Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Descending Into Our Fuller Selves: How Bill Plotkin's "Soulcraft" Defines Soul, Gifts, Initiation and Wild Nature

“The most effective paths to soul are nature-based…Nature – the outer nature we call ‘the wild’ – has always been the essential element and the primary setting of the journey to soul. The soul, after all, is our inner wilderness, the intrapsychic terrain we know the least and that holds our individual mysteries. When we truly enter the outer wild – fully opened to its enigmatic and feral powers – the soul responds with its own cries and cravings”

Since 1980, psychologist Bill Plotkin has helped people discover their deeper gifts through the programs of his Animas Valley Institute, located in Colorado, which leads individuals and small groups on ‘nature-based soul-initiation’ journeys into the wilderness. “As a psychologist, I’ve found that my clients’ discontents are often rooted in an unmet longing for wildness, mystery, and a meaningful engagement with the world.” Plotkin uses the term ‘soul’ to describe that aspect of each individual which is unique, endowed with gifts, often hidden, and directly connected to our own innate ‘wildness’ as sentient animals of this earth. The cultural historian Thomas Berry, in his eloquent foreword to Plotkin’s book, points out that, “soul is fundamentally a biological concept, defined as the primary organizing, sustaining, and guiding principle of a living being…soul gives to the multitude of living forms wondrous powers of movement and reproduction, but even more wondrous powers of sensation and emotion…Such was the understanding of soul in our western world until the sixteenth century when RenĂ© Descartes (1596-1650) taught that the natural world was simply a mechanistic process to be known simply by scientific measurement” (p. xiii). Plotkin writes, “The individual soul is the core of our human nature, the reason for which we were born, the essence of our specific life purpose, and ours alone…Each of us can bring a unique gift to the world, a world desperately in need of the socially transforming contributions of initiated, actively engaged adults.” Plotkin’s program of initiation, which he calls “Soulcraft,” is premised on the understanding that the living earth, and in particular wild nature, is the most practical and time-tested teacher for awakening our deepest sense of purpose and destiny. “Our society is forever erecting barriers between its citizens and the inner/outer wilderness…But when we escape beyond these artificial barriers, we discover something astonishing: nature and soul not only depend on each other but long for each other and are, in the end, of the same substance.” Plotkin offers a number of critical ideas about ‘soul initiation,’ and how the journey is inward and downward, as opposed to upward and away like the renunciatory paths espoused in many religious traditions, and also some contemporary New Age practices. Plotkin writes, “Although the journey is a spiritual one, it is not a transcendental movement upward toward the light of an ecstatic union with all of creation. It is a journey downward into the dark mysteries of the individual soul…In the mythologies of the world, we find innumerable stories of the hero’s and heroine’s descent into the underworld…Such myths and stories are found in countless cultures. They imply we each must undertake the journey of descent if we are to heal ourselves at the deepest levels and reach a full and authentic adulthood…In contemporary Western cultures, we live as if the spiritual descent is no longer necessary; we live without realizing that the journey is meant for each one of us, not just for the heroes and heroines of mythology.” While our unique ‘gift’ is necessary for the healing of the world, our only responsibility is to seek out and discover our deeper gifts. Once we have done this, and we begin to more actively live within our truer intents and purposes, the healing capacity inherent therein will emerge on its own. “The gift you carry for others is not an attempt to save the world but to fully belong to it. It’s not possible to save the world by trying to save it. You need to find what is genuinely yours to offer the world before you can make it a better place. Discovering your unique gift to bring to your community is your greatest opportunity and challenge. The offering of that gift – your true self – is the most you can do to love and serve the world. And it is all the world needs.” Plotkin argues that many ‘adults’ have not truly experienced maturity, and that our world suffers from uninitiated adults. To rectify this, we must all embrace the challenging journey of descent into the soul. “Contemporary society has lost touch with soul and the path to psychological and spiritual maturity, or true adulthood…Successful navigation of this most perilous time in human history requires psychologically and spiritually mature men and women who can engender a mature human species…For thousands of years, we have been living in a culture that ‘protects’ us from the hardships and dangers of the descent…It is a world from which the true elders have largely disappeared, the elders who once possessed intimate knowledge of soul…Knowledge of the mystical journey remains available… always and everywhere found within the souls of each of us and in the remaining wild places of the world.” (all excerpts are from Plotkin’s Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, California: New World Library, 2003, pp. 1-15).