Tag Archive for images

The Image Making Capacity of Soul: A Conversation on Imaginal Figures in Everyday Life with Dr. Mary Harrell

Every once in a while, a term emerges on the horizon of my awareness which I find strikingly beautiful. In this case, it is the “image-making capacity of soul.” The language of soul is symbol, and symbol shows itself in image—including dream images, fairy tales and myth, or even art, Mary Harrell, Ph.D., explains in her recent book, Imaginal Figures in Everyday Life: Stories from the World Between Matter and Mind. Ultimately, this language of images is soul manifesting in a way people can understand, and without that image-making capacity, people can’t come to terms with the unconscious, Harrell insists.

ghost-girl-window-ss_117156934What inspired Mary to write the book, I wondered when I sat down with her to discuss it not long ago. Mary, a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist who earned her degree in the Clinical program at Pacifica Graduate Institute, began by sharing a an unusual and surprising story. When she was 13 years old, her mother died. Two years later, a self-described “intuitive, inward-leaning spiritual child,” she experienced a “figure” that came into her bedroom, an “incorporeal” being that became more and more embodied as she moved toward Mary in order to hand her a box. Mary knew that the box was meant to be a gift, she explains, but at just 15 years of age, she was understandably terrified. Instinctively, knowing her sister was asleep in another bed in the same room, Mary threw her arms around her sister. Since her sister had a real body, Mary believed that would stop that ethereal woman from approaching her—and indeed, the woman disappeared.

Untitled_design_2.jpgMary had no context to help her understand how to deal with “ghosts,” nor anyone she could talk to about it, she told me—even though that ghostly woman continued to appear to her for 22 years. In order to cope with the terrifying visits, Mary “altered her consciousness” as she explains it, often by turning on lights or putting her arms around her husband in her 20s. All of this woke Mary up from that altered state which allowed the woman to appear, and eventually the woman stopped manifesting.

Mary began her doctorate at Pacifica in her 40s and discovered analytical (or depth) psychologyoffered a powerful lens which enabled her to investigate with “a sense of reality and scholarship” such unusual phenomenon that is often dismissed in the mainstream. She came to realize she wanted to spend her professional life studying about imaginal beings such as the one she had experienced for much of her adult life. Such beings live in the realm between matter and mind, Mary suggests. They are neither fully of the physical world nor of the mind, a realm which philosopher and scholar, Henry Corbin (and others), called the mundus imaginalis. One can enter that realm by allowing an altered state of consciousness.

There are seven stories in Mary’s book, Imaginal Figures in Everyday Life. At Pacifica she found a framework that could deepen the experiences she had, particularly through an understanding of Jungian archetypes. Archetypes have two ends to a spectrum, a physical end and a spirit end, according to Jung. Each of these had a place in Mary’s experience. The spirit end was the “angel” that visited her, and the physical end was the sensation Mary felt when the figure manifested in Mary’s room. Additionally, Mary visually perceived the figure as a Madonna who had a box for her.

Years later, Mary realized it was the image-making capacity of soul that allowed her to perceive the box, and to understand that it represented the gifts a mother would give her child. She credits her education at Pacifica with helping her not only understand the concept of archetypes, but also that each individual experiences archetypes in different ways. Mary holds the belief that, when working with the imaginal, one way to know that you’re not making something up is that there is a deep experience of resonance, a visceral feeling in your body that testifies there is something real at work there. As the stories Mary was writing and their archetypal connects began to resonate with her, Mary knew she could pierce a veil between worlds and make some sense out of the images in the form of a book for those individuals who are open to this invisible realm.

In the Age of Enlightenment, beginning around 1685, Mary told me, a new paradigm emerged in which “science became the great arbiter of legitimacy.” Science insisted certain “truths” might be legitimized if we looked at them through the lens of science, effectively objectifying whatever was under our regard. If we investigate something and it doesn’t fit under that model of reality, she states, it risks being cast aside as something we “made up.”

We are all prone to discount such experiences with the imaginal realm simply because they don’t fit the model of reality to which we tend to adhere, when in reality, in such events, we are experiencing something that lives in that cusp between conscious and unconscious. As a psychotherapist, Mary often invites clients to keep a journal of dreams because, as she points out, even though she and the client are speaking together through the conscious parts of themselves, the unconscious parts of each are also in dialogue. Individuals who have a sufficient amount of “psychological maturity” seem to take to depth-oriented work like a fish to water, she insists, and they discover tremendous richness if they’re willing to take advantage of doing the work.

On the other hand, I note that Robert Romanyshyn, author and now Professor Emeritus at Pacifica, has referred to Mary’s work as a “therapy of culture,” and I ask Mary how her ideas can be applied to our society.

You can’t pay attention to your own integrity, development, liminal experiences or dreams, she asserts, without also becoming open to how those manifest in the culture. When she wrote the stories in the book, for example, Robert Romanyshyn pointed out that she used language that embodied a deep “poetic sensibility.” If you look at the world through the lens of a poet instead of as a “psychologist,” then you are engaging a lens of the humanities, Mary suggests. Her work enabled her to look at that “very real” cultural phenomenon—that of school shootings— as a cultural dream, and to investigate what the psyche is saying about the collective. If we “go back” through an imaginal process and go deeper into the experience, we can actually change the world, Mary confirms.

Mary conveyed her own excitement about a turn she perceives that Pacifica has made toward action in the world—to change the ecological trajectory, or to transform social injustice. If each individual can actually hold a container in which they look at negative aspects of themselves, and require of themselves a certain integrity, this generates a sort of ripple effect, according to Jung. It lends a kind of stability to an individual, simply by being in a room and being centered. People can feel that, Mary insists. To look at psychotherapy with a poetic sensibility and acknowledgment here in the “middle realm” we inhabit (the same place where the dream of school shootings and other such disturbing events coalesce), then the culture itself can benefit, and not just individuals, she affirms. Jung suggested we work with images by staying with the image. The understanding and transformation derived from the process could take seconds, or it could take years, but if we look at an image with a self-reflective ego attitude until we “come to terms with” the unconscious, it will engender “more goodness, more community, and more understanding.”

Like many people who go to Pacifica, Mary notes, she was at a time of extreme transition in her life when she enrolled there. She recognizes how valuable a container it was for her to find and carry out her work, and cites all the faculty there for “a special kind of courage” for doing things others are not willing to do or to acknowledge in the wider world, and she perceives that they each are following a connection with “something deep within them.” Robert Romanyshyn and Veronica Goodchild, both depth psychologists and authors were especially “brilliant and tender teachers” she confides, and Pacifica itself seems to “collect” people who can participate in this “holding” process, in making a container in which this kind of deep and often life-changing work can be done. For some reason, on hearing this, my thoughts turn to the box proffered by ghostly woman so many years ago.

Listen to the full interview with Mary Harrell, Ph.D., here (Approx. 37 mins)

Learn more about the M.A./Ph.D. program in Clinical Studies with Emphasis in Depth Psychology at Pacifica


Mary H. Harrell, B.S., M.Ed., Ph.D., is the author of a new book, Imaginal Figures in Everyday Life: Stories from the World Between Matter and Mind.  It comes as a result of research, personal experience, and professional accomplishments in the area of Jungian-oriented psychotherapy. Dr. Harrell, a licensed psychologist, earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, and her M.Ed. in developmental reading from University of Delaware.  She is Associate Professor Emeritus at State University of New York at Oswego, Curriculum and Instruction Department School of Education. She served as a K-12 teacher and reading specialist for three decades in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and California.  During 8 of those years she also was a consultant and presenter of teacher effectiveness programs, classroom management skills, learning styles, and teaching strategies for Performance Learning Systems, Inc., in California. Learn more at www.MaryHarrellPhD.com

NOTE: This post originally appeared on Pacifica Pos

Alchemical Active Imagination: Interview with Jungian Analyst Tom Elsner

The brilliant use of alchemy as a symbolic language and process for psychological and spiritual development is arguably one of C. G. Jung’s greatest contributions to the field of depth psychology. While alchemy may appear to be a mystical—and mysterious—domain, Jung developed a powerful and inspired method for accessing it by entering into dialogue with the rich manifestations of the unconscious and applying it to our daily lives for transformation and growth.

“True knowledge of oneself is the knowledge of the objective psyche as it manifests in dreams and in the statements of the unconscious,” wrote Marie-Louise von Franz, one of Jung’s closest colleagues. Finding myself intrigued by the idea of tapping into alchemical symbolism, and wanting to know more, I realized there was no better person to share some insights than Tom Elsner, a Jungian analyst and professor of Alchemy at Pacifica Graduate Institute, where Tom is teaching a 3-day workshop on the topic of Alchemical Active Imagination at P….

Tom immediately offered some history on the process of active imagination, which Jung developed to work with his own difficult experiences. Starting around 1916, after Jung notoriously broke with his mentor, Sigmund Freud, Jung went through an intense psychological process that included depression, accompanied by many deep dreams and visions. Over a period of 16 years, Jung gave voice to his inner dialogues through writing and painting, a process that ultimately resulted in The Red Book.

For Jung, active imagination was the process of making one’s subjective psyche objective—that is, making the unconscious overt and tangible in terms of images, voices, and inner experiences—so that it can manifest in ways we can more easily understand. By entering into dialogue with those images and voices, Jung found himself actively engaged with “emotional drives and dynamics that would otherwise have overwhelmed him,” Tom Elsner points out. It was an effective and inspired way to work through challenges of the psyche.

From around 1916, while Jung was in the depths of his process, he discovered alchemy and realized that alchemists were having symbolic experiences similar to his own. Alchemy emerged out of magical practices in ancient Egypt, was fertilized with philosophical views from the Greeks, and evolved via the Middle East, eventually taking root in Europe in the Middle Ages. By the time Jung came across the ancient texts in the twentieth century, alchemy had fallen out of favor in the west due to the Enlightenment and the focus on scientific thinking. Jung understood alchemy made no sense if one thought of it as chemistry. But if alchemy was viewed as a symbolic process, the images served powerfully as a “huge thesaurus coming out of the unconscious,” Tom notes. And so Jung applied it to the seemingly infinite stream of alchemical images in his own dreams, visions, and fantasies, as well as those of his patients.e.

Jung considered himself a natural scientist and strongly sought to bring an interdisciplinary dimension to psychology, involving other of the sciences of the time. While he undoubtedly related to the medieval alchemists as the natural scientists of their time, Elsner argues that active imagination, as Jung conceived it, has inspired the basis of many of the expressive arts, including dance, poetry, painting and sculpture, that have quite strongly emerged in current day psychotherapy.

However, it was only in the 1930s after Jung met Wolfgang Pauli, the Nobel prize winning quantum physicist, and they took up what was to be a 26-year correspondence, that Jung began to feel that there was a science that supported his experience of the autonomy of the psyche, and some of Jung’s paranormal experiences, as well. This was a significant intersection for Jung with alchemy. He saw it as the joining of the natural sciences with depth psychology, which paved the way for his theories about synchronicity and allowed him to expand his views about archetypes from seeing them as merely experienced on the inner plane to “something that [actually] inheres in the quality of matter—a kind of a return of soul to the world,” Tom affirms.

Utilizing alchemical images to make the subjective psyche objective, as Elsner describes it, is to begin to imagine how certain states of being, such as depression, can emerge and then engage. How might it turn it into an image, for example? What does it look like? Where it is in your body? What is it saying to you? Actively and intentionally engaging in dialogue allows us to overcome passive victimhood of a mood or state; to differentiate ourselves by encountering it as an object we can work with, rather than as something we are identified with, or identical to.

In our conversation, Tom describes in some detail how we might go about conducting an active imagination, engaging with a personal challenge, and “wrestling” with the psyche in order to come into some kind of relationship. Following certain guidelines or rituals in the process, taking action rather than passively watching what unfolds, and writing, drawing, or painting your experience (perhaps even hanging your work on the wall so as to “let it stare at you”) are all recommended aspects of the process. This kind of process can have an almost magical effect if you let it, Tom suggests.


A core focus of alchemy is the union of opposites, often depicted in alchemical images in the form of the king and queen, sun and moon, spirit and matter, or above and below. Thus, the work of alchemy begins with work of the shadow; with what has been repressed, which includes earth, nature, and the feminine, each largely split off in the western culture, Tom notes. Jung and Pauli envisioned an animated world in which psyche and nature are not split but rather are mysteriously intertwined. For them, that coniunctio, or union of opposites, was taking place in the both the microphysical world and in the collective unconscious.

The writings of Jungian and archetypal psychologist James Hillman, about the return of soul in the world, are very much related to alchemy, Tom points out—and what Jung and Hillman understood about alchemy today is very much relevant in the sense of quantum physics and new discoveries emerging there. Inner archetypal patterns now recognized in depth psychology are not just inside, but are also a structure of the external material world. They enable synchronicity, a meaningful connection between what’s happening in the inner world and what’s happening outside as well. When we engage, is produces a sort of alchemical magic that can transform us. How will you tap into that magic today?

Listen to the full audio interview with Tom Elsner here (28:55 mins)

Join Jungian analyst Tom Elsner for a 3-day workshop on Alchemical Active Imagination, March 4-6, 2016, at Pacifica Graduate Institute


Thomas Elsner J.D., M.A., is a certified Jungian analyst, faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and a member of the C.G. Jung Study Center of Southern California. He trained as a lawyer, and then as a Jungian analyst at The Centre for Depth Psychology. In his research and teaching of Egyptian, Islamic and European alchemy he continues in the lineage of Jung and Von Franz’s work. The author of numerous articles, Thomas has taught courses at Pacifica on alchemy for over seven years, as well as presenting this material in England, Ireland, Switzerland, and throughout the United States. He has a private practice in Santa Barbara and is completing a book on Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner as seen from the alchemical and depth psychological perspectives.


Bonnie Bright, Ph.D., graduated from Pacifica’s Depth Psychology program after defending her dissertation in December 2014. She is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, a free online community for everyone interested in depth psychologies, and of DepthList.com, a free-to-search database of Jungian and depth psychology-oriented practitioners. She is also the creator and executive editor of Depth Insights, a semi-annual scholarly journal, and regularly produces audio and video interviews on depth psychological topics. Bonnie has completed 2-year certifications in Archetypal Pattern Analysis via the Assisi Institute; in Technologies of the Sacred with West African elder Malidoma Somé, and has been extensively involved in Holotropic Breathwork™ and the Enneagram.

NOTE: This blog post was originally posted on Pacifica Post, an official blog site for Pacifica Graduate Institute

Image, Language, and the Lived Body in the Depth Psychology of the Self

Cave art at Chauvet, France

Cave art at Chauvet, France

In 1994 in the Ardeche region of France, three explorers pulled rocks away from a tiny opening at the base of a cliff and opened the door to another world. Inside the deepest recesses of what turned out to be a 1300-foot long cave were remarkable images of animals painted there by humans living 30,000 years ago (Herzog, 2010). The images are remarkable in their style and beauty, virtually perfectly preserved in the near airtight conditions of the cave. Lions, bears, bison, reindeer, mammoth, rhinoceroses and other beings line the walls in almost three-dimensional form, many captured in dynamic action–hooves raised, mouths, open, legs bent midstride–as if they were living beings.

In fact, a variety of images appear on rock walls of canyons, on high cliffs, and in the deepest reaches of caves in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Most of these, especially the Paleolithic rock art images traced in the depths of the caves at Lascaux, Les Trois Freres, Chauvet, Niaux, Cosquer, and others scattered through France and Spain, are an enigma. Questions abound as to the reason for the paintings as well as their placement deep inside the earth. Since the authors of these images are long gone, and writing emerged only around 5,000 years ago (Shlain, 1998), these incredible visuals are clues to an existence our ancestors left us in the only language they knew.

Today, it is easy to take language for granted. The majority of the civilized world both reads and writes, allowing communication in very specific topic and form.  But what is it to “have language”–be linguistic creatures? What would life be like if we did not? In contemporary culture, it’s hard to imagine life without newspapers, email, blogs, Facebook, and even Twitter–which limits its user to 140 characters per transmission. As Lacan asserts, language is “the primary form in which the human subject experiences the human-ness of Society” (Bailly, 2009, p. 66). But what boundary was crossed once we acquired language–both individually and historically as a species? Are there other ways to think besides in languages?

In The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind, and Ecology, Robert Bringhurst (2008) answers the question with a definitive, “Yes!” to the latter–stating that “language is what something becomes when you think in it” (p. 165). For most of us, that means “words.” Words are the elements that make up language. Language is so common to most of us, we take it completely for granted. But Bringhurst widens the arena, offering up that the forest thinks in trees along with associated flora, fauna, funghi, and all elements we typically envision of as making up a forest. When I “think” about thinking, I realize I can engage different modalities as varying as dance, mathematics, or colors–all a far cry from the words we traditionally think of as “language”. Certainly, autistic animal scientist and author Temple Grandin (2006) clearly states her perspective in the first sentence of her first book. “I think in pictures,” Grandin begins, “Words are a second language to me” (p. 3). It seems our Paleolithic ancestors from the heyday of Chauvet cave would agree.

Images, like words, have powerful creative force. They can be representational or reproductive, documenting and valuing the moment that was captured. They may be cosmogenic–that is, religious dimensions or icons that make the sacred manifest. Images may also be poetic, correlating with productive imagination, poetry and theory, having effect on a deeper aspect of being.

Bulgarian-born philosopher Julia Kristeva (2002) adds a crucial fourth dimension. According to her, images may also besemiotic. She deliberately extends the range of image from visual to polysensory, referring to any way in which the lived body gets involved in the experience. While Lacan (2002) suggests one draws the fragmented body together in a mirror, Kristeva suggests wholeness of the body and the senses is something that is persistently sustained–not only accessible to pre-linguistic infants who are linked to a world through the senses, but also beyond. This sensorial emergent, though broadsided, confiscated–colonized perhaps–by the acquisition of language with its stifling rules and syntax, continues into adulthood. The procession entails a creative (though loving) struggle between the forces of semiosis– the larger imago, the felt sense, the embodiment of consciousness or knowing in a fashion we each can relate to bodily–and the symbolic linear machinations of speech and language. According to Kristeva, this identity gap created by the two opposing forces may be negotiated by “bringing the body back into language and bringing language back into the body” (p. xxii).

In our fast-paced culture, we don’t always think about our body, tending to separate words–whether those we read or type or those we speak–from the whole of us that is manufacturing those words. It may well behoove us to bring the body and words back together so we can be more authentically in touch with what we are saying and to say more about what we are in touch with. This kind of opening to self can only serve to bring us closer to conscious awareness about our thoughts and actions and how we communicate them to others. Many depth practitioners integrate somatic work, movement therapy, breathwork, or other body-based practices to help us access what’s “below the surface” of our everyday experience. Check out some of the gifted somatic oriented therapists and practitioners on Depth Psychology List.


Bonnie Bright is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, the world’s first comprehensive online community for depth psychology, and hosts a regular podcast, Depth Insights, as well as editing the semi-annual scholarly e-zine of the same name. She recently founded www.DepthPsychologyList.com, a free online database to find or list depth psychology oriented therapists and practitioners. She holds Masters degrees in Psychology and Depth Psychology, and is a Ph.D. candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA.