Sunday past I performed my first person stories from the life of Carl Jung, Imagining the World of Carl Jung. I have presented this work, perhaps fifteen times over the past five years. Each time I think it will be the last time to perform the work. I have never promoted it properly. I think there is a reason for this. I cannot decide who is the audience for it. I thought it would appeal to Jung groups around the country; and, I have performed for Jung societies in Boulder, Colorado; and St Petersburg, Florida. These groups were responsive, but I felt they were dissatisfied with my Jung who is more concerned with the human soul than the human psyche. I reminded them that my title does not suggest that it will present a biography of Carl Jung, but my imagining the life of a spiritual master. Other performances have been for small theater venues where the audiences have vaguely heard of Jung, but they have no familiarity with his ideas, and no strong interest in gaining an understanding. Sunday’s performance was for a small community of friends, most of whom are lapsed Irish Catholics of one sort or the other: artists, teachers, social workers, and other human service careers. Most had a working knowledge of Jungian concepts and a familiarity with the stories I shared in the performance. They appreciated my stories of spiritual angst and the struggle to create a personal myth – hardly a community easy to identify in twenty-first century America. So I think I will continue my serendipitous approach to promoting the Jung performance while pursuing other approaches to explore Jung’s teachings.
This difficulty in presenting Jung to the public leads me to focus on individual concepts from his thinking. For a year I interviewed people about Jung’s concept of “numinosity”(past essays and interviews have been shared on this blog). It was easy to find people with stories of numinosity, and this helped me to understand how different people approach experiences outside the temporal and rational realm. Recently I have considered talking with people about Jung’s idea of “individuation”. First steps in this direction have led me to think that this subject is more complex to present to people. A couple of weeks ago my wife, Nancy, and I had dinner with three acquaintances, not close friends. In the process of conversation I brought up the idea of individuation. I framed my description of the topic by saying, “individuation is looking back at our lives and trying to see the path we have traveled. We ask ourselves questions like: have I become what I was meant to be in my life? Have I achieved wholeness?” There was silence for a long moment. Finally, a man, who is a psychotherapist, said, “I don’t think focusing on the past, reliving old memories, is useful”. I was incredulous, but did not say anything. Another woman, who is making a new life for herself after the end of a marriage, said, “I don’t know, I need to think about that before I answer”. The other woman did not say anything, no outward response at all. I sensed that Nancy was mentally kicking me on the shins because again I was being too personal with people I hardly know. I came away from the experience thinking that I need to refocus my introduction to individuation, or pick a new subject to explore.
For the sake of this offering, I will try to refocus my introduction to the idea of individuation. Where do I begin? I begin with an awareness. For a number of years – I cannot say how many – I have been experiencing dreams in which I know something important for my life. I wake up and I cannot remember what I know. It may be this awareness – I am not certain of anything – that rekindled my interest in the study of Jung’s idea of the human experience. I imagine that it was this series of messages from the unconscious (Self) that birthed my idea of “stories for the last third of life”.
I will suggest that individuation begins with the idea that our purpose in life changes as we age. At birth we are one with the unconscious (Self). For the first half of life our purpose is to develop the small self (ego). This purpose is not because we want or should be separated from the unconscious (Self), but because we have been born, and human birth dictates that we must take this journey of life whether we want to or do not want to. In fact, we all hesitate at one time or another, but the journey is part of being human. So symbolically we set out on the hero/heroine journey through life. We bond with a human family: first we are a subordinate and dependent member; as we grow we establish ourselves and become supportive of other humans who are younger and in need of help. Somewhere in the middle of our lives we reach the zenith of small self (ego) development: our focus on living in the material, conscious, temporal, and subjective world of day to day life. Then one day something happens, we become aware that we will not live forever. Some day we must return to the unconscious (Self) again. If we are aware of this new reality, then we begin a process of reflection that will eventually lead us to the end of life.
Here is the difficulty, this reflection on the life we have lived. None of us has lived the perfect life. We all have suffered failure and pain, as well as success and elation. We have all fallen short of what we imagined we might be in this life. I agree with the psychotherapist- from the dinner party mentioned above- if what he was saying is that we should not get caught up in rehashing the negative of our past over and over again. This does not mean that we should never reflect on the meaning of both the positive and negative in our lives and try to find the wholeness they have created in our becoming the “individual” we are in this life.
How do I avoid a focus solely on the negative, and instead see the wholeness of the total person that I am? For me, it helps if I do not think of my life as a linear journey from birth to death. Instead I prefer the metaphor presented by Ranier Maria Rilke in his, Book of Hours: Love Poems to God.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
And I still do not know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?
For me, life is not linear, going from this to something better; there is no good over bad, no new that is better than old, no right that I recognize over the wrong in my life, no one wiser or smarter than others. Rather, I imagine that I circle around an axis, a center, call it God if you will, or just imagine it is the journey that we all take from birth to death. Sometimes I touch the axis and experience numinosity, often my life has strayed in widening circles around my axis and at times I have lost my way. Nevertheless, I continue to circle and I continue to ask questions about the who, what and where of my life. I will never answer these questions, but it is my purpose for being. Individuation is this process and the wholeness comes when I accept who I am as an individual…and perhaps experience a little of God’s grace in this being who I am….I want through my questions about individuation to continue exploring my own life and share with others who are also circling around the same primordial tower!