Nature and the Human Soul
Desert Images

Soulcraft - Introduction: A Trail Guide to Soul

For over twenty years, I’ve been guiding people into the wilderness — not just the redrock canyons and snow-crested mountains of the American Southwest but, more essentially, into the wilds of our own souls. I call this work soulcraft.

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. Psychotherapy’s traditional methods, regulated relationships, and confined offices are inadequate to address this craving for the untamed terrain of the soul — its jungles, cataracts, labyrinths, and feral creatures. A radically shifted perspective, an expanded cache of strategies and roles, and much wilder environments are needed to recover the innate treasures, the secrets of destiny, buried beneath the surface of our daily routines. Soulcraft is an approach to the psyche and the world that embraces both wild nature and the depths of our souls; it could be called an eco-depth psychology.

Contemporary society has lost touch with soul and the path to psychological and spiritual maturity, or true adulthood. Instead, we are encouraged to create lives of predictable security, false normality, material comfort, bland entertainment, and the illusion of eternal youth. Most of our leaders — political, cultural, and economic — represent and defend a non-sustainable way of life built upon military aggression, the control and exploitation of nature’s “resources,” and an entitled sense of national security that ignores the needs of other species, other nations, tribes, and races, and our own future generations. These values do not reflect our deeper human nature.

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 nature-based people, initiated adulthood is developed in intimate relationship with the earth, the larger organism who births and sustains us. For contemporary people whose culture discounts or even disdains an intimate relationship with nature and soul, reaching psychological and spiritual maturity is challenging but possible, and never more necessary than now.

Fortunately, many people in the industrialized cultures of Western civilization recognize that a fulfilling life is not about superfluous economic advancement, that modest amounts of security and comfort serve adequately as foundations for a creative and soul-stirring life, and that 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. I hear the world itself calling for a renaissance of the human soul or, as James Hillman says, for a psyche the size of the earth.

This book is a border crossing into mystery. Filled with soulcraft practices, stories, poems, and guidelines, these pages invite you to embark upon a contemporary, Western, nature-based journey into the wilderness of your own soul.

For any journey into the wilderness, it helps to pack a map of the territory. If, before you embarked, you sketched your intended route on your map, you’d be more likely to know where you are at any given point. You could also see what is coming up next — a river crossing, thick vegetation, a swamp, an eagle’s-eye view, or a good spot to camp.

This introduction is a map of the book you hold in your hands, something to help you stay oriented while reading.

The book itself is a trail guide for the mystical descent into the underworld of soul: what the descent is, why it is necessary, how to recognize the call to descend, how to prepare for the descent, what the process looks and feels like, and what practices initiate and accelerate the descent and maximize the soul-quickening benefits of the journey.

The first third of the book prepares you to separate from your familiar world. Chapter 1 is a general introduction to the topography of the descent. Chapter 2 familiarizes you with the language that will be used on the journey, what your guide means by soul, spirit, ego, the journey of ascent, the journey of descent, soul encounter, and vision, and how he understands the relationship between soul and nature. Chapter 3 describes how the journey begins, regardless of whether it begins during your young adulthood, later in a midlife crisis, or on your deathbed. We’ll look into the call to adventure that signals the opportunity to descend to your depths. You might imagine the first three chapters to be a briefing from your guide on the eve of departure.

Once your descent begins, there are two images that will help keep you focused. The first is the archetype of human nature most resonant with mysterious journeys, the Wanderer. The second is the cocoon, a symbol of the utterly transformative nature of your quest. These images are explored in chapter 4.

Chapter 5 accelerates the descent, offering you several practices for “leaving home” — loosening your attachment to your current persona and the worldview within which you have operated.

The second third of the book, comprising chapters 6 through 10, explores over twenty pathways to soul encounter, specific methods for discovering and investigating your soul’s dark mysteries. Although they spring from the traditional waters of nature-based cultures, these pathways are presented here in contemporary Western containers. The methods range from soul-oriented dreamwork to trance rhythms and dance, and include self-designed ceremonies, soul poetry, the way of council, the Animas Quest, and communicating with nature through signs and omens as well as through direct dialogue.

The final third of the book prepares you to return to the everyday world to live your soul path, carrying what was previously hidden as a gift to others. We explore practices for living soulfully, including the art of romance, work with our personal shadows, wandering in nature, befriending the dark, cultivating a personal relationship with spirit, and, most important, joyfully offering your soul gift as a contribution to social and political transformation and the care of the environment.

Throughout the book, you’ll find poems that enhance your emotional and imaginal appreciation of the journey. To help you cross into the mysteries of nature and psyche, I encourage you to read each poem out loud, very slowly, and at least twice.

An appendix offers numerous resources to extend and deepen your use of each of the soulcraft practices discussed.

My primary intent and greatest hope for this book is to provide support and encouragement as you embark upon the lesser known half of the spiritual quest: the journey to soul.

Best wishes on the descent,

Bill Plotkin

Dark Canyon

Colorado Plateau

April 2003



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