Mary Harrell, Ph.D.
Are imaginal experiences real? What is the nature of the beings that live in that space between matters of the natural world, and ideas of the reasonable mind? How do they help us live a life imbued with wonder and mystery? These questions compelled me to begin exploring what French philosopher Henry Corbin called the imaginal realm, the mundus imaginalis. Corbin coined the term “imaginal” to distinguish between that which is “made up” – a flight of fantasy – and that reality residing on the border between waking experience, and a more generative kind of knowing and being.
For me, an exploration of imagination and the imaginal figures that live in its domain flows from two creative streams. The first is personal story. My own life experience with dream figures, intuitive presences, and visionary beings have been powerful and healing, beginning when, as a 13-year-old girl, my mother suddenly died, leaving me in a lost and frightening state of grief. As I share in Imaginal Figures in Everyday Life: Stories from the World of Matter and Mind, a figure came to me then, offering what she could to allow me to survive that sad time, and later to thrive.
The second creative source of inspiration is a transpersonal “other,” a central dynamic that analytical psychology calls the Self. We might understand the Self as a guiding principle (an impulse), directing us always, toward growth and transformation. As I write, I often find myself, a participant, in a world in which memoir and the Self co-create an interactive field. Within this field, imaginal figures inform, inquire, and sometimes shake me from rigid ego positions.
Each of us can choose to answer “yes” or “no” to the creative call of the Self. One’s expressive medium may be writing, as it is for me; for others it may be dance, sculpting, play or drama. With an affirmative response to the Self one finds life – renewal, transformation, ascent, growth, rebirth. In declining the call, one risks death – stagnation, coagulation, depression, fear, and depletion of soulful animation.
For those new to analytical thought, I share that the worldview in which we moderns live, is relatively new. It arrived at a time in history known as the Enlightenment – a philosophical movement most scholars agree occurred between 1715 and 1789. During the Age of Enlightenment, reason and science became, and still are, primary sources of legitimacy by which society measures reality. Those of us in depth psychology are not so seduced by reason and its attendant logic. We hold in awareness the power and transformative nature of the unconscious, continuing to explore its fluid regions. It is undeniable that this dark world is irrational, void of logic, and at times, chaotic, and still, it is the treasured vessel of the depths of human experience
I’m often reminded that CG Jung tells us in Memories, Dreams and Reflections that he, a grown man, began allowing himself to play as he had as a boy, by simply building with stones. He noticed that when he engaged in such play, images would come to him, sometimes intriguing, sometimes quite disorienting. With his intuitive intellect he knew that these images emerged from the unconscious and were meaningful in nature. Out of the years in which he encountered the unconscious, Jung discovered a method that he later came to call, active imagination. He tells us that we must stay with the image until we come to terms with the unconscious. This “staying with” the image may take moments, or many years. Coming to terms with the unconscious is that profound encounter, in which we transcend the gap between the ego (consciousness) and the archetype (the unconscious). With each transcendent experience we become more whole. This is the way of active imagination, the process that Jung endorsed for the remainder of his life.
My training as a Jungian-oriented psychologist makes it clear to me, that those images I call “imaginal figures” –dream figures, visionary beings, guides, intuitive forces, and figures from myth and fairy tales – represent different dimensions of unconscious life. Sometimes, as we learn from analyst Jeffrey Raff, they can also be beings from outside of our psyche, beings Raff calls psychoidal figures. These are ally’s that remain with us throughout our lives and want engagement with us so that they can assist as guiding forces. In my own research, I notice that at times, imaginal figures have their own purpose, for example, needing our embodied nature to complete something left unfinished in their lives. And even when they want us to complete something on their behalf, we are also transforming something within our personal path. Though this may seem a contradiction, the imaginal realm is a realm of inter-beingness, not a place of distinct either/or – either your life or mine, either your inner work or mine.
Each of the personal tales that I share in Imaginal Figures in Everyday Life opens a specific dimension of the subtle world of imaginal realities. I tell a story of a red-tailed hawk that embodies a divine presence, my interactions with him becoming an arcana between a divine who seeks to be known and she who knows him. And still, another story places me in a simple backyard garden in which enchantment erupts. A symphony of the natural world opens and with it, ensouled grasses, dancing leaves, and the world herself become animated, achieving a level of imaginal reality of which few people speak. In other words, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, not because the world changes, but because I choose to encounter the world with the organ of the heart. It’s due to the mundus imaginalis’ borderland quality that whispers of love can be heard across time and space, and between those orders that would otherwise remain separate.
As I considered writing Imaginal Figures in Everyday Life more questions emerged, as if others from another realm were weighing in on the project. I knew that I was writing for myself but also, for ancestors, angels (from the Greek for messengers) and “others” who wanted their realities affirmed by the work. With the organ of the heart I knew that they wished me to inquire, “How do we develop a greater relationship with the imaginal?” and “Can we cause it to manifest?” I knew, intuitively, that if I trusted their intentions, I would be supported in finding answers.
In Imaginal Figures I speak directly to people who may not be familiar with depth psychology but who nonetheless are in search of a lens that would frame their own anomalous experiences, a lens that might validate what societal consciousness does not. I hope that readers will take from my work, four particular ideas from depth psychology, thereby changing the way they know the world. While the four ideas I share below are not new, linking them to contemporary memoir as a way of deepening understanding, is a new invitation to a broader community.
The first of these ideas is so beautifully articulated by Marie Louise von Franz in Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche (1991), “The discovery of the unconscious is perhaps the most revolutionary thing that has happened in recent centuries, but it is so new and so radically different that great numbers of people prefer to behave as though nothing has happened.” (p. 310) Von Franz adds, “It takes inner uprightness and courage to enter into relationship with this newly discovered force and to take it seriously, thereby running the risk of a revaluation of existing values.” (p. 310) Because the unconscious is the homeplace of imaginal figures, we can find them there, when we, and they, are ready to collaborate. I’ll leave for another time, a discussion of the markers that would require us to discourage, or decline such partnership.
The second idea, one I’ve hinted at earlier, is that to nurture inner life can invite enchantment, and can foster the very vitality of soul that we moderns often lack. Our current western worldview, overvaluing reason and matters of mind, cuts us off from avenues of deepened inner experience. The image that comes to mind in explaining this situation, is a tree cut from its roots, prevented over time, from drinking in the abundance of minerals and water that would flow through its veins. And yet, we needn’t fear, as psyche brings to all of us, a world rich in dreams, intuitions, feelings, and visionary encounters; the portals to a wellspring of intrapsychic life. Happily, we do not need to exist as beings cut off from our deep roots. Instead, we can choose to awaken to psyche’s gifts.
The third idea that I ask my readers to consider, is that for over a hundred years, in psychotherapy rooms across the globe psychiatrists, therapists, analysts and others, have helped their clients interact with deeper parts of being. While this therapeutic context is, and continues to be, a great service to the world, we need not shut ourselves off from our personal experience of inner life. It’s time for the nurturing of soul life to move beyond the consulting room, time to embrace a “wondering stance” one that emanates from a renewed capacity to trust the organ of the heart. To this end I wish to join the voices of those trailblazer-scholars who have come before me – CG Jung, James Hillman, Thomas Moore, Robert Romanyshyn, Veronica Goodchild and many others– in tearing wide the shroud that separates all of us from those numinous encounters that would have us move through time and space in new ways. It’s their voices that have asked us to see ourselves, not as thinking machines, but as co-creators of an ensouled world and an enlivened cosmos. Indeed, to see in this way, we must learn to transcend the outdated, Newtonian models of space and time, a path that depth psychology has been quietly forging for decades.
The fourth and final idea that Imaginal Figures brings forward is deeply embedded in the discipline of depth psychology. Suffering, the inescapable common denominator of the human condition, is never pleasant, but if we tend it, that is, to look upon it with a self-reflective attitude, suffering can transform into meaning, compassion and love. It is a synchronous phenomenon that during times of suffering the imaginal world, animated by a host of figures, seeks to guide us in finding our way back home.
Rather than building upon the growing epistemology of analytical psychology, I join those who recover from the shadows, carefully considered glimpses of imaginal experience. For the archetypes to find grounding in lived experience – spoken in the public forum – is for me, a next step in analytical investigation. It’s my intention that my stories of the imaginal remain true to the wisdom of Jung who warned, that the exploration of image cannot be achieved through empirical means, but rather through the subjective lens of experience.