"The process of individuation is founded on the instinctive urge of every living creature to reach its own totality and fulfillment."
- C.G. Jung
What does it mean to become who you truly are and live an authentic life? Carl Jung created the term individuation, describing it as a process in which one becomes aware of one’s true, inner self. Jung believed that: “Man is not a machine that can be remodeled for quite other purposes as occasion demands, in the hope that it will go on functioning as regularly as before but in a quite different way. He carries his whole history with him; in his very structure is written the history of mankind.”
"Each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived." - James Hillman
In our Western way of thinking about our individual purpose relevant to society’s notions of success, we have gravely limited ourselves, dismissive of the indigenous cultures which we deem as ignorant or primitive; without sophisticated means to solve and correct a perceived unwanted malady. We see ourselves more as machines, that we can “remodel ourselves as occasion demands” and function as a means to satisfy a superficial conformity. Even if we are not aware of this as our fundamental belief, it can manifest through the everyday choices we make against the irrational and imperfections that would in reality, guide us to a more authentic path. We accept society’s “glowing” images as “normal” and believe from the norms of popular culture that what we need is to avoid our darker sides by covering them up and hiding behind a superficial facade of success and perfection; living a life free from the shadows of misfortune, grief and suffering. But as we turn against the genuine calls of healing experiences and avoid coming into our authentic gifts and purpose by fearing to look into the darkness of our own shadows, we do so at our own peril.
When Carl Jung stated, “Man is not a machine that can be remodeled for quite other purposes as occasion demands,” it is clear that he did not believe in hiding our shadows, but rather owning them despite fear and judgement. Yet if we are not to strive for the perfection of “the Machine” that would strip us clean of our imperfect humanness and exploit us for society’s gain, what then is our true purpose? How can we creatively discover our true nature and how can we see our suffering and our shadows in new ways?
Many African wisdom traditions teach that an individual can find totality and fulfillment through their community. According to Dr. Malidoma Somé, a West African shaman of the Dagara tribe, “the community exists, in part, to safeguard the purpose of each person within it and to awaken the memory of that purpose by recognizing the unique gifts each individual brings to this world.”
Just as the oak tree's destiny is contained within the tiny acorn, each person is born with a unique purpose, and it is our mission in life to fulfill that purpose.
This type of inter-subjective life is well established in African cosmology, where the universe is seen as a series of interactions and interconnections, a vision that is especially applicable in understanding the relationship between the individual and the community. This network of forces shows that people do not live in isolation; one individual needs another to continue to exist. Humans need other humans to be truly human, and the community can be seen as facilitating our individuation.
So it is through relating with others that we see ourselves as we truly are, and come to realize our own unique gifts and purpose. Rather than remodeling ourselves to conform to society’s demands, with the love and support of a community we can learn to integrate our shadows, withdraw our projections, and live an authentic life in line with our purpose.
Learn more about this perspective on individuation from African shaman Malidoma Some in a one Year Training Program on Indigenous counseling and divination.
~Pamela Thompson and Amanda Butler, M.S.
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