This is an edited transcription of a talk I gave at Mycelia in Portland, OR on May 21st 2022. The talk as delivered can be watched here.
“What does your conscience say? — ‘You shall become the person you are.’”–Friedrich Nietzsche
I. Become Who You Are
Each of us is tasked with a sacred duty: to become the person we are. Despite how straightforward it might seem on the surface, to become who you are is far from a foregone conclusion.
This sacred duty has been termed by Carl Jung “individuation.” I say that it’s sacred because it’s a task that is not ordained by any authority figure, rule of law, system of thought, or cultural condition; rather, it comes directly from the forces of the cosmos that are beyond our understanding but within our knowing.
The term “individuation” was coined by Jung, but he did no more “discover” the process itself than humanity discovered salt sea and land. He discerned it through empirical study and synthesis of what had been brought forth before him. He was wise, so he saw far, and deeply. And one of the many gifts his sight afforded us was a territorial understanding of this sacred task.
As a human being living amongst humans, you are called from within and without to become individuated—to become the person you are.
II. Tension of Opposites
One way to think about individuation is as the harmonizing of opposites to bring forth the emergent unified essence. Individuation regards how to become a whole self, and how to establish integration between conscious and unconscious.
Terence McKenna said that “the essence of understanding the world is to be able to hold a logical contradiction in your mind and not force things to be either/or.” Can we try to do just that?
This is the taijitu. It is the symbol of the Tao and of yin and yang. From my perspective, it’s the most true symbol that humans have yet divined. It depicts how all things embody duality and wholeness, and how in all places there is a tension of opposites. Any duality we can think of maps onto this symbol: being & nonbeing, order & chaos, identity & difference, life & death, and so on and so forth.
We can take order & chaos as an example to investigate some of the nuances of the symbol. This symbol shows that chaos and order are opposites, and that they are one, and that also they are distinct from each other, and that each contains the other’s essence. The symbol is of a swirling, so order is becoming chaos and chaos becoming order, at all points, perpetually. It is a circle so there are no edges. It is a symbol of wholeness and multitude. And it is a symbol of harmony, of balance.
Individuation is the project of learning how to look out into the world, and also within, and see only this symbol in its ten thousand forms.
The yin and yang of individuation is between the ego and what Jung termed “the Self” (with a capital “S”).
III. Individuation: Ego & Self
The ego and the Self are two aspects of the psyche in Jungian psychology. The ego we all know as the part of the psyche where our conscious awareness and sense of identity reside. The Self is more complicated, and it is considered the center of the whole psyche, both conscious and unconscious, as well as the aspect of the psyche that regulates the whole system and provides for making meaning.
“The Self is the embodiment of the totality of the life of the organism. It is the architect of wholeness. What is monitoring your biological equilibrium as you read these lines? What moves your emotional and mental responses? What provides constancy when consciousness is distracted or asleep? A larger presence, which we all intuited when we were children and then lost contact with, moves and directs the total organism toward survival, growth, development, and meaning. Who we think we are is only a limited function of the ego, that thin wafer of consciousness floating on an iridescent ocean called the soul.”Edward Edinger
I’m sure you’re noticing that even with these definitions the concept remains in ambiguity. That is because the concept of the Self is one of these things that brushes against the limits of language. The Self is ambiguous by nature. Like all aspects of the numen, it can only be glanced at through the corner of one’s eye. It floats beyond our comprehension. But, crucially, it can be grasped by our knowing.
The function of the Self is to move us beyond our ego consciousness into a deeper connection with our meaning through facing the totality of ourselves, not just the layers that the ego represents and bears witness.
Individuation asks us to bring the ego and the Self into dialogue, bringing what’s unconscious in us and in humanity at large into our conscious awareness. This is how we get in touch with the Self, with the inner child, with the archaic psyche that we once embodied and to which we still maintain a tether through the personal and collective unconscious.
By undertaking individuation properly, you come to express your individual uniqueness meaningfully and authentically, and thereby you give the world something crucial that it otherwise could not attain.
Jung said, “Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakens.”
Our world is in desperate need of awakening. And that’s going to require us looking inside, into the depths. Our world is dreaming, so to speak, and it has been lulled to deep slumber by a sickly sweet lullaby. And because of this, the dream we are collectively dreaming is self-alienating rather than self-affirming and self-edifying as is a proper dream.
In this analysis, I’m not making a value judgment that dreaming is bad and awakening is good. Both are necessary. Remember the tension of opposites. But it is important to recognize that we are unbalanced in our current state.
Dreams are important to the psyche because dreams give us unparalleled access to our unconscious minds. Psychedelics offer something similar. Typically in dreams the dreamer is at the whims of the unconscious forces at play. In our culture, humanity is at the whims of cultural systems that have outlived their usefulness but which maintain their own momentum. And we’re moving among these systems like the dreamer being forced to face the terror and beauty of a situation that seems out of control.
But when you can awaken in a dream, you bring your conscious awareness and volition into a landscape generated by your unconscious. Then you allow each to explore the other in meaningful interplay. This is known as dream yoga or lucid dreaming. It is one way to host dialogues between the ego and Self. Even so, mere awareness is not enough, because like in life, when the ego gets excited and wants to please itself, you lose the thread that the Self is weaving for you. Therefore the yoga of dreaming requires that one’s attention be diligent.
We’re being called by our circumstance to awaken, which is to say continually deepen our awareness. As the ego awakens to awareness of the Self, it can enter exploratory dialogue. The most useful thing you can do in a lucid dream is ask one of your dream characters, “what do you need from me?” Imagine your ego asking the highest version of yourself that very question.
Here’s where psychedelics come in. Psychedelics are like a lucid dream we can enter at will. They put us in touch with both the unconscious and the beyond through dialing forward and back the ego. Through this experience of having our ego dialed back, and in some cases meaningfully dissolved, we are able to see the nature of the true problems facing us in life and map the pathways to their resolutions.
Among all the problems thrust on our human experience, our culture presses on us one central problem from which our other problems spread. The central problem, as I see it, is alienation.
IV: Alienation & Culture
“The cost of sanity in this society is a certain level of alienation.”–Terence McKenna
Many people are turning to psychedelics to address the mental health challenges they face. The efficacies that have long been known to the shamanic world are now flabbergasting the scientific world; in clinical settings where outcomes are carefully measured, many people are erasing their anxiety about death, eliminating their depression, and outright curing their PTSD.
But these are not medicines for anxiety, depression, trauma, and so forth, strictly speaking. These frontiers are what the scientific world has to study and profess because it is bound to measure more or less objective outcomes and gather and present data accordingly. In actuality, the efficacy goes much deeper than these maladies. The psychedelics are actually medicines for the soul. And the underlying sickness that the soul is battling is alienation.
In other words, the reason psychedelics are so effective at addressing depression and anxiety and fear of death and trauma is because they instigate and carry forward the individuation process in a way that our cultural systems have failed to. They address the source of alienation from which these pernicious mental sufferings spring.
I don’t think I have to convince you that our culture is alienating by nature. It removes us from feeling embedded in community, in feeling held in embrace with nature, in feeling connected to our bodies and our sovereignty. Therefore we walk around with this general feeling of alienation and we don’t understand why. And because we’re carrying this sense of alienation around with us all the time, we internalize it to mean that there must be something wrong with us. There is nothing wrong with us. I promise you: there is nothing wrong with you.
Our culture is sick. By that I mean it has a sickness. And we’ve contracted the sickness by virtue of existing in this culture that devalues our individuality, our communion, our imagination, our connection to nature, our sovereignty, and our interconnectedness.
Cultural systems carry with them their own momentum. Just look at how the social media platforms have grown to escape the control of their creators. Once set in motion, cultural systems carry forward and evolve based on their environmental milieu just like any biological organism. And because we’re embedded in culture, to lesser and greater degrees we get swept along with them.
Edward Edinger puts it this way: “The various pressures of Western society all subtly urge the individual to seek life meaning in externals and in objectivity. Whether the goal be the state, the corporate organization, the good material life, or the acquisition of objective scientific knowledge, in each case human meaning is being sought where it does not exist—in externals, in objectivity.”
We are looking for meaning where it does not exist—where our sick culture convinces us to search—so many of us turn cynical or nihilistic as a response. The sad fact is that if you’ve become truly nihilistic and have given up on meaning, you will not find your way to wholeness. Meaning is the guide to wholeness, which is what the process of individuation offers. Your meaning is your own, and only you can divine what it is.
But in a world where it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to even know what is objectively true, how do we know where meaning resides for us, or even where to begin to look?
V: Psychedelics & Dissolution
“What psychedelics do—and why they are in all times and all places such social dynamite—is, they dissolve the cultural machinery.”–Terence McKenna
Psychedelics offer a way through the noise and confusion of our cultural climate. They are clarifying substances, and it is their nature to dissolve structures. McKenna goes on to explain that the dissolution powered by the psychedelic experience allows us to see ourselves as human beings absent of the context of our cultural clothing, i.e., those aspects of ourselves that our culture imposes on us.
In the psychedelic experience we get to see what it is that we’re carrying that is in fact not ours to carry, so that we may shrug it off or place it gently down. This allows us to see our true selves. These things we carry that were imposed on us by our culture or family or trauma or ancestry are not our responsibilities to continue to attend to.
Notice how McKenna invokes dynamite and not, say, a scalpel. The psychedelics are exceptionally powerful. And if we don’t approach them properly, they can blow more layers off of us than we’re ready to shed. They must be approached with care and reverence, but they are the most potent and effective tools for psychological development that we have access to.
The process of individuation is a process of getting to the center. This is why Jung identified the mandala as the symbol of individuation. To take psychedelics is to bravely march forward toward the center with the understanding that it is only through relinquishing the outer layers can that which is most core in us be uncovered.
Marie-Louise von Franz said, “The center is the goal, and everything is directed toward that center.”
Think about the phrase “being centered.” You know what it is like to feel centered. You’re confident in your skin, you are not confused, you are wholly yourself, you might be operating in a flow state, and you feel alive and balanced.
Getting to the center is the goal, or rather, the goal is to live from that center. And this requires continually dissolving what you have accumulated, all of your assumptions and conventions and identifications, in order to get at that which cannot be dissolved. It is to lose yourself over and again in order to find yourself.
This is what Nietzsche means by “becoming who you are.” You must choose to die so that you may more fully come to life, so that the spring after winter brings with it new blossoms more wondrous and true. You can think of this as getting out of your own way so that you arrive where you’ve been pointed all along.
The psychedelics help bring us clarity about which aspects of ourselves might be obstructing our paths, so that we can begin the work of integrating those parts into their proper places.
Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind; he must take up his cross and come with me. Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man let himself be lost for my sake, he will find his true self. What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self?”
Our culture pushes us into the mode of “winning the world” at the cost of our true selves. What is being asked of us is to leave the feeling of safety that the ego craves behind by doing the hard work to release the ego’s stranglehold.
Our culture casts comforts and distractions before us like feed in the pens of chickens for slaughter. The sophisticated digital age system of targeted advertising holds a golden carrot in front of our faces, pulling us ever toward unthinking consumption and complexes of inadequacy. So if we care only for comfort or the safety of success, we are lost, but if we lose our egos in the pursuit of our true Selves, we will find what we’ve been looking for all along.
It’s important to note that the ego cannot and should not be entirely done away with. McKenna phrases it that we need an ego so that when we go out to dinner we know who’s mouth to put the food in. Remember, any duality needs both of its constituents for its wholeness. But, again, our world is suffering from an imbalance in the direction of ego.
And because of its great imbalances toward the surface and the ego, our culture has thereby accumulated a massive shadow.
“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”–Carl Jung
The shadow, psychologically speaking, is what holds that which we cannot see or are unwilling to look at in ourselves.
The shadow is the part of our psyche that contains our unrealized aspects. Oftentimes things that we don’t yet have the strength of mind to face get pushed into the shadow when we’re young. The themes of the shadow are present in our fantasies, dreams, and projections on others, and they often carry messages we’re shy to hear. The task the shadow asks of us is its integration. It dares us to witness its existence, explore its origins, and harmonize it responsibly into our conscious awareness.1
1 For more of my views on the shadow, you can read my essay, “The False Sun at High Noon: Examining Culture’s Shadow”.
Jung identified integrating the shadow as a crucial part of the process of individuation. If our shadow isn’t properly integrated, we project it outward onto others. This means that the worst parts of myself, which are hidden to me, are what I’m noticing and disdaining in other people. Confronting the shadow requires looking at what aggravates or antagonizes you in others and asking, “what does this say about me?” Listening into the darkness allows us to begin finding what needs to be integrated; often there are aspects of our shadow that are controlling various functions of our life without us ever being aware.
The thing about these shadow elements is that they operate on the same psychological principle that is apparent in bad dreams and nightmares. Often in bad dreams we are being pursued by something that remains mostly out of sight. We have the sense that it means us harm, and so we feel fear, and we flee. As we flee it comes ever closer and we grow ever the more fearful. But when we turn to face our pursuer and stand firm, and even invite it in closer, it always transforms, and invariably it transforms into something we can handle.
Sometimes in psychedelic experiences we can come in touch with darkness. This is helpful because the dark is where the shadow resides. Psychedelics lift the rug under which aspects of ourselves we’re scared to face have been swept. Once these aspects are identified and faced, we can get to work on their integration.
Again, these substances aren’t a cure for depression and anxiety. Rather, they allow us to see what’s underneath the depression and anxiety, and they force us to look at it so that we may invite healing in at the source. Sadly, our culture’s answer to these maladies is to mask their symptoms and ignore altogether that a deeper layer might exist.
We have to lift the rug that everything’s been swept under and at times even tear up the floorboards underneath. Only then can we begin to put things back in a healthy, healing, empowering configuration. This is the process of integration.
Psychedelic integration is a mysterious thing that we hear about but which appears as a shrouded concept. To some degree it must be mysterious, because its object is the mysterium tremendum itself—the same as the object of individuation. So there is an element of innate mystery to all of this. And it’s not because people are trying to keep things from you, it’s because the Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao.
Take the psychedelic experience itself. Have you tried to put one of your experiences into words? You can perhaps convert some imagery or some takeaways into language, but you can’t encapsulate the force, the profundity, the symphonic totalizing nature of it. It cannot be spoken. Because it’s an experience, not a concept. Integration is the same way. It is an experience, not a concept. So it must be lived through to be understood.
The aim of integration is wholeness—to become a whole person—the same as the aim of individuation. The secret that our culture doesn’t tell you is that you are already whole. Everything you already need is there in the yin and yang of your individual humanness.
You are already whole, and integration is a process of bringing all of the aspects of yourself into harmonious orbit around the center. You see, many of us live at war with ourselves because the various parts of us are flung chaotically in myriad directions. To be integrated is to hold the strong center around which our various parts are compelled by the force of our gravity to align into congruous orbit.
To be integrated is to be in integrity. To be. In integrity. It is to live in integrity between one’s inner world and the outer, between one’s thoughts, beliefs, understandings, and actions. In fact, one definition for integrity is completeness.
Integration is a crucial part of the psychedelic experience. You may know people who have been taking psychedelics for years or even decades and their lives are nevertheless in shambles. This is because they aren’t taking the duty of integration seriously. You have probably heard of people who have one psychedelic trip and they give up their daily habit of smoking or drinking for the rest of their lives. This is evidence of an integrated experience.
Carl Jung said, “What, on a lower level, had led to the wildest conflicts and panicky outbursts of emotion, viewed from the higher level of the personality, now seemed like a storm in the valley seen from a high mountain-top.”
You reach a higher level in the psychedelic experience. The work of integration is to choose to live from that level. To move beyond it merely being an experience you had to being something you’ve become. Jung had this idea that most problems people have are actually insoluble. But rather than agonizing over a solution, the answer is to develop further, at which point what you thought from your former perspective was a major problem is actually something negligible from your higher perspective—a storm far off in the valley.
We don’t have proper rites of passage in this culture. And therefore we’re not being prepared to become men and women; we’re languishing often in an extended adolescence that lasts 30 or 40 years or beyond. For many of us here, psychedelics have been that rite of passage. That’s because the purpose of a rite of passage is to catalyze individuation, and when taken in the right context, psychedelics do just that. Therefore psychedelic integration is in essence “merely” continuing the process of individuation which the psychedelic experience catalyzes.
Yet if the process of integration exists in part in the realm of mystery, how can you know if you’re properly integrating your experiences? One of the best ways is through determining whether your ability to trust yourself is increasing.
“There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air
If you listen carefully now you will hear”–Bob Marley
“There’s a natural mystic”—this invokes the tension of opposites. There is the natural and the mystical, and their confluence is what moves through all that is. This natural mystic is “blowing through the air”—it’s being delivered to us through an invisible medium, yet one which we can hear and feel. If you pay attention, closely, and immediately, you will—not might—hear the messages it carries.
What’s being shown in these lyrics is that there is something profound that we all have access to which requires our subtle attention to recognize. Through our intuitions, dreams, meditations, and psychedelic experiences, we can tap into knowing this “natural mystic.” This is exactly the dialogue with the Self.
Our world is full of distractions. Our limbic systems are hijacked constantly, our dopaminergic systems are overtaxed and under-rested. We can hardly force ourselves to sit still and just listen—without music playing, or a podcast, or a show, or a screen in our face. The psychedelic experience forces us to be present with ourselves and pay attention.
If we can exist in a state of attention, we will learn that we already know what is best for us. Our intuition informs us. Because it is connected to our Self, which is connected to the numen itself.
Miguel Ruiz said, “You don’t have to try to be good; you just need to stop pretending to be what you are not.”
The psychedelic experience allows us to remember what’s important. To remember who we are and what we are here to do.
The vast majority of the understandings and information gleaned from the psychedelic experience is of remembering. Only rarely will you be gifted something truly external to your own inner knowing, as when the Amazonian tribes were long ago shown which plants to combine to create ayahuasca.
Outside of these exceptional cases, the experience is generally of remembering things you already knew and have forgotten. This is why it feels like coming home. You know that feeling I’m talking about if you’ve utilized psychedelics. You are remembering what you already knew; you’re just having it shown to you clearly.
Bill Hicks called it “squeegeeing your third eye.” The lens that gets blurred by virtue of existing in this confusing world, with our egos way out in front and distractions hammering the doors, needs to be cleared off every so often. Then we can see clearly. And when we are clear, we can trust ourselves. And because we trust ourselves, and act accordingly, we become trustworthy, that is, worthy of trust. When we are trustworthy, others can trust us, and thereby the world gains in trust.
When we see clearly, we remember the truth: that there is not something wrong with us. That we already know what to do. That we are indeed already whole.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”–T.S. Eliot
The path is not a straight line onward to infinity. The path is a spiral, and if we walk it right, it curls ever inward toward the center, towards wholeness. As we pass each point, we notice the familiarity of having been here before, but now able to see the same thing at a deeper level, because we have grown more fully into ourselves.
Edinger says, “While revering the mystery of others, our individuation summons each of us to stand in the presence of our own mystery, and become more fully responsible for who we are in this journey we call our life.”
Wholeness requires us to take responsibility—to pick up the burden and honor (because it is both) of changing ourselves and the world for the better.
There’s an ancient idea that each person has his or her own star as a celestial counterpart. We can imagine if we were to look up at the night sky on a clear night and see only darkness how isolating it would feel. Even with one fewer star it would feel less wondrous. This is what we’re aiming toward, inhabiting the Self that we see reflected in the heavens, not the reflection we see with our head hung low in the puddle of the potholed city street.
The world does not need the version of you that you think the culture wants you to be, or that you think your boss wants you to be, or your family, or your partner. It needs the you that you know you can be if you get yourself into alignment. You can align your actions and words, your ego and Self, your values and behaviors. You know in your heart what you need to do.
You have innate sovereignty by virtue of being a human being on this planet. You get to decide how you individuate. You get to move through your own process of dancing with the tension of opposites, sitting with your shadow, integrating the masculine and feminine within you, and finding your own unique beautiful bountiful wholeness that no other person or force can diminish or define.
What awaits us if we engage wholeheartedly in the individuation process? Nothing less than true fellowship with the world.
“Everything depends on how many individuals are conscious and personally related to their inner selves and as a result do not project their shadow onto others. That and only that is capable of preventing an outbreak of mass hysteria and mass delusion.”–Marie-Louise von Franz
This may sound extreme. But when we look around we do see mass hysteria. We do see mass delusion. It is scary. There’s so much vitriol in our human world. So must profound distrust. We are all looking around and wondering if the center can hold, looking for some kind of assurance.
The magic of individuation is that it tells us we are the center. You are the center. And if you hold your own center in integrity, the greater center of humanity will hold together in integrity. It will. We are so interconnected that this is how it works. You individuate yourself, you integrate yourself, and that brings harmony to the field that you exist within and move through. If you move through the world while in your center, everyone you touch will be moved closer to their own.
Jung said, “If you fulfill the power that is peculiar to yourself, you have loved yourself. You have accumulated and have abundance. You bestow virtue then, because you have luster. You radiate; from your abundance, something overflows.”
We turn to the psychedelics because we know there’s something more for us out there, as well as in here in our own hearts. People who are in the know and can see what’s on the horizon understand that psychedelics are going to be a major factor in the guidance of where our culture is heading. So let’s do this right. We can individuate ourselves, we can integrate ourselves, and we have the capability to harmonize this sick world.
It’s a lot to ask—but we can do it. We’re strong. And the strongest among us can be strong for those still needing time to find their own strength, and when those of us find their strength, they will be strong for the next.
Jung said, “Without the conscious acknowledgement and acceptance of our fellowship with those around us there can be no synthesis of personality…. Relationship to the self is at once relationship to our fellow man, and no one can be related to the latter until he is related to himself.”
Isn’t that what the world is needing? For us to all relate to one another more truly and grow closer more authentically? Rather than each of us on our own island trying to figure everything out?
Individuation is not a selfish pursuit; it is a pursuit in service to fellowship and human flourishing. And it cannot be done alone.
Edinger said, “So often the idea of individuation has been confused with self-indulgence or mere individualism, but what individuation more often asks of us is the surrender of the ego’s agenda of security and emotional reinforcement, in favor of humbling service to the soul’s intent.”
The question we have to ask ourselves, on a regular basis, is “what am I in service to?” Is this something my ego wants? Or is this something I know my soul needs?
We are burdened with the sacred task of individuating. At the same time, we are honored by the gift that the task of individuation presents us. You pick up your own burden and by doing so you relieve some of the burden of keeping this whole thing together off of every other person on the planet. Wow. That is a place of power. You have that power within you.
If you ever begin to forget about that power, the psychedelic experience is always ready for you to dive back in and remember. If we utilize psychedelics properly, we have access to a system of ongoing reorientation that’s there for us whenever we get off course.
So if we’re working to get on course and stay there, what awaits our world once we take on the full sacred duty of individuation?
Nietzsche informs us: “Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or ‘impudent convention’ have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of maya had been torn aside, and were not merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.”
This is not a pipe dream. This is the world that awaits us, permitted that we do our work. It is serious work, but it is not severe; in fact, it is joyous work. We are granted the gift of participating in guiding the direction of all that is unfolding before us. It is quite miraculous.
One of the pernicious lies that our culture imposes on us is that we’re in competition with one another. We are not. Competition is something relevant to games, and it has its place in that context, but this is not a game. We are working together as stewards of this planet, and our fellow beings, and of the infrastructure and understanding that we’ve inherited from our progenitors. And if you can go out and become the best damn steward you can be, the piece of this cosmic garden that you tend will flourish. And you will flourish within it.
Thank you for your stewardship.