The Individual Revolution: Applying Carl Jung to Practical Activism

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” – Carl Jung

“To know yourself, think for yourself.” – Socrates

My last post on Beyonce and feminism created quite a buzz. The beautiful outcome of it all was that I had the opportunity to engage in some nourishing conversations with people who supported, challenged, loved, hated, and questioned my stance. Readers shared brilliant analysis, personal narratives, and suggestions for how we engage one another in this movement.

On the surface, much of the conversation seemed focused on feminism, gender expression, capitalism, and celebrity, but a persistent (and less detectable) undertone also permeated the dialogue – one that suggested that some of this debate was less about Beyonce and her feminism and more about how we navigate that very precarious and constantly shifting line between the individual and the collective.

Consider the following response to my previous post:

Sojourner: “So when we talk about every woman being able to express the full range of her being without full concern about how that expression catapults and ripples through the lives of other woman, violently violating others’ ability to express the full range of their being, the call to ‘be loving’ can neglect the violence of other people ‘just being themselves’ without ever directing their anger at anyone in particular: this is the fetish of individual liberation over interconnected liberation. i think that’s part of why so many folks enjoy the 19% clip: it gives voice to the symbolic violence of ignoring the full range of women’s experience.”

This comment (and a few others) really got me to ruminating about that fine line between individuality and group membership. In our daily choices, from the mundane to the extraordinary, we constantly have to negotiate this space.

What does it mean when our personal expression is perceived as impeding the progress of the collective?

How do our choices affect others?

How much should we consider other people when making personal decisions?

How does our desire for group cooperation and acceptance hinder our personal evolutions?

How do we maneuver through all of the gradations that exist between the “me” and “we”?

It’s funny how my spirituality works because just as I began wading through these questions, I ran across The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society by Carl Jung at Borders. In this small, but richly dense book, Jung asserts that much of the individual life of people in society has been subjugated by the cultural trend towards mass-mindedness and collectivism.

As an activist and a person whose personal and professional work is largely based on the values of cooperation, collaboration, and group dynamics, I bristled at what I assumed was Jung’s “anti-collective” stance. Prior to reading the book, I fully anticipated bumping heads with him and was pleasantly surprised when that wasn’t case.

Yes, Jung does take a somewhat antagonistic view of the “collective” but he’s not referring to the kind of healthy collectivism that happens when engaged, empowered, self-realized, people join together. He’s speaking to the kind of collectivism that happens when demoralized and disillusioned people band together to participate in what he refers to as ”collective possession and mass-mindedness.”

And rather than promote the all too prevalent and narcissistic individualism that sits on the other end of this unhealthy spectrum, Jung calls for something much more powerful. The remedy for mass-mindedness is not the selfish individualism many of us are familiar with, but a process known as “individuation” – a synthesis and harmonizing of the conscious with the unconscious. Basically, a movement towards individual wholeness.

I was deeply moved by this book. Despite the scientific, sharp, and often sterile tone of Jung’s commentary, I could hear his heart in this work. In barreling past the surface socio-political and cultural “remedies” that have failed us time and time again, Jung chastizes us for not addressing the deepest roots of our being…the birthplace of ALL experiences – individual and collective.

For the record, Jung is not the first to advocate this radical revolution of the psyche and spirit. In fact, much of what he covers in this book (and his work, in general) is an extension and a somewhat, Westernized version of philosophies touted by people and cultures from all over the world. In various ways, wise people have been saying this stuff for many years….any real and enduring revolution starts with a revolution of the Self.

The following passages from the book speak to the extreme importance of this undertaking:

“Most people confuse ‘self-knowledge’ with knowledge of their concious ego personalities. Anyone who had ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself…people measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself, but not by the real psychic facts, which are for the most part hidden from them.”

“What is commonly called ‘self-knowledge’ is therefore a limited knowledge, mostly dependent on social factors.”

Essentially, what is called for is something quite profound and not for the faint of heart, the quickly deterred or the easily frightened. Much of our personal growth, responsibility, and accountability can too often be “collectivized” to the point where it weakens both our person and the societies and institutions we participate in. If our “self-knowledge” is too heavily reliant upon the opinions, judgments, assessments, and philosophies of others, how do we know who we are under all of these projections? This question is crucial, according to Jung and one that determines whether we live as liberated human beings or as manipulated pawns; vulnerable to the machinations of dictators and corrupt leaders. He asserts that the promotion of group membership, at the expense of personal development creates the perfect conditions for the appropriation of power by both the State and the Church:

“But if the individual, overwhelmed by the sense of his own puniness and impotence, should feel that his life has lost its meaning – which, after all, is not identical with the public welfare – then he is already on the road to State slavery and without knowing it or wanting it, has become its proselyte.”

“The result, as always in such cases, is overcompensation in the form of fanaticism, which in turn is used as a weapon for stamping out the least flicker of opposition….the policy of the State is exalted to a creed, the leader or party boss becomes becomes a demigod beyond good and evil and his votaries are honored as heroes, martyrs, apostles, missionaries. There is only ONE truth and beside it no other. It is sacrosanct and above criticism. Anyone who thinks differently is a heretic, who, as we know from history, is threatened with all manner of unpleasant things.”

“But in so far as society itself is composed of de-individualized persons, it is completely at the mercy of ruthless individualists…the resultant extinction of the individual personality that makes it succumb so readily to a dictator.“

“We have all seen what a well-disciplined mob can do in the hands of a mad man.”

All of this, according to Jung, is motivated by a deeply intense, yet unconscious fear that we carry inside us as human beings. The persistent refusal to examine our own personal contents results in an externalization of our inner disturbances. The unrealized chaos and suppressed shadows that run rampant in our psyche, take shape in the world that we inhabit. Are we truly surprised at the perpetual state of war, resource shortages, crime, crises, and denigration of “Other” that characterizes life on this planet? We shouldn’t be. We experience all of these forces within ourselves on any given day…at any given moment.

So as I contemplate what it means to exist as both Natasha and as a person who identifies with a number of groups, Jung’s work gives me much to chew on. I have no definitive answers…mostly just a lot of nascent questions. What I do feel certain about is this idea that the quality of any movement or society depends on the quality of the individuals that it is comprised of. We must be just as committed to ourselves, as individuals, as we are to any group cause. Otherwise, we will continue to experience these hollow, mock, revolutions where nothing really changes except who plays the role of the oppressor. Until we are committed to re-examining the mass-minded approaches that cause us to project our insecurities, shadows, fears, and demons on to the “Other”, we remain at an impasse- unable to muster up the love and courage that is necessary to truly create a just and healthy society. We have to address the deep schisms and wounds that haunt all of us because, as Jung so eloquently reminds us, “even a million zeros joined together, do not add up to one.”

Imagine the intensity, the passion, the vibrancy of a movement that is made up of individuals who are fearless in their pursuits, loving in their interactions, honest in the assessments, just in their exchanges, and secure in their skin. A movement comprised of those who are operating at their full potential with a deep level of awareness, the capacity to critically think, and the flexibility to move through the fluctuating currents of self and collective. This is EXACTLY the type of woman I’m striving to be. This is EXACTLY the type of movement that I want to be part of…

…The kind of world I want to live in. …And the only “revolution” that really makes any sense to me.


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