Individuation as a daily practice and ethicStephen Farah
Individuation is the principal psychological and ethical imperative of Jungian psychology, and, in this respect, it goes well beyond a narrow clinical or pathological application. Although Jung was a psychiatrist, his research and work as a physician of the soul goes well beyond the crucible of analytical practice. Concern for the soul of the subject does not stop at dealing with mental disease or facilitating normal functional adaptation of the subject to the world. Whilst addressing the pandemic of mental dis-ease and distress is obviously both necessary and legitimate, in some sense this latter goal of normative adaptation might be seen as reactionary. It isn’t the best light within which to view psychoanalysis, and I like Jung on this,
“Consequently, there are just as many people who become neurotic because they are merely normal, as there are people who are neurotic because they cannot become normal. That it should enter anyone’s head to educate them to normality is a nightmare for the former, because their deepest need is really to be able to lead “abnormal” lives.”
– Jung, C.G (1929). ‘Problems of Modern Psychotherapy,’ in The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol 16. The practice of psychotherapy.
The wider application of Jungian Psychology and Jungian Studies has developed a greater appreciation over the last few decades with the application of Jungian theory to wide range of social issues and cultural artifacts. Of course, it must be said, this application of psychoanalysis to culture predates its specifically Jungian application and has a rich history since the mid to late 20th century. In addition, the publication of Jung’s Liber Novus, The Red Book, and the scholarly work that has sprung up around this text, has contributed significantly to the appreciation of Jung as much more than (just) a psychologist, in the narrower sense of this term. It would not be going too far to say that Jung can be regarded as a visionary and spiritual guide of the modern era. In this sense, without meaning to take away from Freud and classical psychoanalysis, Jung goes further and his impact as a teacher and guide of the inner life is considerably greater.
My own engagement with and teaching of Jungian psychology has emphasised this idea of individuation as a central, even cardinal, ethical imperative, and Jung’s teaching and a form of contemplative practice, or theoria. In my own life and practice this has been through a fidelity and adherence to individuation as my primary and foundational ethic. In my teaching this has been through a focus on the application of the theory in the lives of the students, rather than as a form of purely theoretical instruction. The value of individuation, and much else Jung can offer the sincere student, is to be found in the personal experience of the subject rather than in its abstract formulations.
Jung on individuation
Before we go any further though, as an important and perhaps salutary reminder, let’s take a brief look at how Jung describes individuation. Naturally these are only a few very brief passages among Jung’s extensive writing on the topic. However, I hope these offer a sense of the ground we are talking about when we think on or invoke the idea of individuation.
“In India, as with us, the experience of the Self has nothing to do with intellectualism; it is a vital happening which brings about a fundamental transformation of personality. I have called the process that leads to this experience the “process of individuation…. In alchemy there lies concealed a Western system of yoga meditation, but it was kept a carefully guarded secret from fear of heresy and its painful consequences. For the practising psychologist, however, alchemy has one inestimable advantage over Indian yoga its ideas are expressed almost entirely in an extraordinarily rich symbolism, the very symbolism we still find in our patients today. The help which alchemy affords us in understanding the symbols of the individuation process is, in my opinion, of the utmost importance. Alchemy describes what I call the “Self” as incorruptible, that is, an indissoluble substance, a One and Indivisible that cannot be reduced to anything else and is at the same time a Universal, to which a sixteenth-century alchemist even gave the name of filius macrocosmi. Modern findings agree in principle with these formulations.”
– CW16 ¶ 219-220
“The natural process of individuation brings to birth a consciousness of human community precisely because it makes us aware of the unconscious, which unites and is common to all mankind. Individuation is an at-one-ment with oneself and at the same time with humanity, since oneself is a part of humanity. Once the individual is thus secured in himself, there is some guarantee that the organized accumulation of individuals in the State, even in one wielding greater authority, will result in the formation no longer of an anonymous mass but of a conscious community. The indispensable condition for this is conscious freedom of choice and individual decision. Without this freedom and self-determination there is no true community, and, it must be said, without such community even the free and self-secured individual cannot in the long run prosper.”
– CW16 ¶ 227
“Dear Frau V.,
Your questions are unanswerable because you want to know how one ought to live. One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way for the individual which is prescribed for him or would be the proper one. If that’s what you want you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell you what’s what. Moreover, this way fits in with the average way of mankind in general. But if you want to go your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other. If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious. Then it is naturally no help at all to speculate about how you ought to live. And then you know, too, that you cannot know it, but quietly do the next and most necessary thing. So long as you think you don’t yet know what this is, you still have too much money to spend in useless speculation. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.”
– Jung Letters 1 ¶ 0
To briefly synthesise what Jung is saying in these passages above: he is characterising individuation as a type of Western yoga, with the roots of its practice to be found in (Gnostic) alchemy. That individuation seeks the realisation and constellation of an incorruptible centre or “filius macrocosmi”, which Jung names the “Self”. Jung describes individuation as a conscious participation in the community of an individual, aware of him or herself as both an individual and a member of the community, capable of free choice, and able to hold their centre against the totalitarian impulse of the State and mass-mindedness. And finally, in the letter above, Jung characterises individuation as being able to naturally follow one’s own path without needing the endorsement of any external authority as to the right thing to do for oneself. In other words, being attuned to and following an inner soul impulse, to be “internally referenced”, in the true sense of the phrase.
The problem of measurement when it comes to individuation
The above said and acknowledged, there are a few challenges to consciously living an individuating life. “Consciously” being the key signifier here, unconscious individuation of course, proceeds by its own course.
“a few challenges….”, I must laugh at myself and this turn of phrase. Frankly speaking, to strive for individuation as a guiding ethic requires enormous moral fortitude, a robust sense of self, and a rare capacity for imagination and symbolic consciosness. I state here only the most obvious requirements, if I were to list everything one needs, I fear you may lose heart at this early stage of our discussion and so will stop there.
The above qualification made, I want to emphasise some of the less esoteric and more practical challenges around the practice of individuation.
To some degree the problem is immediately evident in the very notion of it being a practice.
Individuation might be and often is thought of as something that occurs spontaneously to the subject without any conscious guidance or engagement. As Jung puts it, “if you want to go your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other.” However, I think such a characterisation fails to account for conscious subscription and adherence to it as guiding principle for the subject. In other words, to put it more simply, one cannot advocate individuation as a principle and simultaneously not offer or think about a manner or method by which such principle is actually meant to be/ideally lived by the subject. Or at least such is my own view on it.
The difficulty with following individuation as a principle is primarily one of measurement.
It is all but impossible to genuinely know whether one is making progress on the continuum of individuation, let alone how much progress one may be making! This is clearly evident when one considers the life of historical personalities and asks the question, does their life demonstrate the principle of individuation? Was this person’s life an example of individuation? If you haven’t already considered this, I would encourage you to attempt it. Consider an array of historical personalities and interrogate their lives and legacies, by asking the question, did this person individuate in the sense Jung intends the term “individuation”.
The short answer is, there is no obvious answer.
We can evaluate historical personalities lives in terms of achievement, folly and even, although admittedly more challenging, their virtue. However, the question of whether any particular life was individuated is much more challenging. I won’t go into the reason for this at length here because that will take us wide of the mark and intention of this post, which is rather to offer an alternative approach to individuation. I simply make this point to emphasise that if is difficult to evaluate individuation objectively in the other, it is even more challenging when considering your own life!
Adding to this challenge of accurate measurement is the problem of time. When we speak of individuation we are usually thinking about its unfolding over a lifetime, or certainly a significant portion of a person’s lifetime. This creates a problem with perspective and any sort of objectivity. The challenge being the rather obvious problem of not having wide angle or macro perspective when embedded in the immediacy of your daily life. We lack an Archimedean point outside of the world and lives we are living, from which to objectively evaluate their telos and merit.
The above said, I must concede that these challenges whilst real enough are not absolutely the case. As human beings we are endowed with the facilities of abstraction and objective evaluation. We are not completely lost to our subjectivity. Were that the case, any discussion of individuation would be wholly pointless, and, along with Jung, I would argue that is not the case. That said, the issues I have raised are sufficiently the case so as to make discussion about and evaluation of individuation in your own life challenging at best.
Simply put, its not easy to know at any one time how you’re getting on with your project or process of individuation.
Individuation as a daily practice
Let me now come to the heart of the matter and the intention of this post, to speak of individuation as a daily practice and ethic. To put this another way, I want to offer you an alternate way of thinking about and practicing individuation to the way it is ordinarily and typically conceived of.
This idea came to me whilst running The Secret of the Golden Flower (SGF) workshop in 2020. I have been running workshops inspired by the SGF text and Jung’s accompanying commentary on the text since around 2008, so for about 15-years. The essence of the teaching by Master Lü Dongbin in the text of the SGF is the continuous practice for 100-days of a breathing and meditation technique, as described in detail in the SGF text. When I offered this as an online workshop in 2020, I started to conceive of this daily ritualistic practice as a daily focus on individuation.
Whilst this this idea of individuation and its relationship to the SGF text is already explicit in Jung’s original commentary and had always been foremost in my thinking about, teaching and application of the text, something changed for me during the 2020 process. I started to recognise in the daily ritual of the SGF microcosmic orbit meditation an opportunity to reconceptualise and recalibrate individuation itself as a daily practice.
Hopefully this line of thinking will become clearer as I unpack this idea.
Before I do though, let me add that this way of thinking about, reimagining and re-symbolising individuation has proved revolutionary in my own relationship to and practice of this psychological and spiritual imperative. And, at the risk of immodesty, this is coming from someone who, since encountering the idea, around a quarter of a century ago, has dedicated himself to it with unwavering mind and steadfast heart.
Whether or not it- conceptualising individuation as a daily practice, will have a similar benefit for you the reader remains to be seen. I guess you would need to try it and see how it goes to find out. I imagine its efficacy and value will vary widely across multiple individuals. However, it has proved so priceless for me and for a handful of people who have given me ongoing feedback after the first time I spoke about this in 2020, sharing it publicly like this now seems appropriate and hopefully valuable.
The essential doctrine of this practice of individuation is shifting your perspective from that of your entire lifetime to a single day.
This is the application of the Taoist idea of the resonance between the microcosm and the macrocosm, or in Hermeticism “as above so below.” The idea and principle this is built on is uncontroversial. A lifetime is made up of x number of days, over sufficient time those days and their content are your individuation, or, to put it another way, your individuation is nothing but the content of those days.
If the idea speaks to you and you grasp its basic philosophy – which at the risk of presumption, I imagine most would, that is all you need to apply this approach or theoria. The exact practice you follow can and probably should be idiosyncratic and personal. Nevertheless, I will share some further reflections on how you might think about and approach this. Please take from it what is worthwhile for you and discard the rest.
There are I believe a few virtues and benefits to this approach.
I suppose one might speculate that there are some drawbacks too, but I will leave that to my critics to point out, as they no doubt will. I will list the more obvious and significant of these virtues, but what follows is by no means a complete list.
Shifting your focus from “your lifetime”, which for all intents and purposes is an abstraction and about which clarity of thought, evaluation, and, for most mortals, purpose, is both challenging and highly speculative, to a daily practice, allows: the abstract to become the empirical, the speculative to become the actual and the hypothetical the definite. Simply put, it solves or if not solves, which may be hyperbole, certainly vastly assists with the measurement problem I addressed earlier in this post.
More importantly perhaps than addressing the measurement problem, the daily practice of individuation allows you to engage with individuation in the immediacy of today. It makes it real in a way it could never be as an abstract ideal. toward which, hopefully, your life is moving.
By now, it may have occurred to many of you reading this that there is another precedent for this way of thinking, much closer to home than the SGF text. That is of course the ethos of Bill Wilson’s Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) – don’t drink today! This idea is woven into much of the life philosophy and rehabilitation in the AA. I recently came across an AA anecdote by a good friend of mine, Chuck McCray, that illustrates this approach very well, I quote,
“There is an old joke in AA circles: who has been soberest the longest… (folks will start to bring out their “chips”) but then some wise old-timer will ask, “what time did you get up this morning?” and then the punch line is: the earliest up is soberest the longest, ’cause recovery is a one day at a time program… that’s it genius, in my mind. I am sober today, that’s really all that’s import… the time spent is just tools in the toolbox, but today alone marks me as sober.”
That this resonance and mutual sympathy exist between Jungian psychology and the AA is unsurprising given the origins of the AA and the archived correspondence between Bill Wilson and C. G. Jung.
The mindset I adopt, and some reflections you might consider, with respect to this daily practice is along the following lines:
- What does individuation mean and look like for me today?
- If I shift the entire focus of my consciousness to today, view it as a lifetime or life cycle of its own, and then live it with the intention and ethos of individuation: what choices do I make, what do I do, what don’t I do, and what consciousness, ideology, attitude and relatedness do I bring to bear on this day?
I could continue with this list, but I trust the above is sufficient to give the flavour and sense of the approach. The key factor to keep in mind should you adopt this approach is that it centres on your individuation, i.e., the unfolding of your unique, idiosyncratic, and subjective self. It is not a subscription to an external set of mores or normative aspirations. It is about your individual journey, desires, dreams, and process.
It must be said here that a fair amount of reflection on the idea of individuation and its possible trajectory in your own life is an essential prerequisite to meaningfully enter this process. I don’t mean by that that you need to have conclusive answers to these questions, but as a minimum, that your reflections on them should have begun in earnest prior to seriously embarking on this process. To put this another way, possibly this doctrine of daily practice is more appropriately aimed at and valuable to those more familiar with Jungian theory and practice, than the complete neophyte.
I won’t go into any more of the fine-grained detail of the methodology I have developed or more modestly, am developing, with regards to this practice, for now. This has been a long post and I don’t wish to impose on your attention much longer than I already have.
I do want to conclude though with one more essential factor in adopting this approach and that is the issue of wholeness and completeness rather than perfection. In order for a practice like this not to become an even greater entrenchment of egoic consciousness and identity, which is antithetical to Jung’s idea of individuation, the practice must be one which opens a dialogue between the ego and unconscious or soul of the subject. There are different ways to think about and approach this, naturally my own approach is steeped in Jungian theory, but as the saying goes there are many roads to Rome. Whichever road you choose, I wish that the road ahead rises up to meet you. I hope this post has been of some value to you and fertilises your reflections on the profound, and I would go as a far as to say, sacred, question of your own individuation.
Until we speak again,