The Personal Experieince of the Sacred

Lionel Corbett, M.D


Photograph by: Raymond Gehman,

Teresa Oster MSW, MS, CJSSF board member

CJSSF: We are delighted to have you presenting to our Jung Center in December.  Some of us see you as one of our more spiritual Jungian analyst/writers. You have a new book, The Sacred Cauldron:  Psychotherapy as Spiritual Practice.  Your often-cited older book The Religious Function of the Psyche has a similar theme of a divine component in suffering.   Why did you want to write another book on the subject?  And would you say a few words about the alchemical metaphor of the cauldron in your title?

DR. LIONEL CORBETT: My previous books, The Religious Function of the Psyche and Psyche and the Sacred, were mostly about theory, explaining Jung’s approach to religion and spirituality and explaining what I believe is his religious approach to the psyche.  I wanted to write something which shows how these ideas can be put into practice in psychotherapy.

When Jung first used the I Ching, the first hexagram he obtained was number 50, The Cauldron. This is the place of transformation, and so it seems like a metaphor for the intensity of the psychotherapeutic process. The title turned out to be a bad idea—Amazon filed the book in the witchcraft section! In spite of several attempts to get them to change this, it’s still there.

CJSSF: Being yourself a student of religious traditions, if you picked a present-day or historical spiritual figure to have an extended dinner conversation with,  either real or in your “active imagination”, who might that be?

DR. LIONEL CORBETT: I’m afraid only the obvious historical figures come to mind: Jesus and the Buddha.  In modern times, Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi.

CJSSF: Would you feel comfortable saying something about your personal spiritual life? What religion, if any, were you raised in, and how did it affect the trajectory of your life?  How do you feel about spiritual practice and ritual in your life now? And what kind of home has Pacifica Graduate Institute, in Santa Barbara, been for you, spiritually?

DR. LIONEL CORBETT: My family is ethnically Jewish, but not religious. My father is a Holocaust survivor, and the Holocaust cast a dark cloud over him and the atmosphere in my childhood home. I think that’s why I’m interested in a spirituality that actually has something useful to say about evil and suffering—I don’t think any of our religious traditions are much use in this area, but depth psychology has some good things to contribute. This question has become the central one of my life—in the tradition of parents handing down to their children a problem they were unable to solve.  I think my father’s experience made me interested in why people do what they do, and contributed to my going into psychiatry and then Jungian analysis.

I have two forms of practice. One is working with dreams, complexes, synchronistic events, numinous experiences, and the like. All this kind of work is a spiritual practice for me. I also meditate (erratically) and I read traditional sacred texts; I like the Gita very much. My real commitment is to nondual spirituality, such as that found in Taoism, Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and so on. It is found in Jung when he says that the Self is the totality of consciousness. The implications of this idea for psychotherapy have not yet been fully worked out. I’m not too interested in ritual—I think it makes me feel self-conscious.

Pacifica has helped me by sponsoring my Psyche and the Sacred seminar series, which I’ve done for some years as a public program, and by allowing me to teach this material to students.

CFSSF: In your latest book, The Sacred Cauldron:  Psychotherapy as Spiritual Practice, you say that “spiritual direction” is an unfortunate phrase.  Would you explain?

DR. LIONEL CORBETT: The phrase has the connotation of telling people what to believe—which is not what happens except among fundamentalists. I think “guide” or “companion” would be better words. I do believe depth psychology is a present-day form of spiritual direction for many people who are not part of an organized tradition.

CJSSF: Some experience what has been called “New Age guilt” when they suffer a crisis.  You offer a more teleological attitude toward suffering. Would you say a few words about that?

DR. LIONEL CORBETT: Suffering is very complicated. For Jung, one has to find its meaning, and find where it is taking one, what its purpose is; for example, this might be initiation, or new consciousness, and so on. I’m currently writing a book on suffering where I’m exploring all its ramifications; there are many.    New Age guilt is ridiculous if it blames the victim, as if one has brought the problem on oneself. This is a perversion of the idea that the unconscious comes at you in the form of events in your life.

CJSSF: What book or books are on your reading table now?

DR. LIONEL CORBETT:  I’m reading Ribi’s book The Search for Roots, which is about Jung and Gnosticism, and a biography of Christiana Morgan, the subject of Jung’s vision seminar.

Lionel Corbett, M.D., trained in medicine and psychiatry in England and as a Jungian analyst at the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago. Dr. Corbett is a core faculty member at Pacifica Graduate Institute. His primary dedication has been to the religious function of the psyche, especially the way in which personal religious experience is relevant to individual psychology. He is the author of The Sacred Cauldron: Psychotherapy as Spiritual Practice; Psyche and the Sacred: Spirituality Beyond Religion, and The Religious Function of the Psyche. He is co-editor, with Dennis Patrick Slattery, of Depth Psychology: Meditations in the Field and Psychology at the Threshold.


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P.O. Box 669
Hallandale FL 33008

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As a Not-For-Profit organization we exist because of the generosity of our friends, volunteers and donors. None of the work that we do would be possible without you.