSD", at the time when the big pharmaceutical firm of Basel was still producing that substance: it was therefore guaranteed pure, which is of no small importance. In my opinion psychedelics must not be taken flippantly, but only with the support of someone who knows what she is doing, and with the intention of exploring oneself and the world. What struck me under the influence of LSD was the ease with which I could see inside people and understand their hidden insecurities, their anger, their secret hopes, their embarrassment, the beauty of their soul – with a transparency at once terrifying and sublime. The beauty of nature was striking: to see, for example, a butterfly moving slowly in the air, as if it were the very essence of all butterflies; or a flower, as though it were a gift from a god who truly loved us. Music also moved me, especially Bach: it acquired astonishing depth and transformed itself into wondrously interwoven tapestries, of which I felt myself a part. When I looked at myself in the mirror I saw myself becoming a woman, an old man, a wicked and sick wretch, a handsome youth with great radiance and spirituality, and then straightaway a hairy, apelike hominid, a Tibetan monk, a Greek shepherd, or a young Chinaman. I saw myself in countless roles and in all stages of life – almost icons of previous incarnations. Then I came to what seemed the supreme realization, that which in Zen is called satori: the experience of coincidentia oppositorum, the unity of opposites, the oneness of myself with the whole universe in the Eternal Now. At least that was how it seemed to me.

Whether LSD can provide the supreme spiritual experience or only an imitation, is still in dispute. In those days Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, which I will soon tell you about, used to say LSD was like taking a helicopter to the top of a mountain: you will still have to learn how to climb all the way up there on your own. Certainly for me it was an illuminating experience that opened the door for me to a vast, subtle and wonderful world I had previously ignored. Yet on the subject of LSD I must say: it is neither necessary nor sufficient for personal and spiritual growth; I do not recommend it, nor do I advise against it, for the simple reason that no definitive recipe can be given which can be valid for everybody alike. LSD can be useful for some but dangerous for others, though surely much less dangerous than some substances that are freely available, like alcohol.

In America I had the opportunity to spend time at the Esalen Institute, the first site envisioned as a place for the exploration of human potentialities. There I participated in a seminar by Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy, an elderly man who went around always with a Gauloise cigarette in his mouth, his beard untrimmed, and wearing a jumpsuit. Perls did individual sessions only before an audience, as in a theatrical show. If you wished to work, you had to go on stage, where Fritz would use the chair technique. You sit on a chair, imagine that on the opposite chair is, for instance, your mother, or your brother, or the cat you dreamed of last night, and you talk to her, him or it, saying all that you feel in that moment: rage, nostalgia, love, fear; you then move to the other chair, become the other, and reply. This is it in a nutshell, but the essence was that Fritz had a miraculous ability to see – and touch – your raw nerve, and thus dismantle your psychic armour. The participants went in succession onto the stage, shouted, cried, collapsed in despair, trembled with fear, went out of their minds, within moments had sudden striking insights about their existence. I was terrified. As a young philosopher, raised in an academic environment, how could I expose my most intimate emotions in such a therapeutic show?

That this fear stopped me from going on stage and working with Fritz Perls is one of the big regrets of my life. Still, I did it in other seminars, with other Gestalt therapists. From Fritz I learned the importance and the beauty of raw emotion; of looking at what is happening in the here and now; of eschewing the traps of intellectual explanation; and I also learned the organismic vision of the human being, the awareness that "the body never lies", the challenge of being transparent to another person: and thus being authentic. In the States I also met Ram Dass. He had been a lecturer in psychology at Harvard University, but had later been expelled because he promoted the use of LSD as a way for freeing the mind. He then went to India and found his guru there and had a deep inner experience and came back spiritually regenerated. He had (and has to this day) quite a following because he spoke about the timeless sacred with a contemporary kind of language and a phenomenal sense of humour. One of his books is Grist For the Mill: all experiences of life, including the toughest, are occasions for learning and progressing on our spiritual path. But just meditating is not enough. He emphasized the beauty of service and caring for others: Sometimes a spiritual path of meditation and inner journey can be masked selfishness and complacency. From him I also learned to read and reread the great classics of spiritual literature. I was already familiar with material such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Diamond Sutra, the Tao Te Ching, but one can always find more in them. These works were becoming more and more of a light on my path.

Ram Dass's presence is beautiful; he radiates great warmth and intelligence. I have many wonderful memories of meeting him, and one curious recollection. I had gone to a public meeting led by him. He had talked the whole evening, and with others had chanted devotional prayers from the yogic tradition. At the end he was literally full of light. You could see the light radiating from him and from others who had accompanied him. When it was over he had to go home, and in those years whenever he came to Los Angeles, he was Laura's guest, so we went in the same car. When we reached Laura's place it was time to go to sleep. Ram Dass walked towards me: he wanted to tell me something. I looked into his eyes: he was clearly in a high state of consciousness. He came close to me and said: "Do you have a couple of aspirins?" The request had a big effect on me. What is this? I thought an expanded state of consciousness was a guarantee of invulnerability. Yet even at those levels one was still susceptible to the inconveniences of ordinary life. Not even the Spirit could offer indemnity.

Years ago Ram Dass accepted my invitation to come to Florence, where he gave a lecture at the Cenacolo di Ognissanti with the beautiful fresco by Ghirlandaio in the background. The next day we went to Fiesole, and I remember his joy in visiting the convent of Saint Francis and the monks' cells – he was in his element. For many people spirituality is rigid, oppressive, boring and unnatural, perhaps because it has been inculcated in them. Ram Dass has the gift of making it irresistibly fascinating, like a trip to a wondrous land, and at the same time our most natural possession.

Now back to Aldous Huxley. I had met him in New York when I was nine years' old, during my first visit to the States, and when he was not yet Laura's husband. Later I met him in Hollywood, and also when he and Laura came to visit us in Italy. My sister and I, then young children, were struck by him. He was a very tall, kind man, who had a peculiar elegant gait, spoke perfect Italian with a slight British accent, and had immense knowledge. Years later I read that some children met him in the street during one of his walks in the Hollywood hills, and asked him: "Sir, are you the man from outer space?" That made perfect sense. What impressed us was his inexhaustible wonder at the world. He often said "incredible" and "extraordinary", because everything amazed him. He would always carry with him a magnifying lens to peer at whatever he was curious about. One day when he was at the table with important fellow diners I (still nine years' old and having eaten earlier with the other kids) found a strange hairy insect in the Hollywood garden; I put it in a box and took it to show Aldous, to the great embarrassment of the other guests. He took the lens out of his pocket, looked at it, and, with his benevolent, aristocratic stance exclaimed : "Most extraordinary!"

I recall an interview he gave in Turin, in which he said that the only way for us humans to save ourselves was to cultivate love and attention. I was fourteen at the time and could not fully understand the import of this statement, but it has stayed with me all my life: love, in the sense of kindness and benevolence and care for others; attention, meaning awareness and the capacity to live in the present, as indicated by Buddhism and other spiritual traditions.

Aldous was interested in everything that could realize human potentialities (he was one of the first to use the term, coined by psychologist Gardner Murphy). On the subject he wrote Island, a novel about a society which puts into practice ideas and methods from every tradition and civilization, that aim at making us more aware and capable of living a full, happy life. But it was not so much a matter of technique after all. Some journalists later interviewed Aldous and asked what he thought was the most effective method for developing human potential. He answered: "It is embarrassing to say so, but after all my study and reflection, the best advice I feel I can give is simply to be just a little kinder." These words inspired me many years after to write The Power of Kindness.

Aldous has had a huge importance for me. I had the privilege of editing his Santa Barbara University lectures (published in book form as The Human Situation), which summed up his worldview. In the opinion of Yehudi Menuhin, great violinist and friend of Aldous, to listen to his lectures was like listening to beautiful music. These lectures have recently become available as a podcast on the website of UCLA Special Collections. Besides Island, a book of his that was greatly influential for me was The Perennial Philosophy, where he endeavoured to extract the common nucleus of all spiritual traditions. He saw clearly the risks and shortcomings of institutionalized religion; but what he deemed crucially important was the original inspiration from which religions sprang: the transpersonal experience of union with the all, enlightenment. He wrote this book during the Second World War. In that dark and savage time of hatred and warfare, Aldous tried to discern the most profound teachings that could unite humanity.

Another Englishman who emigrated to California and whom I had occasion to meet several times was Alan Watts, who wrote great books on Zen and was a brilliant, knowledgeable speaker, always ready with a witty provocation or a surprising statement that would displace your mind – and give you an insight. I recall a lecture in which he said that a spiritual master was like someone who steals your gold watch and resells it to you at a high price – but had he not stolen it, you would never really have had conscious possession of that watch. Another time he listed the basic questions of our existence: "Who are we? Where do we come from? And who is going to clean up the mess?" . Once he and Aldous met at a restaurant in San Francisco. Aldous had what he himself called "an encyclopaedic ignorance", he knew everything about any subject, whether it happened to be Rembrandt's Polish Rider, Brahms's variations on a theme by Haydn, the Palio of Siena, the various etymologies of the word pontifex: he could speak like an expert on just about anything. It was awesome. Alan Watts was no less. They started chatting about this and that, moving through various topics. Suddenly they realized the whole restaurant had fallen into silence. Everyone was listening, fascinated, to their conversation.

We now come to a decisive meeting. To work with Roberto Assagioli, founder of Psychosynthesis, was a milestone for me, and I speak of it in greater depth elsewhere in this site (Psychosynthesis). He gave me a framework for all I had learned to date and what I was to learn later, and he has been the main source of inspiration and guidance in my life. When I met him he was old – a true sage. With him, and with his other collaborators, I would meditate at noon and in the evening. Often the theme was the infinite and the eternal. Assagioli had procured a light blue globe with all the stars; it could be illuminated from within, a kind of cosmic map he kept on his desk. When it was on, it diffused a pleasant blue light in the room. The idea was to see life's events, all our troubles, messes, problems and arguments, in the perspective of eternity. This has the effect of making us not take them – or ourselves – too seriously. And whenever anyone got married, Assagioli invariably gave him or her the star globe as a present. At the end we would recite the great Buddhist blessing: love to all beings, compassion to all beings, joy to all beings, serenity to all beings. One time, while I was meditating with him, I opened my eyes and looked at him. We had reached the "Joy to all beings" part, for which we had to visualize radiating joy towards all sentient beings. I saw that Assagioli was radiant. However, he became aware that I was watching him, and opened his eyes. Thus, looking into each other's eyes, we met in joy. It was a state of pure, open happiness. From then it would often happen that, when we came to joy, we would open our eyes and meet on that wavelength.

In my life I think I have met three people talented in psychotherapy – because it is undoubtedly a talent, like mathematical or musical talent – Fritz Perls, of whom I spoke earlier, Virginia Satir, pioneer in family therapy, and Assagioli. All three healed people, or helped them see and free themselves of their neurotic habits, but they did it in completely different ways. Fritz had a miraculous ability for seeing the weak point of your neurotic makeup, and with a simple act he could remove it and in seconds dismantle a structure that had been formed over many years. You could see people change before your very eyes. It was incredible.

Virginia Satir made you do a kind of psychodrama in which you had to play, explicitly and symbolically, your family's interactions. When you did this, a light went on in your mind and you understood it all. But you have to know how to do this kind of work – if you do it right, it is liberating, otherwise it is a waste of time. On one occasion I was Virginia Satir's subject for a demonstration – I was not working on a problem of mine, or at least so I thought. It happened during a conference in which at some point the theme was "giving too much love", or the overprotecting kind of love, which oppresses children. Virginia organized a role-play on the spot. I was the child. Four others were the adults who anxiously loved the child and fed him with enthusiasm. They had a huge spoon a meter long – it was proportionally the size of a normal spoon for a child. They started giving me virtual food, exhorting me with great enthusiasm to eat "because you have to grow big", like people often do with children, instead of letting them eat what they feel like, at their own pace. After a few seconds I felt like a child in a state of panic, confusion, saturation, and I understood exactly how not to feed children. I also saw that what happened to me on stage was a replay of what - in a milder version - had happened to me when I was a child. Oh, and, I almost forgot: this took place before two thousand people. That's how Virginia Satir did therapy.

Assagioli had a different way again of healing people. He radiated a wonderful loving warmth, a joy that made you feel better simply by being in his presence. When you are in such an atmosphere, you suddenly realize that your problems are not as terrible as they seemed; you do not feel judged, you feel all right just as you are – that by simply being, you are well and happy. The content of what was said was important, but much less than you would think. What really counted was the relationship between two human beings, a relationship in which you were seen not as you saw yourself, but as a Self, with all its vitality and the joy of which you were deep down capable, your talents and your life's potentialities, and all in the context of a living cosmos. That was how Assagioli worked.

At one time Assagioli achieved a degree of fame overseas, far more than in Italy, and various people came to meet him. Lama Govinda came while Assagioli was spending a few days at Castiglioncello on the Tirrenian coast. Lama Govinda had written books on Tibetan Buddhism, and had made available to the public its forgotten teachings. Assagioli and Lama Govinda were puny, frail old men with white beards and an air of wisdom about them. For Lama Govinda Tuscany was a stop on a long journey. To reach Italy from India, where he lived, had taken him five months, because he believed plane travel, by cancelling distances, generated a sense of cultural and spiritual displacement. He came with his wife, a very simpatico Indian woman. I drove them around part of Tuscany. In those days I used to get up quite a speed (now I am a snail). At one point I looked in the rear vision mirror and saw a very frightened Lama, so I immediately slowed down. I was struck by the fact that even Lamas can get scared.

His meeting with Assagioli was a great piece of theatre. Lama Govinda was slowly climbing a staircase with friends, Assagioli was waiting at the top and began going down the stairs to meet him. He had asked me: "Should I greet him the Oriental way, with hands clasped, or the Western way, with a handshake?" A fair question, seeing as Lama Govinda was actually a German scholar transplanted in the East. I said he should greet him with hands clasped. When the meeting took place, Assagioli gave him the Oriental greeting, but Lama Govinda extended his hand. So Assagioli started to give him his hand, but meanwhile Lama Govinda had decided to greet with hands clasped. It looked like a strange ritual: East meets West. The conversation began and Lama Govinda pointed out that the concept of will in psychosynthesis was similar to that of the Buddhist virya, inner strength. After a while the two asked to be left alone. Someone secretly put a cassette recorder near them to tape the conversation. Some time later the two of them came back looking radiant and resembling each other even more. Incidentally, both were hard of hearing, especially Assagioli. The conversation, which had been recorded, was totally incoherent. But in this dialogue the two men had met on another level, ineffable and luminous and timeless, a sphere where words and concepts no longer count. And they had evidently had a wonderful time.

Among the people who came to meet Assagioli in that period was Betty Friedan, American feminist and author of The Feminine Mystique. The meetings took place as follows: a group of people would meet Assagioli in the morning. In the afternoon, it would be my turn to teach and practice psychosynthesis exercises with them. I do not recall the exercise I assigned that day, but I still remember the effect it had on Betty Friedan. She said she visualized a wondrous rainbow – a rainbow that united men and women. While she described it she was radiant; for her it was a true discovery. In that time of radical opposition between the sexes, such an idea was highly significant. Betty Friedan began to be curious about psychosynthesis. Assagioli asked his secretary and priceless collaborator Ida Palombi to give her some of his writings, so I went up to Ida and said: please, give her anything but The Psychology of Woman and her Psychosynthesis. This was an old and out-dated piece by Assagioli. Besides, it had in it an unfortunate statement: "Woman is the queen of the home" – words that make you cringe. When Ida gave the writings to Betty Friedan, what was on top of the pile? You guessed it: The Psychology of Woman and her Psychosynthesis. And from that day Betty Friedan vanished.

It is a pity because towards the end of his life Assagioli expressed some interesting concepts on the topic of gender identity. In his view, each of us, before becoming man or woman, is a Self. In short, a part of us is not conditioned by gender. The Self is the timeless part of us, beyond the emotional fluctuations, free of beliefs, and beyond roles. And it is not determined by gender. It is what Zen calls "our mind before we were born".

Assagioli's teaching on the Self echo the ones from great spiritual traditions. For instance, Shankara says in the Vivekacudamani: "The Self (Atman) is supreme, eternal, indivisible, pure consciousness, one without a second. It is the witness of the mind, intellect and other faculties. It is distinct from the gross and the subtle. It is the real I. It is the inner Being, the uttermost, everlasting joy."

The idea of the one Self is the best remedy for any type of racism or discrimination. They say that Shankara met at some point a Chandala, an untouchable. The man, together with his four dogs, was blocking his way. Impatiently Shankara signaled him to give way: that was common custom. But the Chandala told him: "If there is one Self, how can there be distinctions of caste and creed?" Shankara was struck by those words, and prostrated himself before the Chandala.

Being in touch with the Eternal Now of the Self also enables us to look at the human lifespan, from infancy to old age, in a less dramatic and apprehensive way: they are just a passing show, not the real thing. And in the midst of our busy existence, stimulated and distracted by all sorts of engagements, ideas, attractions and distractions, the possibility of coming back to the timeless silence of the Self is a most helpful means for not falling to pieces.

Back to important teachers I have met on my path. Also influential was my meeting with Moshe Feldenkrais, with whom I did an intensive five-day course in Los Angeles. His body work is genial: just as the mind can lock itself in rigid and repetitive ways of thinking, so can the body adopt fixed postural habits, thus reducing many of its possibilities. Through specific exercises you can learn to perceive and move the body in a new way, and so increase its range of movement, multiply its possibilities, and generate wellbeing. Feldenkrais was a meticulous teacher. If he saw a student getting an exercise wrong, he would scold her and then ask her to repeat her mistake, inviting the others to see what she was doing: come and see! How on earth can anyone make such a mistake? It was perhaps funny, but also embarrassing for the victim. At some point he saw a woman breathe out through her mouth, while keeping her lips almost closed and forcing the breath out, like blowing a raspberry. He noticed it: How can you do such a thing – make two parts of your body fight each other? For the lips to stop the breath was a contradiction! At the end of his lessons, however, everyone felt lighter and more agile, and found that living in a body need be not a condemnation but a pleasure.

In California I also met Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen monk who founded the Tassajara convent. The title of his book says much: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. His teaching is that to understand something we must start from zero. We must be a beginner. Only thus do we have an open mind. If we think like an expert, and believe that we know it all, there is no possibility of insight. This is particularly true in my profession, psychotherapy, where, rather than knowing it all and inserting a patient in a pre-packaged diagnosis, you have to start over each time, because each one of us is an unrepeatable universe, incomparable to others. When I tell my students that in our work we are all improvisers and must start from the beginning every single time, it often irritates them or fills them with dismay. What do you mean, after all we have learned you come and tell us we don't know anything? Exactly: That is just how it is, and it is not my fault if we are made this way.

Back to Suzuki: I took part in one of his meditation courses. When it was finished I got up and left before anyone else. That was an inexcusable blunder of etiquette. The Master was supposed to leave first, before all his disciples. After a few seconds I saw Suzuki come out, and walk by in front of me. He gave me a look I will never forget. It was the glance of a samurai indignant at the offence, but at the same time it was the amused look of the sage, who sees the whole world, the interactions between people, their games and values, their hopes and failures, as an illusion. It was as if he were saying to me: We must respect the rules; but let's not take them too seriously. It was then I realized that the real mark of a sage is not the proffering of solemn and grandiose teachings, but being ever in touch with that special, gentle sense of humour able to look at everyone's life with calm detachment and with the inward smile of one who is truly free.

At this point we come to a hurdle. My wife Vivien, my ever-challenging muse, having read the first version of this piece, says: "I am not convinced. You want to describe how we become part of each other's being, yet you do not write about your family, me, your friends, and other people such as Roberto and Neda." I protest: "But that way it would be an endless list: I would have to talk about too many people!" And she says: "This is just too highbrow." Me again: "But what you are suggesting is difficult, uncomfortable; and too intimate. You know how shy I am in speaking about private matters." But Vivien has the gift of "quiet insistence", as she calls it. If she remains unconvinced, she will not change her response one iota. "It may well be uncomfortable, but that is how I see it."

That is how Vivien is. She will put money in the parking meter even when she thinks nobody is going to check. If she finds that a T-shirt is made by an unethical company, she will take it back to the shop. And if you quote something or tell a story that is not exact or true, she will tell you so, because for her to keep quiet in such instances would be offensive to truth. Vivien cannot suffer gossip, spite, jokes in bad taste, and exaggeration. For her, what is true and right always takes priority – over, for example, dramatic effect, or the need to impress – even when it would be much easier to gloss over. And she does not stop at reasserting truth. She will also try to clean up a relationship and remove traces of contamination. If a shopkeeper treats her rudely or rips her off she will deliberately go back. Not to remonstrate, but to make friends.

In my case another factor comes into play. Vivien's criticism reminds me of the time I was writing my book The Power of Kindness. After reading the first draft, she said: "It is too didactic. Rather than a book about your thoughts and experience, it is an impersonal treatise on kindness." Thus I rewrote the book, and her words revolutionized my way of writing. I thought I could get away with an explication of ideas; but warmth and presence were missing. This was not simply an editor's good advice: it was an aid for being true to myself. Now, in this piece you are reading, I was repeating my former mistake (old habits die hard). To put me in touch with my feelings, and share them with others in my writing and in all other sectors of my life: this is no small thing. It is guidance in finding my heart.

In the early days of our life together I took a photo of Vivien while she was drinking tea. The cup was on a white table in front of her. I liked that photo because it expressed her taste for perfect simplicity, which is one of her basic traits: the simplicity of a piece of prose pared down to the essential, or of meditation on the breath, or Mozart's Sonata Facile, which she used to play on the piano. Something I have learned from her is precisely this simplicity of taste and ideas. When I married Vivien, I felt Australia become part of me, the perfume of eucalypts, the beauty of the ocean; and also the universe of her friends and Hungarian family in Sydney. When we were just married it seemed to me she had very little: she had come with just a suitcase. "Don't worry", she said, "nineteen boxes are on their way". Perfectly reasonable. But the arrival of the boxes was a small shock. It was then I realized I had also married those nineteen boxes; they too were mirrored in the spheres of Indra. I think that with a wife more than with anyone else we see how each of us lives inside the other, and therefore carries inside him his microcosm of people, tastes, beliefs, feelings, memories, objects, landscapes, and boxes.

Because she has taken this path with me, been my partner through a thousand experiences, produced children with me – and also books, given that she has translated mine and I have translated hers – has endured me with my moods, and because we travel, step by step, the odyssey that is our every day, I feel for her the sentiment that is my very favourite: gratitude. It is a sentiment that never leaves me. It us like a beautiful, safe place to which I can return whenever I want. Even when I am furious: it just takes a bit more time.

Let's be clear though, I still think marriage is a dangerous sport. It has gone well for me, but I dare not imagine how it might be if it had not. My advice to those who wish to marry, in short, is: do it only if you cannot do without it. Do it only if you are convinced (to use the legal formula) "beyond reasonable doubt".

I will not talk here about our sons Emilio and Jonathan, because they brought such a tremendous revolution that, if I were to start to talk about it, I would have to write a book, in fact I have written it: What Our Children Teach Us. Being a father is a challenging job, and my kids are exacting, yet I am happy with the result. I once said to Jonathan, my younger son, when he was little: "I find you to be a very strict son". He replied: "You'll thank me one day".

If I were to write about all my friends throughout my whole life, there would be too much to say and I would almost surely leave some important ones out. I shall speak only about the ones I met around the nucleus of my formative years, from '69 to '74, the period of my study with Assagioli. One who has had great importance is Diana Whitmore, from whom, after Assagioli, I have learnt the most psychosynthesis. We have created and taught hundreds of workshops together, endlessly exchanging and discussing ideas and techniques. To see her at work – the way she intuits a person's predicament in a flash, and says the word that unblocks him – has always been a revelation. Diana is a peculiar person. She will not allow you to rest in your ways and habits, and the minute you get too pompous, she will not let you get away with it. She had a disconcerting habit: sometimes when we led workshops together, if I would make a speech that was a bit too high-flown, she would burst out laughing. And when she stopped, everyone could see she was barely controlling herself and would expect another outburst. This threw me into a state of total embarrassment. I would not know what to do, since despite anything I might say, the earnestness of my teaching had by then gone out the window. Diana spoke once of having visualized the wise old man (a psychosynthesis exercise). She had gone to meet him, dressed in a sacred white garment, but the old sage had a basketful of strawberries, which he threw at her, staining her sacred dress. The message: do not take yourself so seriously. I sometimes had the feeling Diana was doing that with me. Diana has a son, Jason, who, together with Karen and my own sons, has been among the most important children in my life. I often carried him on my shoulders when he was small, and he used to like messing my few remaining hair. One day we were talking about the way babies a few months' old are often bald, as he had been too. He remained silent. I could feel him thinking, while lightly touching the top of my head. After a few minutes he asked me: "Are you a baby?" A perfect syllogism. At that moment I realized how small children see the world: as a mysterious place to be explored and to be made sense of. We used to play a game we called "little man". This little man was made simply of my pointer and middle finger, which walked, jumped, talked, got angry, in short, was just like a man. This went on for a while, but at one point Jason went to wake his mother up in the middle of the night to tell her his great discovery: "The little man is just fingers!". A striking example of children descending from the world of imagination and magic to that of reality. Children are extraordinary beings. How true what Doctor Seuss once said: grown ups are "obsolete children".

Among the friends who have taught me the most are Alberto (Alberti), Andrea (Bocconi), and Massimo (Rosselli), with whom I shared the study of psychosynthesis and the collaboration with Assagioli. We used to meet regularly in the evening for case inter-vision. Alberto is a person who says things that perhaps do not seem to make much sense, but years later you will remember them and realize he was right. I collaborated with him for years at the Centro Studi "R. Assagioli", which we founded together with Chiara Uderzo after we left the Istituto di Psicosintesi (in 2001 I went back). It was a huge experience in building and organizing a project, and in presenting ourselves to the world. Alberto's thesis was that we had to move at the speed of the slowest member, whereas mine was to go at the speed of the fastest (Alberto was right.) He was always suspicious of any kind of exaggeration, above all spiritual exaltation. For him, true spiritual experience is peaceful, never exalted. With the keen intuition of the psychiatrist he immediately sniffs out anyone's lack of balance or hidden weakness. In psychosynthesis we have the exercise of ascent, symbolizing the rise to a higher state of consciousness. What does Alberto do? He devises the exercise of descent: we have to get back down to earth. One time we had to present our newly born Centro to the public. I wrote an article entitled: "Psychosynthesis for Growth", or something of the sort. Alberto said: "Add to the title: "and for Harmony". He thought that growth is sometimes like the toad in Aesop's fable: it grows and puffs up so much that at some point it bursts: inflation, madness, disintegration. "But harmony is already contained in the concept of growth", I said. "No, put it in anyway – you never know." So I added harmony.

Andrea I met during my military service, in the fencing team. He became so interested in psychosynthesis that he went to meet Assagioli and later to study with him. He had just graduated in Law, and asked Assagioli if he should be a lawyer. Assagioli simply said "no", and so it was. The day I saw him the happiest is perhaps when he returned from India the first time. It was like Hermann Hesse's journey to the East, a journey in the spirit, and at the same time a dive into the Indian world, with which he has had an undying affinity. Elsewhere (in a preface to one of his books) I wrote about the mind-frame of the fencer (for Andrea a central element, for me a less important factor). Here I want to add an essential point. A fencer must live in the present and be able to seize the decisive moment. If he attacks a millisecond too early or too late, he fails. If he seizes the moment, he wins. This is kairos, the right moment. In Ancient Greece it was pictured as a young boy, poised on one foot on top of a sphere, with a tuft of hair in front, and bald at the back. that if you do not catch it straightaway, you cannot catch it a moment later when it has fled. I believe this is a crucial teaching in the art of fencing, and can be extended to all of life. Andrea always has something beautiful to mention or show to me. Be careful of what you say about Lucca, his hometown! He once showed me the Guinigi Tower, as though it were his own. It is an astonishing tower: right at the top is a huge tree. Beautiful!

Massimo Rosselli is perhaps the one who knows most about the interactions between body, emotions and mind. Even if I have heard him speak formally, what I have learned from him has reached me imperceptibly, through a phrase he has dropped, or a look, or tone of voice. For him the spiritual Self is a Self that does not live in an abstract light, outside all dimensions, but is incarnated in the electrochemical processes of the brain, in every heartbeat, in digestion, the muscles, the breath, the genitals. How do joy, or anger, or anxiety, become physical processes? How do the highest spiritual intuitions form part of our very cells? And how is the whole cosmos mirrored in our organism? From Massimo I have also learned respect for institutional precision, for following the rules meticulously. Surely this counts too, because we are in a game, and must follow the rules. Yet Massimo will suddenly do as he pleases, as for instance when he drove on the wrong side of the road on El Camino Real, the main artery of North California, and the police pulled him over and hauled him before a judge, who did not want to let him return to Italy. How he reconciles in himself the anarchist with the academic, I'll never know. Yet he does it.

Among my earliest colleagues I would like to include Sascha Doenges, the person who most embodies in perfect balance the qualities of gentleness and kindness on the one hand, and strength and decisiveness on the other. Sascha dresses with style and elegance, and furnishes her home just as beautifully. She surrounds herself with hearts – in the form of chocolates, cushions, paintings, carpets, boxes, crystals, photo frames, cards – all heart-shaped because for her the heart is where it's at. Yet if you talk with her about anything technical, such as photography or computers, you find she knows a lot and is at home also in these colder, more impersonal fields. The best example I have of her qualities is when I really understood the essence of what helping is. I was organizing an international congress in which, even with the aid of good collaborators, I was trying to do it all myself, for the plain reason that I cannot easily delegate. People were coming from twenty-four countries, and to complicate matters I had recently married. Many willing people came to me and asked if they could do anything to help. I did not know what to say, and the very question made me feel tired and moreover wasted time. Sascha asked nothing. She simply acted. She looked about to see what needed to be done, and did it. Placing labels – done. Distributing brochures on tables – done. Writing up the names of the speakers - done. That is the perfect help: to observe, intuit the need, do what has to be done – and all in silence.

Among the people who are in some way part of my life, I want also to mention the Dalai Lama. I have never met him in person, other than to see him speak at a couple of conferences. Yet I am immensely grateful to him. A few years ago, when I had finished writing my book The Power of Kindness, I wrote to him, asking if he would write a preface. His secretary immediately wrote back asking me to send the text. A commission approved it, and passed it on to the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile I had prepared a specific email address just for receiving the preface. Each day I looked: "You have 0 new emails". But one fine day, before taking the kids to school, I checked the mail. I remember that day very well. It was a lovely morning, the Tuscan countryside was draped in a light mist, though it was May. I looked at the screen. It said: "You have 1 new email". It was the preface. To receive the Dalai Lama's preface to your own book is a memorable experience, especially when that preface does not consist simply in a few lines of general agreement, but is a detailed and original text. Thus the Dalai Lama gave me a wonderful lesson in kindness and humility. He had read the manuscript of a stranger, and had dedicated time to writing a beautiful preface. This is a perfect example of his motto: "My religion is kindness" – a maxim that has always impressed me. It is one of those statements we need to refer to every now and then, especially at the times when we don't quite know what to think or do.

Music has always been vitally important in my life. I believe in what Beethoven said: "Music is a revelation higher than all wisdom and philosophy". Music allows us to know realities we cannot otherwise conceive. I have also been one of those obnoxious fathers who thinks his children have great musical talent. I have therefore had occasion to mingle in musical circles. Emilio, my firstborn, studied violin for a long time, and left it because mathematics engrossed him more to the exclusion of just about everything else. As a small child he had extraordinary sensitivity to the quality of sound. Once he complained that his violin was making a strange noise. His teacher examined it carefully, but found nothing awry. Emilio, however, was still not happy. In the end we found, inside the violin, a tiny breadcrumb that had almost imperceptibly changed the quality of the sound. The violin had become a character in our home, a member of the family, and had to live with sandwiches and the crumbs that ended up inside it.

Another person who has crossed my path in these last years, and from whom I have learned a great deal, is Giovanni Carmassi, pianist and piano teacher. I am not a musician, though classical music has always been a passion for me. Put a score in my hands, and it is Chinese to me. True, I had taken piano lessons as a child; but the results were discouraging. Instead my son Jonathan has graduated in piano performance from the Florence Conservatory, where he was taught by Carmassi, whom I regard an exceptional maestro, as well as a thoroughly delightful and original person. Not long ago I proposed writing a book of interviews with him, in which I would ask questions about his ideas, his didactic methods, and his conception of music. For me it was a privilege: I, a non-musician, have been let into the secret world, where pianists prepare a musical piece. According to Carmassi, a piece must not only be studied, but must be re-created inwardly, just as actors prepare a "third being" (as Diderot called it in his Paradox of Acting), who is the idea of the character they want to play. One of Carmassi's best talents, in my opinion, is teaching his students how to extract an amazing variety of sounds from the piano. It is far greater a question than: one key = one sound: the piano has in it all the sounds of the orchestra. Writing a book with the Maestro has helped me deepen my understanding and appreciation of music in ways I never dreamed of.

On the subject of music, there had been for me another important meeting in the past: the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin. He was a friend of Laura, who herself often spoke of him with great admiration and fondness. She saw him as a high example of humanity, one in whom art turns into an ethical attitude and an ability to be universal. "He plays violin, but he could have done anything else, and done it just as well", she used to say of him. I met him personally a couple of times only, but I felt I knew him all along through Laura. One evening in Switzerland I went with Laura to a concert in which a talented thirteen year-old cellist played a Tartini concerto. And at this point I cannot resist the temptation of telling you about an episode that has little to do with my formation, but I still want to mention it. At the concert, in the audience, was an elegant lady. Seeing her, I thought: this face is familiar. Indeed it was Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of U.K. Thatcher had always supported Menuhin's work of promoting young talent. She came to that concert with a bodyguard. And where did she sit? Right in front of me! During the adagio, there was a thump. Her handbag fell and landed right on my foot. I bent down to pick it up and give it to her, but the bodyguard sitting next to her, a wooden individual, was faster than me, and gave me a look as if to say: buzz off! The bag was surprisingly heavy and, were it not for my foot, would have been a noisy accompaniment to Tartini's concerto. Since then I have occasionally wondered: what was it that made that bag heavy? Was it a lady's machine gun? A bottle of whisky? A device for activating nuclear missiles? This could be some kind of projective test.

But here a doubt arises in me. I have mentioned many famous people. I would not want to use name-dropping to brag. If I have met extraordinary people, it is no merit of mine. I have simply been lucky, that is all. This bio is a reflection upon the mysterious and unpredictable paths of life, and upon the ways these paths intersect, upon how each of us lives in others while others live in us, and upon memories lasting and continuing to develop within us. What is most important to me is to speak of what I have learned. I am disconcerted, even though somewhat amused, by the politicians who, in TV debates or public declarations, sometimes turn to their adversary and haughtily say: "I do not accept lessons (… in justice, democracy, freedom, etc.) from you", as if accepting a lesson were some sort of dishonour rather than a privilege. Years ago when my book What Children Teach Us came out, a well-known psychoanalyst reviewed it on the radio. It was a deadly put-down. Among other comments, she said: we must not give children a teaching post. But I do not consider learning from someone the same as giving them "a teaching post". It is to receive from someone what he alone knows or is, at least in that particular and unique way. To learn from others is a way to participate in the multiplicity and richness of the world.

To end, I would like to mention Roberto and Neda, two people very dear to me. In the thirteen years we lived in the country, we would have been totally lost without them, because it really was country. For us, coming from the city, it felt like being out in the wild. Roberto and Neda had always lived in the country, and the two of them were our guides: they were crucial to us. Both were from the Casentino. Neda used to tell us how, when they were young, the family would bake bread in the huge oven on Sundays, and that bread would have to last them through the week. There was little else to eat. When we met them, she made the best tomato sauce of all. The reason it was so good had to do with Roberto's tomatoes, grown in a vegetable garden that seemed a cathedral. I asked Roberto who taught him to create such a beautiful and productive vegetable garden. "My father taught me", he said, "and his father taught him", and so on. You could probably go back to ancient Roman times. When I say that others live in us, I mean the whole microcosm. And so, for example, Roberto is not just a guy I have met, but is one whose care of the olive trees on the wonderful hills near Reggello, where we then had our home, lives inside me. Witnessing those tomatoes in his vegetable garden grow fiery red in the August sun, watching Roberto worry over the clouds that threaten a storm, seeing him hoe the earth, break it up and fertilize it, seeing the lettuces and fennel grow, and living in a world that is still cyclical, with the grape harvest in late September, the olive-picking in November, and the garden's end in December; and making that divine elixir that is the region's extra-virgin olive oil, at once rustic and refined – all of this microcosm transfers to me and is reflected in a thousand other microcosms; and somehow my microcosm (I suppose) transfers to Roberto and there continues its life. Thus identified with one another, the destiny of each of us is interwoven with that of others, like the details of an immense tapestry, whose design we largely ignore; and it makes me wonder what possible use it is for us to compete, eye one another churlishly, make war, spread spiteful gossip, and try to outdo one another.

And the answer is, nothing. Absolutely nothing.