Individuation is the possibility by which the individual can attain the full development and completion of our incomparable uniqueness.
The possibility of self-realization is built on the foundation we have laid in the first half of life. Our society devotes much preparation of its youth for the first half of life in terms of education, training, and the clearly expressed expectations that success is to create deep roots in career, in relationship through marriage and the creation and rearing of a family.
This has allowed our world to develop great civilizations, which allow us to coexist in some form of order that works for the benefit of the tribe, the group, the nation. This is what our psyche wants us to do: to build a strong ego, to be deeply connected in the world, to be grounded by the trials, tribulations and triumphs of life.
In contrast, in regards to the second half of life our society seems rather clueless. We are not at all prepared for the tasks involved in this stage of life, which many seek to avoid altogether. Says Jung, “What youth found and must find outside, the man of life’s afternoon must find within himself.”
The tasks of the second half of our life are a process of letting go of the external ways in which we identify ourselves, and turning inward to find our own unique path to psychological and spiritual maturity.
It is a process of maturation in which the psyche ages or matures in much the same manner as the physical body, but unlike the eventual diminishment of our physical strength and endurance, the human psyche is able to continue to expand and renew itself. As a result, it can become for us in our years of aging and decline, a wellspring of life and joy.
For most people, reaching this place usually comes only after a profoundly unsettling realization that the things which we have dedicated our lives to are not going to last forever. A long-term relationship or marriage ends through divorce or death. Our children move away into their own lives, and we become empty-nesters. Or perhaps, even worse, our children grow older and do not move away.
We may lose our job, or find that we are no longer satisfied or challenged with the work we’ve done for a lifetime. The rewards we found in the past may no longer seem enough. The well has run dry. Something integral is missing, and we are left with no sense of what to make of it.
Feelings of emptiness and depression are common. Addictions can crop up. We come up against the fact that what have been our strengths have turned into personal limitations of character and imagination that leave us rigid and defensive to change and transformation. For many, this leads to what is commonly known as “The Mid-life Crisis,” when that which has formerly propelled us forward in the past or held great meaning begins to ring hollow. In the process, we find that we hardly know ourselves. “Midway in life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood, having lost the way.” So begins Dante’s spiritual pilgrimage and revisioning of his life’s meaning.
What we are experiencing is actually a death of the old, which hopefully leads to the birth of a new stage of life that opens the door to new possibilities of living a vastly enhanced and meaningful life. It is not unlike the little caterpillar that weaves its own cocoon, and surrenders into the darkness, where it undergoes complete transformation and emerges as a butterfly, freed to fly the winds of the world in new form.
As in our first birth, at mid-life we are taken from the only world we have known and confronted with a new reality for which we have little preparation or knowledge of how to proceed. Just as sincerely as the infant, we need help.
And here is the good news. While this may be overwhelmingly new terrain to us as individuals, it is a reality of life that is as old as the human race itself. If we have a proper attitude towards this new stage of life and the demands it places upon us, by deepening our connections to the unconscious we will find that we have a great inner friend who is there to guide us through every step of the unknown journey. The answers we need are all within us. They come to us through the images and themes in our dreams, which are there to guide us, to correct our partial or mistaken perceptions, and to lead us on our path of individuation into the deepest recesses of ourselves and the wholeness of life.