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Altered States and Your True Calling
On the daimon, acorn theory, and the soul's code
When I had been pondering many different things to myself for a long time and had for many days been seeking my own self and what my own good was, and what evil was to be avoided, there suddenly spoke to me – what was it? I myself or someone else, inside or outside me? (this is the very thing I would love to know but don’t)
-St. Augustine, Soliloquies
There is an intense focus on finding one’s purpose in life across many cultures. Is each of us put here with a unique set of skills? If so, what happens if we ignore those urges? Could avoiding one’s true calling be the source of discontent and internal strife?
One’s inner purpose was a key pillar of Carl Jung’s theories about the unconscious. Jung described it as the daimon, a Greek word derived from daiw, “to divide or distribute destinies”. In Greek mythology, the daimon is the universal energy that gives us our fate. Throughout his work, Jung leaned heavily on his extensive knowledge of ancient mythology to support his theories on the unconscious. The daimon became a central part of his thinking about vocation, motivation, creativity and the individual’s potential for achieving fulfillment in life.
The soul’s code
James Hillman, the influential Jungian psychologist who pioneered the field of archetypal psychology, wrote an engaging book focused on the daimon. In The Soul’s Code, Hillman notes that “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. This soul companion, the daimon, guides us here; in the process of arrival, however, we forget all that took place and believe we come empty into this world. The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is the carrier of your destiny.”
As I reread The Soul’s Code last summer, my thoughts would drift to my unborn daughter cocooned in her mother’s womb. She was in concert with her daimon. In a short time, she would emerge in the world and that relationship would be fractured. Her process of rediscovering the daimon would commence. I had planned to publish a version of this essay the day my daughter was born in July. But she arrived a bit early – much to our surprise – so it sat in my drafts for months. The delay turned out to be a synchronicity.
“Before the souls enter human life,” Hillman writes, “they pass through the plain of Lethe (oblivion, forgetting) so that on arrival here all of the previous activities of choosing lots and the descent from the lap of Necessity is wiped out. It is in this condition of a tabula rasa, or empty tablet, that we are born. We have forgotten all of the stories, though the inescapable and necessary pattern of my lot remains and my companion daimon remembers.”
There is an echo of this idea in Rabbinic Judaism. It is said that the child learns the entire Torah in the womb only to forget it upon birth. The evidence for this forgetting of the soul’s prenatal experience is pressed right into a child’s upper lip. The purpose of life is to relearn forgotten knowledge.
For Jung, the daimon is our better self that behaves like a guardian angel. It helps build our strength by leading us into challenging situations and giving the guidance to get through them. This is partly because the daimon fosters a dialogue between the ego and unconscious, which is vital to the process of individuation and becoming whole.
As we approach the midpoint of our lives, we encounter a tension between fulfilling our soul’s purpose (embracing the daimon, as it were) and the reality of our lives, which often falls short of one’s true calling. This crisis is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to face earlier traumas and set a new course on a path to individuation. Ignoring the path laid out for us can lead to a deep malaise in the second half of our lives. Ignore the daimon at your own peril.
If we successfully embrace the daimon, it gives us a clear sense of our vocation and can also be a wellspring of creativity. “The fight against the paralyzing grip of the unconscious,” Jung wrote, “calls forth man’s creative powers.” Facing this crisis head-on and making changes can transform the daimon from an “uncontrolled force of nature into a power that is yours to command.”
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When I look into my daughter's eyes now, I sense the deep knowledge that exists inside her. Perhaps the knowledge of her daimon is still fresh in her mind but she simply doesn’t have the ability to communicate it. As the outline of this essay sat in my drafts after her arrival, something striking took place in relation to my daimon.
After my father disappeared from my life when I was a boy, I was drawn to books and writing. My analytical mind, even as a boy, sought to overtake my emotional self as a means of coping with my parents’ divorce and father’s absence. Books and writing were natural refuges. I only began unpacking these layers following the birth of my son four years ago and with the profound help of psychedelics. A career as a writer was a natural consequence of my upbringing – or so I thought.
My dad’s first lines to me when we reconnected were, “I have been reading your articles and thoughts for some time. Is it possible to inherit the gift of writing? I think so.” At first, I found this to be off-putting. How could I inherit “the gift of writing” from my dad when I felt that it originated in response to his departure? Writing and reading was my escape. It was developed in opposition to everything around me. But there was more to the story. My dad told me of his interest in writing and how other members of our family were writers. It was all news to me. Writing had been part of my genetic makeup this entire time.
The Acorn Theory
Awakening the original seed of one’s soul and hearing it speak isn’t easy. How do we recognize its voice? What signals does it give? Hillman’s acorn theory is an attractive entry point into understanding the larger forces that might be at play in my discovery of the daimon. The theory suggests that your daimon selected both the egg and the sperm, as it selected their carriers, called “parents”. Their union results from your necessity – and not the other way around.
“Does this not help to understand the impossible unions, those antipathies and misalliances, the quick conceptions and sudden desertions occurring between the parents of so many of us?” Hillman suggests. “The couple came together, not for their personal unity, but to beget the unique person, endowed with a specific acorn, who turns out to be you.”
It would seem that the impossible union between my parents and their subsequent separation put me on a path to writing. My relationship to the written word is more than a vocation. It is a vital vehicle for my process of individuation, which includes reconnecting with my dad through writing. What else can I do but lean into it? That’s partly why I am focusing more attention on this newsletter.
At this point, I feel closer to my daimon. I don’t fully understand it but I can acknowledge its role in my life. I see it in my interaction with my dad and the knowledge he shares with me about our family. I see my daughter’s daimon, although I don’t know what it is, when I look into her eyes. I brush up against my daimon in dreams. It’s clear that this force lives in an altered state and accessing it can be a murky business. Perhaps that’s half the fun of discovering who you are.