Soulcraft Musings

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.

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

Who’s Up for Building a Cathedral? Ecocentric Human Development, the Hero’s Journey, and Cultural Regeneration, Part X

Friday, June 2, 2023

This is the tenth part of a multi-part Musing (one per week).

Individuation vs. Evolution

In addition to Charles Eisenstein’s point about the Hero’s Journey being an immature adventure (“a boy archetype, not a man archetype”), he offers a second intriguing idea:

The conquering hero in countless myths and legends is a proxy for civilization itself, discovering its powers, conquering nature, domesticating the wild, subduing the barbarians. … We have been flogging the Hero’s Journey like a tired horse in hopes that it will drag the wagon of civilizational sense-making a few more decades into the future. … Another mode of development calls us.

The conquering hero in countless myths and legends is a proxy for civilization itself, discovering its powers, conquering nature, domesticating the wild, subduing the barbarians. … We have been flogging the Hero’s Journey like a tired horse in hopes that it will drag the wagon of civilizational sense-making a few more decades into the future. … Another mode of development calls us.

Inherent in Charles’ comments here is the distinction between the individual human initiatory journey versus the collective unfolding of a society, culture, or civilization (or even our species). He implies that contemporary societies, at least our Western ones but maybe others, have been navigating their course using a template borrowed from individual human development — in particular, that of the immature conquering hero. He also implies that we could chart a more wholesome, life-serving course for our collective journey (he calls this “our collective soul development”) by borrowing alternative and presumably more mature myths of the individual journey and applying them to the transformations needed now in our society or culture, or in our human evolutionary project more generally.

I’m not so sure.

First, for many years I’ve been convinced that modeling collective development (cultural unfolding or species evolution) on individual development (individuation, maturation, or initiation) is not the best approach, no matter the maturity level of the representative individual the collective development model starts with. There are some essential ways that collectives (like cultures or species) are different than individuals.

For example, individual development unfolds in a cycle, a sequence of stages, that begins with birth (or conception) and ends with death; the life of an individual has a distinct beginning and end. It’s a cycle in the sense that the same general pattern repeats for each individual of each generation, and, if you think in terms of reincarnation, then it would be the same sequence of developmental stages from one lifetime to the next. (This is generally true even if some specifics of the sequence — like the appearance and incorporation of adolescence — might change over the span of hundreds of generations). Cultural or species development, on the other hand, doesn’t have a distinct beginning, and if that culture or species doesn’t go extinct, neither a distinct end. Rather, viable and nonthreatened cultures and species continue to evolve indefinitely, sometimes said to eventually morph into one or more new species or cultures. Cultures and species do not have natural and certain endings in the way that individual lives do. Cultural and species evolution, in other words, is not a circular journey (like the progression of seasons, the unfolding of a day, or the revolution of a planet around its star) but, rather, one-directional arcs (like the expansion and ongoing genesis of the cosmos, like the gradual complexification and diversification of life, like time — at least the conventional understanding of time). This is the case even if some arcs are modeled as spirals, which have a circular feature but are nevertheless fundamentally arc-like in their overall trajectory.

You can have a society, like ours, in which most people spend most of their lives stuck in the psychological stage of early adolescence, often a defective or pathological version thereof, and you might say that such a society is an adolescent society. And we’d know what you mean: You’d be characterizing the center of gravity of the society as early adolescent because most of its physically grown humans are in that developmental stage. You might flesh this out a bit by noting that the values, interests, styles, perspectives, and conundrums of that society are, in general, adolescent (for example, revolving around the development and enhancement of social acceptance and economic status). However, it would be a mistake, me thinks, to go from there and say that the society in question is in its adolescent stage, as if it had been in its childhood stage earlier, or as if it will eventually achieve its adult stage — hopefully before it destroys much of the biosphere — and then, finally, its elder stage, after which it would presumably die out no matter how healthy, mature, or ecologically-harmonious it was.

You could say the same thing, as many have, about a species, like ours: that we are a young species in our adolescent stage, and hopefully we’ll collectively mature before it’s too late.

But do you see? This is the wrong metaphor or analogy. It’s misleading. Cultures and species do not “mature” in the way or in the sense that individual humans (or other creatures) do. Cultures and species do not develop in a circular way. Most contemporary societies may be adolescent in their flavor due to the maturity level of most of its citizens, but our societies (and cultures) are not in an adolescent stage of development. It might be more accurate to say that they are in a long stretch of social, political, psychological, and spiritual decay (while nevertheless exhibiting and benefitting from scientific, medical, and technological advances along with occasional significant social advances, such as women’s suffrage or civil rights).

Besides, the idea that our species is in a temporary adolescent stage may be a racist one, and for sure short-sighted and ethnocentric. It implies that all human cultures (past and present) are adolescent at best and have never been more “mature.” But many anthropologists, such as Wade Davis, or human ecologists, such as Paul Shepard, would tell us that there are many examples of cultures — those of certain nature-based peoples — whose societies were significantly healthier and more life-serving than ours, a few of them still extant (because not yet culturally shattered or wiped out by egocentric-dominator societies).[32] In this sense, contemporary societies aren’t on an ever-maturing trajectory, but more like near the end (we can hope) of a long process of cultural decay, at least as concerns such dimensions as individual maturity, collective wisdom, morality, sanity, resilience, sustainability, and capacity to support biological and social-racial-ethnic diversity.

So, to underline one of the core distinctions I’m making: There’s an essential difference between the way that individual creatures develop and the way that societies, cultures, languages, and species do. Positive individual development is what we might call personal growth, individuation, or initiation, while positive cultural development is what we might call advancement, enrichment, regeneration, or evolution. These are very different kinds of processes — even though both may be referred to as development or maturation.

In short, comparing a human society (or culture) in its development to an individual human in their development is an interesting analogy, intuitive in some ways, but ultimately, I believe, a misleading one that does not yield a path to cultural regeneration. Individuation vs. evolution.


[32] See, for example, Wade Davis, Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001) and Paul Shepard, Coming Home to the Pleistocene (Washington D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1998).

To read previous musings click here.