You can either be good or whole, but not both
– C. G. Jung.
In this post I examine the Jungian concept of individuation. I will consider what Jung meant by this idea, some of challenges to this idea and how one can practically approach such a goal.
This is the central goal of Jungian theory and practice. The idea is that each of us has an innate individuality. That we come into the world with a specific character, a soul imprint if you will. The goal of individuation is to become yourself. To realise your authentic self, within your inner world and in the expression of that authenticity in the outer world.
There is a critical component in conceiving of such an idea. That is, that you have a soul and that your soul is in a sense not of this world. This is to say that you are not merely a product of your environment.
It is possible to conceive of the idea in a different sense less metaphysical, that you have a unique DNA structure at birth which determines what is optimal and authentic for you. However for reasons I won’t go into here there is something missing in this way of conceiving the idea.
This is an unabashedly romantic idea in a post modern world. The world today is designed to tell you the opposite. That you are in fact not an individual but rather a member of your society, which in turn, is a member of the global society. That you emerge from and are formed by your cultural, historical and social context.
In a world of six billion plus people it is getting a little crowded to tolerate individuals.
What the world wants is groups who move in harmony with the larger whole, who through their individual action give rise to a convergent and consistent identity which belongs essentially to the group and not the individual.
Socially and certainly politically this may make sense, however it comes at a cost. Not to put too fine a point on it the cost is your soul. Assuming you even believe you have a soul, naturally is not a belief that is encouraged. Because if you have a soul you may be concerned about it, you may seek to follow an inner imperative which challenges the absolute authority of the state and its instruments.
In other words you may become a problem .
Some challenges to this Idea
When you really get down to the nitty gritty of figuring out who you are it is an exceedingly difficult task, both practically and philosophically.
Philosophically the question is what is innate?
What can you honestly say about yourself that is not obviously a product of your environment- your immediate environment and the meta -environment? Even if you are able to identity something about yourself which is not a direct consequence of environmental conditioning we can explain this as a genetic predisposition. Meaning we can reduce it to the meta environment and decide about its merits based purely on utility- does it serve you or not, which is to say does it serve you within your environmental context, which is to say does it serve your environment? So you return full circle to where you started.
An example of this is your instincts, we all have them, they seem to operate for the most part along similar lines and we have figured out how to accommodate them within our society, albeit imperfectly. The point being you cannot rely on your instincts to in any way differentiate yourself, they possibly more than anything else bind you to the group.
Practically finding your authentic self can also prove problematic,
and trust me I speak from experience in this regard . As you discover if you travel this route, figuring out who you are and what you want is no mean feat. Your authentic self (if it even exists) is a slippery customer!
I am willing to wager that there are very, very few things you can say about yourself with real certainty. Note I am not talking about your instinctive self but about your soul.
If you can say something with real certainty I am going to suggest you are not thinking hard enough about it. I could be wrong; of course you may have discovered the bedrock of your authenticity. But at least consider the possibility that this is a conditioned desire and sufficient consideration may bring its validity as a true expression if your individuality into question.
So you might reasonably ask at this point why with these problems acknowledged do I continue to write about individuation and why for that matter does Jungian psychology continue to be practiced?
Well the short answer is because the idea seems to work.
The process of individuation seems to occur and some people seem to be a lot more individuated than others. However I’m not sure that this is entirely satisfactory answer and so I will say one more thing about why it may be a valid idea.
Truth is a strange commodity we have the idea that we posses it when we don’t. Language is a limitation in attempting to grapple with the truth. Truth exists latently prior to language and ideas, these ideas represent truths not THE TRUTH. Wisdom is realising the difference between knowledge and truth.
You cannot arrive at the THE TRUTH purely through a rational dialectical process, sometimes you need to abandon reason in order to transcend the limitations it places on you. The functions of feeling, sensation and intuition are also needed to arrive at a deeper understanding of the truth.
My question then is – does your intuition tell you that you have a soul and that that soul is worth caring about?
If not you can stop reading now.
The life of the soul
There is of course no formula here my friend, if there were it would defeat its own object. Your journey to your soul’s truth is of necessity yours and not mine, so what I have to say will be of limited value.
Nevertheless with every blog I write, I attempt to bring one of these tools to individuation to your attention. Sometimes it is destructive in that I hope to expose what I believe to be an illusion preventing you from realising the truth, and other times constructive offering a possible way forward.
As a regular reader of my blog you will know that I rarely speak from a position of absolute authority, this is because I don’t posses such authority. In this I differ from many others schools of thought, and if certainty is what you seek you will have no difficulty in finding many out there who are more than willing to offer it.
The best I can offer you is a possible way to yourself. I can help you through trial and error and hopefully together we can find the way. If it’s a map with GPS coordinates built in you are looking for I’m afraid you may be disappointed.
In this post I want to talk about one such technique which can aid you on your journey towards authenticity
One of the most valuable techniques I learnt from my Jungian mentor was the list.
The list is about what you want.
This is a deceptively simple tool for gaining insight into yourself, it seems very simple, easy, and obvious, but it isn’t. In fact it is so difficult that my teacher actually recommended three lists: what you want, what you don’t want, and what is necessity.
After having practised this technique for close to ten years what I can tell you is there is only one list that really matters, what you want
. In order to truly apply yourself and to do this with passion and with love, you need to really care about your goal, anything less than this is a pretence it is not worthy of you and your life force.
A good idea is to write the list down and to try and limit it in number. Naturally there is no magic number however if your list of wants exceeds twenty different goals you may be diluting yourself a little too much. I find generally mine are less than ten in number.
The more wants the less energy can be devoted to each one.
In applying this technique there are a few things to consider.
Your wants come at a price
and this is where necessity and don’t wants become interesting. For example I have left my home to come to England for six months and when I get home next month I will spend the follwoing six months working on my dissertation. (I am currently studying doing a Master’s degree in Jungian and post Jungian Studies at the University of Essex).
This meant leaving my home, my business, and my children for that time, not an easy or pleasant thing to do. I have young children and the time lost from them can never be made up. I had to make a choice about whether the goal was worth the price I had to pay. So real wants don’t mean putting on rose tinted glasses, they need you to understand and acknowledge their price, if after doing this you still want it (whatever it may be) then it is an authentic want.
If you find yourself floating from one desire to the next without real intention and perseverance then this is what we would call a whim rather than a want, as such it is inauthentic.
Secondly, and honestly I am going share something valuable with you here, something which it has taken me a long time to realise and for which I have endured much existential angst. Something which at the risk of arrogance I can say you could go through a lifetime quite easily without realising.
You will never ever know at the beginning of a project, be it what it may, whether it is an authentic want.
This has the following consequence assuming you are given to any degree of reflection; you are never sure if you really and truly want what you think you want.
Furthermore you can never know either. So if you find yourself plagued by a degree of ambivalence at the point of committing to a goal forgive yourself this ambivalence, it doesn’t mean you don’t want it, but rather only that you are sane.
Truly knowing that you want something with every single fibre of your being, without a shadow of a doubt, without any reservation, is inhuman. It is the province of the gods and the insane. I mean this quite seriously. A few people in this life seem to be born knowing what they want from life and never wavering from that path, these people are frequently the giants of the world, those who achieve spectacularly and whom we revere. However please understand they are slightly insane, and more than slightly unconscious. Craziness is a prerequisite for that level of achievement.
You and I are also capable of achieving great things, we truly are, but our journey is somewhat more ambivalent and somewhat more painful for that ambivalence. Doubt is the first sign of consciousness; certainty is the domain of the unconscious.
Don’t allow doubt to paralyse you. Better to do and err than not to do.
The last point I want to talk about is honesty. Unless you are going to be honest about what you want don’t bother.
Now you might say- be honest, of course I’ll be honest why wouldn’t I?
Well one of the reasons you may not be honest is because in each of us, with the exception of a few of the criminally insane, there exists a super ego. The super ego’s job is to keep us honest, not with respect to ourselves, but within society. The super ego is the voice which we carry inside ourselves which tells us what is right and what is wrong, and most of us use this with abandon on ourselves and others. The super ego is what lets us assume we know what is right and what is wrong.
When you are writing your list I strongly suggest you do not allow your list to be dictated to by the super ego. There is a difference between what you want and what you chose to do. When it comes time to deciding which of your wants to act on and which not to, then the application of the super ego is advisable otherwise we would live in anarchy.
However the first step is to figure out what you want, and for this it is essential that you are honest with yourself. This means not showing your list of wants to anyone, not your best friend, not your spouse, not your priest and not your therapist- it is your property no one else’s.
Admittedly there is God to consider, so you could say it is between you and God. But this begs the question from where did the want emanate if not from God? And I assume in asking this question, you have transcended the dualistic illusion of assigning everything that is not good and pure to the devil. For what after all is the devil but God’s other face?
Figuring out what you want, what you really and truly care about, is a keystone in the construction of your authentic self. It is also a critical step to becoming conscious. Once you know what you want and commit yourself to those wants your journey is underway. As we have said before the path has twists and turns and no one, least of all me, is suggesting it will not challenge you. Your wants may well change along the road and so you will course correct as this happens.
However it is only through knowing what you want that you will know you have arrived when you get there. And if you don’t get there, at least you will have spent your energy on something you truly care about, something in which you see the face of God.
Until we meet again.
Go in peace,
Really brilliant! Thank you. I will start my list tonight bearing in mind what I’ve learned within this blog