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Know Thyself - The Call to Individuation



The term ‘Know Thyself’ is one of the Delphic maxims said to have been inscribed in the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, according to the Greek writer Pausanias. The Delphic maxims themselves were given, presumably whilst in an altered state of consciousness, to the Oracle of Delphi herself, the high priestess of the temple known as the Pythia. There are actually 147 Delphic maxims, general truths or principles, which can be seen as an accumulation of wisdom, perhaps handed down from ancient times via oral traditions or received direct from an ancestral source held within the human collective unconscious . Reading through the list, there are many maxims most of us today would have no problem valuing as wisdom. For example #4: Respect your parents, #13 Honour the Earth, #16 Control anger, #20 Love friendship or #38 Nothing to excess. But maxim #8 Know thyself, placed at the entrance to the temple itself was meant to have particular significance. It is possible that this principle came from ancient Egypt, as one of the proverbs of the temple of Thebes reads “Man, know thyself, and you are going to know the Gods”. I think these two words speak to what Jung termed the process of individuation, a concept that one imagines ancient spiritual initiates would have been familiar with, which psychologically speaking refers to the task all of us have, to develop an individual self out of an undifferentiated state of being that is largely unconscious. It’s a process I like to call the inner journey toward personal wholeness, from which our most potent life contributions can be made. To individuate therefore is to develop yourself as a true psychological individual, free from the compelling power of the human collective unconscious. When we are governed by the human collective unconscious, although we might perceive ourselves as individuals, we actually conform to patterns of behaviour that we share with all of humanity and there is very little about us that is truly individual in nature. The path of individuation is a transformative one and an integrative one; a completely natural process necessary for the integration of the psyche, which has a holistic healing effect on mind, body and spirit. This journey has several milestones that mark stages of progress toward full integration; there is often a movement from identification with the persona at the beginning, to gaining conscious awareness of the ego as a 2nd stage, entering into shadow work at stage 3, then reconciling with the anima or animus (inner masculine or feminine), followed by a re-connection to the spiritual archetypes of the wise old man/woman or a wizard/sage figure, before final union with the Self (divine nature or wholeness). Today we live in a world that is growing in complexity and we face significant survival challenges such that as budding individuals we can feel horribly impotent in the face of such large global issues. If we focus on the problems in the world, most of us feel relatively overwhelmed and don’t know what we can really do to be of much help. Some of us grasp fiercely the notion that we must do something rather than nothing at all and jump into some form of activism to alleviate the gnawing sense of doom we all feel about an uncertain future. Now I’m not knocking activism if its undertaken with a depth of wisdom, but currently many people choose activism prior to any significant engagement with the inner processes of self-discovery; they do not know themselves. This isn’t a surprise since modern culture values the extrovert mode, and as a consequence the west in particular has become enamoured with the material world. It is a counter-intuitive move to look within during times of trouble, even though the ancient sages have always advocated this kind of action. I ask myself how much good can activists do, if they have little or no connection with the essence of who they are as individuals?


So why do I rate individuation so much? To begin with most of us resonate with the idea that love starts with self-love (as opposed to selfish love), a principle that Ru Paul beautifully reminds his drag-queen contestants at the end of each Drag Race, he says “…and remember if you can’t love yourself, how the hell ya gonna love somebody else!”. I would say the same principle applies to know thyself; we can only ever know someone else to the degree that we know ourselves. It follows then that life will eventually become dull, thin and humdrum if we never venture far from the theatre-world of the persona. It could be argued that all of us regardless of whether we want to be or not, or whether we are conscious of it or not, are on a journey through life toward ever greater levels of individuation. If we take a reincarnation based view in this, then the ‘great work of the soul’ is toward self-realisation via the path of individuation over many lifetimes (this view takes the pressure off on the one hand and explains why some human beings appear more advanced than others); we can assume celebrated figures such as Buddha and Jesus were either fully self-realised beings or very close to that state, and figures like Gandhi and even the more notorious Osho, were well on their way. But in this it seems clear to me that we do have apparent free will to choose to be actively engaged in becoming psychologically whole or to resist the process by seeking sanctuary from it in the collective ‘consensus’ mode of being, which from the viewpoint of any budding individual seems a much safer albeit unrewarding place to inhabit. My point being that it seems very likely that the greatest gifts and solutions we will ever be able to offer, whether on the world stage or within our personal and intimate connections with others, can only be enhanced and nourished by an active agreement on the part of an individual to know themselves. My sense is that everyone has something unique to live, and if all of us, or at least most of us were living what we were born to live (a concept that implies a purposeful universe), then perhaps many of the needed solutions great and small would become a reality. For example world changing scientists like Einstein or Tesla were such powerful contributors because they dared to be individual, not because they conformed to others expectations of them. The most inspiring artists and performers compel our attention precisely because they are able to express elements of their innate uniqueness, while those that humble us with their selfless service to others often do so because they know deeply the path they must follow. So if you are one of those feeling that you are not doing enough to make the difference in a world that is increasingly chaotic and uncertain, then my suggestion is to begin with yourself, and if you haven’t already, make the conscious choice to heal and integrate and cultivate responsibility for who you are as an individual, and willingly take the epic inner journey toward wholeness. Its never too late to start, and perhaps if more of us were to develop strong inner roots, then we may see the world change in ways yet unimagined.