The Story of Animas:
How We Learned to Guide the Descent to Soul
Bill Plotkin
May 2015

There are many stories of Animas, each inspired and limited by its narrator’s perspective, purpose, and audience. The particular story that follows is one of my versions, crafted for the purpose of describing, briefly, for a general audience, the origins of the maps, models, and principles by which the Animas guides navigate while guiding the descent to soul. One of the other stories of Animas would highlight the vital contributions of the dozens of imagineers who collectively have made Animas what it is today. That story is a much longer one.

This story begins with my first four-day vision fast, in 1980, at 11,000 feet in a glacier-carved granite gorge in the late summer mountains of northern Colorado, self-guided but with the invaluable support of a handbook written by two of my teachers, Steven Foster and Meredith Little. There, among untamed lakes, streams, and summits, Mystery asked that I learn to weave cocoons of transformation for my people (from caterpillar adolescence to butterfly adulthood), and a dream suggested the Animas Valley of southwest Colorado as the place to make my home and to begin my real work. So I did. Both. I had recently completed a year of post-doctoral training as a holistic and transpersonal psychotherapist after having abandoned my promising but brief career as a university-based research psychologist studying non-ordinary states of consciousness. Following my time on the mountain, I was a nearly penniless but enraptured wanderer with a vision, youth, and a destiny. (This part of the story is recounted more fully as the prologue to Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche.)

For the next ten years, I grew a psychotherapy practice and, a few times a year, guided a contemporary form of the pancultural vision fast with influences from depth psychology, poetry, and Western mystical traditions —as well as from the universal symbols and practices of initiatory journeys undertaken not by children on the cusp of adolescence but by mature seekers of gnosis. Under the banner of “Animas Valley Institute,” my early guiding partners and I met with groups of local women and men, over a period of several weeks, preparing them for a four-day fast in the middle of an eight-day expedition into a remote and wild corner of the Southwest mountains or deserts.

In the late ‘80s, I redesigned our Animas Quests as an integral 10-day ceremony (later, 12- or 14-days) so to accommodate people from other regions. I also began to design a variety of new, shorter immersions (five and seven days) into the mysteries of nature and psyche, pilgrimages infused with soul-revealing practices but without fasting or multi-day solos.

It became clear during this time that the primary work to which I was called was not psychotherapy, shamanism, ascent-oriented spiritual practices, rites of passage, or even the guiding of “vision quests” as a specific ceremony. Rather, my calling was to facilitate the ancient/ modern journey to the enigmatic core of the individual human psyche where one might encounter a profound and unique mystery, “the truth at the center of the image you were born with,”* a startling yet somehow unsurprising revelation of one’s particular destiny — and, in this way, be gifted a new compass to steer by. This is the experience I call “soul encounter.” I came to realize, in other words, that our core work at Animas was a contemporary rendering of the initiatory journey undertaken by seekers from all healthy cultures from all times — the descent to the underworld of soul with the intent to discover and then embody one’s mythopoetic identity (the weaving of cocoons being one aspect of my own). I named this work Soulcraft.

I came to understand the underworld journey as a necessary element of the transformation from psychological early adolescence — beyond which most contemporary people never progress — to the true adulthood of visionary cultural artistry. Such artistry is perhaps what the world now most needs. It might very well be the key to the success of what Thomas Berry calls the Great Work of our time or what Joanna Macy calls the Great Turning.

In the early ‘90s, I inaugurated a training program for those called to serve as nature-based underworld guides, a training sequence that became, in 2002, in partnership with several co-designers, our Soulcraft Apprenticeship and Initiation Process.

A pivotal discovery in the early years of our work was that some of our participants were ready for the descent to soul and others were not. Most, actually, were not. Most, regardless of age, underwent, in their time with us, a variety of other remarkable metamorphoses. One of the most frequent was a first visceral experience of being as wild and natural as anything else on the planet, in ancient kinship with all Earthly life. Although such a profound communion with nature is foundational to the everyday adventures of all children in all healthy cultures, it has become rare, at any age, in the contemporary world. It is, nonetheless, one of the vital experiences preceding a man’s or woman’s first descent to soul, which is an entirely different dimension — vertical, not horizontal — of the journey of individuation.

A pattern became evident: Participants ready for the descent to soul appeared to be in a later stage of human development than the others. In addition to feeling at home in wilderness, they experienced the world not so much as a human-made place of commerce and social engagement but, first and foremost, as an animate, self-organizing mystery into which they had been born. They recognized, on some level, that their destiny would not be revealed to them in terms of one social role or another or of this or that vocation but rather in terms of a particular mythos, archetype, or metaphor that they might learn to embody in a manner unique to them, an embodiment that would deliver a mystical and visionary gift of immense practical value to their people and to the greater Earth community.

This core insight led me to ask: How did these participants (about twenty-five percent of those in our groups) become the sorts of people prepared for visionary states? What was it about their childhood and psychological adolescence that distinguished them from those who were not yet ready for the descent to soul? Living this question resulted in my becoming a mostly self-taught developmental psychologist, but with a couple of unusual and essential twists. First, I wanted to know how nature meant for us to develop — the stages that evolution enabled us to traverse (not the sequence of anemic stages induced by contemporary mainstream culture). Second, I wanted to learn about the sequence of stages the very healthiest, most self-realized humans went through (not the stages experienced on average by “subjects” in university research studies). I became, in other words, a nature-based and soul-oriented psychologist of human potential. These explorations, during my first twenty-five years of guiding contemporary, Western underworld journeys, culminated in the eight-stage model of human development I call the Soulcentric Wheel of Life. The Wheel became for us, at Animas, an indispensable template for understanding what we are doing as guides and how to prepare people for an eventual descent to soul. It enabled my guiding partners and me to see which developmental tasks from a person’s current or earlier life-stages were most incomplete, tasks that needed to be addressed before a person would be prepared for the descent, the initiatory journey to true adulthood. (The Wheel is the subject of my book, Nature and the Human Soul.)

A second major discovery was that developmental stage was not the only precondition for the descent to soul. People also needed sufficient cultivation of all facets of their innate human wholeness. Otherwise the descent would not commence or it would be aborted in midstream and little of value would be gained. This realization led to the question, “What are the facets of wholeness that are the evolutionary inheritance of all humans?” I began to map the human psyche onto the pan-cultural template for wholeness — the four-directions circle of east, south, west, and north. This ultimately yielded what I call the Nature-Based Map of the Human Psyche, a second indispensable tool for us in helping people prepare for the journey of soul initiation as well as enabling them to succeed during the journey itself and to effectively embody their soulwork afterwards. (The Map is the subject of my third book, Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche.) In addition to supporting the cultivation of all four facets of our innate human wholeness, the Map also provides guidance for embracing, healing, and dis-identifying from the four sets of our fragmented or wounded parts (including our inner critics, addicts, victims, rebels, and conformists), a process we call Self-healing. It supports us to develop what has become a rare achievement in the contemporary world — a healthy, mature ego rooted in our wholeness, not in our wounds.

A third core lesson from guiding three decades of Animas immersions is this: The contemporary journey to the underworld and back is best described by five phases (not the more familiar three), namely: Preparation and Departure, Severance, Underworld Initiation, the Return, and Implementation/ Embodiment.

Our multi-dimensional mission at Animas consists of guiding the descent to soul, engendering visionary artisans of cultural renaissance, cultivating conscious participation in the dream of Earth, training underworld guides, and evolving our methods and practices with the intention of gifting future generations with the knowledge and methods for the journey of soul initiation, the multi-year process that bears fruit as true adulthood. Looking around at other related work in the world, it appears that Animas is the only organization to have developed a contemporary, Western, nature-based approach to soul initiation.

Soul-initiated women and men might be more whole and more fulfilled than others, but more importantly, for themselves and our world, they are people who are “carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.”* Their personal transformations are, in every case, seeds for societal and planetary transformation, the Great Work of our time. They embody the dream of humans once again becoming full partners with the rest of creation in the evolution of life on Earth — through the ways they, as initiated adults, lead, heal, invent and design, teach, and nurture, and in the ways they constructively interrupt dysfunctional worldviews and propagate new ones in synergy with the rest of life.

Each of our Animas offerings — intensives, quests, yearlong immersions, wilderness pilgrimages, and trainings — is entwined with each of the others. All emerge from the same set of foundational principles, models, and maps. All spring from the insights of a developmentally-oriented depth and eco psychologist discovering how to facilitate the nature-based journey of soul initiation, whether through contemporary vision fasts or through a host of other practices and ceremonies.

The tapestry of what Animas is today has been woven and shaped by Mystery through the contributions of many weavers in the form of Animas guides, apprentices, and participants, and by what we have learned from our many teachers — of the human kind, the Others, and the land, sky, and waters — and from the initiatory practices and sacred stories of life-enhancing traditions of both long ago and recent times.

Animas Valley Institute, founded in 1980 and a Colorado non-profit since 1998, is currently a community of 14 – 16 guides, four staff members, a five-person Board of Directors, three additional volunteer teams, 15 – 20 apprentices, and thousands of courageous spiritual adventurers, all of us on the journey to becoming fully human and as useful to the world as we can at this time of the Great Turning.

Animas, in its essence, is a generative cauldron of visionary revolution, planetary evolution, human rejuvenation, and cultural renaissance.

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* poetry quotes from David Whyte