Published on May 30th, 2014 | by Healthy Gay Lifestyles
Carl Jung on Living an Authentic Life
by Jason E. Smith
It could be argued that at the heart of Jungian therapy is the aim of experiencing and living an authentic life.
That is not the language that Carl Jung used, but it does express a central idea of his psychology, which he called ‘individuation.’ Put very simply, individuation is the process by which individuals become more fully themselves.
Individuation involves differentiating oneself from conformity with collective values, which does not necessarily mean rejecting those values. Rather, it means the ability to choose the values by which one will live instead of merely living out social norms in an unreflective and unconscious way.
In other words, the individuation process is a deepening and maturing of one’s individuality and sense of authenticity.
The authentic life begins, says Jung, with going within. This is not a popular undertaking, especially in a culture like ours with such a large bias toward extroversion, but it is a necessary one:
“Looking outwards has got to be turned into looking into oneself. Discovering yourself provides you with all you are, were meant to be, and all you are living from and for.”
That we can discover ourselves suggests that there is more to us than we know. And this is precisely Jung’s point-we are mostly a mystery to ourselves. We do not know “all we are.”
If that is the case, of course, then we are probably only living part of what we were meant to be.
The mysterious part of our personality Jung calls “an irrational factor,” meaning that it is not under our rational and conscious control. It is, however, close at hand. In fact, it is “whatever you find in your given disposition.”
We are, one could say, both a great mystery to ourselves and the most intimately familiar thing:
“The whole of yourself is certainly an irrational entity, but this is just precisely yourself, which is meant to live as a unique and unrepeatable experience. Thus, whatever you find in your given disposition is a factor of life which must be taken into careful consideration.”
Learn From Traditional Wisdom
Giving careful consideration to what a person finds in their given disposition essentially frees that person from the dilemma of deciding whether their beliefs are “right” or not. A right belief is one that works, that is helpful to that particular individual, leading them to a meaningful existence:
“If you should find, for instance, an ineradicable tendency to believe in God or immortality, do not allow yourself to be disturbed by the blather of so-called freethinkers. And if you find an equally resistant tendency to deny all religious ideas do not hesitate: deny them and see how that influences your general welfare and your state of mental or spiritual nutrition.”
The Science/Religion, Atheist/Theist debate is not new to our time and Jung, in his lifetime, lived both sides of it. He denied belief in god, while at the same time claimed knowledge and experience of god.
He taught that both “God” and “Matter” were symbols of something ultimately unknowable and he felt that insisting on the exclusive and dogmatic rightness of one’s personal view was a kind of “childishness.”
If you believe, believe. If you don’t, don’t. To Jung living an authentic life is as simple-and as difficult-as that.
Ultimately, Jung felt that a human life needed perspective and meaning and he felt that the wisdom traditions of the world could offer that kind of container:
“In case of doubt, try to learn from the traditional wisdom of all times and peoples. This gives you ample information about the so-called eternal ideas and values which have been shared by mankind since earliest times. One should not be deterred by the rather silly objection that nobody knows whether these old universal ideas-God, immortality, freedom of the will, and so on-are ‘true’ or not. Truth is the wrong criterion here. One can only ask whether they are helpful or not, whether man is better off and feels his life more complete, more meaningful and more satisfactory with or without them.”
Do Not Seek Happiness
Many today would equate the authentic life with a happy life, but Jung is skeptical about the pursuit of happiness. He has some thoughts about the factors that constitute a happy life, which include “satisfactory work” and “a philosophic or religious point of view capable of coping successfully with the vicissitudes of life.”
He warns, however, that we don’t always know what would make us happy:
“Nobody can achieve happiness through preconceived ideas, one should rather call it a gift of the gods. It comes and goes, and what has made you happy once does not necessarily do so at another time.”
In this statement, Jung sounds very much like Viktor Frankl, who taught that happiness should not be sought, but that, out of a meaningful engagement with the world, “happiness ensues.”
Furthermore, happiness cannot exist without it’s opposite:
“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”
Instead of happiness, Jung’s prescription is to pursue something akin to what today we would call mindfulness.
“The more you deliberately seek happiness the more sure you are not to find it. It is therefore far better to take things as they come along, with patience and equanimity.”
The Inner Life is the Authentic Life
To accept life as it comes along with patience and equanimity, as any teacher of mindfulness would likely agree, is simple, but by no means easy.
For Jung it means having the capacity to adapt and adjust not only to life as it happens around us, but to the life force emerging from within us. For each of us, the authentic life is our own unique and unrepeatable self that is seeking to express itself in the world:
“The urge to become what one is is invincibly strong, and you can always count on it, but that does not mean that things will necessarily turn out positively. If you are not interested in your own fate, the unconscious is.”
This is a powerful statement and an important warning. “If you are not interested in your own fate, the unconscious is.” Our authentic life wants to be lived through us and we ignore it to our peril. But if we tend it and attempt to live it consciously-that is, if we work with it and not against it-then life can flow in a satisfying way.
The primary means, according to Jung, for aligning with this inner urge is by paying attention to one’s dreams. Dreams reflect the underlying pattern of which our lives are the outward expression. They give us access to the whole of who and what we are:
“The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul.”
“Dreams show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.”
Dreams, in other words, can lead us to our most authentic self.
An Unconditional ‘Yes’
So, what is the point of all of this? Why should a person strive to live an authentic life?
For Jung, when we walk the path of individuation, we find an unshakable foundation for our lives. We are no longer merely identified with the ego, but rather it becomes rooted in a larger life that gives us resilience, endurance and meaning in the face of the vicissitudes of life.
Here is how Jung expresses this idea in his autobiographical book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections:
“I might formulate it as an affirmation of things as they are: an unconditional ‘yes’ to that which is, without subjective protests-acceptance of the conditions of existence as I see them and understand them, acceptance of my own nature, as I happen to be.”
“How important it is to affirm one’s own destiny. In this way we forge an ego that does not break down when incomprehensible things happen; an ego that endures, that endures the truth, and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate. Then, to experience defeat is also to experience victory. Nothing is disturbed-neither inwardly nor outwardly, for one’s own continuity has withstood the current of life and of time.”
How do you live your authentic life? What ways have you developed that enable you to give an unconditional ‘Yes’ to life? I’d love to hear from you.
Take good care.
Jason E. Smith is the founder of Heartsfire Counseling. As a Jungian psychotherapist, career counselor, and workshop leader he helps people discover the power of their authentic inner voice and to find ways to realize it in their lives. You can read Jason’s blog and find out more about his services at www.jungiantherapist.net.