Excellence Reporter: Dr. Harrell, what is the meaning of life?
Mary Harrell: What if we, as simple people, as responding individuals, came to understand that whispers of a vast universe of intelligent and loving beings needed us to join with them for the sake of soul? And what if we had the capacity to say yes? From where I stand, such partnering would indeed define a life of meaning.
When I was very young—before I could understand that an invitation of “something more,” of divinity, or of deep experience was knocking on my door—the meaning of life began emerging. It came without an invitation, without permission, and asked, not that I recognize it, or understand it, but that I acknowledge that an impossible event was unfolding, and that it was real. Though it turned out fine in the end, it took me many years for me to understand this experience. I had no difficulty, however acknowledging from the start, that my experience was real. In retrospect, this was no small matter because my encounter with a figure I thought to be a ghost, or an angel, didn’t fit with any acceptable model of reality available to me, then.
I learned, in time, that the emergence of an imaginative capacity of soul was a great gift of discernment. The imaginative capacity allows one to host images from a realm between matter and mind; it is an ability to see with the organ of the heart. Though I acknowledge that my early encounter resulted in a life’s work, others may make their own unique journey through different means.
On April 20, 1962 when I was 13 years old. My world erupted in the cataclysmic event of my mother’s sudden death in childbirth. As you might imagine, this event ushered in a host of confusions. There were confusions of identity–who was I if not my mother’s child–of difficulty with normal structures like time and space, of deep and often unconscious feelings of betrayal, abandonment, and rage. Such descriptions of a life in disarray are common for those in the throws of profound loss. My experience then, was that the world I trusted to be nurturing and good had turned upside down, becoming frightening, lonely, and woefully inadequate to the demands of life.
For all of us, such breakdowns of life open a space for breakthroughs. It was no coincidence that during this particular moment of my life, my subtle-bodied figure manifested, an event I perceived as a terror, though it proved over the years to be a first breakthrough of a world the Sufi mystics called the imaginal realm, that place of unfolding meaning which exists between matters of nature and ideas of the reasonable mind.
The purpose of all imaginal beings in our life is to facilitate transformation. I also came to know that my figure was sent by an organizing aspect of soul, known to Jungian- oriented therapists and analysts as the Self. To wonder about my ghost/angel, and the many figures who dwell in the imaginal realm, creates pathways by which life coheres. Engaging with imaginal figures, those found in dreams, visions, intuitions, myths and fairy tales, can link events, and allow us to experience the past and present, and sometimes the future, in such a way as to deepen, and illuminate that which is often veiled. This way of being in the world is akin to what some traditions call enlightenment.
C G Jung referred to it as staying with the image with an ego attitude until we come to terms with the unconscious. It’s important to note that one engages this way while being a lively participant in the world most people would describe as the normal world of eating, loving, dancing—the world of being human.
Later, in the unfolding miracles and challenges of my life, I discovered that these early and profound manifestations were experiences that would eventually help me grow into my life’s calling as an imaginal psychologist. I would, in time, join many others who hear whispers of an in-between world. I came to understand that I was being initiated into a community of linked individuals. These are scholars, and practitioners from many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, and shamanism. They work in differing fields, like psychology, literature, quantum biology, quantum physics, and the arts. For some, the path to participation is simply to be open-hearted.
The common thread running like a river through the lives of all of us is that we would choose, eventually, to tend to deep longings of the heart—the human condition, the environment, the beckoning universe. We would do this in the service of a slow and sometimes painful transformation of consciousness.
For me, the meaning of life is to do this work of tending to image, the work of lifting the veil between worlds, not for my sake alone, but to respond to the call of world soul.
~Dr. Mary Harrell is a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist, author and speaker. She is an Associate Professor Emeritus at State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego. Dr. Harrell practices clinical psychology through teletherapy in New York, and provides individual Jungian seminars nationally. Dr. Harrell’s interest in imaginal psychology, and social justice teaching has led her to investigate the ways in which archetypal patterns manifest in experience, and to write chapters in six books. Her novel, called The Mythmaker (Chiron Publications, June, 2018) is a fiction based on true events, and shows how young Katie Neumann copes with the death of her mother—with a little help from a subtle-bodied figure. This personal myth provides an example of mythic storytelling that allows our lives to cohere. Dr. Harrell is the author of the award winning Imaginal Figures in Everyday Life: Stories from the World between Matter and Mind (Chiron Publications, 2015), an exploration of transformative figures that inhabit the imaginal realm.
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