Carl Jung and his concept of individuation

“Grapes want to turn into wine.” – Rumi

The line above could very well have been uttered by the Swiss psychiatrist and the father of analytical psychology, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Jung believed that the basic tendency of the human soul (or psyche) is towards wholeness. This wholeness, or individuation, is understood as an increased integration of our so-called “good” qualities (i.e., the aspects that our ego identifies as “I”), with the dark or “bad” parts (the shadow; which the ego says are “not I”). Whatever shadow elements are still unintegrated in our psyche (i.e., not accepted as part of “I”) will have to be projected outside on other individuals, institutions and cultures. In Jungian understanding, this disowning and outward projection of parts that truly belong to us is what causes neurosis (“neuro”: to do with nerves; “osis”: abnormal condition). Thus, the goal of Jungian analytic psychology is an increased capacity to accept and integrate formerly disavowed parts of ourselves, and thereby to heal our neurosis and become individuated (i.e., undivided).

Self: our "God within"

Jung defined this larger container that includes both our light and our shadow as the Self, which can be understood as the “God within.” Based on his extensive research on a variety of religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Gnosticism and indigenous/animistic traditions, Jung was convinced that what he defined scientifically as the “drive toward individuation” was the same drive that mystics in all these traditions have described as the search for the divine, which in turn, is a journey to the center of our souls. In fact, it is Jung’s belief in the essential need for a spiritual quest as the only means to truly transcend suffering that lies at the root of the twelve-step philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, and all its following derivations.

Ideas of consciousness, the personal and collective unconscious, shadow and anima/animus

Jung’s concept of individuation can be more generally defined as psyche’s tendency to bring together pairs of opposites, and to hold them in dialectic tension (they both exist; neither is lost or “cured”). Whereas above I have described these opposites as light and shadow, they can be conceived of, just as well, as conscious and unconscious, or masculine and feminine. Typically, what we are conscious of is what is “ego-syntonic” (i.e., our ego is comfortable with identifying as “I”). The unconscious, in this scheme of understanding, can be divided into the “personal unconscious” (memories or tendencies that have been suppressed or repressed, because our ego cannot yet accept them as part of who we are), and the “collective unconscious,” which is a substratum of unconscious energies or drives (or “instincts”) that we all share as our common heritage of being human. Jung called these instinctual patterns that live in our collective unconscious as archetypes. Although their specific form may be culturally colored, we all share the same essential archetypes – some of the common ones being the hero, the mother, the wise man or woman, the trickster, the child etc. In this sense, both the Self and the Shadow, as described above, are archetypes of the collective unconscious; so are the basic imprint of our opposite gender in the form of anima (for men) and animus (for women).

Jung believed that the best way for us to access the various archetypes – for the purposes of integrating aspects of them into our concept of Self – is by means of studying their projections in daily life, but more potently, in world religion, mythology and folk tales, as well as in our individual dreams and fantasies.

Gods as archetypes

In order to understand Jungian spirituality, one approach would be to nominally equate the theological construct of “gods,” to the archetypes of collective unconscious. For example, in this scheme, Yahweh may be considered to be a representation of the Father archetype, and Durga would be a representation of the Mother archetype. For a cultural coloring on the archetypes, one may consider Mary, Durga, Kali, Kwan Yin and Gaia, as all archetypes of the Great Mother. Similarly, the Greek god, Hermes, as well as the animal, coyote, embody the Trickster archetype.

"Numinosity" as a quality of archetypes

In Jungian understanding, a spiritually potent archetype has “numinosity.” Numinosity is a complex word, whose definition varies substantially depending on usage. Derived from the Latin word “numen,” it means an image or symbol that has the power/presence/realization of divinity. In addition, Jung believed, like his contemporary, Rudolf Otto, that a numinous experience invokes a “mysterium tremendum” (i.e., a tendency to invoke fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (i.e., the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel).

Thus, in Jungian analysis, the spiritual journey involves engaging with numinous archetypal images and working to integrate them into our sense of Self (i.e., our conception of the divinity within). The numinous archetypes may arise spontaneously in night dreams or fantasies (which may be facilitated by active imagination, lucid dreaming, shamanic journeys, spiritual practices typically involving repetitive and rhythmic movements such as whirling, drumming, “daven”-ing etc.), or may be drawn from religious or mythological stories and symbols.

What does "integration" of an archetype really mean?

It is important, however, to understand the idea of “integration” of these extremely potent numinous archetypes in a nuanced way. An archetype is an ultimately “unknowable” energy or instinctual pattern, which is met by our psyche in the form of symbols or images. Thus, for example, a complete merging with the archetype of Kali or Christ will cause an “inflation;” which is a “possessed,” psychotic state. In fact, such possession by archetypal energies is also often seen as a result of moving “too far, too fast” on certain religious paths such as Tantra or shamanism. The goal of Jungian spiritual journey is, for the lack of a better word, an integration of a paradox – “it and its opposite.” For example, if I can identify with Kali but also simultaneously with Kwan Yin, i.e., the feminine maternal energy both in her creative and destructive forms, I am less likely to become one-sided and thus destructive to myself or others. Another way that Jung and the later Jungians have understood integrating the numinous is to use yet another definition of the numinous as the “wholly other” (i.e., an image or symbol with whom one may relate, and as our work deepens, the “angle of relating” may change; but we never completely become one with that symbol). In this sense, the very process of a spiritual journey, that necessarily involves an engagement with the numinous, is a work that requires and depends upon our ability to hold a paradox – to embody completely the numinous energy by integrating it into the Self, while simultaneously relating to it as the “wholly other” (which Martin Buber famously described as the “I-Thou relationship”). We do neither one – solely; we do both. And that is the koan that Jungian spirituality leaves us with.

Image details: Carl Jung understood a mandala as a visual symbol for the Self. A mandala is a circle with no beginning and no end, but one that can nevertheless provide a container for all its constituent elements, which can be held within it in a I-thou dialectic. Jung encountered mandalas in many religious traditions, as well as in the artwork that he and many of his clients produced, as they moved ahead in their healing journeys. The above (computer-generated) mandala holds in dynamic tension pairs of symbols. Specifically, there are a total of four, or multiples of four, of each symbol, which invokes Jung’s powerful concept of the Quaternity as a symbol of completion. Jung understood the most powerful mandalas as representing “the squaring of a circle” (i.e., holding within a circle the most stable organization of pairs of opposites).


.comment-controls {display:none;}