Nature and the Human Soul
Desert Images

Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche

Chapter 1

…To be human
is to become visible
while carrying
what is hidden
as a gift to others…
— David Whyte

There's so much more to who you are than you know right now. You are, indeed, something mysterious and someone magnificent. You hold within you — secreted for safekeeping in your heart — a great gift for this world. Although you might sometimes feel like a cog in a huge machine, that you don't really matter in the great scheme of things, the truth is that you are fully eligible for a meaningful life, a mystical life, a life of the greatest fulfillment and service. To enter that life, you do not need to join a tribal culture or renounce your religious values. You do not necessarily need to quit your job, sell or give away your home, or learn to eat only vegetables. You do, however, need to undertake a journey as joyous and gratifying as it is long and difficult. You will perhaps have to make sacrifices of the greatest sort along the way, but you will not be able to determine what they might be before you start. Nonetheless, to put things in proper perspective, please remember that at no point will you be asked to sacrifice any social roles, material objects, or self-images that you won't lose anyway at the time of your final breath. Something at your core prays you won't reach that moment without having courageously embarked, years earlier, upon the mystical journey of the soul.

There is a great longing within each of us.

We long to discover the secrets and mysteries of our individual lives, to find our unique way of belonging to this world, to recover the never-before-seen treasure we were born to bring to our communities. To carry this treasure to others is half of our spiritual longing. The other half is to experience our oneness with the universe, with all of creation. While embracing and integrating both halves of the spiritual, Soulcraft focuses on the first: our yearning for individual personal meaning and a way to contribute to life, a yearning that pulls us toward the heart of the world — down, that is, into wild nature and into the dark earth of our deepest desires.

Alongside our greatest longing lives an equally great terror of finding the very thing we seek. Somehow we know that doing so will irreversibly shake up our lives, our sense of security, change our relationship to everything we hold as familiar and dear. But we also suspect that saying no to our deepest desires will mean self-imprisonment in a life too small. And a far-off voice within insists that the never-before-seen treasure is well worth any sacrifices and difficulty in recovering it.

And so we search. We go to psychotherapists to heal our emotional wounds. To physicians and other health-care providers to heal our bodies. To clergy to heal our souls. All of them help — sometimes and somewhat. But the implicit and usually unconscious bargain we make with ourselves is that, yes, we want to be healed, we want to be made whole, we're willing to go some distance, but we're not willing to question the fundamental assumptions upon which our way of life has been built, both personally and societally. We ignore the still, small voice. We're not willing to risk losing what we have. We just want more.

And so our deepest longing is never fulfilled. Most often, it is never even meaningfully addressed The nature-based people native to all continents know that to uncover the secrets of our souls, we must journey into the unknown, deep into the darkness of our selves and farther into an outer world of many dangers and uncertainties. They understand no one would casually or gleefully choose such a thing. Indeed, most people would not begin without considerable social and cultural pressure in addition to the great intrapsychic drive to wholeness. And although the journey is a spiritual one, it is not a transcendental movement upward toward the light and an ecstatic union with all of creation. It is a journey downward into the dark mysteries of the individual soul. This is a journey on which, as the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it, we are asked to trust not our lightness but our heaviness:

How surely gravity's law
strong as an ocean current
takes hold of even the smallest thin
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing—
each stone, blossom, child—
is held in place
Only we, in our arrogance
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrenderer
to earth's intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things
because they are in God's heart
they have never left him.

This is what the things can teach us
to fall
patiently to trust our heaviness
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

People have felt the downward pull to soul since the beginning of time.

In the mythologies of the world, we find innumerable stories of the hero's or heroine's descent to the underworld. The Greeks told the tale of Orpheus, the fabulously skilled musician who traveled to Hades to find and revive his dead bride, Eurydice. He succeeds at the rescue but then, as he leads her back to the daylight world, loses her again (and this time forever) when he disobeys the gods by turning around to make sure she is still there.

Persephone, the daughter of the fertility goddess, Demeter, is abducted by Hades, the lord of the dark underworld, to be his bride. Eventually, Zeus sends Hermes to rescue Persephone (with only partial success: she must spend one-third of each year below).

The Anglo-Saxon Norsemen told the story of the hero-warrior Beowulf, who descends into a dreadful swamp to do battle with the monster of all monsters, Grendel's mother. Beowulf slays the beast but returns as part monster himself.

From the ancient Sumerian world comes the myth of the goddess of heaven, Inanna, who descends to the netherworld to confront her dark sister, the goddess Ereshkigal, who kills Inanna and hangs her corpse on a peg. Two mourners are sent to Ereshkigal by Enki, the god of waters and wisdom, and secure Inanna's release, but Inanna must send a substitute to take her place in the netherworld.

The Nubian people of Saharan Africa recount the story of a young woman who, because of her beauty, is spurned by the other women of the village. In her despair, she descends to the bottom of a river, a very dangerous place, where she encounters a repulsive old woman covered with horrible sores who asks the young woman to lick her wounds. She does and is thereby saved from the monster of the depths. She returns to the village with great gifts.

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, that there are powerful and dangerous beings in the underworld who are not particularly friendly or attractive, and that we are forever changed by the experience. 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.

In his classic text The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the great mythologist Joseph Campbell identified in rich detail the universal patterns and themes underlying the journey of descent as found throughout world mythology. These patterns and themes reveal what we can expect on our own underworld journeys.

The hero or heroine of mythology represents you and me, the everyday self (the I, or ego). If and when you embark upon the underworld adventure, it begins the same way it does in myth — by leaving home. You leave your commonplace world and roles and your familiar way of understanding yourself. Soon (at the threshold of the underworld, the kingdom of the dark) you encounter a demon — a shadowy element of your own unconscious — that guards the passage. This is the first test. There are two ways you can continue at this point. If you defeat the demon or conciliate it (perhaps by making an offering or using a charm), you enter the underworld "alive" (with some ordinary awareness remaining). If you are slain or dismembered, on the other hand, you descend in "death" (stripped of all normal awareness). But you descend either way, and that's what's most important.

You then journey through what Campbell called "a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces." This is precisely how the underworld feels — although exotic and uncanny, the beings you encounter there seem to know you because, after all, they embody the previously denied aspects of your larger self.

Your underworld encounters help you in two ways. Some of them further undermine or defeat your former understanding of self and world, while other encounters provide you with helpers or magical aid, supporting your more soul-rooted way of being. At the climax of the journey — it's actually a nadir on an underworld excursion — you undergo a supreme ordeal that puts a decisive end to your old self-image (ego death) and leads to your reward, the recovery of your core soul knowledge.

This recovery may be experienced in a variety of ways: union between your conscious self and soul, perhaps embodied in a sacred marriage or sexual union with a god or goddess; soul knowledge confirmed by a divine being; an experience of self as a carrier of sacred powers; or the discovery of a treasure or boon.

Returning to the middleworld, you are now more consciously aligned with your soul's purpose. Your world is thereby restored both inwardly and outwardly — inwardly in that your image of the world and your place in it has become whole again but in an utterly new and expanded way, and outwardly in that you return with a sacred task to perform in your community, a gift that contributes to the healing and wholing of the world.

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.

We can create contemporary methods to facilitate the underworld journey.

For thousands of years, we have been living in a culture that "protects" us from the hardships and dangers of the descent, a world in which everything is more or less predictable and where most people emulate those getting the greatest socioeconomic rewards. It is a world from which the true elders have largely disappeared, the elders who once possessed intimate knowledge of soul and who waited for us at the underworld threshold to guide us across.

Yet, knowledge of the mystical journey remains available. In addition to world mythology, it can be found in the shamanic traditions of nature-based peoples, in the esoteric branches of the great world religions, in the few remaining mystery schools, in the verses of the soul poets, and in modern depth psychology. Most importantly, this knowledge is always and everywhere found within the souls of each of us and in the remaining wild places of the world.

But once we've identified the universal patterns of descent — as articulated by Campbell and others and as found in nature and our own souls — how do we activate those patterns in contemporary Western life?

This question has been at the heart of my work as a psychologist, wilderness guide, and ally to the underworld journey. Soulcraft makes the bridge from the recognition of archetypal patterns to the actual experience of the descent. It provides practices and pathways to initiate and deepen the journey. Some of these methods are modern adaptations from the cultural wisdom of the ages, and others are what my colleagues and I discovered by simply rolling up our sleeves, along with our participants, and diving into the mysteries.

With the support of nature and an underworld guide, our souls can show us how to re-create a relationship with mystery. We have only to learn how to look and then take our next step upon the journey.

Each of the soulcraft practices presented in these pages is designed to be used hand in hand with the others. The introspective practices complement and animate the outer, nature-oriented approaches, and each method deepens and extends the results from every other.

But Soulcraft provides more than a grab bag of tools and practices. It encourages a way of life that emphasizes meaning and mystery, celebrates the depths and magnificence of our individuality, and helps reintroduce to Western civilization that other, downward-bearing half of the spiritual journey.

Such an integrated approach to soul discovery and embodiment is what nature-based people have always possessed. Imitating native people of any land or tradition, however, is unnecessary and can be disrespectful to them and to ourselves and, ultimately, of limited value for people who are not born or adopted members of those cultures. It is time for us in the Western world to create our own contemporary and practical path to soul, generated in part by our intimate relationship to land and place.

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. These passions might frighten us at first because they threaten to upset the carefully assembled applecart of our conventional lives. Perhaps this is why many people regard their souls in much the same way they view deserts, jungles, oceans, wild mountains, and dark forests — as dangerous and forbidding places.

Our society is forever erecting barriers between its citizens and the inner/outer wilderness. On the outer side, we have our air-conditioned houses and automobiles, gated communities and indoor malls, fences and animal-control officers, dams and virtual realities. On the inner side, we're offered prescribed "mood enhancers," alcohol, and street drugs; consumerism and dozens of other soul-numbing addictions; fundamentalisms, transcendentalisms, and other escapisms; rigid belief systems as to what is "good" and what is "bad"; and teachings that God or some other paternal figure will watch over us and protect our delicate lives.

But when we escape beyond these artificial barriers, we discover something astonishing: nature and soul not only depend on one another but long for one another, are, in the end, of the same substance, like twins or trees sharing the same roots. 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. Yet our true nature is at first a mystery to our everyday mind. To recover our inmost secrets, we must venture into the inner/outer wilderness, where we shall find our essential nature waiting for us.

Thomas Berry, the cultural historian and religious scholar, reminds us that the word nature comes from the Latin natus, "to be born," and that the nature of a thing "has to do with that dynamic principle that holds something together and gives it its identity." The human soul functions in the same way: the soul holds our individuality together and gives us our identity. Soul and nature are only slightly different ways of talking about the essence of a thing, whether a stone, a blossom, or a person. The soul of a blossom is its essential nature. Our human souls consist of those aspects of self that are most natural, that are most of nature — the aspects of self to which nature herself gave birth.

Nature depends on us to embody our souls. The world cannot fully express itself without each of us fully expressing our selves. Diminished human soul means diminished nature. Just as nature longs for the embodiment of our souls, our souls long for a world in which nature can embody itself fully and diversely.

When, at long last, we gaze into our own depths, we see the same kind of enchantment, and resilience we see in undisturbed nature. And when we journey far enough from the routines of our civilized lives — in space or in cultural distance, far enough, that is, into wilderness — we see reflected back to us the essential qualities of our deepest selves.

The underworld journey is not at all the same as psychotherapy and it is a far cry from a nature walk or an Outward Bound course.

The practices in this book will help you reach the boundary of the world within which you have defined and limited yourself (as we all do), and, when you are sufficiently prepared, help you cross that threshold and dive toward the beautiful and terrifying shapes of your own soul. We'll explore practices such as discovering nature as a mirror, confronting your own death, extended periods of solitude and/or fasting, the art of wandering, working with your sacred wound, the way of council, self-designed ceremony, understanding nature's signs and omens, interspecies communication, trance dancing, and the arts of shadow work and of soulful romance.

Although soulcraft methods can be employed in a variety of settings, sometimes in your own home, the reader must be forewarned: the underworld journey is, in most cases, neither easy nor painless, and even the best psychotherapist will be of limited value as you proceed. There is no quick fix for the alienation from soul. Cultivating a relationship to soul and transforming your life take time and hard work.

Although soulcraft practice almost always generates psycho-spiritual benefits, the full encounter with soul requires the surrender of control and predictability. Your ego must be shocked or shifted in a way that extracts you from your surface life. This book helps you prepare for and invoke such major shifts in consciousness.

The pull toward soul feels like an earthquake in the midst of your life.

The journey of descent begins with a call to adventure, a stirring declaration from the depths, from the gods and goddesses, that it is time to leave behind everything you thought your life was supposed to be. The call is much more than an urge for an extended vacation, a challenging project, or a new career or social scene. You may think you are simply going to leave home for a while, learn something new, and return to what you always thought was yours, but you will not in fact be in control...You might one day return to the place where home existed and find only ashes.

In the industrialized Western world, the call comes without warning, without help from elders, and without a formal rite of passage. Although unexpected, the call is preceded by ominous tremors. For me, those tremors rippled beneath the ground of my early professional career.

The university was the world for which my family, education, and aptitude — my entire life — had prepared me. By my mid-twenties, I was successful enough to be in danger of becoming entrenched and inflated. I imagined I would one day hold an endowed chair at an Ivy League university; all I had to do was collect data, publish papers, and receive one promotion after another.

Academia was such a good fit for my personality, I could easily have dissipated my life there. Yet, beneath the veneer of outward success, I was an insincere stranger in a strange land of crowded classrooms and deadly committee meetings. I had little passion for the academic life — intellectual interest and ambition, yes, but no true devotion or enthusiasm. But I never thought of leaving — what else was there.

Still, I could not deny that my deepest motivations were social and financial security, professional status, and self-aggrandizement. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my university life arrested me in an immature identity. The sprouting tree of my career did not have its roots dug into the deeper desires of soul.

In lieu of a genuine initiation in my teens or twenties, I simply transferred my dependencies from my human parents onto an institutional, academic "parent." For others in our society, the new parent is a corporation or a church, a government job, a professional society or partnership, a business, or the military. For yet others, there are the deadly havens of gang membership, codependent relationships, or addiction.

I heard the call to adventure a few times in my early twenties, but I didn't know who or what was calling. Finally, on that winter day in the Adirondacks, I got rattled in a way I couldn't ignore. As I ascended Cascade Mountain on snowshoes, climbing toward a gold and blue dome, I felt emotionally torn: on the one hand, I exulted in the freedom and wildness of the mountains — untamed nature, where I felt most at home. On the other, I dragged my professorial life behind me like an anchor. I wondered why I didn't find my career more fulfilling and hoped I only needed a little more time to get settled.

But, upon reaching the summit, my understanding of life changed and my adolescent trance ended. Lost in a sea of white peaks, I was pierced by an unfathomable sadness for a loss that was at once mine and not mine, and a hope for something bigger than I knew to hope for. Sadness and hope coursed through my veins and gathered in my belly. I stood perfectly still, hardly risking a breath. Half-crazed, I scanned every facet of the vast snowscape below as if something precious and essential to me was hidden there, in a concealed valley or the shadow of a river bend.

Then, the truth exploded into my awareness. I heard myself gasp. There was no denying it: my university tenure track was a spiritual dead end and I simply had to leave, despite my promising career, despite the inevitable incomprehension from family and colleagues, despite my not knowing where I would go, how I would survive, or who I would be. I would have to abandon my students and all those boxes of painstakingly gathered and unanalyzed data.

Campbell referred to such earthquakes as moments in which we are "summoned by destiny," our "spiritual center of gravity" shifting "from within the pale of society to a zone unknown."

Responding to a call on the summit of a New York peak was the central turning point of my life. My journey of descent began, mythically and literally, at the moment I drew my eyes away from the promise glimmering far below and turned to take my first step off that snow-shrouded mountain.

In the Western world, many are called but few respond. Entry into the life of the soul demands a steep price.

Perhaps you remember a time when you heard the call to adventure. Often it comes near the end of formal education. As a senior in high school or college, you may have felt an overwhelming desire to chuck it all, to leave everything behind and wander into the world. Alarmed, you wondered if this would mean saying good-bye to everyone you loved and everything you had worked so hard to create

But this is precisely how it works: We don't enter soulful adulthood merely by reaching a certain age, birthing or raising children, or accepting certain "adult" responsibilities. We must undergo an initiation process that does require letting go of the familiar and comfortable. Through ordeals and ecstasies, we come to know what we were born to do, what gift we were meant to bring to the world, what vision is ours to embody.

Entry into the life of the soul — a life of passion, enchantment, and service — demands a steep price, a psychological form of dying. We do not easily give up our claim on the good life of extended adolescence, what Jungian analyst James Hollis refers to as our "first adulthood." Nature-based societies, understanding this, provide their youth with extensive preparation for the encounter with soul followed by an arduous initiation rite. These rites, now beginning to reappear in our own society, facilitate the radical shift in consciousness required to turn our focus from familiar egocentric concerns to those of the soul, from our first adulthood to our second.

In contemporary Western society, the underworld journey is neither understood nor encouraged by the majority of parents, teachers, health professionals, or cultural leaders, to say nothing of mainstream business, science, or politics. Yet a genuine soulful adulthood is possible for everyone. We need to restore the ways of soul initiation — but not by adoption of other cultures' traditions or rites; rather, through the creation of our own contemporary and diverse models that better fit our postindustrial selves.

It's not too late.

One of the saddest yet strangely hopeful discoveries of recent years is that many profound soul encounters occur for the first and only time on a person's deathbed. The fact of one's imminent death is obviously an ego crisis of the greatest magnitude, one that allows soul to break through into consciousness. Any hospice worker can tell you stories that support this. A border is crossed and the familiar falls away to be replaced by something the personality has never before seen. At these moments, the ego recognizes what the soul has always known.

Although it is the greatest blessing to experience such an opening at any time in life, what a shame that for so many this does not occur until the very end, if at all. Imagine the years and depths of fulfillment that might have been enjoyed if it were otherwise, and the creative, life-affirming contributions that might have been offered by so many.

Rilke reminds us that it is never too late to embark upon the mystical descent to soul

You are not dead yet. It is not too late
To open your depths by plunging into them
And drink in the life
That reveals itself quietly there.

I have had the privilege of accompanying thousands of people — from age sixteen to eighty — as they enter life-changing thresholds: endings, beginnings, crossroads, upheavals, crises, and periods of emptiness or healing. Crossing these thresholds, they plunge into depth and mystery. You, too, can make such a crossing. In these pages, you will find stories of people like you who have encountered their souls in the wilderness of their lives. It's not too late for you no matter how tired or skeptical you might be. And it's as natural as being born or dying, as natural as a snake shedding its skin, a tree dropping its leaves, a thundercloud releasing rain . . . or a caterpillar forming its cocoon.


 

 

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