An act of individuation
In the West we tend to grow up with the sense that we must learn to take control of our lives. Little is left to the workings of fate. By the time we are “mature adults,” we must be able to make decisions and take responsibility for the direction of our lives. We must become self-sufficient, self-reliant individuals who can survive in a world that is competitive and demanding in its need for growth and material “progress.” Central to this entire process, of course, is the ego, such that even the idea of “maximizing one’s potential” is primarily within the domain of the ego. Having a competent, effective, and confident ego is crucial to success in the world.
As a transpersonal psychotherapist, what fascinates me are those times when this entire edifice begins to crumble. At such times, through factors outside of our control, like illness, loss of work, or a change in circumstances, we enter a period of uncertainty about the form and direction of our lives. The ego begins to realize that it doesn’t have real control over what’s happening. We may feel lost and unsure of our ground, fearful of the unknown, and powerless to do anything to resolve the problem. These times of liminality can lead to a kind of breakdown as familiar forms begin to dissolve, yet new forms have not emerged. It is then tempting to grasp at something that will rapidly patch up the cracks and give a sense of structure and security. We may be fearful of what is unfolding; equally, we might see such times as an opportunity to change the orientation of our view of life. If we are on a journey of individuation these are significant experiences because they cause us to go beyond ego.
In my experience this is not usually a comfortable process and will often be accompanied by great resistance, fear, and even depression. We are asked or forced to let go and open to the unknown, and yet we still cling to what was once secure. It can feel as though there are forces at work that are greater than us, outside of ego’s control, and that are actively trying to change us. As Buddhists, however, it may not be easy to make sense of these apparent forces, since we do not necessarily ascribe such phenomena to God or other omnipotent agents.
There is a Sufi tale of a man on a quest who finds himself trapped in a huge bath, the kind of place where large numbers of people bathe, often found in countries like India. He is alone and knows that if he does not escape, he will die. A parrot suddenly appears and tells the traveller that if he can shoot him with his bow and arrow, he will be free. The man has three arrows and quickly fires the first. The parrot flutters into the air, and the man misses. Strangely, the man turns to stone from the feet to the waist. He fires a second arrow and again misses. As a consequence he turns to stone up to the shoulders. He has one arrow left; what should he do? If he misses a third time he is dead.
This riddle beautifully illustrates the challenge of those times when our conventional ego strategies fall apart and will actually lead to our demise if we go on. The story ends when the man closes his eyes, says, “God is great” and fires the arrow. This time he hits the parrot and is freed. When faced with this stuck place, he has to go inwards and give up to something greater than himself to find a different source of solution.
The journey of individuation is the natural unfolding and awakening of our innate potential for wholeness. C.G. Jung recognized that there would be times on this journey when we are challenged to surrender the central dominance of ego to what he described as the deeper significance of the Self. He saw the Self as the centre of our totality or wholeness—a deeper seat of wisdom that holds a sense of our innate potential as we unfold in our lives. The Self individuates us, and the relationship between the ego and the Self is one that evolves through life. At certain times in our journey the ego begins to realize that it is not the prime mover: there are forces at work that have far greater importance. The Self begins to assert a kind of psychological pressure on us to change and become whole, a pressure that may be extremely disquieting as the ego loses its safe, familiar ground. A major aspect of this undercurrent of change will be the need to shift our understanding of what really is at the center of our life process. The shift of emphasis from the ego to the Self has been described as the shift from “I will” to “Thy will be done.” While as a Buddhist I may find the notion of a Thy somewhat untenable, I have always found the sentiment of letting go to some deeper sense of purpose profoundly resonant.
In Buddhism we may not speak of a shift from ego to Self, but Jung’s idea of Self emphasizes that this is an inner expression of our totality, not some form of outer God, even though it may be projected outside. It is not difficult in this respect to replace the term Self with “Buddha nature” or “innate Buddha potential” or, indeed, with a symbolic representation of our innate nature expressed by the deities of the Tantric tradition. As Buddhists we are asked to relinquish the domination of the ego, whether this is described in terms of the shift to a state of emptiness, a relationship to a guru as the focus of our path, or a relationship to a deity as a symbol of wholeness. The bodhisattva is asked to relinquish the habitual self-preoccupation with the ego’s needs to concern for the welfare of others and to the purpose of awakening. We can also see this as something that we do moment to moment; here I am referring to particular phases of life.
As Buddhists it is possible to live with a worldview that believes there is nothing that constitutes a transpersonal dimension of the psyche that is greater than us. This may be because we learn to deconstruct such ideas as lacking inherent substance—they are merely beliefs. We may then see the emptiness of self but remain within the ego’s dimension of consciousness, where there is no other presence, not even the Buddha’s. This may leave us feeling that we are alone with no other sustaining force in the universe. To what or whom do we then offer our prayers? Are we like Coleridge’s Mariner, alone on a vast sea with nothing to help as our souls cry out in agony? Where has the divine gone?
In our journey of individuation as Buddhists, we come to the same points that Jung describes, points at which we are asked to surrender, to let go, to give up the domination of the ego to a more profound wisdom that is shaping us. As I have suggested earlier, if we do not do this consciously, then our lives will often forge a process that demands that we change. When it does, we can either fight it or accept the process. I have found in my own journey that two of the most effective methods for working with the issue of the ego’s apparent control can be found within the Tibetan tradition. One is the practice of prostration, and the other is mandala offering.
I am often asked why prostration is seen as so important in Tibetan Buddhism. We can see this ritual in most schools of Buddhism, but it seems particularly emphasized in the Tibetan tradition. To an outsider, prostration can seem quaintly medieval. Indeed, its origins may well come from a time when it was a normal part of the relationship between the people and those in power. The way this has become translated into Buddhist practice therefore needs to be understood more deeply if it is to make sense as a spiritual practice.
Traditional Tibetan teachings on prostrations give many examples of the benefits of practice. Prostration can purify countless eons of negative karma. The degree of purification is determined by the area of ground one may cover, and the result of practice is supposed to be rebirth in a beautiful body and so forth. Personally, I have never found these ideas particularly convincing and had no way of knowing whether they were true or not. I could see the value of purification and of countering pride in the practice, but always felt there was more to them psychologically. Despite this, having performed around 200,000 prostrations while in India, I became very aware of the effect of this process as purification. Sometimes I was in agony; at others, I was ecstatic.
To understand the psychological nature of prostration, however, I have found it helpful to refer once again to Jung. In most Buddhist traditions, prostration involves visualizing an object of prostration that is usually depicted as a Buddha, often in the aspect of a deity. We may place this vision of the enlightened state outside of ourselves, but psychologically, we must remember that this is an aspect of our own nature. When we understand that the figure to which we prostrate is—to use Jung’s language—an image of the Self, then we are performing a practice that involves the ego’s surrender to the Self. The ego is asked to honor the more powerful wisdom of the Self, expressed in the deity.
As I continued my own practice of prostration, the dominant feeling was that of surrender. I could sense a deep shift in orientation that placed my Buddha nature at the centre of my journey as the root of meaning and direction. I was gradually giving up some level of self-will to align with a deeper sense of what must unfold, a place where the inseparability of the Buddhas and my own Buddha nature became a compassionate sustaining, guiding, and holding force.
It has often surprised me that in the process of surrender, what I particularly give up is fear and struggle. A kind of strength comes from truly giving up. In coming to the place where I genuinely let go and ask for help, guidance, and support, something changes. The question is whether I can maintain this openness, rather than grasping at solid forms or quick solutions to feel safe. This does not imply that I believe in some external entity that is going to rescue me so that I can give up personal responsibility. What it does imply is that if I truly open to and listen to the innate wisdom of my Buddha potential, in some mysterious way it will guide me. “Trust your inner knowledge wisdom,” my teacher Lama Thubten Yeshe used to say.
We may project the object to which we surrender onto an outer person in the form of a guru. In many Tibetan Buddhist texts great emphasis is placed upon the guru as the root of the path and the source of realization “to whose lotus feet we prostrate.” As Westerners we have a certain ambivalence about this. There may indeed be times when it is fundamentally inappropriate or even hazardous to give so much power away. If we understand the guru to be a projection of our own innate nature temporarily externalized, then this may make more sense. Indeed, there are times when this surrender to the guru is part of the journey. If we do not understand the inner nature of the guru, however, the individuation process may stall at the moment we thought we had found a way forward.
As we learn to surrender we may discover the ways in which we are actually afraid to make such a deep psychological transition. Trust is a big question. In what do we trust if we give up? We can trust the guru and hope he or she is essentially trustworthy. We can try to find some sense of what is essentially trustworthy in the universe, but for a Buddhist this is not easy to find—all is a manifestation of emptiness. As we give up, we open to a kind of trust that is perhaps without form or object—dharmakaya holds us. It is said that when we are open to it, Buddha nature will manifest like the sun shining through the clouds. If we understand this, notions of inner or outer become somewhat meaningless as we open to the presence of the Buddhas as our guides and guardians.
This brings me to the second practice that I have always found intriguing, if slightly hard to grasp in its traditional form. Mandala offering is also intimately related to this process of giving up, which is not always obvious from the traditional way it is described. I was once teaching a group of people this practice, describing the ritual of placing rice and precious stones within the structure of a sequence of rings laid upon a base plate. This structure makes up the universe as described in the Abidharma with its central mountain and the various subcontinents. I then described how one visualizes various symbolic objects, like the great elephant, the wish-granting cow, and so forth, placed onto the mandala.
As I continued my description I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable. The ritual seemed so incongruous in the context of the group of Westerners I was teaching. I could see that they were finding it hard to relate to in this form because it did not touch them emotionally or psychologically. I ended the session expressing my discomfort and said I would come back the next day and we could look at it again in another way. The next morning I awoke early with a clear sense of what needed to be different.
What emerged was a mandala offering that was essentially about visualizing the whole of who we are as individuals. (Indeed, this is what the traditional form is meant to represent, but in a particularly Eastern style.) This included our outer environment, our lifestyle, our family, possessions, skills, work, inner experiences, and knowledge, as well as our difficulties and flaws. It included our aspirations, hopes, and fears. It included our spiritual potential and the qualities we would need on the path. As I described and then performed this ritual with the group the following day, it was clear that it made a connection. I could see that some of them were quite emotionally moved by the process. We were offering the whole of ourselves, with all of our gifts and failings, to the Buddhas. We were surrendering our life to the process of awakening represented in our Buddha nature visualized in front of us as a Buddha. There is a phrase in the Heruka Sadhana by Pabonka Rinpoche: “In order to benefit sentient beings, I offer myself immediately to all the Buddhas.”
Such a practice provides the opportunity to symbolically let go of the aspect of ourselves that thinks if we give up, we will lose everything. It helps us to loosen our grip on the things that become obsessive and compulsive in our life. It can also enable us to hold our qualities and failings more spaciously as, with a sense of acceptance, we offer them up. As we offer ourselves we offer our humanity with its light and dark sides, not just the ideal of how we feel we should be.
When in our journey we are called to let go of ego as the dominant force in our life and respond to another center of being, these practices can offer an invaluable aid to the process. We offer ourselves as a vehicle for our Buddha nature to manifest in the world for the welfare of others. With a heartfelt attitude, one prostration or offering performed at the right moment can touch us as deeply as 100,000 done without such commitment.
And then we arrive at the paradox inherent in this process, characterized in the curious Middle Eastern proverb: “Trust in God but tether your camel.” The paradox is that while we will need to let go and give up on one level, we need to retain a sense of active engagement in the process that remains practical and responsible. Response-able means able to respond when the time is appropriate and not simply drift into a kind of formless abandonment of the practicalities of life. Nor is it falling back into the habit of trying to compulsively organize everything. We must walk a fine line between surrender to being unfolded through life and active engagement with care and responsibility in the challenges that this offers us. As we individuate we learn to remain open to the nature of uncertainty in the journey, not grasping at securities because of fear, and not grasping at a goal. At the same time we take part actively in the process as a kind of dialogue between the ego and our Buddha nature. We still pay the bills, do the washing up, and take the kids to school. As we offer ourselves to this journey, we may not know where it will take us, and that is part of the mystery once we surrender. But when we align ourselves with and fully engage in that deeper undercurrent of unfolding, life can become even more fulfilling.
(If you wish to see the mandala offering referred to in this text, go to mandala offering.)
Giving up is taken from Preparing for Tantra.