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Individuation, Self-Realisation and the Fulfillment of Life-Potential

What is Individuation?

The notion of individuation can be a challenge to fully grasp. The word itself was used as far back as the 17th century, but it was Carl Jung who adopted the word to represent a fundamental human evolutionary process that can be broadly summarised as: the realization or fulfilment of one's talents and potentialities through a process of integrating the conscious and the unconscious.

Art by David Galchutt

Individuation is more of a journey than a goal, and although everyone is endowed with the impulse to individuate, some are more actively engaged with the process than others, and as such the global population provides a wide spectrum of people at different stages. On the surface, the fruits of individuation become noticeable when we achieve a sense of individuality separate from the identities of others and when we begin to live more consciously in the world.

In modern culture we are more individualistic than in earlier periods, in the sense that its normal for almost everyone to identify as an individual and to live with the perception that every action we take and every thought we have is the result of our own unique desires and choices made with free-will.

The illusion of free-will* is a compelling one, until through self-reflection and self-inquiry we realise that reality is not what it appears to be, and that when we are largely unconscious of what is going on within, almost all our choices are ruled by karma in the form of genetic heritage, early-life conditioning, and cultural environment.

*I’m not implying that free-will doesn’t exist, but I am making a distinction between compulsive habitual thought and action versus the conscious will to make novel choices that take us into the unknown.

Typically when we live unconsciously we go through our day thinking that every decision and action we make, we do because we freely choose to; that morning cup of coffee, with a croissant or a doughnut, the decision to walk a certain route, to wear certain clothes, what we had for lunch, the types of movies we like, all seem to be our personal choices, but from an objective viewpoint convictions falter because there is plenty of evidence to show that when we act unconsciously we rely on past experiences and tried and tested strategies to get us through and in that sense our choices are very predictable.

What’s more is that although we tend to think of ourselves as individuals; as singular identities with one name and one body, in psychological terms we are a collection of parts including persona, ego, complexes, sub-personalities and inner-archetypes (such as the Shadow and the Self). In this way we are made of numerous ‘characters’ all answering to the same name and anchored to the same body.

The individuation journey involves making conscious the hidden parts of ourselves, and becoming more than acquainted with them, in order to bring all aspects into a coherent whole. This is what is meant by the journey to wholeness, often accomplished through purification rites and healing processes.

When looking at the relationship between ego and Self, the ego is the centre of our conscious experience and the centre of self-identification (who we think we are), while the Self is the centre of the psyche, an ordering principle that can bring all aspects of the psyche into one coherent wholeness.

geocentric model

One way to look at the individuation process is as a change in the relationship between ego and Self. A useful metaphor to use here is that of the Copernican revolution when we moved from a geocentric world view with the Earth at the centre of the universe to a Heliocentric one that put the Sun as the centre of everything.

If we take the Earth to represent the ego, in the geocentric model all the other aspects of the psyche (planets) although appearing to revolve around the Earth, show erratic behaviours over time e.g. planet retrograde cycles that need to be somehow explained. Historically that gave rise to the theory of epicycles in order to explain the backward movement of planets in the sky from an Earth-centric viewpoint. When humanity made the shift to a heliocentric (Sun centred) model, we put the Sun at the centre because doing so made the mathematics easier; we no longer needed to bother explaining planet retrogrades.

Using this metaphor, if we position the ego at the centre of things (geocentric view) then the celestial bodies i.e. the other parts of the psyche, become highly erratic and difficult to predict, and reality makes less sense; to try and relate everything back to ego makes things confusing and strange.

heliocentric model

If we realise that the centre of everything is really the Self (Sun) and the actions of the system including the ego are in a relationship to the Self as the centre, then the motions of the psyche become more understandable and orderly; in this way we realise that not everything that’s going on in the psyche serves the ego, which allows us to enter into a very different relationship with existence and with the flow of experiences happening in a given moment of time.

Solar Mandala by DK AG

Evolutionary Astrology uses this same metaphor i.e. the Sun, Moon and planets to map the motions of the psyche and help us to understand the inner archetypes operating within. It is a very useful and illuminating tool for anyone actively pursuing individuation. Tarot for sense-making is also effective at quickening the individuation process. Used in the right way the Tarot process can mediate with the hidden parts of the psyche and build bridges into the dark nebulous internal areas of the soul in order to bring them more into the light of consciousness.

To make the unconscious conscious is not a simple undertaking; when we are largely operating unconsciously we are most often not aware of it, and it is inherently hard to discover something that one firmly believes doesn’t exist. In short it takes effort and persistence over long periods of time to progress.

It is very much a mystery as to why some of us are able to actively pursue individuation while others do not. In Evolutionary Astrology this is somewhat explained through the proposal that desire is the engine of evolution, and that as beings experiencing separation within duality, we naturally desire wholeness, and it is when we have sufficiently exhausted separating desires that the desire to individuate emerges; through individuation we become more complete.

Individuation is not solely a psychological process it also encompasses the philosophical, mystical and spiritual areas of the human experience. There is no set of rules governing how anyone individuates; there are many practices i.e. psycho-technologies that can be employed along the way such as mindfulness, meditation, breathing techniques, body postures e.g. yoga asana, chanting, singing, drumming, contemplation, shamanic practices, prayer, energy awareness disciplines e.g. Qi Gong, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, therapeutic processes e.g. Gestalt, crystal healing, massage, acupuncture/TCM, sound therapy, light therapy, talk therapy, diet disciplines including fasting, pilgrimage, the use of nootropics and hallucinogenics to name but a few.

In my experience we are drawn to specific techniques and practices depending on what archetypes are active in our lives at the time, as part of an intuitive natural unfolding. Individuation has many stages depending on how granular we get, beginning during infancy when child begins to separate from mother, then onward through adolescence as we separate from our parent’s reality, extending throughout life.

In Tarot (a repository of Hermetic Wisdom) the individuation journey is seen in three prime stages; we are born three times. The first birth is our physical birth and ongoing separation from our parents and society, which is connected to the cycle of the planet Saturn.

The Moon

Usually, by the time of our first Saturn return at age 29, if we are ready, we undergo a second birth represented in Tarot by the Moon, which must be consciously sought; we must be willing to face the conditions of the mind, body, and emotions that we live with from day to day, by learning to dive deep into the inner dimensions of self and figure out how to navigate the psyche with various psycho-technologies in order to become familiar with the ways of the body-vehicle, through which the soul is operating; we have to understand how instinctual mental and emotional patterns within us naturally resist change, in order that we become more capable of penetrating the unknown and the invisible. In this way, we slowly come to terms with the power of personal beliefs, opinions and projections to shape and limit life experience.

The third birth (corresponding to the Sun) returns us to the outward world as a conscious co-creator capable of flowing and cooperating with inner evolutionary forces driving the unfoldment of our lives. If we weren’t ready to commit to the inner-work of healing and purification (the purging of that which isn’t true to us) at the first Saturn return, by the Uranus opposition at age 41 we might undergo significant shocks or awakening experiences that jump start self-inquiry in earnest.

Individuation follows natural cycles wherein there are periods of revelation and insight, followed by periods of respite, integration, phases of testing and shadow-work, death/rebirth transitions etc. Astrological transits and progressions can add a great deal of detail to individual unfoldment enabling us to understand why certain life situations have emerged and how best to work with them.

The path of individuation is an unveiling process, such that the more we travel the road, the more conscious we become until it becomes a central life task of prime importance. After all, the more we individuate the more we are able to fulfil ourselves through the actualisation of inborn talents and potential, which in turn can be seen as a service to existence. Individuation journeys are unique to the individual and there is no one-size-fits-all guide to turn to. In my work as a self-realisation mentor I aim to help others learn to navigate their own individuation process.


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