Individuation: The Process of a Lifetime
(No part of this paper may be reproduced, quoted, or conveyed to others
in part or in full without the written consent of the author.)
I am asked to speak about dreams or Jungian analysis or anything related
to analytical psychology, I find myself feeling compelled to say at least
a few words about the process referred to as individuation, in order to
put all these other things in context. For the process of individuation is
the vessel, the container within which all other things rise and fall, ebb
and flow - including our dreams and fantasies, our aspirations and sense
of vocation, our ventures and wrong turnings. The process of individuation
is the archetypal soup in which all humankind finds itself swimming. This
evening, the entire lecture will center on this course that Jung once
defined as "the process by which a person becomes an ‘in-dividual,"
that is, a separate indivisible unity or ‘whole.’" And I must
emphasize that it is only an introduction.
Jolande Jacobi, a Jungian analyst, has a paragraph in her book entitled The Way of Individuation, which I have found to be a quite simple and yet poignant description both of the human condition, and of what is involved in consciously trying to live this process referred to as individuation. She writes, "Like a seed growing into a tree, life unfolds stage by stage. Triumphant ascent, collapse, crises, failures, and new beginnings strew the way. It is the path trodden by the great majority of mankind, as a rule unreflectingly, unconsciously, unsuspectingly, following its labyrinthine windings from birth to death in hope and longing. It is hedged about with struggle and suffering, joy and sorrow, guilt and error, and nowhere is there security from catastrophe. For as soon as a man tries to escape every risk and prefers to experience life only in his head, in the form of ideas and fantasies, as soon as he surrenders to opinions of ‘how it ought to be’ and, in order not to make a false step, imitates others whenever possible, he forfeits the chance of his own independent development. Only if he treads the path bravely and flings himself into life, fearing no struggle and no exertion and fighting shy of no experience, will he mature his personality more fully than the man who is ever trying to keep to the safe side of the road."
There is something in the human psyche, which in its own fullness of time, struggles to produce what Jung refers to as the "true personality." This struggle to bring about the birth of one’s "true personality," is the basis for what Jung called the process of individuation, a process that involves bridging the gap between the treasures of the archetypal world of the unconscious and the everyday world of ego-consciousness, in an attempt to actualize the unique potentialities of one’s individual psyche.
It is important, I think, to recognize that this process is nothing new. Precisely because it is a universal human condition, we find expressions of it in all cultures, in all times, and in myriad forms. It can be found artistically in the seemingly simple "Oxherder" pictures of Zen Buddhism or in the cryptic, alchemical pictures of the Rosarium Philosophorum; architecturally, in the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral or in the tower which Jung built in Bollingen; poetically, in the spiraling journey of Dante’s Divine Comedy, or in Hermann Hesse’s novel about the life of the Buddha entitled Siddhartha; musically, in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute or in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio; mythologically, in the ancient story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu or in the Summerian myth of Inanna and Ereshkigal; esoterically, in the Greater Trumps found in the Tarot cards or in the pseudo-scientific, symbolic system of alchemy; playfully, in the many ball games played around the world, including baseball; and spiritually, in the Jewish system of Kabbalah or the familiar yet paradoxical sayings and parables of Jesus of Nazareth, such as, "Whoever would seek to save their life will lose it; but whoever would lose their life will preserve it." No doubt we could think of many other examples expressed throughout the ages which describe the structure and stages of the individuation process.
So how might we understand this oftentimes mysterious and demanding process today? Within the context of analytical psychology, we can begin with Jung’s definition of it and proceed from there. "I use the term ‘individuation,’" writes Jung, "to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘in-dividual,’ that is, a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole.’" Jung’s understanding of the impact and the nature of the individuation process came from his own experience, most dramatically from his own psychological crisis immediately following his break with Freud in 1913, and subsequently, from his ongoing self-analysis, his work with psychiatric patients at the Burgholzli Psychiatric Clinic in Zurich, his study of ancient alchemical and Gnostic manuscripts, and his travels abroad, which included trips to India, Africa and the southwestern United States. It is very important to realize that Jung’s understanding of individuation is rooted in his personal experience of that process. He underwent that of which he spoke, and hence could speak with some authority of what this process involves, or at the very least, of his own personal experience of this universal process.
Jung understood individuation to be something that began in the second half of life, when individuals reach the zenith of their lives and suddenly find themselves facing an unknown vista or some unforeseen upheaval. Sometimes this turning point takes the form of a crisis: such as a financial failure, a health problem, a broken relationship, or a change of residence or profession - something which upsets the status quo. Sometimes this experience assumes the form of a profound self-doubt, a loss of meaning or religious conviction, a questioning of everything previously held so dear. Sometimes it presents itself as a deep yearning or a call to change direction. And many times, it can manifest itself in powerful dreams and fantasies.
In essence, one could say that the unconscious, or more specifically, the Self (with a capital "S"), the central organizing archetype in the human psyche, which has seemingly hidden the greatest measure of its influence while the ego has been busy building a life for itself, suddenly the Self returns full force to claim a significant say, if not a central place, in the overall scheme of things. And for what purpose? To call a person to become "a psychological ‘in-dividual,’" "a separate, indivisible unity or whole." Those personal aspects which have heretofore been disregarded - be they interests, talents, characteristics, experiences, or issues - now come forth to be acknowledged. That which was fragmented now strives for unity. That which was broken now yearns for wholeness. That which was neglected now seeks expression. That which was previously formless in nature suddenly begins to take a new shape, strangely in keeping with what feels like a unique and deeply ingrained individual patterning. The center of the personality moves from the ego toward the Self, in an attempt to establish a new center of the psyche somewhere between the two. There is something in the human psyche, which in its own fullness of time, struggles to produce the "true personality."
In Jung’s understanding, we do not suddenly make a conscious decision to emancipate ourselves from the herd and its well-worn paths in order to go our own way. And neither does necessity or moral decision always have the power to effect such a turning. It’s just too easy to take refuge in convention, to cling to what is familiar, acceptable, and comfortable. No, what Jung saw as the deciding influence was an irrational factor, something commonly called vocation. In Jung’s words, "vocation acts like a law of God from which there is no escape." The path toward individuation comes with the ego’s response to a call from the unconscious, whether that call takes the form of a momentous outer development or a deep inner yearning. Whichever the case, we feel compelled to give up our stranglehold on the world of the familiar and at least to listen to what the world of the unconscious may have to say to us.
We have been walking around this process of individuation looking at it from various angles. Perhaps before going further, it would be helpful to put Jung’s view of individuation in an even broader context. Some Post-Jungian analysts (Fordham, Samuels, Dieckmann, Edinger, Whitmont) have questioned whether individuation is a process pertaining exclusively to the second half of life, where Jung concentrated his attention. It has been argued by Jungians of the Developmental School that "individuation is a life-long activity and, in its essential features, can be observed in children." Andrew Samuels suggests a tripartite definition. Individuation can be seen as a natural process occurring throughout life. It can also be seen as a natural process taking place in the second half of life. Or, it can be seen as a process worked on and brought to consciousness by way of analysis. This last definition would be Jung’s unique understanding and contribution to this field.
Jolande Jacobi, a first generation follower of Jung, attempted to enumerate the various aspects of the individuation process in an even more differentiated way. She also talks about individuation as a natural process which is the ordinary course of human life, in addition to the ‘methodically’ or ‘analytically assisted’ process worked out by Jung. Individuation can take the form of a process experienced as an ‘individual way’ (e.g., analysis, creative writing or painting) or as an initiation resulting from participation in a collective event (e.g., military service, religious rituals, vision quest). It can be the result of a gradual development consisting of many little transformations, or a sudden transformation brought about by a shattering or mystical experience (e.g., St. Paul’s blinding on the Damascus Road or Jakob Boehme’s seeing a vision of God in a bowl of soup). It can be experienced as a continuous development extending over a whole lifespan, or a cyclic process constantly recurring in unchanged form. It can be a process in which only the first phase is accomplished preceding mid-life, or a process in which both phases follow in sequence. And finally, the path of individuation can be prematurely interrupted by outer or inner circumstances, or it can remain undeveloped or atrophied in form.
Although Jung concentrated his efforts on understanding that part of the individuation process that occurs in the second half of life, he did have an appreciation of individuation being a life-long endeavor. I want to share with you a rather lengthy and dense quotation from Jung which I recently stumbled upon.
"Fear of self-sacrifice lurks deep in every ego, and this fear is often only [of] the precariously controlled demand of the unconscious forces to burst out in full strength. No one who strives for selfhood (individuation) is spared this dangerous passage, for that which is feared also belongs to the wholeness of the self -- the sub-human, or supra-human world of psychic ‘dominants’ (archetypes) from which the ego originally emancipated itself with enormous effort, and then only partially, for the sake of a more or less illusory freedom. This liberation is certainly a very necessary and very heroic undertaking, but it represents nothing final: it is merely the creation of a subject, who, in order to find fulfillment, has still to be confronted by an object. This [object], at first sight, would appear to be the world, which is swelled out with projections for that very purpose. Here we seek and find our difficulties, here we seek and find our enemy, here we seek and find what is dear and precious to us; and it is comforting to know that all evil and all good is to be found out there, in the visible object, where it can be conquered, punished, destroyed, or enjoyed. But nature herself does not allow this paradisal state of innocence to continue for ever. There are, and always have been, those who cannot help but see that the world and its experiences are in the nature of a symbol, and that it really reflects something that lies hidden in the subject himself, in his own trans-subjective reality."
So what is involved in the overall process of individuation? Following this quote of Jung’s, you could look at it this way. At the beginning of life, an infant is totally contained in the unconscious. There is no reflecting "I" or "me," only an instinctual intelligence. At a certain age, sometime within the first five years of life, the ego begins to emerge, to take shape, to solidify; like a tiny island emerging from a vast ocean. The child uses the designation "I" for the first time, instead of referring to him or herself by name. As the child grows and develops, the ego is strengthened, while the unconscious recedes, although never completely. It is always present and available, especially during those pivotal moments when we find ourselves stuck, hampered, sidetracked, or wounded, or on the verge of making a major life transition. Through adolescence and into adulthood, the ego hopefully makes its way and its mark upon the world, unfolding as best it can amid the inevitable challenges and setbacks of life. And it is no easy task. It often requires heroic efforts. But once a certain degree of autonomy is achieved, the process does not end. The difficulties we encounter, the enemies we make, the experiences we enjoy in the outer world around us are not all there is. They are real, but they are also the unique reflections of our inner psychological landscape and development. So much energy is spent and exhausted in conquering, punishing, destroying, and enjoying what we believe to be the true source of all good and evil - that is, what lies out there in the visible objects which surround us, until at some point, in that indefinable period we refer to as mid-life, the unconscious reappears, again in any number of different ways, be they inner or outer, and disrupts this paradisal state of innocence, calling to us, as if to reclaim its rightful place within the totality of the human psyche and to awaken the ego to that other world, equally real, that lies hidden within each of us.
The unconscious will use any means it can - dreams, fantasies, the body, interpersonal relationships - whatever avenue is open to it, in order to make this overture to the ego. What the unconscious desires, it appears, is an ongoing dialectical relationship with the ego. If the person is able to respond to this call and to enter into this relationship satisfactorily, then the individuation process may continue at its own pace. But more often than not, such an intrusion is a shock to the system and catches one completely off-guard. If the person refuses or simply does not know how to enter into such a relationship with these powerful forces in the depths of the psyche, then the individuation process breaks down, and life suddenly becomes tedious at best or debilitating at worst. The ego is unable or unwilling to accept a development of personality. And it is as if the unconscious then sets an obstacle before the person, in effect saying, "You can continue traveling down this path if you like, but I will make it exceedingly difficult for you." Such a difficulty could be compared to what is often referred to as a neurosis, what Jung described as a psychological crisis due to a state of disunity with oneself. And as annoying and painful as a neurosis can be, it is not without its value. Jung once commented about this "state of disunity" saying, "In many cases we have to say, ‘Thank heaven he could make up his mind to be neurotic.’ Neurosis is really an attempt at self-cure. … It is an attempt of the self-regulating psychic system to restore the balance, in no way different from the function of dreams - only rather more forceful and drastic." It is usually at such a time of suffering and confusion that a person will seek to begin a therapy or an analysis in order to learn first, how to understand what the unconscious is trying to communicate; then, how to enter into and maintain this ongoing dialogue with the unconscious; and finally, hopefully, how to begin living a life which reflects the collaboration in this new relationship.
This is such a broad subject. It is impossible to fully cover this process in the time we have tonight. So I have chosen to examine three quotations by Jung which address the relationship between ego and unconscious which lies at the center of the individuation process. I am now talking about that analytically-assisted process worked out by Jung occurring in the second half of life.
The first quote is taken from Jung’s essay, "A Study in the Process of Individuation," found in Volume 9 of the Collected Works. "The collaboration of the unconscious is intelligent and purposive, and even when it acts in opposition to consciousness its expression is still compensatory in an intelligent way, as if it were trying to restore the lost balance." Jung is saying that despite the fact that the unconscious really is unconscious, there still appears an intelligence and a purpose in its unsolicited intrusions. It was Jung’s experience that the psyche was by nature self-regulating. Much as our bodies instinctively strive to maintain a certain range of body temperature, by generating heat when we’re cold or cooling us off when too warm, so do our psyches, again instinctively, attempt to self-regulate and balance our psychological state of being.
The psyche does this in a compensatory manner. When a person has particular difficulty in adapting to external or internal reality, the unconscious will react in the form of dreams, fantasies, and synchronistic experiences in an attempt to compensate the conscious attitude and to restore the lost balance. If there is a feeling of fragmentation, the Self, that central organizing archetype in the unconscious, will attempt to compensate by offering a sense of unity. Examples of this can be found in the very moving and reassuring images of mandalas, those sometimes simple, sometimes intricate square or circular shapes that often appear in the dreams of those who are undergoing an especially difficult time. Other examples of such mandalas would be the Rose Windows found in many cathedrals, Ezekiel’s vision of wheels within wheels, or Tibetan sand paintings.
If there are aspects of the personality that have too long lain fallow, the Self will attempt to compensate by presenting these aspects in dream images or by creating an attraction to someone, through the magic of projection, who does possess these aspects. Karen Signell in her book, Wisdom of the Heart, relates the dream of a woman making a momentous decision to embark upon a new career.
"I’m riding a horse and we go right into a building and straight into the elevator. A guard says, ‘You can’t do that! You can’t take a horse up an elevator.’ I call, ‘Oh yes I can!’ The elevator goes up and up and up until we reach the top. I’m still on horseback. We come out onto some fields with a golden glow, like the high meadows in France that are infused with a special golden light - the kind the Impressionists painted."
For this woman the horse appeared as a representation of her own inner sense of confidence, fiery energy and light spirit, all of which were needed if she was to rise above her doubts and prohibitions in order to follow her own calling, symbolized in the golden fields of the French Impressionists.
To give another example of the compensatory nature of the unconscious, if we find ourselves blindly going down a path in life not in keeping with our true personality, the Self may subtly, or not so subtly, comment on our intention or suggest another approach. Edward Whitmont gives an example in his book, The Symbolic Quest, in the form of a dream which came to a man living in modest circumstances, who had decided to leave his wife and children in order to marry a wealthy woman many years his junior. He dreamt,
"I was about to take a trip to a rather out-of-the-way destination. Rushing off hurriedly, I passed a group of respectable-looking elderly gentlemen who disapprovingly shook their heads. Disregarding them, I pushed on, when suddenly from out of the clouds a huge hand appeared, took hold of me and shoved me right back where I started from."
It seemed that although he might disregard generally accepted moral standards, symbolized in the disapproving elderly gentlemen, the dreamer could not disregard a power reaching from heaven to earth which does not allow him to proceed. Whether we call this power the Self, the inner judge or conscience, the moral integrity of the personality, the will of life, or - like the symbolic image of this dream- the hand of God, there is a transpersonal aspect in the human psyche which endeavors to compensate our conscious attitudes and intentions in service of one’s true personality.
This self-regulation is going on all the time, whether we are aware of it or not. But when, through analysis or dream work, we endeavor to become mindful of these compensatory hints, taking them into serious consideration, the process of individuation flows along much more easily and life seems to possess a more fulfilling quality.
The second quote is from the same essay. "But if we understand anything of the unconscious, we know that it cannot be swallowed. We also know that it is dangerous to suppress it, because the unconscious is life and this life turns against us if suppressed, as happens in neurosis. Conscious and unconscious do not make a whole when one of them is suppressed and injured by the other. If they must contend, at least let it be a fair fight with equal rights on both sides. Both are aspects of life. Consciousness should defend its reason and protect itself, and the chaotic life of the unconscious should be given the chance of having its way too - as much of it as we can stand. This means open conflict and open collaboration at once. That, evidently, is the way human life should be. It is the old game of hammer and anvil: between them the patient iron is forged into an indestructible whole, an ‘individual.’ This, roughly, is what I mean by the individuation process."
Here we get a few more clues about what is involved in this dialectical relationship between the ego, which Jung understood to be the conscious personality, and the unconscious, which includes everything of which the ego is unaware. It is not meant to be an either/or relationship, where the goal is to determine a winner and a loser. If either one is injured, or attempts to rule, the whole personality loses. Both are legitimate aspects of life. This does not mean there will be no tension between them. Both have their parts to play, both have their unique vantage points to communicate. But in the end it is the ego which must decide how much of the unconscious it can withstand and which course in life the ego will endeavor to take. The hoped-for outcome is that in maintaining, or perhaps even suffering, this collaboration with the unconscious, we will become more that unique individual we hold the capacity to become.
To illustrate what can happen when this sought for balance in the psyche is grossly tipped one way or the other, in favor of either the ego or the unconscious, I give you first, a disturbing warning contained in one of Jung’s later works, and second, a personal story from Jung’s life.
The warning occurs in Volume 14 of his Collected Works, Mysterium Coniunctionis. He writes, "If the demand for self-knowledge is willed by fate and is refused, this negative attitude may end in real death. The demand would not have come to this person had he still been able to strike out on some promising by-path. But he is caught in a blind alley from which only self-knowledge can extricate him. If he refuses this then no other way is left open to him. Usually he is not conscious of his situation, either, and the more unconscious he is the more he is at the mercy of unforeseen dangers: he cannot get out of the way of a car quickly enough, in climbing a mountain he misses his foothold somewhere, out skiing he thinks he can negotiate a tricky slope, and in an illness he suddenly loses the courage to live. The unconscious has a thousand ways of snuffing out a meaningless existence with surprising swiftness."
I remember the first time I read this paragraph. I found it very disturbing. Partly because I could identify with it too closely, and partly because I didn’t like the inference that there might come a point at which the unconscious could become tired of sending overtures to a resistant vessel and in effect decide that its energy and effort would be better spent somewhere else. That was my initial, subjective response, and I must say that this passage continues to have a sobering effect on me.
I would not want to fall into the trap of using this quotation to explain every unexpected or unforeseen death that I happen to read or hear about. And I don’t believe Jung would have made such a blanket assertion himself. The experiences of life and death are too vast and complex and mysterious to be accounted for in so simple an explanation. But having said this, I must admit that there resides a kernel of truth in Jung’s words which invite serious consideration.
I believe that Jung’s sentiments arise from a personal experience. In more than one place he tells the story of an acquaintance who jokingly shared with Jung the following dream. "I am climbing a high mountain, over steep snow-covered slopes. I climb higher and higher, and it is marvelous weather. The higher I climb the better I feel. I think ‘If only I could go on climbing like this forever!’ When I reach the summit my happiness and elation are so great that I feel I could mount right up into space. And I discover that I can actually do so: I mount upwards on empty air, and awake in sheer ecstasy."
The dreamer was an educated man of about 50, who was quite an accomplished mountain climber. He confessed to Jung that he loved to climb without a guide because the very danger of it held a tremendous fascination for him. He also added that he climbed mountains because sticking at home did not suit him and in addition he was disgusted with his professional work. It occurred to Jung that this man’s uncanny passion for the mountains must be an avenue of escape from an existence that had become intolerable to him. He warned the man on more than one occasion not to go alone, but rather to take two guides and follow their instructions absolutely. But the man laughed it off. Two months later, while climbing alone, he was buried by an avalanche, but rescued in the nick of time. Three months later, however, he fell to his death, as a guide standing below him saw him literally step out into the air while descending a rock face.
I think this experience must have had a great impact on Jung and was largely responsible for his making the claim that the unconscious has a thousand ways of snuffing out a meaningless existence with surprising swiftness, when the demand for self-knowledge is willed by fate but then refused.
However, it is possible, I think, to view this image of dying in a symbolic way. The unconscious also has a thousand ways of subtly, or not so subtly, constructing a situation in which a person suddenly finds him or herself facing a predicament that feels like a death. We have only to read the pages of our local newspaper, watch the nightly news, or reflect on our own lives, to witness stories of people who through a strange twist of fate are "found out", or who are discovered in an uncharacteristic, but compromising situation, or who suddenly find themselves thrust into a whirlwind of controversy by an unconscious, offhand comment. The shock, the embarrassment, the judgment, the repercussions, the fall - all these can also produce the feeling and effect of dying, when "the demand for self-knowledge is willed by fate and is refused."
If these are possible outcomes for refusing to acknowledge and relate to the unconscious, then what might we expect when the scales are tipped in the other direction and we find ourselves overwhelmed by relating to the unconscious? Jung gave an example from his own experience. He had just finished writing his book Psychological Types, which had taken a tremendous toll on him physically and mentally. That very night he had a dream in which the unconscious suggested that he begin writing yet another book. Jung’s response to the unconscious was, "I can begin writing this book, but I will probably die in doing so." It’s as if the unconscious has no conception of death, or space and time, and therefore no conception of human limitations, be they physical, mental, or otherwise. Jung did not begin immediately writing the next book. Instead, he rested for a time.
Despite the wealth of wisdom the unconscious contains, there is a sense in which the unconscious really is unconscious, and dependent upon the ego to set limits and to provide information about activity in the "real world." The Self appears to need the ego as much as the ego needs the Self. "Conscious and unconscious do not make a whole when one of them is suppressed and injured by the other. Both are aspects of life. Consciousness should defend its reason and protect itself, and the chaotic life of the unconscious should be given the chance of having its way too - as much of it as we can stand." The relationship between the ego and the Self must be a dialectical relationship.
The third quote comes from Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, written shortly before his death. "When one follows the path of individuation, when one lives one’s own life, one must take mistakes into the bargain; life would not be complete without them. There is no guarantee - not for a single moment - that we will not fall into error or stumble into deadly peril. We may think there is a safe road. But that would be the road of death. Then nothing happens any longer - at any rate, not the right things. Anyone who takes the safe road is as good as dead."
This is yet another sobering statement to make, but it is a necessary one. It is important that a person go into the individuation process with his or her eyes as open as possible. There will be mistakes made. And there is no guarantee of success. But there is a certain sense of well-being gained in following one’s path of individuation, where the fateful detours and wrong turnings are met with a certain amount of grace, and our suffering with a certain compassion. The Jungian analyst James Hall once remarked that "when one has worked with the unconscious for a long period of time, one develops the view that the Self is like a very wise, very compassionate friend, always concerned to help, but never coercive or excessively judgmental, and possessed of almost infinite patience."
And finally, another passage from Jolande Jacobi’s book The Way of Individuation, "The individuation process in the Jungian sense means the conscious realization and integration of all the possibilities congenitally present in the individual. It is opposed to any kind of conformity and, as a therapeutic factor in analytical work, also demands the rejection of those prefabricated psychic matrices in which people would like to live. It shows that everyone can have his own direction, his mission, and it can make meaningful the lives of those people who suffer from the feeling that they are unable to come up to the collective norms and collective ideals. To those who are not recognized by the collective, who are rejected, and even despised, it can restore their faith in themselves, give them back their human dignity, and assure them their place in the world."
Consciously engaging in the process of individuation requires a certain strength and courage, because when individuals relate to the unconscious while striving truly to live their own lives, they may very well find themselves at odds with both their own self-assessment and with society’s expectations. But knowing that there are others likewise engaged in developing their own "true personality" can give one a liberating and sustaining sense of connectedness, not only to other people but also to the Source that feeds us all.
In the time we have remaining I would like to use a Summerian story entitled "The Descent of Inanna" to illustrate a few aspects of the individuation process. I am using a translation of this myth taken from Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer’s book Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. Inanna was a goddess of love and procreation worshipped by the Sumerian people during the fourth millennium B.C. in that part of the ancient world situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which is part of modern Iraq. "The Descent of Inanna" comes down to us on a series of clay tablets inscribed sometime during the third millennium. The story itself is probably much older, a part of that culture’s oral tradition. There are at least two later variations based on this myth known as "Ishtar’s Descent," Ishtar being another name associated with this goddess, but the story of Inanna is the most ancient. I will begin by giving you a basic synopsis of the story and then offer a few reflections on how the individuation process can be discerned in this myth.
At the beginning of the story, Inanna, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, decides to visit her older sister, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Great Below, in the underworld. Inanna’s reason for going is to attend the funeral rites of her sister’s late husband, Gugalanna, although it may also be related to the fact that Inanna’s consort, King Dumuzi, was so preoccupied with matters of state. Inanna prepares for her journey, but not before making arrangements with her trusted servant Ninshubar to take certain steps should she not return in three days.
Inanna descends, knocks at the door, and is finally given entrance to the underworld. But as she passes through each of the seven gates, she is required to remove an article of clothing or jewelry, until finally she is completely naked upon her entrance into the throne room. The jealous Ereshkigal then deals her a death blow and hangs her from a hook on the wall like "a piece of rotting meat," the text relates.
When after three days Inanna does not return, her servant Ninshubar begins looking for help and finally finds it from Enki, the god of Wisdom. He fashions two tiny creatures, neither male nor female, from the dirt under his fingernails, entrusting one with the food of life and the other with the water of life. These two creatures descend into the underworld where they empathize with the birthing pains Ereshkigal is now experiencing and, thereby, win the release of Inanna, whom they have now revived. But as Inanna is about to depart, the Annuna, the judges of the underworld, seize her, saying, "No one ascends from the underworld unmarked. If Inanna wishes to return…. She must provide someone in her place."
The "galla," or "demons of the underworld," accompany Inanna above to secure her replacement. Inanna considers Ninshubar, her faithful servant, and Shara and Lulal, her beloved sons, as acceptable candidates. But Inanna refuses to let them be taken because they mourned her absence. Then Inanna’s eyes fall upon Dumuzi, her husband, who has been so busy with the kingdom’s business that he really hasn’t noticed Inanna was gone. She says to the galla, "Take him! Take Dumuzi away!" And Dumuzi wails.
What follows is a life and death game of cat and mouse, with Dumuzi constantly changing shape to avoid capture, helped by various gods and by his loving sister Geshtinanna. Finally he is caught, having been betrayed by a friend. He is bound and taken away. The storyteller solemnly states, "The churn was silent. No milk was poured. The cup was shattered. Dumuzi was no more. The sheepfold was given to the winds."
After her anger subsides, Inanna begins to mourn for her husband, as does Dumuzi’s sister, Geshtinanna, who offers to go and trade places with her brother. Having pity, Inanna tells Geshtinanna that she would take her to her brother if she only knew where he was. Then mysteriously there appears a fly who knows Dumuzi’s whereabouts and takes them to where he sits weeping. An agreement is made whereby Dumuzi will go to the underworld for half the year and his sister will take his place for the other half, according to Geshtinanna’s request.
Initially, this myth was thought to serve as an explanation for why all vegetable and animal life languished to the point of death during those torrid, scorched months of the dry season, and then suddenly became verdant and fertile again the remainder of the year. It was believed that when Dumuzi was separated from Inanna and banished to the underworld, the land languished; but when he was reunited with Inanna, their union had a magical effect and the land flourished. Although this may have been the conscious and magical belief of the people at the time, the seeds of its deeper, psychological meaning were already present. They were potentials contained at an archetypal level in the psyche. So let’s look at this collective myth, and its images, to see where it might reflect aspects of the individuation process experienced today.
The story begins when Inanna decides that she must enter the dark subterranean world of her sister Ereshkigal in order to attend the funeral of her beloved protector and brother-in-law Gugalanna. It is this loss of Gugalanna and what he stood for that proves to be the motivating factor for her descent into the underworld. We had mentioned earlier that experiencing a great loss was one of many motives which could invite or drive a person into the archetypal realm of the unconscious, here symbolized by the underworld. Life above in the conscious arena has been upset, disturbed, wounded. The protective and primordial energy Gugalanna had provided Inanna is gone, and we could say that her resolve to go and to mourn his death reflects her desire to be near what was dear and perhaps to recover in some way what has been lost. The process of individuation often involves a yearning or an impelling drive to recover what has been lost, regardless of where one must go to retrieve it. Or if not to recover it, then at least to be near it.
But before Inanna leaves for the underworld, sensing the seriousness and perhaps the danger of her trip, she makes arrangements with her trusted friend Ninshubar to seek help should she not return after three days. One should not underestimate the demands and the hazards involved in pursuing one’s true personality. One is liable to encounter personal resistance or collective disapproval. And one never knows what the unconscious will produce, nor are there any guarantees of either success or return. You can understand why few people would deliberately embark on their path of individuation, why Jung referred to it as being contra naturum, that is, "against one’s nature," and why most of us are either called to it by some overwhelming summons or driven to it by some disturbing experience of suffering. In either case, Inanna reminds us that it is perhaps both wise and prudent to have a trusted, knowledgeable friend nearby should we get in over our heads.
As Inanna makes her way through the underworld, she must pass through seven gates, and before passing through each of these gates she must first remove a valued article of clothing or a precious piece of jewelry. When she clears the final gate, she stands naked before her sister Ereshkigal. The necessity of negotiating seven gates in turn suggests that the process must be a gradual one. One does not rush into the unconscious. I remember an analysand who initially was in a great hurry to get to the heart of his process. He brought in a dream in which he was standing on a sheer cliff high above the ocean. He was trying to climb down this precipitous wall of rock and was in danger of falling, when suddenly an old woman appeared above him and offered him her hand. She was surprisingly strong and after being lifted him back up again, he noticed that there was another way down he hadn’t seen before - a set of steps, somewhat circuitous, but more gradual and therefore safer. He decided to take this way down to the ocean. For most people, the gradual path of individuation is the best.
Inanna’s process of going through the gates is also marked by the gradual removal of all clothing and jewelry, which suggests that the process of individuation involves a certain stripping or surrendering of persona, collective identity, social adaptation or rank, and defenses. Without this kind of symbolic clothing we speak of "feeling naked" in someone’s presence, and who has not had the typical dream of running around in public with no clothes on, which dramatizes this sense of being completely exposed and unmasked. As the myth implies, the unconscious does not accept pretense and persona. Such nakedness is a requirement for discovering one’s true personality.
When Inanna does finally come face to face with Ereshkigal in the throne room, Ereshkigal cannot control her jealousy and reacts by striking Inanna dead. Inanna is then hung from a hook on the wall. There are two things going on here which address the individuation process. First of all, Inanna encounters her shadow in Ereshkigal. Everything Inanna is not, everything that is unknown, neglected, disenfranchised in Inanna stands before her in the person of her sister Ereshkigal. Ereshkigal is primal, untamed, raw; she is full of rage, greed, fear, aggression; she is chaotic, and yet adheres to a certain natural lawfulness; she is destructive, and yet will soon feel her own birthing pangs. In following a path of individuation one inevitably comes face to face with one’s own shadow, with all those personal attitudes and characteristics which have heretofore been disregarded but now demand recognition.
The other aspect of the individuation process reflected in this part of the myth is the death blow dealt Inanna. She meets something much greater and more powerful than herself in the form of Ereshkigal; and as a result, she is judged and killed. This is a figurative way of saying that in some measure the ego has experienced a death. Jung reminds us that "the experience of the Self is always a defeat for the ego." In this story Ereshkigal represents one aspect of the Self. This experience is archetypal, universal; being described in many ways. Examples would be:
Jesus’ saying, "Whoever would lose their life will preserve it."
Or Goethe’s line, "Die and become. Until you have learned this you are but a dull guest on this dark planet."
Or Wu Ming Fu’s adage, "The seed that is to grow must lose itself as seed; And they that creep may graduate through chrysalis to wings. Will you then, O mortal, cling to husks which falsely seem to you the self?"
As Jolande Jacobi reminds us, "In the individuation process it is always a matter of something obsolete that must be left behind to die in order that the new may be born."
Inanna’s being hung suspended for three days is another element of this archetypal motif of death and rebirth. The number "3" can be found repeatedly throughout history as a symbolic reference to transformation. The most familiar place it appears is in fairy tales, where we are constantly encountering three apples, three feathers, three sons or brothers, three daughters or sisters, three roads, or three chances, all crucial to the development of the story. But the reference to "three days," found in the myth of Inanna, appears in many stories of transformation and is commonly referred to as "the night sea journey." One has only to think of the three days and nights Jonah spent in the belly of the whale or the three days and nights Jesus spent in the underworld following his death.
Of course, these references to "three days" are not necessarily meant to be taken literally, although it does sometimes work out that way. Gerhard Adler relates the dream of an analysand who after three months of analysis had the following dream: "I heard a voice saying very clearly: "’In three days time.’" Three days after this dream the analysand had an intense and moving fantasy which she described this way:
"I can see my own unconscious not as something alien, but as something made of the same stuff of which I am also made; so that there is a ROAD, an unbroken connection between me and all other creatures and it. I can feel how this goes to the root of my neurotic problem: I had had a direct perception of something unrelated to and impossible to relate to the rest of my experience; the world therefore did not make sense, and it was therefore almost literally impossible to live. Now the world makes sense again."
Existentially, this night sea journey is usually associated with depression, confusion, gestation, loss of energy, or serious reflection. It is not a pleasant experience to undergo, but if one can endure, there is usually some form of reward to be gained. Perhaps some of us here tonight have some personal knowledge of this universal human process and can relate to Inanna’s being hung from a peg on the wall, exposed for three days.
The next major development in the myth comes when Ereshkigal is undergoing her own birthing pains and hears the empathic moans from the two creatures sent from above to rescue Inanna. Ereshkigal, representing Inanna’s shadow, is finding that what before had been neglected, that is, her rage, her greed, her loneliness, her compulsivity, her insatiability, her wild sexuality, all these things are now being valued. And it is this honoring of the neglected which proves transformational not only for Ereshkigal, but also for Inanna, because she is released from the underworld and allowed to return to her life above. But, she does not return the same person - which brings us to the final episode.
When Inanna returns to the land of the living she must find someone to take her place below. She doesn't have the heart to condemn those who mourned in her absence, but upon seeing that her consort Dumuzi didn’t even know she was gone, she unleashes the rage she has acquired from her dark sister Ereshkigal and in effect ends her relationship with Dumuzi by sentencing him to the dark regions of the underworld. What she has brought back from the underworld is some of her sister’s fire and decisiveness. It is only when Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinanna pleads for her brother’s life that Inanna regains her capacity for compassion and decides to work with Geshtinanna to procure Dumuzi’s release, for at least half the year.
When a person emerges from their "night sea journey," they are a different person. They bring to the surface, to consciousness, a previously neglected or undervalued aspect, but it usually comes in its raw form. It is like an untamed animal carried away by its newfound sense of freedom. But with its expression comes the first stages of its integration. Hopefully, it is tempered and finds its rightful place within the total personality, available when needed, but not quite so explosive.
In the case of Inanna, the appearance of compassion toward Dumuzi signals the integration of the new with the old. There is a forward rather than a regressive movement. Compassion and assertiveness can both have a place within one’s psyche. One’s "true personality" is expanded. And this expansion allows not only a greater degree of consciousness, but also a capacity to intentionally choose how one will respond to the challenges of life, instead of being tossed to and fro or lashing out indiscriminately. Another step along the path of individuation has been taken.
The "Descent of Inanna" is just one story which addresses the process of individuation. And although it may be an ancient story, it still possesses a freshness and a poignancy capable of speaking to the perplexities and dilemmas of the human condition today. It adds yet another perspective on the multi-faceted process of individuation, be it an individual’s development or that of our species. As the relationship between the ego and the unconscious is enhanced, so is our ongoing relationship with others and the world in which we live. Jung spent his life exploring the complexities of this relationship, and the psychological development it allows. And yet, in Jung’s view, no one is ever completely individuated. While the goal is personal wholeness and a healthy relationship with the Self, the true valuation of individuation lies in what is happening along the way. In Jung’s words, "The goal is important only as an idea; the essential thing is the opus which leads to the goal: that is the goal of a lifetime."