Spiritual Individuation

Following is a transcript from a talk I gave last week at Unitarian Fellowship of Houston. The topic, Spiritual Individuation, is one close to my heart. They were kind enough to also post it on their YouTube page. I hope you find permission and support to be your authentic and wonderful self.

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to join you this morning.

My husband and I have had the pleasure of being in your sacred space for several talks and celebrations. I like remembering the floor to ceiling windows inviting us to look out and into the artistry of all of the shades of greens outside, and the streams of light filling the room on the inside. It is with this recall and imagination of what you have built and share as a fellowship that I’d like to invite us to take a moment to take in a deep breath and settle in together. 

Thank you.

When I was asked to join you this morning, I began thinking about what I would like to share with you about me. And, the topic of spiritual individuation?

I think both of these questions: about me and this topic, can to some degree, be answered in Kermit’s song.

The song, Not Easy Being Green, was sung by Jim Hanson in 1970. I was too old by that time to be watching Sesame Street as a kid, but I was attracted to the simple melody and lyrics as a teen who was appropriately asking all of those deep questions about, who am I? And the more tortuous questions that were coming up in my search for my own identity while comparing myself to others, like: Why am I a brunette and not a blonde?  And, what will I be when I grow up?

For me, back then, Kermit was asking the same questions that I was asking myself.  Today I hear this song as encouragement to continue discovering who I am, and celebrating being me, as he concluded:

When green is all there is to be, it could make you wonder why, but why wonder why? I am green and it’ll do fine.

While Kermit expressed the experience of individuation in a language and style that I could identify with and trust, the idea of Individuation is certainly not a new or recent one. It is as old as Aristotle, as he wrote that, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” And as recent as the current slang “you be you.”

But, having the knowledge of something does not automatically mean we are able to do it.

It is not always easy being green, or orange, or blue or yellow, or even purple, as beautiful as purple is, if the people around us need or want us to be something different than we are. But, being who we are and being how we are designed is important. And, in fact, for me, finding permission to explore and celebrate who I am literally saved my life.

This is why individuation – emotional and spiritual individuation – as messy and never ending as it is, is so important to me.

It was Carl Jung who began using the word Individuation to describe what he felt to be the central and most important concept of human development. He described individuation as:

The process through which a person achieves a sense of individuality separate from the identities of other – and begins to consciously exist as a human in the world.

Jung believed that a human being is inwardly whole, but that most of us have lost touch with important parts of our selves. Through listening to the messages of our dreams and waking imagination, Jung states, we can contact and reintegrate our different parts.

I have come to believe that finding and living into our authentic selves – in our beliefs, our purposeful callings to service, and in our creative expressions of who we are – is not only our greatest accomplishment. It is our most sacred act of being as individuals and as members of our communities.

I was a late bloomer to the emotional individuation Jung speaks of. In fact, when I look back now, I can see that my route to emotionally individuate began when I was given permission to spiritually individuate.

For much of my life I didn’t know that I had permission to choose my own beliefs, and I didn’t trust that I wouldn’t be damned to hell, or rejected by family, if my faith looked or sounded differently than what I grew up with as a child.

Growing up on a small, midwestern farm, out in the middle of nowhere, and growing up Baptist in a small town that had five protestant churches and no Catholics, no Jews, no Muslims, Hindus or people of color, my view of the world was from a very, very small sample size.

So by circumstance, and to some degree privilege, I didn’t grow up knowing that it was an option to believe or think differently than the family and culture and churches that I had randomly been born into.

For much of my adult life, I kept chasing how to fit into the neat model of what my upbringing told me was good and proper. My sister and I, who sat side by side on the same wooden pew of my Baptist Church, walked into adulthood with two drastically different relationships with God. For her, God was all loving, forgiving, never punitive. For me, I was pretty sure that I would never be good enough for God, or for anyone else.

As hard as I tried to comply and work harder at being and believing like others, I often felt like the outcast.

Not being able to ask questions in safe places, and talk about what did and did not make sense to me, shrunk my world into smaller and smaller spaces of isolation. Not knowing how to reconcile my beliefs with my doubts, or fit them into the more conventional buildings and religions that others seemed to so easily accept, I trusted my world and my self… less.

I struggled with a diminishing sense of self-awareness and self-esteem, and I lost track of how to take care of myself and my emotional wellbeing.

By the time I was 35, I crashed under the heavy and deadly foot of addiction to substances and people. And found myself in the rooms of recovery where I heard:

“Your only hope is a spiritual life built upon honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, and service,” they said. “It’s time to find and claim your own understanding of a higher power that is more powerful and loving than you and your history of fears.”

That is when and how I first started discovering and accepting the permission I craved to question, find, and celebrate my own authentic way of believing.

It was the beginning of me changing from being a victim to what I thought I had to believe.

It was permission to enter into the lovely, messy, creatively designed discovery of who I am, how I am wired, and what I believe.

And yet, as incredibly distinctive as that particular moment was for me 30+ years ago, I have come to also know that:

Spiritual individuation is not an arrival point, but rather a life-long process of discovery.

Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

In our world of 24/7 exposure and influence, it is not easy finding or remembering who we are. Where we fit. Our ideals. Our principles. Our values. But, this is exactly the place, in this swirl of great variety and diversity that we are given the opportunity, if we are able to see it as such, to review and renew who we are.

To expand upon Emerson’s calling this our greatest accomplishment, I propose that the willingness to go deeper than the necessary emotional individuation of human development, is key to bringing a richness and satisfaction to our lives and to our communities.

Spiritual individuation, much like the emotional individuation we do in becoming independent and sovereign selves, begins in the self-honesty of getting to know ourselves better, and to risk questioning what no longer makes faith-sense to us as adults.

When followed by a hesitant yet persistent willingness to explore and shed inherited faiths, spiritual individuation can become an invitation to know ourselves and our Creator more intimately. But this process of reshaping our faith can feel lonely, irreverent, and scary to say the least. And why wouldn’t it?

When we consciously enter into varying degrees of what some, like Carl Jung, might call the dark night of the soul, we can find ourselves confronting the culture and teachings of our childhood that may have previously brought comfort in the familiar. But isn’t the journey of exploring our spiritual truths worth it? Surely spiritual maturity is at least as important, if not more, than our emotional maturity.

When we accept both the grace and the gauntlet of free will, we tend to grow and mature in our spiritual experience. We begin to sense and pay attention to the first hints of not knowing what we always thought we did.

Like crocuses in the springtime, we break through the frost of old and crusted-over ideas with an at-first fragile awareness that we only know but a fraction of what is.

We cautiously begin peeking at and practicing how to be comfortable in our beliefs without having to know all of the answers for ourselves and for others. This is an earmark of spiritual maturity advancing itself—the natural emotional migration from no longer needing (or pretending) that we have to have all of the answers.

We begin to notice that we are ever-so-slightly more open and willing to release and let go of tightly held opinions. By grace, we find new safety in letting go of strident judgments of others. By free will, we make choices that help us live more fully in the experience of being our true selves rather than having to boast loudly, and insist on how others should see us.

In the growing understanding and clarity of who we are, we are more likely to embrace our limits and confidence in our beliefs without needing them to be a fit for others, or a final conclusion for ourselves.

This allowance of others to believe, as they believe, is a principle of open-mindedness that I was taught in my earliest days in the rooms of recovery. They described one aspect of open-mindedness in an axiom:

My willingness to keep an open mind about how others believe is what ensures and protects my right to believe the way I do.

And that was huge for me. It gave me permission and safety to explore my thinking and beliefs as an individualized person, and as someone who wants to evolve with others in community. But this business of finding ourselves is not the center of the plot, the end of the story, or the whole story.

As much as it is in our organic nature to find and be who we are, it is equally important to account for the influence and the effects of our beliefs as well as the beliefs of others.

But this can be a tricky business. Because – where is the line between respecting how others choose to believe and our being complicit to beliefs that cause harms in community?

In the early days of 2018, I was pretty devastated by what I was witnessing in hate crimes that we were doing to one another. I was drowning in my own fears about what was happening with us a nation – gun violence, racism and persecution of those who do not look or live like our elected officials, and our eroding economic pathway for all people of our country.

I was also struggling with the opinions and divides I was beginning to see as real in my personal relationships… the kind that made me think of a movie I saw years ago about two brothers fighting on opposing sides in the Civil War. The memory of that movie haunted me as I watched political fissures show up in my family and friendships.

So, I did what I have been taught to do. Not perfectly, but I tried.

I sat on my mat and practiced my meditations, and I tried to say my prayers for everyone (not just for those who thought or looked like me). I read politics (a bit too obsessively) and I read my treasured books of faith and encouragements. I journaled like a mad woman and I screamed and cried with safe people.

What I came to, as my authentic way, to anchor to shores of safety and hope, was to examine and affirm who I am and what I believe. I reminded myself that no matter what was swirling around me in hate and prejudices, it is always my right and my responsibility to stay true to myself and my values of truth, and kindness, and compassion. In this practice, I was able to keep most of the wolves of ego and fear at bay, but never fully. And, never without the love and safety of Companions – here at my side in personhood, and in my soul as the loving God I have come to embrace.

I became convinced then, as I am now, that:

What we see in our world—her politics, her ways, her triumphs and failures—are a collective reflection of our inner landscapes.

Our hope, as a world and person, is to look deeper and truer into this landscape of ourselves. To look and illuminate and chip away, with divine resolve and Guidance, the conflict between our personal integrity and the choices we make.

To reconcile who I think I should be to who I am.

To shrink the distance between our dreams and where we actually spend our currency of time and energy.

And most of all, above and before all else, to clear a path and walk more fully and authentically in this world as the compassionate beloveds we are designed to be.

I know at times, we can fall asleep or get triggered, and lose the sacred thread of ourselves in the tapestry of community. We can lose track of who we are, and how we are made, in the diversity of our culture and glut of opinions.

It is not always easy to recall and live up to the ideal we have found as our authentic selves – in the way we think, be and behave. But, giving ourselves permisson, and time, to remember who we are – be it green, or orange, or blue, or plaid, is worth it.

Being our authentic selves is always the most sacred place to be and begin.

Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your community this morning. May peace be with you, now and always, and always with love. Amen.

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