Soulcraft Musings Inaugural Introduction

Today, January 20, 2017, we inaugurate Soulcraft Musings, a new offering from Animas Valley Institute (see below). This is the same day America inaugurates a new president, a cultural upheaval currently mobilizing thousands of response teams worldwide. On this day we commence our humble project of Soulcraft Musings in support of the deepening, diversification, and flourishing of all life. At this time in the world, may we all inaugurate actions and projects that collectively give birth to a life-enhancing society.

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The journey of descent to soul has largely been forgotten in mainstream culture, but there is nothing more essential in the world today. The experiential encounter with soul is the key element in the initiatory journey that culminates in true adulthood. And true adults — visionary artisans — are the generators of the most creative and effective actions in defense of all life and in the renaissance and evolution of generative human cultures.

The encounter with soul is not a weekend workshop but an unfolding journey over many months or years. Harvesting its fruit and feeding the world with its bounty plays out over the rest of one’s life. Every day holds opportunities for each of us to prepare for the journey to the underworld of soul, or, once we have embarked upon the journey, to take our next steps, or to gather its mystical treasures and hone them into practical shapes, or to fashion never-before-seen delivery systems for carrying these gifts to the Earth community.

We, at Animas Valley Institute, would like to gift you with this weekly email of trail markers (cairns) on the journey to soul. These Soulcraft Musings, although each only a couple minutes of reading, will be, we trust, valuable guidelines and support on your journey. Each includes references for further reading, study, and practice. And each features a resonant image and poem.

The central theme that ties together all the Musings is, of course, soul and the human encounter with soul. But even the original depth meaning of the word soul has been lost to the modern mind. What we at Animas mean when we speak or write about soul is not what you’ll find in contemporary religious, spiritual, philosophical, or psychological traditions or in everyday conversation. We’ll explore these and many other fundamentals and principles in Soulcraft Musings.

If you’re already on our list, you’ll receive an email with a Soulcraft Musing once a week. If you’re not on our list and would like to subscribe, please click here.

And please feel free to share Soulcraft Musings widely with friends, family, and colleagues.

In wildness and wonder,

Bill Plotkin


Animas Valley Institute

Artwork: The Wanderer by Doug Van Houten

Developing Soulcraft Skills”
This is the first part of a four-part Musing (one per week).

Friday, April 21, 2017

During the journey of soul initiation, the primary task is to explore the mysteries of nature and psyche. As an archetypal Wanderer, the initiate leaves his former home (his old story and identity) and meanders toward a new identity and a second birth. He will find his new place — his soul-rooted way of belonging to the world — by exploring the mysteries of his own human consciousness and its relationship to Earth and cosmos.

There are two components of this task: (1) learning and employing techniques for soul encounter, practices that will help him approach the soul and gather what he finds there, and (2) cultivating a soulful relationship to his life, and to all life. In this Musing, we’ll explore the first task:acquiring and developing a set of soulcraft skills.

Soulcraft skills are those that facilitate soul encounter. They are employed in accessing, exploring, and comprehending the deep structure of our relationship with the world, our ultimate place in the greater web of life. Soulcraft skills open the door to experiences that lie outside our everyday cultural frame of reference.

Every culture has — or once had — a set of soulcraft practices. Some of the most common are:

  • Soulcentric dreamwork: strategies for reaping transformation, direction, and initiation from the rich landscapes of our nocturnal visions. Soulcentric dreamwork diverges from most Western forms of dreamwork in its premise that every dream is an opportunity to develop our relationship to who we are beneath our surface personalities and routine agendas. Each dream submerges us into the unfolding story, desires, potentialities, and invitations of the soul, and a chance for the ego to be initiated into that underworld story and those underworld desires and possibilities. The DreamMaker’s primary interest is not to give us a message but to directly change us.
  • Deep imagery or active imagination: inner journeys in which we interact, while awake, with the other-than-ego inhabitants of our own psyches or the Earth’s psyche. There are many approaches, but among the most effective are those that involve imaginal animals as inner guides to soul work. [1]
  • Discovery, fashioning, and use of symbolic items: for embodying, exploring, and integrating soul images
  • Self-designed ceremony: a means of conversing with soul in Mystery’s own language of embodied symbol and image
  • Skillful use of entheogenic substances as a component of ceremonies and soul-discovery processes
  • Symbolic artwork: for discovering and expressing soul qualities
  • Journal work: creative writing as a way to connect with our own depths and to cultivate a relationship with the mysteries
  • Body practices for altering consciousness: to perceive actualities and imagine possibilities that we might otherwise overlook, thereby assisting us to weave the subtle and unseen forces of the world into form, making the unconscious conscious
    • Fasting
    • Breathwork: consciousness-altering breathing techniques
    • Practices involving extreme physical exertion
    • Yoga postures and movement
  • Trance drumming and rhythms: for entering trance states, opening the door to the otherworld, and unearthing what lies beneath our surface lives
  • Ecstatic trance dance: surrendering to the images and entities, inside and out, that want to move us and be danced by us
  • Vision fasting for three days or more in wilderness solitude and crying for a vision of how we might be of service to our people and the world
  • Understanding and responding to signs and omens
  • Talking across the species boundaries: dialogues with other-than-human beings
  • Animal tracking and other methods of sensitive and skillful nature observation
  • Telling, retelling, and study of myths and other sacred stories
  • Composing a personal myth: understanding the event’s of our own lives from a deeper, symbolic perspective
  • Storytelling: recounting our personal journeys, including the stories of our woundings told within a compassionate, ceremonial container that embraces the deeper transpersonal dimension of all stories
  • Sacred speech: conversation that deepens our presence with others, self, and place
  • Sacred sexuality
  • Music, poetry, and chanting

This is a very partial list, only representative of the many possibilities. [2] From the beginnings of the human story, we have generated countless methods to cross the borders from mundane consciousness to a sacred and intimate communion with the world. (Although these practices can be utilized to facilitate soul encounter, they are regularly used for other purposes as well.)

Several themes are common to these practices. Many, for example, entail the deliberate alteration of consciousness. In order to encounter the soul, the uninitiated ego must be shorn, at least temporarily, of its familiar beliefs about self and world. The defended confines of ordinary consciousness must be temporarily breached or radically shifted. The conscious self must be able to look at its own psyche from a different perspective, from a unique angle, from a position of altered awareness, like viewing Earth from outer space, or returning home after a month in an exotic culture. Most soul-encounter practices induce liminal states of temporary ego dissolution that release us from the usual rules and norms of our personality and culture, opening the way to fresh observations and creative adventures. [3]

Upon entering the developmental stage I call the Cocoon, rarely attained in the contemporary world, the archetypal Wanderer has a natural and implacable thirst for consciousness-altering knowledge and skills. If there are no initiation guides to teach such methods, she will attempt to find her own way. Most un-eldered teenagers and young men and women in Western society end up using mind-altering chemicals — including alcohol — which, outside a ceremonial context and without spiritual guidance, are unlikely to lead to successful encounters with soul, and might be physically, psychologically, and spiritually harmful. Indeed, many of the soulcraft methods listed here can be dangerous. Mature guidance and adequate preparation are crucial.

In addition to non-ordinary states, soulcraft practices have other common themes. Many of these techniques, for instance, are rooted in metaphor and symbol — dreamwork, deep imagery, ceremony, signs and omens, poetry, and art. No surprise: symbol is the currency of imagination, and imagination is the primary window to soul.

Many soulcraft practices evoke powerful emotion. When we cross into mystery and move beyond our ordinary relationship to the world, we evoke experiences from which we had formerly been “protected.” Some terrify us. Others give rise to joys and ecstasies. Sometimes we are flooded with sadness, for losses suffered and unclaimed dreams now irretrievable. Other times we stumble into unhealed wounds and the hurt, anger, guilt, shame, and grief waiting there. In every case, our emotions encountered on the descent provide the opportunity for a deeper alignment with the world and our souls.

Another common theme is conversation with the sacred Other, the exotic presence who appears as a frog or a raven, the wind or silence, a saguaro cactus or a blade of grass, a mysterious dream image, our lover’s face in the midst of lovemaking, the voice of God, a dying child, an entranced dancer, or a poem or painting. The conversation may or may not be verbal, but its medium is always the intimate and authentic interaction between the conscious human self and another being from a world quite distant from our surface lives. Deeply encountering that Other changes us as might a profound conversation with a person from a wholly different culture. The sacred Other is found in many terrains, in dreams, deep imagery, ceremony, states facilitated by psychotropic plants, trance dancing, wilderness, sexual ecstasies, and the great mythologies of the world.

Entering the conversation with the Other ushers us to the edge of our world, where we might acquire an astonishing and invaluable perspective. The conversation invites us to think and imagine outside the box, to enter the unknown, to cross borders, to descend into dark mysteries.

Another common thread is that soulcraft practices stimulate a deep bonding, not just between people but also between humans and other species. Bonding across the species boundaries helps us overcome the conflicts and disparities between nature and culture and within human culture itself. By deepening our identification with all life-forms, with ecosystems, and with the planet herself, we begin to discover within us what deep ecologist Arne Naess calls the “ecological self” or what James Hillman terms “a psyche the size of the Earth,” or what I refer to as the ecocentric self. This is the broader and deeper human self that is a natural member in the more-than-human community.

Wandering in wild places is an additional common theme of soul-encounter practices, the wilderness being a mirror of soul (and vice versa). And finally, story, rhythm, music, and the arts in general are regular features. Indeed, some say all arts originally arose as methods for approaching or celebrating the sacred.

Adapted from Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World (New World Library, 2008).


[1] Eligio Stephen Gallegos, The Personal Totem Pole: Animal Imagery, the Chakras, and Psychotherapy. Second Edition. (Moon Bear Press, 1990).

[2] For a more elaborate list and discussion, see Soulcraft and chapter 7 ofNature and the Human Soul.

[3] “Liminal” refers to a transitional state during which an individual is no longer who he was and not yet who he will be.