What is Individuation?

 The meaning of my existence is that
life has addressed a question to me
and I must give my answer,
otherwise I am dependent on the world’s answer.

— C. G. Jung

I often recall a scene from the movie “Hurlyburly” in which Sean Penn has a quasi nervous breakdown watching the evening news. As images of violence and catastrophe from one global hotspot after another flash across the screen, he is overwhelmed by all he feels he is supposed to take in. In despair, he begins wailing like a wounded animal: “What pertains to me? What pertains to me?”

The scene seems prophetic to me now. The film was made in 1999, long before the Internet had wired all our brains into a nonstop global newsfeed. The amount of information we absorb daily — about other people, other places, and problems far beyond our reach – has only exploded in the intervening years. It’s harder than  ever to know what pertains to us.

“You do you,” is a piece of chipper advice often given to those lost in the post-modern onslaught. And it sounds reasonable enough,  but is it really that easy? What does it mean to “do you” after all? And who are you anyway?

The rationalistic explanations of science are of little help in our attempt to find ourselves. On the one hand we are told we come into this life as a blank slate or tabula rasa, just waiting for our environment to inscribe itself on us. On the other, we are told our identities are largely determined by our genes. Sociology blends the two hypotheses – nature and nurture – showing how cultural, political, and economic forces influence and distort our inherited allotments of race, ethnicity or gender.  But  though all of these describe important layers of our identity, none accounts for the person who exists at the center of the onion — the unique individual you feel to be you.

Jung’s notion of the Self supplies the missing link. Like a quasar at the center of our being, the Self continually pulses its quantum frequencies out into the world. In the process, it magnetizes outer events and circumstances to us and shapes the course of our lives for good or ill. It is in this sense that Heraclitus’ maxim “Character is destiny” is true. Or as Jung has said,  “What happens to a person is characteristic of him.  He represents a pattern and all the pieces fit.  One by one, as his life proceeds, they fall into place according to some predestined design.”

Twenty-five years ago while studying in Zurich, I had a dream that seemed to capture something of this mystery of the Self. It was a simple image of a tightly wound spiral, like a coiled snake or ammonite fossil. Looking closer, I saw that it was actually a train, traveling in concentric circles out from its point of origin at the center. In the decades since, I have come to understand this image as a symbol of the psychological journey of life. Though I feel myself to be always pressing forward into the future, I keep circumambulating the same questions and complexes that preoccupied me in childhood. The circles may get larger and encompass more experience but they continue to orbit around those same core themes.

James Hillman uses a more down-to-earth metaphor to describe this kernel of individual identity. He talks about the acorn which carries in seed form our habits and mannerisms, loves and hates, predilections and passions. Given time and proper growth conditions, the image contained in the acorn unfurls, and is eventually displayed in the form of the full-grown oak tree that is one’s mature self. The process of growing this oak tree, becoming the person one was meant to become, is what gives meaning and purpose to life, Hillman writes. “For that is what is lost in so many lives, and what must be recovered: a sense of personal calling, that there is a reason I am alive.”

If the Self or acorn is such a powerful force, why isn’t it easier to recognize? For some perverse reason, we humans seem more inclined to look outside of ourselves for answers, fixating on how others go about their lives and believing that what is good for them will also be good for us. That is the conscious mind overriding our instincts and sending us chasing after all kinds of things that are not essential to our acorns.

The American myth of the self-made man — that you can become whoever you wish to be, given enough will power and determination – only compounds the error. Success and privilege do so as well, in their own ways. Though material advantages may soften life’s hardships, the freedom and choice that they bestow may simply empower our misguided egos in pursuing the wrong path. In our desire to create a life worthy of what we have been given, we may become paralyzed with inertia or manically hyperactive trying to please too many people and serve too many gods.

The way out of this bind is via subtraction, peeling away what is not true to the acorn, whether these be parental complexes or cultural programs. To liberate ourselves from these unconscious entanglements is a radical act. It requires giving up the security and sense of belonging that come with being a good, obedient child or a respectable member of the collective. To individuate means to come to know our own acorn and to have the courage to grow our own oak tree, as odd or idiosyncratic as it may be.

Jung believed we are living at a time when the old order has collapsed and the myths that once held humanity have lost their meaning. All that remains is for each one of us to find and live out our own individual myth. “We must make our experiment. We must make mistakes. We must live out our own vision of life,” he wrote. Jung felt the world had addressed a question to him; it has addressed a question to each of us as well and we must give our answer or we will have to live with the world’s answer for us.

To read more about Hillman’s acorn theory, see my article in Independent School magazine: http://www.nais.org/Magazines-Newsletters/ISMagazine/Pages/Whats-the-Point-of-Me.aspx