Far too many of us are oblivious to the dangers that some of our behavioural patterns pose to our long-term well-being. Instead of facing up to our problems, we either try and convince ourselves that our issues are trivial and so can be ignored, or we pretend that the problems do not exist at all. We can only delude ourselves for so long, as eventually what were once manageable problems turn into problems of unmanageable proportions. For this reason, Carl Jung maintained that a crucial first step toward self-improvement is simply to become more aware of the reality of one’s situation.
Jung, however, is not unique in this respect as many philosophers and psychologists, both past and present, share in this view. Where he is more unique is in his belief that not only do we have to overcome our ignorance regarding the reality of our external situation, but just as importantly we need to become more aware of what he called the reality of our psyche.
“What most people overlook or seem unable to understand is the fact that I regard the psyche as real.” (Carl Jung, Answer to Job)
The psyche, in Jung’s view is not merely a by-product of a certain configuration of matter. Rather the psyche is an irreducible, a priori fact of nature that should be considered as real as the physical world, and just as impactful to our overall well-being. Most people, however, know little of this world within.
One reason for this lack of knowledge can be attributed to our Christian heritage and the associated belief in an omniscient god who not only knew if we were committing bad deeds, but also if we were thinking blasphemous thoughts. While belief in such a god has dwindled, there remains a tendency to repress elements of our personality which run counter to the moral system of our day and thus to strive for a type of moral perfectionism.
Jung was no proponent of this ideal. Striving after perfection is like chasing after wind and far from making us better people it in fact greatly hinders our development. The more we strive for perfection, the further we fuel our dark side and lose control over how it manifests itself in our day-to-day actions. In addition, if we constantly repress thoughts which run counter to the dominant moral system of our society, we will never reach the deeper layers of the psyche, an awareness of which can often substantially improve our lives.
“One should never think that man can reach perfection,” wrote Jung “he can only aim at completion – not to be perfect but to be complete. That would be the necessity and the indispensable condition if there were any question of perfection at all. For how can you perfect a thing if it is not complete?
Make it complete first and see what it is then. But to make it complete is already a mountain of a task, and by the time you arrive at absolute completion, you find that you are already dead, so you never reach that preliminary condition for perfecting yourself.” (Carl Jung, Visions: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1930 -1934)
The task of striving toward completeness, or what is also referred to as “wholeness of the personality”, was of such great importance that most of Jung’s career was dedicated to exploring this process, a process he would eventually call individuation.
Jung did not use the term individuation until 1921, however the seeds of this idea reach back to his doctoral dissertation. In this dissertation, titled, “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-called Occult Phenomena”, Jung attempted to explain his observations of a medium who claimed to interact with spirits during seances. To account for this Jung hypothesized that the manifestation of these spirits was the result of “splinter personalities” which lay dormant in the unconscious mind of the medium but which were somehow brought to her conscious awareness by the act of the seance. Rather than accepting that these “splinter personalities” emerged from within, from the reality of her psyche, the medium believed they were spirits manifesting themselves from a realm independent of her.
As Jung’s study of the psyche progressed he came to believe that the experience of this medium was but one example of a more general phenomenon. All of us have unconscious components which reside dormant in our psyche and as Jolande Jacobi explains in her book The Way of Individuation:
“. . .it remained Jung’s untiring scientific and psychotherapeutic endeavor to work out a methodological procedure for bringing these components to consciousness and associating them with the ego, in order to realize the “greater personality” which is potentially present in every individual.” (Jolande Jacobi, The Way of Individuation)
It is important to note that the individuation process, according to Jung, is something that occurs naturally, and does not require any initiation by the individual. As we age, the depth and complexity of our consciousness increases, whether we are intentionally striving for this outcome or not. The natural individuation process, however, does not advance in a smooth and uninterrupted manner. Rather it often comes to a halt, or develops in a way unconducive to mental health. When this happens, it is imperative for our well-being that we reignite the process and return it to a healthy course of development – and this, the assistance or promotion of the natural individuation process, is the main goal of Jungian psychotherapy.
A good way to understand the natural individuation process, which just happens, and the more conscious way of individuation which Jungian psychotherapy promotes, is to consider the analogy of the human body. Our physical bodies grow and develop on their own without requiring our conscious awareness. We can, however, take a more proactive, conscious, stance towards our physical development by exercising and eating properly. In the same manner we can be more proactive in terms of the development of our psyche by taking certain measures which help to accelerate the natural process of individuation:
“The difference between the “natural” individuation process,” wrote Jung “which runs its course unconsciously, and the one which is consciously realized, is tremendous. In the first case consciousness nowhere intervenes; the end remains as dark as the beginning. In the second case so much darkness comes to light that the personality is permeated with light, and consciousness necessarily gains in scope and insight.” (Carl Jung, Answer to Job)
The best method to accelerate individuation is to record and analyze our dreams over an extended period of time. Jung was greatly influenced by Sigmund Freud’s work on dreams, but his views evolved and eventually came to differ in fundamental ways from those of Freud. Both Jung and Freud agreed that dreams were a product of the unconscious. Where they were to differ, however, was in their conception of what the unconscious was expressing through our dreams.
“For Freud,” wrote Robert Hoptke “the dream was a psychological mechanism that functioned to preserve sleep by expressing and thereby discharging unacceptable, unconscious wishes in disguised form.” (Robert Hoptke, A Guided Tour of the Collected Works of C.G. Jung)
It was Freud’s claim, that dreams are disguised expression of the unconscious, which Jung found untenable. Dreams according to Jung are not hiding anything, rather they are undisguised and spontaneous symbolic representations of the unconscious, or as he wrote:
“[O]ur dreams are like windows that allow us to look in, or to listen in, to that psychological process which is continually going on in our unconscious.” (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934–1939)
The reason many people have trouble making sense of their dreams is because they do not understand the language of the unconscious mind, which is purely symbolic. In his attempt to decipher this symbolic language, Jung noticed a remarkable similarity between the symbols expressed in the dreams of many of his patients and those found in the mythologies of cultures past and present. To account for such similarities Jung proposed that the unconscious mind contains transpersonal, or universal elements which are heritable and the product of one’s biology, not their personal experience. The commonality in symbols found in dreams of different people, and in myths of cultures past and present, can be attributed to the fact that they are manifestations of these “identical psychic structures common to all”, which Jung would call the archetypes. The word archetype in Greek means “prime imprinter” and as a colleague of Jung’s, Aniela Jaffé, explained:
“With respect to manuscripts [the word archetype] denotes the original, the basic form for later copies. In psychology archetypes represent the patterns of human life, the specificity of man.” (Aniela Jaffé, The Myth of Meaning)
Individuation, therefore, is the process whereby one becomes increasingly conscious of the symbolic manifestations of the archetypes, thus gaining knowledge of the timeless “patterns of human life”. This knowledge is of great value for it provides us with an awareness that many of our problems are not unique to us, but common to all of humanity. Simply knowing that we are not alone in our suffering can often have a therapeutic effect as it provides us with a new perspective:
“What, on a lower level, had led to the wildest conflicts and to panicky outbursts of emotion, now looks like a storm in the valley seen from the mountaintop. This does not mean that the storm is robbed of its reality, but instead of being in it one is above it.” (Carl Jung, Alchemical Studies)
For those who wish to begin on the conscious path of individuation the first step is always the same, we must as Jung put it “divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona” (The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious). The persona is the social mask we wear to fit into society. Its formation begins early in life as the pull of conformity causes us to identify most strongly with elements of our personality which are in harmony with the social values of our day, while rejecting those that clash with social norms. The problem, however, is that many people reach a point where they believe they are the social mask they wear and in so doing they cut themselves off from the deeper realms of the psyche. It is imperative, therefore, for anyone who wishes to take the conscious path of individuation to accept that their social mask represents but a sliver of their total personality, for as Jung explains:
“[O]ne cannot individuate as long as one is playing a role to oneself; the convictions one has about oneself are the most subtle form of persona and the most subtle obstacle against any true individuation. One can admit practically anything, yet somewhere one retains the idea that one is nevertheless so-and-so, and this is always a sort of final argument which counts apparently as a plus; yet it functions as an influence against true individuation.
It is a most painful procedure to tear off those veils, but each step forward in psychological development means just that, the tearing off of a new veil. We are like onions with many skins, and we have to peel ourselves again and again in order to get at the real core.” (Carl Jung, Visions: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1930 -1934)
Paintings Used in the Video