There is an old idea that at the core of each individual lives what the Greeks called the daimon and the Romans referred to as the genius. It is a ‘spirit’ that is there from birth and it is intentional in that it is aimed at something. This daimon has its own agenda, its own plan for you, and it is your job to align with that force and bring it forth in your life.
Aristotle claimed that the highest human good was ‘activity of the soul in accord with virtue’. Reaching for one’s highest virtue is ‘the best thing in us’. Our highest human good requires the bringing forth of the best that is within us. What this means is having goals and a particular purpose for which to live. Virtue, therefore, is growth towards realisation of one’s nature.
For Aristotle happiness was not about pleasure, feeling good or relaxation. Rather it was about self-realisation where each individual strives to realise their nature according to their own gifts, talents, and dispositions. It is the realisation of innate potentialities. In order to do this each individual must follow the Greek imperatives to ‘know thyself’, and ‘become what you are’.
The ‘demon’ – when we refer to something that torments us – is said to be the negation of the daimon. When we go against our nature, when we, for example, ignore the call of the soul or psyche, the daimon seeks attention in more extreme ways. The demon is the daimon trying to break out.
While the genius is always there it is often latent and needs to be awoken. According to story-teller Michael Meade, it is between the ages of nine and eleven that the genius tends to emerge, before becoming dormant again until later in the teenage years.
While it is always there within us it needs practices in order to support it and draw it out. The original meaning of education – educare – referred to this process of ‘drawing out’ or ‘bringing forth’ the innate nature within each person. Education was not, as it is said, the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
There is a paradox at the heart of this idea. While the daimon, spirit or genius is the essence of what makes us unique, the daimon that lies at the core of our nature connects us to the rest of nature – people, animals, even the earth. The enacting and emergence of the genius is something that is inherently social – it happens in the context of community. The genius needs someone to bless or confirm it to come alive.
Both community and the daimon depend on one another. The daimon needs the community to bring it out, while community relies on the inner spirit of its members to provide the creativity and regeneration needed to heal and develop the culture. Genius-based mentoring involves first finding your own genius and then helping bringing it out in others.
In modern life, our alienation from outer nature is mirrored by our alienation from our inner natures. There is very little in our culture that supports a deep engagement with our inner life and the discovering of the daimon. Both the individual and the community suffer from this neglect as without the ‘bringing forth’ of the individual’s unique essence and purpose the person and the culture becomes stagnant and compensates by pursuing alienated activities like materialism and consumerism.
What are the paths to discovering this essential uniqueness within ourselves? Michael Meade informs us that there are two ways: One is through the discovery of our giftedness; the other is through our wounds.
After childhood, in the teenage years, this giftedness often awakens and is expressed in interests, a talent, a passion or a fascination with something. The individual is ripe but needs the support of the community to ‘give birth’ to their inner treasure.
The daimon is also closely present in our wounds and vulnerabilities. Those wounds reveal the shape of our soul and can be seen as a calling in themselves. For example, people who have survived abuse often feel called to help others going through this experience. The same with addiction etc. It is also the daimon that is the source of inner support that helps us get through trauma.
The way to this uniqueness is the ‘pathless path’. Due to the fact that everyone’s genius is unique their path equally will be unique. Like the knights of the round table who decided when entering a forest that everyone must enter at a different point where it is most dark, in supporting the emergence of daimon we cannot follow the path of another; we must create our own.
In drawing out the daimon we must try to access that inner uniqueness and then let it lead. It is a process of making contact with this ‘spark’ and then creating the conditions in which that spark can turn into a flame that will alight the world.
There is often a concern that this practice may appear self-indulgent or narcissistic. But it is actually the opposite. The further we journey into the centre of our being the more we experience what is universal in humanity and life and the more we feel motivated to give to the world. The genius is generous. It seeks to share its gifts. It is also a paradoxical giving; when we act from this place our energy is not depleted, but grows. Like the flame the more it burns the larger it gets.
This dimension has been called by many names: The deep self, the inner law, the dharma etc. However we conceptualise it, it comes down to aligning ourselves with this ‘inner gradient’ or ‘thread of destiny’. When we do so there is an ease and flow to everything we do in life; things happen effortlessly. When we are in harmony with what the Chinese called ‘the Tao’ or the great way, we are one with the flow of the universe. We become a channel through which creativity and regeneration happens naturally.