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Lionel Corbett, a faculty member at Pacifica Graduate Institute, is a proponent of the Jungian movement called depth psychology, which suggests an approach to spirituality that cannot be contained by traditional religious institutions.

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Lionel Corbett, a faculty member at Pacifica Graduate Institute, is a proponent of the Jungian movement called depth psychology, which suggests an approach to spirituality that cannot be contained by traditional religious institutions.


Spirituality through Depth Psychology

Pressure from Below


The Friends of Jung, a newly formed Santa Barbara-based group, held their first public event last month at the Montecito Library. Some 45 years after the death of psychologist Carl Jung, the group is finding that his teachings enjoy renewed interest and relevance. Indeed, at places like the increasingly vibrant Pacifica Graduate Institute, the movement Jung inspired-depth psychology-continues to grow.

The event featured a talk by Lionel Corbett, a core faculty member at Pacifica, whose books and audio recordings suggest an approach to spirituality that cannot be contained by traditional religious institutions; also, his work has recently inspired the formation of yet another Santa Barbara Jungian-based group, the Center for Personal Spirituality. Corbett started his career as a medical physician, moved into psychiatry and brain research, and then into clinical psychology.

Why does your work emphasize the expression of the sacred outside traditional religions? My work came out of many years of doing psychotherapy, and finding that there were a lot of people who were in some kind of life crisis, and when they went to the church or the synagogue, they couldn’t get the help they needed. They found that the traditional religions didn’t give them a very satisfying explanation for why they were suffering, or a useful spiritual approach to it. They seemed to get platitudes, or a pat on the back: father knows best, it’s good for you-that kind of thing.

Do you believe we have an innate sense of the sacred? We humans have been around on the planet for 150,000 years, and the Judeo-Christian tradition is only a couple thousand years old, so we have a long spiritual tradition, before Judaism or Christianity appears. I think what the traditions have done is hijacked it, or franchised it, and told everybody, we’re the only way you can express that, and if you don’t do it our way, you’ll go to hell, or you’re a sinner-an attempt to bring people into doing it their way. And I think the chickens are coming home to roost. : The mainstream traditions are losing adherents. My work is based on the fact that you can do it yourself. You don’t need anyone to tell you how to find the sacred.

If you want to do it yourself without doctrine, or dogma, how do you do it? Isn’t psychology also, in a sense, telling you how to do it? Not the kind of psychology that I do. Depth psychology as a field is only 100 years old. It’s roughly as old as quantum physics. I think that depth psychology and quantum physics are two new evolutionary manifestations within human consciousness that have arisen to compensate for the demise of the religious traditions. And cosmology as well-knowledge of the universe. All [three] of which have exploded in the last 100 years. We have a different consciousness now than the people who wrote the Bible had. Depth psychology is one approach, and I think cosmology and quantum physics are the other big approaches.

What depth psychology contributes is an understanding of the psyche that is quite revolutionary. It is an approach to the unconscious, but it doesn’t tell you what to do; it gives you an instrument for seeing what’s there. It’s like a microscope. When you work with a dream, which is a manifestation of the unconscious, using a depth psychological approach, it’s like putting the elements of the dream under a microscope and seeing what they mean. But the dream is given; we aren’t telling people what to dream-it comes from within. We’re only helping to see what’s there.

And what does that have to do with our sense of spirituality? There is a very old idea : that one of the ways that the sacred manifests itself is through the unconscious. We don’t know if the unconscious generates the sacred experience, or if it acts as the medium through which the sacred manifests itself. I don’t think we can answer that question; what we know is that there are certain manifestations of the unconscious that have a very sacred or holy quality to them. And they can appear in dreams or visions. There are still people [in this society] who have very powerful, spiritually important visions, but they won’t talk about them. Some people have these experiences in nature. They are the nature mystics; they experience the divine in the natural world. Some people experience it in relationships. Some people through creative work. Some people in the body. Some people in our pathology and illnesses. Religions have given you a few ways to experience it, but in fact there are all kinds of ways to experience it. You know, Marc Chagall was asked, “Do you pray?” and he said, “Of course I pray-I make art.”

There’s a resurgence of interest in Jung’s work. Why, in 2007, are we just getting a Friends of Jung group in Santa Barbara? People are getting interested in Jung because he talks about spirituality, which was never accepted before by the academy. Now even mainstream psychiatrists are writing books about spirituality. The American Psychological Association, which is the Mecca of psychologists for some people, recently published a book on spiritually oriented psychotherapy. It’s becoming respectable, and because of that Jung is a little more acceptable now. There is a grassroots interest in him because he addresses these questions of meaning and purpose. And he gives you tools to do it. : People are discovering that it’s actually practical. After Galileo and Copernicus, it took 100 years for the new astronomy to get into the academy. Jung has similarly been ignored, except for places like Pacifica. But I think that’s going to change, because of pressure from below, as it were.

Many are attracted to church because it provides answers; it gives a framework. Does depth psychology offer that? Well, maybe not depth psychology, but Jung does. In terms of Jung, he thinks the personality has a telos, which means a goal or purpose. The telos of an acorn is to become an oak tree, and so the seed has a destiny. And he believes each person has a very unique destiny to fulfill. People who are trying to find a sense of purpose in religion-wanting to find out why they are here-and not finding it, that’s one thing that could be attractive about depth psychology. You can discover more deeply who you really are.

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