Individuation Process

Original Statue of Carl Jung in Mathew Street,...
Original Statue of Carl Jung in Mathew Street, Liverpool, UK (1988). Made of plaster, it was vandalised and replaced in 1993 - Rodhullandemu via Wikipedia

Individuation process is a phrase coined by C. G. Jung to denote a life-long process of self realization. For Jung, the goal is not necessarily the riddance of evil and Christian perfection, which he sees as a somewhat skewed approach, but rather, ‘wholeness.’ Jungians – that is, followers of Jung – strive to know themselves and to become fully responsible for their actions.

Individuation entails an increasing awareness of various personas and primordial/inherited impulses that can obscure but are also a part of the self. The individuation process is said to move through various stages, symbolized and possibly aided by esoteric systems such as kabbala, alchemy and the Tarot.

Jung says that individuation gives us a new perspective on the cultural relativity of social norms. Although one may become more introspective and even ‘removed’ at some point in the journey, this hopefully does not end up in mere neurotic withdrawal (and this is a point where much debate could arise).

Instead, individuation gathers instinctual and social forces into a greater, more expansive sense of self. In contrast to individualism, individuation ‘sees through’ social norms but, at the same time, doesn’t entirely reject them. In fact, Jung often seems to say that a successful life is one that adapts to society—at least, in some way (another point where much debate could arise).

To compensate for the guilt that comes from being different or from partially leaving social norms and expectations behind, the individuating individual feels that she or he must create something of value to atone for his or her departure. Jung, in a rather authoritarian manner, says society has the “right” and “duty” to judge the individual harshly if she or he does not produce such a compensatory work.

Jung’s view here seems to limit compensatory works to material objects that can be perceived through the five senses—that is, the ‘great compensation’ must be something that everyone can understand. In his Collected Works Jung jokes about Tibetan Lamas sending him positive thoughts from some remote hill station. But Jung doesn’t pursue the idea much further.

Not surprisingly, Jung rarely displays genuine appreciation for the idea of spiritual intercession and the transfer of sin. But he’s not totally out in left field here. His work on alchemy and the psychological dynamic of transference provides a glimmer of hope. Jung concedes that personalities may mysteriously intermingle. But that’s about it.

For deeply prayerful and contemplative people,  Jung may be seen as not totally “wrong” but definitely at a kind of kindergarten level with regard to the subtle dynamics of the spiritual life. The American guru Ram Dass implied as much in his work, and it’s likely that other contemplatives in diverse faith traditions would see it this way too.¹

However, Jung was often feisty and quick to respond to a challenge. Were he alive today, he’d probably retort that contemplatives are absorbed in, or identify with, a particular archetypal reality without being able to appreciate other perspectives. And in some instances, this too seems valid.

¹ In a recent article about David Cronenberg’s film A Dangerous MethodJim Slotek describes the Jungian idea of synchronicity as “Jungian spookiness.” But for contemplatives around the world and throughout history, meaningful coincidences are often seen as evidence of our essential interconnectedness and, in the largest sense, God’s plan. And for Catholics and other Christians, they could be evidence pointing toward the “mystical body of Christ.” As Colin Wilson once put it, they’re healthy, not scary.

Related Posts » Faeries, Karma Transfer

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