"Legacies of the Occult": From the Origins of Depth Psychology to Today's Popular "Occulture"

The C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco

March 13, 2022

Many are surprised to learn that the origins of depth psychology can be located in the wake of - and were heavily influenced by - the exploding trans-Atlantic phenomenon of Spiritualism. This presentation examines the occult and spiritualist influences on four founding figures of modern psychology (Myers, James, Freud, and Jung) and examines two main models of the unconscious that emerged via their research in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We will then trace the re-emergence of these occult and depth psychological influences in popular 'occulture' today through the visual medium of comic books and superhero mythologies. In doing so, we will find that such 'legacies of the occult' - far from a late 19th century by-product of a long-forgotten age, are very much alive and with us today.


Reawakening Sleeping Gods: Comic Books and the Birth of a New American Imaginal

Offered as part of the Certificate Program in Applied Mythology 

Pacifica Graduate Institute 

June 28 – August 13, 2021

Comic book superheroes exploded into 21st century popular culture both by way of the visual medium and through blockbuster Hollywood cinematic representation. In a vastly secular culture that has largely renounced “the gods” (and even religion), what does their “return” to us through our own cultural technologies say to us – or even about us? This presentation considers the return of the superhero as our own modern American mythology – a wildly diverse pantheon that reflects back to us our most far-reaching hopes and (im)possible desires. In placing the tools of comparative mythology and religious studies alongside the insights of modern depth psychology, a super-powered palette emerges that unveils the hidden potential of our own vivid imaginations. As we examine select comic book and superhero characters from the “Silver Age” 1960s through contemporary 21st century adaptations and innovations, we will discover together what the (re)emergence of these perennial “American gods” have to say to us about our own secret super selves today.

"Yes to Everyone": Thomas Merton's Radical Ecumenism and Inter-Monastic Mysticism of the Ground

International Thomas Merton Society
Seventeenth General Meeting

June 24-27, 2021

On April 28, 1957, Merton influentially wrote: “If I can unite in myself, in my own spiritual life, the thought of the East and the West, of the Greek and Latin Fathers, I will create in myself a reunion of the divided Church, and from that unity in myself can come the exterior and visible unity of the Church.”  Merton’s call for transformation is individual, interior, and personal; yet, paradoxically, without the religious other, his ecumenical vision remains incomplete. It is only in one’s capacity “to affirm others, to say ‘yes’ to them… [to] discover…them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone."  


This paper outlines the unfolding dynamic and evolution of Merton’s commitments to religious “others,” beginning with his profound “radical ecumenism” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, towards an all-embracing inter-monastic mysticism in the “ground” of being. Merton’s inter-spiritual vision is paradoxically rooted in his Christian monastic commitments while remaining extraordinarily open to religious “others” through a “transcendent unity” that Merton believed was accessible to all through contemplation, love, and a heart wide open enough to say “yes to everyone.”


The Occult Origins of Depth Psychology and in Popular 'Occulture' Today

October 1, 2020
Guest Lecture, Engaged Humanities and the Creative Life (MA Program)
Pacifica Graduate Institute


Many are surprised to learn that the origins of 'scientific psychology' can be located in the wake of - and were heavily influenced by - the exploding trans-Atlantic phenomenon of Spiritualism. This presentation examines the occult and spiritualist influences on the founding figures of depth psychology and examines two main models of the unconscious that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We will then trace the re-emergence of these occult and depth psychological influences in popular 'occulture' today through the visual medium of comic books and superhero mythologies. In doing so, we will find that such 'legacies of the occult' - far from a late 19th century by-product of a long-forgotten age, are very much alive and with us today.

Thomas Merton: His Life from His Writings

presented online in June & July

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is one of the most influential spiritual authors of the 20th century and yet many are not familiar with the depth and scope of his published work.  This presentation traces Merton’s life through his most celebrated gift – his writing. Although a Trappist priest in a cloistered monastery, Merton had the rare ability to touch the lives of millions through his words.  We will look at Merton’s early life and international upbringing, his conversion to Catholicism while a college student at Columbia, and his entrance into the Abbey of Gethsemani at the age of 26. We will then trace the evolution of Merton’s life and thought in his own words – from his earliest spiritual writing, through his “turn to the world” and advocacy for peace and justice in the 1960s, and his engagement with Buddhism and other religious traditions, culminating in his trip to Asia in 1968 and his untimely and accidental death.  This presentation aims to show Merton’s profound and gifted spiritual voice, his ability to deeply impact his readers through the candor and transparency of his own writing, and his ecumenical and inter-faith vision of human interconnectedness. 

Centering in the Heart: Desert Spirituality in a Time of Quarantine and Coronavirus
presented online in April & May 

Early Christian monastics willingly entered the Egyptian desert to deepen their connection with God.  Through intentionally cultivating a spirituality forged in silence, solitude, and prayer, their witness to the inner life can serve as a model for those of us unaccustomed to the introspection and aloneness resulting from quarantine and self-isolation.  In addition to discussing the qualities, characteristics, and key figures of early monastic spirituality, this presentation focuses on one contemplative practice that emerged from within the desert tradition: the “Jesus Prayer,” or “Prayer of the Heart” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me”). This prayer practice, prominent in the Orthodox Church, encourages the believer to center in the heart, and to invite the “Holy Name” to take up residence.  The Jesus Prayer has many resonances with both the Centering Prayer movement developed in the 20th c. by the late Catholic Trappist monk Fr. Thomas Keating, as well as with “Eastern” practices such as yoga, meditation, and “mindfulness.” In addition to tracing the Prayer of the Heart throughout history, we will look at these inter-faith and ecumenical comparisons, practice Centering Prayer together, and enjoy time in fellowship with one another in a prayerful, contemplative (online) community.


“The Comic Book as Mystical Text: Trauma, Initiation, and the Empowered Imagination in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles.”
American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting
San Diego, CA
November 23-26, 2019

Acclaimed comic book author Grant Morrison utilizes explicitly visionary and mystical phenomena in his narratives to redefine the boundaries of what a comic book is – even its potential for transmitting “mystical” epistemological and ontological truths.  Morrison’s use of such themes re-crafts the comic book as a gateway for readers to their own potential “non-ordinary” encounters through a form of empowered imagination.  In this 50th anniversary year of Comic Con, this presentation seeks to further anchor the study of comic books in the academic study of religion and comparative mysticism through an examination of three “case studies” that demonstrate initiatory and traumatic material.  In each instance, new forms of knowledge or self-identity are revealed to the initiate through injury, confrontation with unconscious traumatic memory, or near-death experience.  This mystical “gnosis” serves as a “double revelation,” imparting hidden knowledge not only to the character in question, but transmitted directly to the reader.

“Comic Books, Creativity, and Madness: Supernormal Powers and the Cracked and Fragmented Self” 
Creativity & Madness Conference
Santa Fe, NM
July 29-August 2, 2019

This presentation traces the history and appearance of so-called multiple states from their earliest role in the development and theorization of scientific psychology at the turn of the 19th century with the work of William James, Frederic Myers, Theodore Flournoy, and Morton Prince, to MPDs later resurgence in the 1980s, and its evolution and further theorization as “dissociative identity disorder” in the 1990s.  This historical “genealogy” serves as the theoretical basis to examine both the madness of the Marvel character “Legion” in The New Mutants comic book series as well as the creative – and profound – therapeutic healing that he undergoes.  In doing so, this highly illustrated presentation raises important questions around the nature of pathological versus non-pathological dissociation, how extreme states of psychological fragmentation and madness can be visualized, much less theorized, and takes up anew William James’ centuries-old question regarding the possibilities of “supernormal powers” and their potential relationship to psychological trauma. The presentation concludes with a depth psychological reading of The New Mutants through the contemporary lens of Jungian analyst and clinical psychologist Donald Kalsched’s mytho-poetic model of what he terms the “Self-Care System” (SCS).

“Dark Phoenix Rising: Fire, the Feminine & Film” 
Transformando Conciencia - KPFK 90.7fm
June 4, 2019



“A Visionary Gnosis: Comic Books and the Illuminated Imagination” 
Art & Psyche Conference IV: The Illuminated Imagination
University of California, Santa Barbara
April 4-7, 2019.

Typically viewed as “low culture,” and rarely considered of psychological importance, certain comic book authors have nonetheless defied convention and utilized the medium to visually depict esoteric and mythological imagery that often “illuminates” the symbolic and numinous nature of the psyche.  When interpreted from a depth psychological perspective, other-worldly, futurist, and often downright “strange” comic book fantasies come alive in meaningful, visually stunning, and richly symbolic ways.  This presentation explores the work of contemporary comic book author Grant Morrison's The Invisibles as a gnostic epiphany and visionary medium meant to encode deeper truths about mind, matter, and the nature of the psyche – in other words, the comic book as an expressly “illuminated” – and illuminating – phenomenon.   

“Transformations of the Feminine Divine:  X-Men’s ‘Dark Phoenix.’” 
Transformando Conciencia - KPFK 90.7fm
January 9, 2019

Dark Phoenix Rising: Fire, Feminine & Film - David Odorisio
00:00 / 00:00
Transformations of the Feminine Divine: X-Men's 'Dark Phoenix' - David Odorisio / Vanessa Valdez (host)
00:00 / 00:00


“Phoenix Force and Feminine Jouissance: Reading Myth in Comic Books & Pop Culture”

Hosted by the Joseph Campbell Foundation Mythological RoundTable® Group of Los Angeles

Santa Monica, CA

December 13, 2018

"Mysticism, Method, and Madness: Depth Psychological Hermeneutics and the Academic Study of Religion"

Pacifica Graduate Institute

Santa Barbara, CA

November 10, 2018


"Comic Books, Film & Myth"  

Panel Discussion with Crispin Freeman; moderated by Will Linn

Studio School

Los Angeles, CA

October 3, 2018

“Phoenix Force and Feminine Jouissance: Reading Myth in Comic Books & Pop Culture”

Pacifica Graduate Institute 

Ladera Lane Campus

Hosted by the Joseph Campbell Foundation Mythological RoundTable® Group of OPUS Archives & Research Center

Sunday, April 22, 5:30-7:30pm











Fire consumes. Powerfully, it reduces to ashes. Fire is not only a great destroyer – it is vital in sustaining life itself. Locally and globally, our current situation heralds great destruction. Are there symbols of hope, healing, and regeneration amidst that which has been – or needs to be – reduced to ashes? Political and environmental uncertainty. On-going and escalating abuses of male authority. Much has been burned already. Much more is yet to be seen.

What do our cultural stories – our popular myths – have to say about the potential for rebirth? In ancient mythology, the Phoenix represents a symbol of great destructive power, but also life-giving rejuvenation. This Roundtable presentation will examine the continuing incarnation of the “Phoenix Force” over a 35-year span of X-Men history, including her many retellings, resuscitations, and reincarnations, in order to invite reflection on what this ancient symbol of regeneration has to say to modern times.

Reading Phoenix, and her sinister emergence as “Dark Phoenix,” alongside a combined feminist and depth psychological lens, reveals the enduring cultural legacy of a character that has evolved over decades, largely through the imagination of male authorship. Viewing Phoenix through the category of sexual difference raises questions regarding comic books, male fantasy, and the ability of female characters to carry, withstand, and even subvert the male gaze through the erotic subjectivity of what Lacan referred to as “feminine jouissance.” The presentation will include reflections on the forthcoming film, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and invite the cultural interrogation of “Why Phoenix? Why Now?”


"Dionysus in Depth: Mystes, Method, and Madness in James Hillman's Re-visioning of Psychology" 

American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

San Antonio, TX

Nov. 20, 2016


With a focus on the embodied, emotional, and erotic nature of Dionysus, I show how these qualities came to formulate the core theoretical vision of Hillman’s archetypal hermeneutic, and serve as a critique of traditional psychological epistemologies, as well as of normative scholarly approaches in both the humanities and sciences. In “saving” image, symbol, and even the “mystical,” from an analytic, disembodied, and misogynist reductionism, Hillman’s "Dionysian" archetypal psychology champions a form of transformational subjectivity, and personally redemptive mysticism, through an ontological affirmation of what Jung understood as the reality of the psyche.

"The Alchemy of Embodiment"

Yoga Meets Depth Psychology: Embodying the Sacred, Encountering the Soul

Pacifica Graduate Institute

Santa Barbara, CA

July 16, 2016


Alchemical practices, East and West, offer a mysticism of the body where matter itself is a primary source of inquiry and locus of Self revelation

"James Hillman’s Tantric Sadhana:  'Notes on the Meaning of Kali Symbolism' and the Healing Potential of Hindu Tantra" 

Pacifica Graduate Institute

Santa Barbara, CA

July 1, 2016

James Hillman’s early psycho-biography and initial research at the Jung Institute in Zürich can be understood through the lens of a depth psychologically-informed “tantric hermeneutic.”  From his “failed” expedition to Kashmir, including the important matrilineal dream of his Mother-Grandmother, through the Jung Institute and his first research paper on the fierce Hindu Goddess Kālī, and onto his later archetypal explorations of the puer and Hero, I will show how Hillman’s maternal dream work both constellated and was “worked through” in scholarly and imaginal ways that can be considered “Tantric.”  

"Depth Psychology and Religious Studies" 

University of Texas, El Paso

Feb. 8, 2016


This public lecture sponsored by the UTEP Religious Studies Department addresses the unique contributions and differences among Freud and Jung's psychologies of the unconscious and their implications for the academic study of religion. 


Dissertation Defense:  "Alchemical Hermeneutics" 

California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA

Jan. 2015


An overview of alchemical symbolism, processes, and history, with a focus on applying the practices of Western alchemy as a depth psychological interpretive lens to four texts/traditions in the field of religious studies:  Patanjali's Yoga SutraThe Dark Night of St. John of the Cross, and the metaphor of the "heart" in the Upanisads and in Eastern Christian Prayer (hesychasm)