Spiritual Counseling and the Journey of Becoming Part 1: The Personal Journey

From my current vantage, my “journey of becoming” remains shrouded in mystery, defined as much by the unknown before me as the lived experiences behind.[1]  Yet, throughout my life, the experiences of undeniable synchronicity—and the spiritual frameworks I have gathered to shed light on these events—have given me a certain grounding in this world and a sense of trust in life’s unfolding.  While I am hesitant to suggest that I am privy to life’s design, as I reflect, I can discern moments that have propelled me into unexpected trajectories that I could never (or would never) have consciously orchestrated.  Much to the dismay of my conscious mind, it feels at times like life itself is moving through me towards the fulfillment of some greater “plan.”  Is it perhaps, as James Hillman proposes, that the image of my destiny exists in its aesthetic whole at each juncture, lulling me down into its fulfillment?  Or is it instead, as asserted by Victor Frankl, that I am freely responsible to answer to the “assignment” of my life?  Or maybe, in the intimation Carl Jung, am I engaged in the process of individuation as I plumb the unconscious depths towards realization of my Self?  Engaging with each of these perspectives, I embrace the idea that there is a meaning to this life that far exceeds the controlling measures of my mind and ego.  It is this meaning that I wish to honor as I traverse the timeless landscape of my soul’s becoming and seek to glimpse the coherent “image” that is my Truth.

Fate, Responsibility, and Synchronicity

I would not dare suggest that I, by will alone, have forged the life I now live.  As a child especially, I learned how my life could be entirely transformed by no actions of my own.  By my twelfth birthday, my mother had remarried several times, moving us from Ufa, Russia to Moscow, to two locations in Colorado and finally to Casper, Wyoming where I remained until my first solo venture to college in Los Angeles. With each wedding we found ourselves inhabiting a brand new life with dramatically different potentials. As the wheel of fortune turned again and again, the “acorn”, in James Hillman’s (1996) terms, of my Self was planted in new soil.  Molded by, or perhaps made for, these experiences, I became rather accustomed and resilient to transformative change at an early age.  As I reflect, I am left to wonder whether these changing pathways were random or leading towards necessary conditions—if I was destined to this early vagrancy to forge my character, or if my resilient little acorn simply took root in new environments ready to unfurl its inherent meaning irrespective of the conditions.  While, for me these questions have no definitive answers, they provide fertile ground for an inquiry into fate and yield further questions.  To what extent does the script of our lives predate our having lived them?  Is there a script to life at all?  Where do we locate freedom and responsibility in our lives?  And if we do accept the idea of a predetermined potential being lived through us, what value is gained and what might be lost?

My first pass at these questions immediately calls to mind the meaningful “coincidences” that have been essential to my life’s unfolding.  Jung’s (1972) concept of synchronicity gives reality to these events as integral to the process of individuation—whereby the “individual” uncovers his or her “innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness” (p.173).  As Becvar (1997) notes, “it is through the story of synchronicity that we may understand ourselves to be interrelated and all of life to have meaning” (p. 131).  For me, the synchronistic model feels applicable to all of life’s occurrences, granted a meaningful connection between inner and outer events can be discerned.  This includes chance encounters, unexpected opportunities, symptoms, prevalent symbols and themes, as well as the messages gained through archetypal systems, like astrology and the tarot.  Osterhold (2011) explains, “…meaning is the connective glue that brings cohesion, understanding, and purpose to otherwise random developments” (p. 25).  In this sense, as I develop greater capacity to regard the arc of my becoming and unfold the meaning of life events, my ability to observe synchronicity between the landmarks of my personal development and my external conditions deepens.  I perceive this capacity for “archetypal vision”[2] to be of utmost importance for the individuation process, as it facilitates a sense of belonging in the universe and provides opportunities to encounter the unconscious.  Furthermore, an archetypal eye fastens the seemingly unpredictable individual “journey of becoming” to the greater web of Life itself, thereby granting solace through suffering and affording meaning during the unexplainable.  As Osterhold (2011) elucidates,

Rather than suggesting a linear progression towards integration or wholeness, individuation describes the mysterious and often ambiguous path of internal and external experiences that can be as painful as it is blissful… Individuation is the movement towards a wholeness reflected in fullness of inner and outer expression and experience and towards an authentic manifestation of who one is. (p. 11)

I too have found that the individuation process maintains a mystery at its core, in Jung’s terms the dynamic unconscious,[3] that we unfold through participation.  I will return to the value of archetypal vision and exploration of the unconscious at a later point, but for now wish to provide an example of how a string unplanned events has delivered me at the place I now stand with regards to my current work and entwined spiritual path.  Osterhold’s (2011) observation of synchronicities being “retrodictive” rather than predictive holds true, as the combination of these events provides greater meaning than would have been available from within any one of them.

The evolving location of Yoga in my life has served as a consistent reminder in the mystery of my individuation and the power of synchronicity in my life.  A practice that I came to as a teenager to fulfill advanced graduation requirements for athleticism, my “accidental” connection with the Yoga tradition became the foundation of my spiritual and professional life with little composition of my own.  At fifteen, I began going to the only Yoga studio in Casper, Wyoming simply to accrue “athletic” hours.  Quickly, however, I realized there was something more for me in the practice and leaned on it as a psychospiritual lifeline through the tumult of adolescence.  Then in college, by process of elimination, I decided to study in India where I trained in classical Raja Yoga and continued to deepen my connection to the roots of Yoga.  Upon my return to college in the U.S., I again “fell into” an internship with a psychosocial support center for people dealing with cancer where I was asked to deliver bi-weekly yoga classes for the better part of a year.  Feeling vastly underprepared for my teaching assignment, I embarked on another Yoga teacher training midway through my internship, this time in Baja, California on a grant.  Although I simply expected to gain greater skill in facilitating Yoga practice for a sensitive population, the powerful non-ordinary experiences I encountered during this time seeded a longing for greater immersion in Yogic practice and lifestyle.

Subsequently, my experience in Baja guided me to volunteer at the Kripalu Yoga center a year and a half later.  Then, as I was preparing to go for a short time to Kripalu as general volunteer, I was introduced to the Yoga curriculum development, research, and outreach branch of the organization and felt compelled to get involved.  Much to my delight, as I was scheming ways to connect with this part of Kripalu, I got a call requesting that I serve my volunteer time in none other than that department!  With my undergraduate background in psychology, this placement was a meaningful fit for me on numerous levels and after my four-month volunteer term, I was invited to continue my work in a greater capacity for another year and a half.  In addition to my work with the research institute, I was able to continue intensive study of Yoga and immersed myself in a community of fellow practitioners.  As I transitioned to the Bay Area to attend CIIS, I reached out to a similar organization in Oakland and was grateful to be immediately adopted onto the team.  All of this is to say, that while it could be easy to gesture that my early exposure to Yoga simply instilled in me a desire to pursue the tradition deeply and to will the occurrence of these events, this was simply not the case as I experienced it.  Rather, the unfolding of this course emerged in parts, with variable engagement of my conscious mind, towards the outcomes I now live.

If I look at this trajectory through the lens of individuation, or the as Hillman (1996) describes, the destiny of my “growing down” into this world, I find much greater insight than is available if I write off these events as random or manifested through sheer will. According to Hillman’s (1996) acorn theory “each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived” (p. 6).  In this sense, the unique potentials of my becoming already exist already as a coherent whole to be drawn out through the symptoms and happenings of my life.  Hillman (1996) elaborates,

The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth… The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore you daimon is the carrier of your destiny. (p. 8)

For me, this fascinating perspective conjures a sense of reassurance that my soul’s potential is not only ready to be lived, but can be remembered through the acts of living.  At times, as I plan for the future and witness its unfolding I have the distinctive feeling that I am in fact remembering what is to become rather than willfully crafting the future out of time’s clay.  As Hillman (1996) aptly inquires,

Unpacking the image takes a lifetime.  It may be perceived all at once, but understood only slowly. Thus the soul has an image of its fate, which time can show only as “future”. Is “future” another name for fate, and our concerns about “the future” more likely fantasies of fate? (p. 46)

It certainly feels this way to me.  Yet, in my view, the creative act of consciously participating in life remains integral to actualizing the daimon’s invitations.  I did, after all, willingly heed to the subtle calls and challenging urges that brought about each phase of my relationship with Yoga.  So, it feels important to acknowledge that not only does our potential grow out of the unique essence of our Self, but also, this potential must be enacted through our everyday doing and quality of being.  In that way, I believe we straddle the poles of destiny and creativity as we forge our lives.

In this vein, I would argue that just as important as it is to detect a sense of connection to the meaningfully unfolding mystery of life, it is necessary to accept personal responsibility and discover the agency we have to participate in the individuation process. Victor Frankl (1986) asserts, “…it is not up to [a person] to question; rather, [s/he] should recognize that [s/he] is questioned, questioned by life; [s/he] has to respond by being responsible; and [s/he] can answer to life only by answering for [his/her] life” (p. 62).  Shifting the weight to an individual’s capacity to respond to life, Frankl’s perspective reminds that just as life’s conditions may question us, we are able respond (we are response-able) to those conditions.  He elaborates,

[T]he leading maxim of existential analysis might be put thus: live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now. Once an individual really puts [him/herself] into this imagined situation, [s/he] will instantaneously become conscious of the full gravity of the responsibility that every [person] bears throughout every moment of [his/her] life: the responsibility for what [s/he] will make of the next hour for how [s/he] will shape the next day. (1986, p. 64)

This essential point reminds us of the gravity of our beliefs and actions, and emphasizes our fundamental freedom to craft our lives (or at least choose our responses to events that are out of our control).  While Frankl’s statement may come off as extreme, I believe that without this realization of responsibility we are left disempowered—at best wavering amidst the winds of life and at worst victim to our experiences.  Frankl deepens this insight to remind us that it how we engage—and the values that we fulfill—that outweigh the particular what of our lives.  With this spirit he states, “Value is transcendent to the act which intends it” (Frankl, 1986, p. 40).  For me, this understanding has been deepening as I learn that living in congruence with my values generates the greatest satisfaction, while seeking specific attainments often perpetuates dissatisfaction.  The Eastern view of happiness as an “inside job” resonates, as I agree it is the quality of awareness and underlying acceptance of all states that facilitates fulfillment.

Still, I believe we do have the capacity to become more conscious creators in the material world and that this capacity is activated through engagement with the unconscious parts within ourselves toward authentic Self-expression.  As Jung suggests, it is the unconscious that we meet as fate, and through the process of individuation we gradually unearth the contents of the unconscious to become more active agents in the writing of our stories (1972).  Likewise, in the Yoga tradition that I was immersed in for the two years prior to coming to CIIS, the highest virtue culled from the Bhagavad-Gita was the discovery and fulfillment of one’s own dharma towards the expression of the True Self.  Through compassionate self-awareness we gradually witness and transform our unconscious patterns of behavior and thought towards greater Truth.  Interestingly, I have found that due to the ego’s grip on one’s “identity,” there is a delicate balance between cultivating authenticity and self-aggrandizement.  It seems the oar of Self-realization has responsibility (stated otherwise, the quality of our action in the world) as its other end, and the individuation process is comprised of a constant ebbing between inner work and conscious action.  I appreciate the warnings about spiritual bypassing proposed by Wellwood (2003), as I have witnessed many a spiritual seeker fall prey to either self-rejection or world-denial—the results of which are psychological destabilization and inability to connect skillfully with others.  Wellwood’s (2003) call for double-vision is of utmost importance in this regard.  I too hold that it is vital for spiritual fulfillment to embrace the mundane and immanent as fully as meditative awareness and the transcendent Divine.  I am again reminded of Frankl’s (1986) ultimate goal for logotherapy: teaching the client “reverence for life” (p. 54) and regard this value as one of my highest ideals.

This awakening into the immanent sacredness of all of life is, for me, both the ultimate destination of the spiritual path and a powerful ally in the individuation process.  By coming into relationship with whole of existence as interconnected and meaningful, I have not only found purpose in my difficult times, but have realized the utter necessity of each individual expressing their truest Self.  As Frankl (1986) explains,

For just as the uniqueness of the tessera is a value only in relation to the whole of the mosaic, so the uniqueness of the human personality finds its meaning entirely in its role in an integral whole. Thus the meaning of the human person as a personality points beyond its own limits, toward community; in being directed toward community the meaning of the individual transcends itself. (p. 70)

I wholeheartedly agree that each individual comprises an essential part of the whole and that supporting authentic expression of individuals is integral to healing for the collective.  Hence, as I mine the caverns of my becoming, I realize that taking a stand for the individuation process itself, as well as supporting others on the journey, is the orienting axis around which my life has always revolved.  Through my own commitment to personal work, as well as by gathering skills to accompany others through the fires transformation, I feel my soul, in Hillman’s terms, “growing down” into the image of my destiny.  Yoking my values of connection, love, and transformative growth to my natural affinity toward being with the experiences of others, I feel called to continue this “soul healing” work in all avenues of my life.  For myself, in my personal relationships, and with my clients, I uphold these ideals not only as a belief system but also as integral to the being of me.  In this sense, my coming to understand the mystery of the individuation process is one and the same as my own individuation, which is in turn, entwined with my work in the world.

Archetypal Vision and Individuation

In addition to the spiritual practices that sustain me (namely, the self-care and regulation afforded through Yoga and transformative ritual), the path of archetypal astrology has been a recent opening that has facilitated bridging between the seen and the unseen and encapsulates my current stance on the paradox of becoming.  Through relationship with the archetypal resonances that I see in my birth chart, and the significant transits I am experiencing, I find entry into the symbolic world that underlies all forms.  Further, I am able to enter a space to behold the synchronistic universe and all of the magical, acausal happenings that govern my life.  Giving me a sense of a supportive Cosmos, I feel empowered to continue on my, sometimes turbulent, journey of becoming.  Hillman (1996) warns, “Any cosmology that begins on the wrong foot will not only produce lame accounts; it will also lame our love of existence” (p. 47).  In this light, I perceive archetypal cosmology as beginning on the right foot, affording opportunities to strengthen intuition and more fully engage with life.

Through the archetypal blueprint of the birth chart, the complete map for my individuation is expressed in the utterly unique but universally meaningful symbols of life.  That is, while each one of us possesses all of the planetary archetypes, the particular constellation of the chart and the way we engage with its potentials gives rise to entirely idiosyncratic outcomes.  As Hillman (1996) suggests, life exists in images wanting to be seen, and in my experience, astrology provides a tool to behold those images.  As I have been exploring throughout this discussion, the archetypal model acknowledges the entire spectrum of possibility for each pattern of expression and our response-ability to co-create with those potentials along with acceptance of a certain destiny in what we enact.  Coupled with the tools of awareness and ritual space that allows us to participate in the re-enactment of creation,[4] the archetypal eye gained through astrology has been a liberating force impelling my development.  At the same time, it feels like archetypal vision is very much a part of my True Self and through astrology, I feel myself expressing this authentic Truth.  Together, these two dimensions create a positive feedback loop in support of my individuation process.

Concluding Thoughts

Through this exploration of some significant themes of my experience of individuation, I am arriving at the realization that the person I am now contains the entire Truth of my authentic Self, in the face of the mystery of my future.  Like a fractal of the whole, the seeds of my becoming have been present throughout my life and will continue to be expressed as I grow down.  Seeds I can now discern include my passion for transformation and participation in personal healing for the sake of the collective, my intellectual nature and love of philosophizing, my need for like-hearted communities and deeply intimate relationships, my fascination with all things esoteric and capacity to hold the paradox of the transcendent and immanent, as well as my desire to create harmony and order in my spaces and interactions.  Although I can readily identify these parts as inextricably me, they are almost so enmeshed with my way of viewing the world, that it is difficult for me to distinguish their role in my individuation.  And yet, if all else was stripped, it is these themes that remain among my lifelong treasures.  As Hillman (1996) posits, “Your person is not a process or a development. You are that essential image that develops…” (p. 7, italics in the original).  In agreement, I feel that the expression of these themes has been mature throughout my life’s layers.  At the same time, I perceive these themes to be growing gradually and deepening along the lines of Frankl’s (1987) statement: “Life transcends itself not in “length”—in the sense of reproduction of itself—but in “height”—by fulfilling values—or in “breadth” in the community” (p. 68).  Having engaged with the polarity of fate and responsibility, I feel better equipped to engage in the “transcendence” of my life.

References

Becvar, D. (1997). Soul healing. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Eliade, M. (1982). Cosmos and history: The myth of the eternal return, R. Winks (ed.). New York, NY: Garland Publishers.

Frankl, V. (1986). The doctor and the soul: From psychotherapy to logotherapy. New York, NY: Random House.

Fulton, P.R. (2005). Mindfulness as clinical training. In C.K. Germer, R.D. Siegel & R.R. Fulton (Eds.) Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Hillman, J. (1996). The soul’s code: In search for character and calling. New York, NY: Random House.

Jung, C.G. (1972). Two essays on analytical psychology. R.F.C. Hull, Trans. In Read et al. (Series Eds.), The collected works of CG Jung (vol. 7). Princeton, NJ: Bollingen.

Kornfield, J. (2009). The wise heart: A guide to the universal teachings of Buddhist psychology. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Osterhold, H. (2011). Synchronicity, Meaning and Transformative Power in Illness and Injury. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from Dissertations and Theses database.

Tarnas, R. (2006). Cosmos and psyche: intimations of a new world view. New York, N.Y.: Viking.

Wellwood, J. (2003). Double vision: Duality and nonduality in human experience. In J.J. Prendergast, P. Fenner, S. Krystal (Eds.). The sacred mirror: Nondual wisdom and psychotherapy. St. Paul, MI: Paragon House.

Whitfield, C. (2009). The Vedantic self and the Jungian psyche. Chennai, India: Arsha Vidya Research and Publication Trust.

Notes

[1] Written originally at the California Institute of Integral Studies for the graduate course Spiritual Counseling Skills with Dr. Helge Osterhold, 2013.

[2] Archetypal vision is the ability to discern the patterns of transformation underlying personal development and material life. This lens assumes an a priori reality contained in the archetypes that form and inform our lives (Tarnas, 2011). Through participation with the archetypal, we gain direct access to the “ground” our individual and collective lives, gradually illuminate the unconscious, and enter into a more subtle relationship with the unfolding of life.

[3]  It feels important to note that for Jung, the unconscious was very much alive and an active agent in our lives.  He writes, “…transpersonal contents are not just inert or dead matter that can be annexed at will. Rather they are living entities which exert an attractive force upon the conscious mind” (1972, p. 145).

[4] In my embrace of the necessity of ritual I think of, as Richard Wormstall (2013) suggested in his lecture, that sitting around a fire allows us to witness the birth of the Cosmos, as well as Mircea Eliade’s proposal that all peoples seek to enact the Creation Time.

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