By Bill Plotkin, Ph.D.

There are several realms of awakening. Transcendence (conscious experience of or as Spirit or the Ultimate Mystery) may not be the most relevant, accessible, or beneficial for most people, especially in our time of cultural collapse and reinvention. This article focuses on two particular varieties of awakenings rarely experienced or considered in contemporary life, yet perhaps the most urgent and valuable. Both of these kinds of awakenings concern our human place in and relationship to the greater web of life. First is eco-awakening: a person’s first conscious and embodied experience of their innate membership in the Earth community. Second is the encounter with soul, what Thomas Berry called inscendence, which is as spiritual and transpersonal as transcendence but rarely experienced or discussed, and essentially absent from contemporary transpersonal studies, religion, and spiritual practice. This article introduces an ecological conception of soul as an individual, underworld, and spiritual ultimate, an approach to soul found nowhere else in transpersonal theory, depth psychology, or ecopsychology, or in contemporary Western religion or spirituality. The encounter with soul requires, in addition to a set of methods, that the individual first attain a stage of human development that makes possible such an encounter, a stage absent from all contemporary developmental models, a stage rarely attained in the Western world precisely because of its danger to contemporary society.

 

…There is only one life

you can call your own

and a thousand others

you can call by any name you want.

 

Hold to the truth you make

every day with your own body,

don’t turn your face away.

 

Hold to your own truth

at the center of the image

you were born with.

 

Those who do not understand

their destiny will never understand

the friends they have made

nor the work they have chosen

 

nor the one life that waits

beyond all the others.…

 

~ David Whyte[1]

 

There are several realms of awakening. There are many kinds of profound shifts in consciousness that result in enduring or permanent changes in perspective, identity, self-image, values, lifestyle, worldview, and world. Most transpersonal theorists, spiritual teachers, and practitioners of the contemplative arts assume the realm of transcendence (conscious experience of or as Spirit or the Ultimate Mystery) is the pinnacle of human experience and development, but I propose that there are more relevant, accessible, and beneficial realms of awakening for most people, especially today.

Many of the varieties of awakenings fit into four broad categories.[2] One category consists of the life passages between stages of human development, each such passage a genuine and radical awakening. (Here I mean stages of psychosocial development — as implied by the phrase growing upnot stages of spiritual awakening, transpersonal development, or waking up (Wilber, 2016); more on this below.) A second involves profound shifts in identity and lifestyle that occur within developmental stages, especially during psychological adolescence; I call these moltings. A third category of awakenings incorporates the multiple versions of transcendent spiritual experiences — such as mystical union, enlightenment, or fully awakening to the “now” (the present moment), to the divine, or to universal consciousness, the primary topic of the other contributors to this issue. And a fourth category is comprised of the inscendent spiritual experiences — awakening to the unique mysteries at the core of the individual human psyche, specifically the mysteries of the soul (defined below).

This article is focused on two particular varieties of awakenings because they are rarely experienced and rarely considered in contemporary life, and because they are arguably the most relevant and urgent in our time of radical, global change, more essential and beneficial now than the transcendent variety of awakenings. One is the distinct kind of awakening that catalyzes the passage between two particular stages of human development — the life-shifting experience I call eco-awakening: a person’s first conscious and embodied experience of their innate membership in the Earth community. The second is the fourth realm noted just above, the experience of what cultural historian and eco-theologian Thomas Berry (1988, pp. 207-8) called inscendence, the encounter with soul, which is as spiritual and transpersonal as transcendence but essentially absent from current maps of transpersonal experience, overlooked by the dominant religions and most contemporary spiritual practices, and rarely experienced or discussed in the world today despite being perhaps the single most valuable and urgent realm of awakening in our times.

Not coincidentally, these two varieties of awakening both have everything to do with our human place in and relationship to the greater web of life that is oddly called, in the Western world, “nature.” (This use of the word itself implies that it’s possible to be separate from that to which it refers.) “The greater web of life” refers to the infinitely complex and interdependent community of all Earthly species and habitats — that which cultural ecologist David Abram (1996) refers to as “the more-than-human world,” his way of signifying that our everyday human world is a derivative and wholly-dependent subset of a world that is much older and vaster. It is our conscious disconnect from the self-organizing, natural world that has rendered both soul encounter and eco-awakening so rare and so challenging to evoke — and so utterly urgent in these times of cultural collapse and potential renaissance.

This article includes a description of moltings and how they contrast with both kinds of spiritual awakenings. There will be little here about transcendence, this topic being amply covered by other contributors to this issue, except to note how it contrasts with as well as complements inscendence and other varieties of awakenings.

 

Eco-Awakening

It’s important to note that, in this and later sections of this article, references to stages of human development do not indicate stage models of spiritual or transpersonal development (e.g., Wilber, 1995, 2006) that propose that transcendent spiritual awakening (waking up) proceeds via an invariable, linear sequence of stages (a perspective effectively critiqued by Ferrer, 1998, 2002, 2011a), but rather a more general, psychosocial model of human development (growing up) that I call the Soulcentric Developmental Wheel (SDW; Plotkin, 2008). The SDW is an ecocentric and soulcentric approach that contrasts significantly with existing perspectives within Western developmental psychology. For example, the SDW stages are essentially independent of chronological age, biological development, cognitive ability, and social role. The SDW is consonant with observations that spiritual transcendence can occur in any psychosocial stage, can take a number of forms, and can unfold in a great variety of ways (cf. Ferrer 2011b).

In the mainstream West, we tend to think of the human life journey in terms of only three or four loosely and poorly defined stages — childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and, sometimes, elderhood, too. But the SDW proposes that there are actually eight distinct stages in a full life, even if most contemporary Westerners never mature beyond the third (psychological early adolescence) due to culturally imposed barriers and detours along the way (Plotkin, 2008). By “adolescence,” I refer not to a chronological age range — our teen years — but to two distinct psychological life stages, the first of which is navigated so poorly in contemporary egocentric cultures as to result in a widespread and profound degree of developmental arrest (Plotkin, 2008). It’s helpful to make the distinction, as does Jungian analyst James Hollis (1993), between a “first adulthood” of vocational, social, and civic responsibilities and a “second adulthood” of visionary cultural artistry. Hollis’ first adulthood would be more accurately considered a version of psychological early adolescence (Plotkin, 2008).

In a healthy or mature culture, we would expect only one version of the stage of early adolescence, but in the Western world today we need to distinguish two (Plotkin, 2008). The first is egocentric and the second, if attained, ecocentric. My estimate, based on forty years as a psychotherapist and thirty-five years as a guide of the initiatory descent to soul, is that only a quarter of Westerners ever achieve an ecocentric early adolescence.

What I call eco-awakening is precisely this early-adolescent shift from egocentrism to ecocentrism. This major life passage occurs when a post-pubescent person raised in an egocentric cultural environment has their first conscious and embodied experience of their innate membership in the Earth community and recognizes this membership as their primary place of belonging in the world. This is the moment all other memberships and affiliations become secondary for them and, in fact, derivative of their inherent participation in the more-than-human world (which is to say, the not merely human world). Their memberships in a primary partnership, family, social group, neighborhood or village, workplace or corporation, interest group, profession, ethnic group, gender-identity group, religious community, state, or nation might provide them great riches and lend their life abundant color, but these will forever after be experienced as secondary to their membership in the greater web of life, the web that connects them with everything else in the universe. The vitality of the Earth community, of which they have always been part, is now their first concern and their first gladness and commands their greatest loyalty.

What I call eco-awakening is that which Thomas Berry (1999, p. 165) passionately advocated when he wrote that “a new revelatory experience is needed, an experience wherein human consciousness awakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the Earth process. This awakening is our human participation in the dream of the Earth.”

A 50 year-old Presbyterian pastor describes his eco-awakening, experienced during a multi-day group retreat in a summer, high-altitude, Rocky Mountain forest:

I was sitting by a small stream on a starry, moonlit night. I felt a strong, sentinel-like presence from a stand of large pine trees above the stream. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like a tourist in nature. The forest was alive, and I was in communion with her. When I heard the trees clearly say with one voice, “Now you belong to us!” I was shaken. At that moment a tectonic shift took place within me. I felt a sense of belonging to the whole cosmos, not just a church or denomination. I looked up in the sky full of stars and began to weep, overwhelmed by joy in the admission that I no longer felt the need to save the world. I just wanted to belong more fully to it.

As this quote illustrates, eco-awakening is a somatic, emotional, and relational experience, not a (merely) cognitive one. Many would say it’s a spiritual experience as well. It is the somatic, heart-rending, and world-shifting realization that you are as natural, as wild, as interconnected and related, and as magical as anything else on our planet — as much as a fox or lizard, a sequoia or chanterelle, a wild desert stream, old-growth forest, or glacier-clad mountain. People with a general knowledge of ecology might understand this intellectually but relatively few have located and passed through the unseen veil that exiles most Westerners from an everyday conscious communion with the animate world.

Eco-awakening is a truly profound moment for the people blessed to have experienced. It rocks your world. You now realize you had previously been a kind of refugee, existentially and ecologically homeless, disconnected from the very world from which you emerged at birth. (“Emerged,” because, from an ecocentric perspective, we do not enter this world from somewhere else; we are formed by it and from it and for it.) Now much of the restlessness, anxiety, alienation, and displacement you had experienced all your life, without knowing why, disperses like mist in morning sunshine. Now you feel at home in our animate world in a deep, rich, and unprecedented way, a way you had not known was missing, had not even known was possible. Now each thing — “each stone, blossom, child,” as Rilke puts it — is no longer an object, but a subject to whom you are related, someone to whom you have always been related. Kin. Separation has ended. You have returned consciously to the world into which or from which you had been born, a breathing world in which everything is alive, everything speaks in its own way, everything is related to everything else. You have returned from your long banishment, awakened from the flatland, the relatively lifeless world of synthetic, industrialized, disconnected, conformist-consumer society. You are free now to be fully and wildly human in communion with the Others — both human and other-than-human — as together all things co-create a self-organizing and ever-evolving world.

Eco-awakening terminates the egocentric version of early adolescence that I call Conforming and Rebelling, and ushers in the ecocentric version of early adolescence I have named the Thespian at the Oasis (Plotkin, 2008, pp. 165 – 230). In the egocentric version, in which people experience themselves as the center of their world, the most common two emotions are fear of not belonging (which leads to a life priority of conforming to mainstream social expectations) and anger about others trying to shove them into boxes (which results in a life priority of rebelling against parental and mainstream social expectations). In both of these emotional atmospheres, authenticity is neglected — because people are either attempting to be what others expect of them or doing their best to be a dissenter or subversive, or some convoluted mixture of these two extremes. In the ecocentric early-adolescent stage of the Oasis, in contrast, people enjoy the foundational experience of being a fully eligible participant in the more-than-human world (both the social and ecological worlds), affording them the opportunity to create versions of themselves that are both authentic and useful to their communities. They become social and ecological players (authentic thespians) in a self-organizing gathering of many clans and species in an ecologically and socially diverse and fertile place (an “oasis”).

As discussed below, eco-awakening is an experience and a passage distinct from transcendent forms of awakening even if they sometimes occur together. And it is, at this time of the world, an experience more relevant and beneficial to all people, all cultures, and all habitats. It is also more easily elicited.

 

Eco-Awakening as an Artifact of Egocentric Culture

In healthy, mature (ecocentric) cultures, nobody ever goes through eco-awakening. People from healthy cultures never experience this life-passage from egocentric to ecocentric awareness because, as children, they never lose their innate communion with the wild, self-organizing world. They have no need to be awakened from a culture-imposed slumber or trance. They were not subjected to family lifestyles, educational systems, religious indoctrination, or cultural ways that suppress their innate experience and celebration of their connectedness with everything. They never lose their original communion with all of life, the foundational experience with which they were born (Berry, 1988, 1999; Louv, 2005). Never having been in the egocentric early-adolescent stage of Conforming and Rebelling, they have no need to be liberated from it.

In contrast, mainstream Western culture indoctrinates children and teenagers into a worldview within which they rarely experience their inherent membership in a world or a story beyond Western, anthropocentric, conformist-consumer culture (Berry, 1988).

Although eco-awakening is an artifact of egocentric culture, it is nevertheless among the greatest blessings imaginable if and when it occurs. It’s a person’s entrance to a multi-dimensional, vibrant, connected life of full belonging to the world. It’s a massive shift in experience of what the world is, a major life transition, a profound awakening. And it’s a necessary transition for progression to later stages as described in the Soulcentric Developmental Wheel.[3]

Eco-awakening is also needed by our planet as well as by the individual, as Thomas Berry (1988, p. 21) explained: “This re-enchantment with the earth as a living reality is the condition for our rescue of the earth from the impending destruction that we are imposing upon it.”

 

Eco-Awakening as Only One Major Life Passage

The shift from egocentric to ecocentric awareness is a profound awakening, but all major life passages are equally so. During every passage between stages on the Soulcentric Developmental Wheel, our consciousness reorganizes, broadens, and deepens; our center of psychospiritual gravity shifts; our circle of identity expands; the way we participate in and contribute to the world transforms; the developmental tasks to which we apply ourselves change; and there is a shift in the archetypes with which we most resonate and that most inform us (Plotkin, 2008).

Our first awakening in this life is birth, indisputably a radical shift in world and experience. So, too, is the passage during our fourth year of life when we first become conscious of ourselves as separate individuals; this awakening is, in essence, the birth of the ego, a passage I refer to as Naming, following van Gennep (1908/1960). Puberty is the next major life passage, a moment when the world again shifts radically and we fully awaken to the world of peer group, sex, and society.

In the contemporary egocentric world, the next true, major developmental passage for most people is … death. But in healthy human development (and with a long enough life), the SDW proposes five major passages between puberty and death. I name these Confirmation, Soul Initiation, Induction, Crowning, and Surrender, and discuss them at length in Nature and the Human Soul(Plotkin, 2008). Each is a radical awakening and each entirely distinct from transcendent awakenings.

The occurrence of transcendence (e.g., the encounter with God, enlightenment, nondual realization, satori, etc.) does not require the attainment of a developmental stage beyond middle childhood (although its experience, the meaning ascribed to it, and its psychological, spiritual, and interpersonal benefit and relevance are all likely to vary in accordance with stage). Indeed, most contemporary Western experiences of transcendence arguably take place during psychological early adolescence (Plotkin, 2008), the stage in which the ego’s primary concerns are social acceptance and social authenticity. By itself, the experience of transcendence, as profound as it may be, does not advance our developmental stage (cf. Wilber, 2006; Ferrer, 2002). Eco-awakening, in contrast, always occurs in psychological early adolescence but does advance our stage — from the egocentric to the ecocentric version of early adolescence. And soul encounter, as discussed below, usually first occurs in what the SDW envisions as psychological late adolescence and is seen as an essential experience for progressing to the developmental stage envisioned as true adulthood (Plotkin, 2008). Because transcendence by itself does not advance our developmental stage and because both eco-awakening and soul encounter do, the latter two awakenings are more facilitative of growing up than is transcendence.

 

Evoking Eco-Awakening: Attending to the Nature-Oriented Tasks of Childhood

How is the major life passage of eco-awakening evoked? The best way I know to frame the answer is to say that it’s done by addressing the incomplete developmental tasks of the two stages of healthy (ecocentric) childhood — the early-childhood stage I call the Nest and the middle-childhood stage I call the Garden (see Plotkin, 2008, chapters 4 and 5). No one ever fully completes the developmental tasks of any stage of life, but the tasks of earlier stages can always be revisited later (and usually need to be).

In the Soulcentric Developmental Wheel, there are two kinds of tasks in each stage, one culture-oriented, and the other nature-oriented. The nature-oriented tasks of the two stages of childhood are the ones most neglected in egocentric culture and often in fact actively suppressed.

The nature-oriented task of the Nest (early childhood, stage one) is the preservation of innocence, the capacity for present-centeredness. It is the responsibility and opportunity of parents and other family members to address this task on behalf of the pre-school child. If the family did poorly here — and, tragically, this is quite common in the contemporary world — then it might be challenging later in life to be fully (and innocently) present to the here and now, a capacity essential to human development. In particular, presence is foundational to relationality and to the skills of empathy and compassion. Without sufficient presence and innocence, it’s impossible to feel truly connected to anything.

But even when a person’s capacity for present-centeredness is poor, it’s entirely possible to address this essential unfinished business; it’s never too late, as attested by the burgeoning contemporary movement of mindfulness training (e.g., Kabat-Zinn, 2012; Goldstein, 2013). After early childhood, the cultivation of present-centeredness is accomplished through a person’s own efforts rather than their parents’ (or others’). In addition to mindfulness practice[4], present-centeredness can be cultivated in a number of other ways, including regular periods of attentive solitude in wild or semi-wild places, devoted play with any of the expressive arts, psychotherapies that emphasize present-centeredness (such as Gestalt, psychosynthesis, existential, focusing-oriented, and sensory awareness), the practice of presence and innocence in social settings, and, last but not least, apprenticing to infants (Plotkin, 2008, pp. 106 – 108).

The nature-oriented task of the next stage, the Garden (middle childhood, approximately age four until puberty) is to learn the enchantment of the natural world through intimate contact with the wild, other-than-human world — a world found in the backyard, the nearby woods and thickets, the ditch or creek, the prairie, the mountains, or the beach, and the mind-boggling diversity of plants and animals living in each (unruined) place. The night sky, too, is an essential realm of enchantment — the Moon, local planets, and the countless stars and galaxies. It is membership in this greater, natural world that the child in stage 2 (the Explorer in the Garden) discovers to be the other half of her birthright beyond family, school, and market.

Success with these two nature-oriented tasks — cultivation of present-centeredness and surrendering to the enchantment of the other-than-human world — precipitate the major life passage of eco-awakening.

 

Other Perspectives on Eco-Awakening

Over the last few decades, what I call eco-awakening has been noted and discussed, in other terms, by a number of authors, including ecophilosophers, deep ecologists, and depth psychologists. As already noted, Thomas Berry (1988, p. 21) wrote of “the re-enchantment with the earth as a living reality.” Ecophilosopher Joanna Macy (2013, pp. 145 – 156) speaks of “the greening of the self,” the expansion of our experienced circle of identity. The Norwegian philosopher and deep ecologist Arne Naess (1988, p. 29) introduced the notion of an “ecological Self,” an identity that is “widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves.” Depth psychologist James Hillman (1995, p. xii) wrote of “a psyche the size of Earth.”

Many hundreds of commentators have decried the loss of (and great need for) the foundational experiences of social bonding and nature connection among the citizens of contemporary, industrial, conformist-consumer society. It’s no coincidence that these are precisely the core experiences cultivated in a healthy childhood and, by the same token, the experiences (social and ecological belonging) most needed and lacking among contemporary people. The great crises of our time stem from breakdowns in natural human development; the long-term, deepest solutions are psychological and cultural. Genuine individual development and true cultural development are not separate endeavors. Eco-awakening is far easier to elicit and far more relevant to cultural renaissance at this time than transcendence.

 

Eco-Awakening and Transcendence

But is the transcendent experience of awakening to the divine an alternative way to bring about eco-awakening? Some say it is, at least in “mature” forms of enlightenment (Kilrea, 2013). Although they are distinct experiences, it would not be surprising if transcendence evokes eco-awakening. Transcendence can be a “cure” for egocentrism, which is a psychological separation from the world. When people no longer experience themselves as separate, they naturally recognize and experience their kinship with all things. The greater web of life becomes the context in which they find themselves grounded, rooted.

It would be of great interest to know how often the experience of transcendence in fact leads to eco-awakening. When it does not, we might question (1) the depth, authenticity, or maturity of the experience, (2) the individual’s stage of psychosocial development (Plotkin, 2008) — perhaps suspecting an egocentric stage rather than an ecocentric one — and/or (3) the degree to which the individual has cultivated the full range of their innate human capacities, such as full-bodied feeling, deep imagination, heart-centered thinking, and full-presence sensing (Plotkin, 2013). Maturity, individuation, relationality, and the cultivation of the full spectrum of human capacities are among the several areas of human development not addressed by the pursuit of transcendent spiritual experiences (cf. Ferrer, 2011b).

Even if transcendence sometimes leads to eco-awakening, attending to the nature-oriented tasks of childhood would arguably be a more direct, accessible, dependable, and beneficial path for most people.

Also note that eco-awakening can occur without transcendence and probably does in the vast majority of cases. In contrast, as discussed below, it’s hard to imagine someone experiencing inscendence (soul encounter) without having been eco-awakened at least many months earlier.

 

Inscendence: The Descent to Soul

What Thomas Berry called “inscendence” and I call “soul encounter” is a type of awakening that has no place or presence in mainstream Western consciousness. It is also completely absent from contemporary maps of human life, including the maps of specialists in full-life-span human development (e.g., Erikson, 1959/1994; Fowler, 1981; Kegan, 1982) and even those who write about and guide “integral” development (e.g., Aurobindo, 1993; Beck and Cowan, 1996; Gebser, 1987; Wilber et al., 2008). Despite it being as transpersonal as transcendence, soul encounter does not appear in the models of transpersonal theorists, such as those surveyed by Daniels (2009), as explored in a later section of this article. In addition, it is a psychospiritual realm entirely neglected by most widely-known Western spiritual and psychotherapeutic traditions other than those of Carl Jung and some other depth psychologists (e.g., Hillman, 1979b; Hollis, 2005; Houston, 1987; Johnson, 1986; Estes, 1996) and some mythologists (e.g., Campbell, 1988; Deardorff, 2004; Meade, 2016; Shaw, 2011). But even these depth psychologists and mythologists address the subject matter of soul encounter only partially, indirectly, inconsistently, equivocally, and/or in passing, or conflate it with other depth phenomena — and they define soul quite differently than I will define it here. I am aware of no other Western theorists or scholars who directly, explicitly, and unambiguously address the realm of transpersonal experience I refer to as soul encounter. This is an extraordinary absence but one, as suggested below, that is not surprising given the long-term cultural breakdown of Western and most other contemporary societies. It is also a tragedy because inscendence is arguably the single most essential realm of awakening, especially in our current critical and liminal moment in the unfolding of the world’s story. It is a core dimension of growing whole, becoming fully human, experiencing fulfillment, and participating creatively in cultural renaissance (Plotkin, 2003, 2008, 2011).Contemporary psychology and society will perhaps undergo a radical and comprehensive transformation as the significance of inscendence is comprehended and incorporated.

Soul encounter is so foreign to the way in which both spirituality and psychotherapy are conceived in the contemporary world that even though it is easy to define, the definition is difficult for most people to understand, including (or especially) scholars and practitioners of psychology, spirituality, and religion whose paradigms and practices provide no place for this fundamental human experience. To define inscendence as the descent to soul or the human experiential encounter with soul or, as I did earlier in this article, “awakening to the unique mysteries at the core of the individual human psyche, specifically the mysteries of the soul” misleads virtually everyone because the word soul, in contemporary discourse, is commonly used to mean at least a dozen different things, and what I mean by soul is wildly divergent from most of them and does not precisely correspond to any of them, including what depth psychologists mean by the word (as explored later in this article). This is not a coincidence. If what I mean by soul were a common use of the word in the contemporary world, then the encounter with soul would not be an overlooked and rarely experienced phenomenon. To define soul, as I do, as a thing’s unique place or niche in the greater web of life, the infinitely complex and interdependent community of all Earthly species and habitats, also misleads (or puzzles) most everyone at first, in part because this is such an unfamiliar notion and in part because most people with a contemporary Western worldview do not know what to do with such an idea and more often than not attempt to shift it into a meaning not intended. So, given these challenges, I ask the reader to bear with me as I make a gradual and indirect approach to illuminating what I mean by inscendence and soul. This, I believe, will increase understanding in the end.

This indirect approach begins with a survey of what inscendence is not by recounting a brief history of my own slowly dawning recognition of this realm of awakening and by considering the consequences of its near absence in the contemporary world.

Despite my extensive early explorations in psychology and spirituality (both experiential and scholarly), which began in college, it wasn’t until my late twenties that I had a first conscious clue that there was even such a thing as what Berry called inscendence and that I came to call — before I had read Berry’s books, in fact before he wrote them — the descent to soul or soul encounter. This realm of awakening was almost entirely overlooked in the psychologies I studied, despite my focus on the humanistic, transpersonal, and depth perspectives. It was never considered in any of the eastern spiritualities I read about and practiced, including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Kundalini Yoga, Sufism, and Taoism. There was hardly an allusion to it during my early years (1972 – 76) of study and conversation as a young member of the nascent Association for Transpersonal Psychology, nor during the six-week summer 1973 program I attended in Berkeley on “Human Consciousness: Exploration, Maps, and Models” (co-sponsored by Esalen Institute and the Association of Transpersonal Psychology), nor during my three summers, 1974 – 1976, as a student at the spiritually oriented,Buddhist inclined Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado.

Most every spiritual teacher with whom I studied in those years (and since) used the word soulat least occasionally and often extensively — and, among them, they meant quite a wide variety of things — but not one was referring to the realm of psyche I have since associated with soul.

The near absence of contemporary attention to this transpersonal and most essential realm of awakening is, as I say, not a coincidence, nor is it an oversight. For millennia, Western civilization, among others, has shaped itself in ways that suppress access to this realm. Our educational, media, and religious systems and our mainstream parenting practices divert us from this vital domain of human experience. This suppression of human development has become a necessity for Western civilization in its current form; it would simply not be sustainable otherwise. Conversely, widespread access to this realm of awakening would be the single most potent factor in the termination of Western society in its present life-destroying iteration — and in the creation of a just, life-enhancing, and deeply imaginative culture with its roots in the genuine achievements of the Western tradition.

The lack of access to this particular realm of awakening is our most significant human deficit at this time. The diversity of life on Earth is now being extensively diminished precisely because of this deficit — and has been for hundreds if not thousands of years. Additionally, as beat poet Diane di Prima (1990) writes, “men die everyday for the lack of it.”

The same cannot be said for transcendence. To borrow a phrase from James Hillman (1992) and transplant it into a different context, we’ve had 2500 years of transcendent spiritual awakening and the world is getting worse. This is not to assert that transcendence lacks value but that without inscendence (and eco-awakening and the cultivation of the full spectrum of human capacities) it is incomplete and much less relevant to sustaining life or to cultural transformation in our time.

It is also not a coincidence that most societies and traditions that have treasured and preserved this now-rare realm of awakening have been wiped out or culturally disrupted over the past few millennia. This realm of awakening is the single greatest threat to the consumer-imperial-dominator mind (as that mind is described by Eisler, 1987; Korten, 2006; Macy & Brown, 1998), to its business as usual, as manifested not only in the contemporary West but in all egocentric societies now prevalent across the globe. If we are to survive the twenty-first century — if robust life on Earth of any sort is to survive — there are many things we must do in the short-term (like save from extinction as many species and habitats as we can, reverse global warming, create true and universally just democracies and biocracies, and abolish nuclear weapons) but, in the long term, the single most important measure is the reshaping of all human cultures so as to support every child to grow in a way that renders eco-awakening unnecessary (because the everyday experience of embeddedness in the greater web of life is never lost) and to enable their eventual awakening to their souls.

The central and simple fact that explains why soul encounter is so seldom experienced is this: One of its prerequisites is a stage of human development rarely achieved in contemporary cultures — again, not a coincidence — despite the fact that this stage, in a healthy and mature Western culture, would be commonplace among 15-year-olds (Plotkin, 2008). No special training or preparation would be necessary. In contrast, in the contemporary West I estimate that only 15% of people reach this stage of development. More on this below.

 

Breakthrough: The Underworld Passage

Before finding anyone who had written about or guided others into this realm[5], I stumbled into it experientially — in 1980 during my first vision fast. This was a solo, self-guided ceremony conducted in a contemporary Western manner, not in imitation of Native American people or other indigenous traditions.[6] But my discovery might have been made through any one of a number of other practices or ceremonies, or even sparked by seemingly random life events. Moreover, most contemporary vision fasts rarely intend or result in soul encounter.[7] What is important here is what I discovered, not how I discovered it.

What I discovered, in addition to my first glimpse of soul, was that the entire framework of purpose, meaning, and identity that I had been raised with and had been living within — and that most people in the contemporary Western world live within their entire lives — was no longer applicable or particularly relevant to me. Like a capsized swimmer in uncharted whitewater, I was navigating a life passage that relatively few people undergo in the contemporary world, into a realm of experience about which I had no previous knowledge. I had embarked upon the descent to soul, the underworld journey into the mysterium tremendum at the core of the human psyche.

By underworld, I mean the realm of the human psyche that is deeper than the ego as well as much more vast, a realm that includes the nightworld of dreams; the deep imagination (or Muse); repressed experiences, emotions, and elements of the psyche (the Shadow); the personal unconscious, more generally; the dead; the collective unconscious of universal myths and archetypes; the wider and deeper other-than-human world beyond what the ego is already familiar with or has colonized; the somatic unconscious (parts of the body and realms of bodily experience unaccessed, non-embraced, or denied by the ego); and, as one essential but distinct element, the human soul (cf. Hillman, 1979; Jung, 1953/1968). Although depth psychotherapists specialize in the exploration of the underworld, they rarely access the chthonic core I identify as soul. Nor do they intend to. (And most likely the majority of their clients are not psychospiritually prepared for this exploration in any case.) Moreover, their purpose is virtually always some variety of psychotherapeutic healing or the cultivation of egoic wholeness (Plotkin, 2013), which is as it should be. Although depth psychotherapists’ partnership with the unconscious arguably enables them to engender deeper healing than would be likely otherwise, soul encounter has an agenda entirely distinct from healing, therapy, or egoic wholeness, as discussed below.

In the course of healthy human development, we are each meant to reach a certain breakpoint that is now rarely experienced, a crisis or divide beyond which we are no longer able to decisively define ourselves in terms of social or romantic relationships, or in terms of a job or career, a creative or artistic project, a political affiliation, a theory or philosophical perspective, a religious or ethnic membership, or a transcendental spiritual goal. We are propelled — compelled! — toward an underworld self-definition, a soul-infused experience of meaning and purpose and identity. True for all humans, this is our evolutionary birthright, a necessary passage on the way from psychological adolescence to true adulthood.

The mainstream currents of our contemporary cultures — as well as the field of transpersonal studies — neither assert nor deny the existence of a core underworld identity; it has simply disappeared from their awareness and their maps. Even authentic and wholehearted middleworld purpose has become difficult to attain. (By middleworld, I mean the ego’s everyday, waking world of living, working, family, social relationships, child raising, business, community participation, politics, etc.) It’s increasingly common for people to find themselves marooned in a middleworld of restless emptiness with a sense of not truly or deeply belonging to anything — or with an unrelenting numbness or depression, a sense of lurching through life or just going through the motions.

From age four until our mid-teens, heartfelt middleworld purpose is all we need. But beyond our teen years, middleworld purpose alone never satisfies deeply. Even with the addition of upperworld purpose, there still remains a thunderous void. (By upperworld, I refer to the transcendent realm, above and beyond the ego, a realm that engenders states of consciousness characterized by unity or nonduality, grace, bliss, emptiness, the presence of the divine, light, pure awareness, consciousness without an object, or enlightenment — the latter identified, for example, as Buddha mind, nirvana, satori, or Self-realization.)

This passage from a middleworld social-vocational-political-religious scaffolding of self-definition (and/or one of the universal, one-size-fits-all versions of upperworld identity) to a unique, soul-derived, underworld framework is a categorical shift in orientation. It’s not a shift from one cultural definition to another. It’s not a progression from one career to the next, from one romance to another, from being an addict to being a professional success, from being a mid-westerner to being a Californian, from being born into a Jewish family to becoming a Buddhist. Nor is it a shift from middleworld specifics to upperworld universality. And it’s not a shift you can simply choose or make happen. It is, rather, the involuntary demise of your entire comprehension of the nature of meaning, purpose, and identity, of the ways you understood yourself and the world through childhood and psychological adolescence, and an abduction into the depths of the psyche and the mysteries of the world toward encounters that will eventually enable you to identify “the one life you can call your own,” as poet David Whyte writes, a life rooted in “the truth you make everyday with your own body” or the “truth at the center of the image you were born with.” A psychologically risky journey of many months or years, it makes possible a personal transformation that can happen only after reaching a developmental stage relatively few in the West reach.

 

An Underworld and Ecological Conception of Soul

Let us return, then, to my definition of soul and how this enables an understanding of why soul encounter or inscendence is not only entirely distinct from transcendence but also more important and urgent and why it has become so uncommon in the contemporary world. To do this, we will need to cross a threshold into a domain of discourse and experience that in the materialist precincts of the West might be considered “mystical.” This border-crossing begins with a review of how commonplace the mystical is in the lives and existence of other-than-human beings with the hope that it will then seem less surprising, esoteric, or mysterious that such extraordinary realities apply to us humans as well.

 

What Every Flower, Frog, and Fox is Born With

The mysteries to which I refer here concern, in their essence, ecological place or niche — and in particular the fact that the young of all species are born with an understanding of their place in the world. By place, I do not simply mean geographical location or habitat. Rather, I mean a creature’s ecological niche — its function, role, or “profession” within its community or ecosystem.[8] The young of all species, in other words, already know at birth how to be members of their species. This innate knowledge includes basic-yet-vital items such as how to move around, what to eat and not eat, how to avoid predators, and how and when to mate and with whom. But by far the most important knowledge they are born with is how to contribute to the world their unique skill or offering. They, in other words, are born with what we might call ecological purpose, an implicit knowledge or apprehension of their place or niche in a wildly complex and differentiated world of multiple habitats and countless species. They are born with all the capacities and knowledge they need to at least begin to serve the world in a way no other creature can — including how they can further develop or co-evolve their own niche. They do not have to be taught or go through an initiation process to uncover this knowledge. Although birds and mammals learn a lot of behavioral specifics from their parents and primary social group, most of the capacities that enable them to function as members of their species are innate. The newborn of species other than birds and mammals — 95% of all species — receive minimal to no parenting beyond being conceived and birthed. They are born with all they need to know to have a good chance of survival, to be who they are, and to provide the “ecological functions” only they can.

This is entirely natural and ordinary, but it is also utterly astounding and miraculous, even mystical. The common-but-misguided contemporary Western philosophical impulse to try to explain this reductionistically in terms of genetics misses the most essential point. Genetics might be one piece of how this knowledge is transmitted (part of the “mechanism”), but the method of transmission is categorically and conceptually distinct from what is transmitted, and the unfathomable mystery remains that this knowledge and know-how exist and are transmitted at all.

It might be argued that we humans, too, are born with a version of such capacities: for example, our capacity to easily acquire human language. But it seems other species are born with a far greater innate understanding of their place in the world. And, as far as we can tell, they never have identity crises. The fact that we do, and regularly, says something significant about us as a species or about our contemporary cultures, or both.

Many examples of the innate knowledge and know-how possessed by other species are staggering. For example, consider the annual migration of monarch butterflies: They fly immense distances from their summer habitats in the eastern U.S. and Canada to their winter homes in Mexico, or from the Rocky Mountains to southern California. They manage this long and complex navigation even though it takes four generations to complete a single migration. Furthermore, they arrive at the very same trees their great-great-grandparents tenanted the year before. They do not learn how to do this from other butterflies. They are born with the knowledge of how to migrate those thousands of miles, through countless habitats and weather systems, and end up in precisely the one spot that is theirs, something akin to finding a needle in a haystack. And, as it turns out, this sort of miracle is entirely commonplace on Earth.

Given that such mysteries are demonstrably true for other species, how could we doubt something comparable is true for us? In the contemporary world, we tend to believe that most everything we know we learned from others — parents, other family members, teachers, books, the internet, and so on. And indeed we have learned quite a bit this way. But we, too, like all other species, are born with certain innate knowledge of our unique place in the world, of our ecological niche, of what some older traditions called our destiny or our genius (Meade, 2016). The problem is that we are not conscious of this knowledge at birth because, after all, we are not conscious of anythingduring our first couple years. And by the time our conscious self-awareness develops — somewhere between our third and fourth birthdays — we are more than busy with other things to be conscious of, like the enchantment of the other-than-human world or how to be a member-in-good-standing of a particular family and peer group and a particular culture or ethnic or religious group. Learning these things is the natural priority throughout our childhood and early teen years. But — and here’s the rub for us humans — by the time our conscious knowledge of self and world is established in our mid teens, we have strayed a long ways from our deeper, innate, unconscious knowledge of self and world, which is now obscured, buried, unremembered. It’s still there within us, but we cannot consciously access it and we might not even know it exists. Consequently, as soon as our basic cultural and ecological education is complete, it comes time to “remember” the knowledge we were born with: our particular, destined place in the world, our original personal instructions for this lifetime. All healthy, mature cultures provide initiatory processes (much more extensive and categorically different than a rite of passage[9]) to help their youth uncover just that. In the Western world, these initiatory processes were forgotten and lost millennia ago.

 

Uniqueness and Differentiation

Some people assume that individual members of other species do not have unique gifts or destinies, that whatever uniqueness there is exists on the species level, not the individual level. One flower or frog or fox, they might contend, has exactly the same ecological place, niche, role, or function as any other individual of their species, more or less. If so, why would it be any different for us?

But one thing we know about evolution is that life grows ever more complex, diversified, and differentiated. This is a universal principle. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry (1992, pp. 74 – 75) put it this way:

In the universe, to be is to be different. To be is to be a unique manifestation of existence. The more thoroughly we investigate any one thing … the more we discover its uniqueness. … Ultimately each thing remains as baffling as ever, no matter how profound our understanding. … The universe comes to us, each being and each moment announcing its thrilling news: I am fresh.

As life on Earth evolves, speciation accelerates. Intra-species differentiation increases as well. From four billion years ago until less than a billion years ago, there were only single-cell organisms on Earth, although innumerable kinds of them (Margulis & Sagan, 1997). Now, in addition to countless species of bacteria and microbes, there are millions of complex, multi-cellular species and untold variations within species. Among mammalian species, there are a variety of social roles within any family or extended group. While our own innate human capacities seem minimal at birth compared to other species — we are born, after all, remarkably vulnerable and helpless — we make up for that by possessing perhaps the greatest intra-species differentiation, something that becomes increasingly evident as we get older. Even within the same culture, even within the same family, there is an astonishing degree of variation among us in talents, personal style, taste, personality, values, personal goals, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression.

But our individual uniqueness is not only on the social-personality-vocational-gender level. It is also, and more importantly, on the soul or ecological level. We are each born with distinct and differentiated destinies, our own unique ecological place or niche in the world, our own particular genius. This is a very old idea woven into the myths and sacred stories of many, if not all, cultures (Meade, 2016). It is most likely true for all species to some degree, but it appears to be comparatively truer for us. For good or for ill.

Whether for us or any other species, the unique ecological niche for each individual creature is specific to its particular place in a particular environment. The niche of a specific fox, for example, has everything to do with the precise swath of forest in which she roams; with her relationship, for example, to the pattern of bird nests in those climbable trees and the location of rabbit warrens and rodent tunnels, as well as with her relationship to other foxes in her pack. But her individual niche is not simply or primarily a matter of how she “makes a living.” It is also about how she uniquely participates in and enhances life in her forest and about the effects and influences only she can have on the local habitat and the other species there.

All this must be true for us humans as well: we each have a unique set of relationships and potentials within both our local and global communities.

 

Soul: Your Place in the Greater Web of Life

The most important thing to emphasize about soul encounter is that this knowledge of what it is to be fully and uniquely yourself, of the gift you were born to bring into this world, can never be identified or described in social, vocational, political, religious, or other cultural terms. No one is born to take a particular job or role in a particular human community. Rather, like all other species, we are each born to take a specific place within the Earth community, to fill a unique ecological niche in the greater web of life, to provide a suite of unique ecological functions. And that place is what I mean by soul, and occupying that psycho-ecological niche and providing those functions is what I mean by soul purpose. As explored below, this is the realm of awakening nearly absent from contemporary Western psychology, including transpersonal theory and scholarship, and from most contemporary practices and methods for spiritual, religious, and psychological development. And it is arguably the most essential realm of awakening, especially in our current time of radical, global change.

 

A Pivotal Insight: Soul as an Ecological Concept, Not a Psychological One

During my many years attempting to arrive at a coherent and useful concept of soul — one that would help me make sense of my own experiences and those of people I guided — the greatest obstacle was my assumption that it had to be a psychological concept. (I was quite clear I was not studying soul as a religious idea.) The breakthrough came when I realized that soul was fundamentally an ecological concept and that it was applicable to all living things and to all non-living things alike. This is perhaps one of the reasons it has been difficult for psychologists to generate clarity about soul and also why it is difficult at first to understand the approach taken in this article. (Other reasons include the loss, in the West, of initiatory practices, widespread developmental arrest, loss of or failure to understand ancient myths and stories, and the suppression of an underworld spiritual ultimate in religious doctrines and in spiritual practice; Plotkin, 2008.)

Although soul, as I have come to understand it, is an ecological concept, the human journey to soul and the experience of soul encounter are thoroughly psychological phenomena (as well as spiritual). Soul as ecological niche is the central meeting place of psychology and ecology.

 

Soul and Mythopoetic Identity

Because knowledge of our place in the greater web of life is something we are born with, it is necessarily pre-cultural and pre-linguistic. As a consequence, our unique place in the world cannot be identified, described, understood, or experienced in conventional cultural terms or in the direct denotative way we specify a middleworld identity. But if we cannot refer to our soul’s place as that of a physician, pianist, priest, president, or parent, or even more generically as a healer, artist, or leader, then how can it be done?

Here is an additional way to appreciate the difficulty: We humans possess a special realm or veneer of consciousness — our ego’s conscious self-awareness — that rides on top of the more extensive consciousness we have in common with all other species.[10] Our human ego is both a great boon and a great barrier. For example, because each individual ego, unlike the soul, is a child of culture and language, we at first — in our childhood and teen years — come to understand our place culturally and linguistically, which is to say in terms of social, vocational, and religious roles. This is unavoidable, entirely necessary, and a good thing. But we are also born with an entirely different kind of knowledge, a felt-sense about our one-of-a-kind ecological place or niche in the world, knowledge that exists only within the deeper realm of consciousness that all species share, knowledge that is not linguistic but imaginal, knowledge that an immature, egocentric ego cannot access.

So the question becomes: how do we discover what this is, this innate, imagery-based, and mysterious knowledge about our unique ecological place in the world? How do we awaken to this knowledge when it exists at a deeper level than the ego-consciousness that dominates our experience and sense of self by the time we are in our early teens? And how do we linguistically identify it to ourselves and others once we experience it consciously?

In a word: metaphor.

When it comes to identifying soul, we can only point to it or allude to it using metaphor — in the manner of poetry or myth. We can linguistically understand our souls only indirectly, only mythopoetically. Not coincidentally, this is precisely how we learn about our souls in the first place: We discover (or remember) our innate place, our true home, our soul’s purpose, when the world mirrors it to us by way of nature-based metaphors, human archetypes, or other mythic or poetic images or symbols. We do not choose these metaphors or figure them out. Rather, we are shown them in a moment of numinous vision or mystical revelation. They are shown to us by … by what? Mystery is as good a way as any to name our benefactor, our guide, our initiator.

Soul is a child of nature, not of culture and language.

What I mean by soul, then, is something mystical but not upperworld mystical and not any more mystical than monarch migrations. It corresponds to what poet David Whyte refers to as “the largest conversation you can have with the world,” a conversation you were born to have and that only you can have and that the world needs you to have for it to be whole. The seed or catalyst for this conversation has existed within you from birth or conception in the form of what Whyte calls “the truth you make everyday with your own body” or “the truth at the center of the image you were born with.” Take a moment to consider that these two sorts of truths — which to the Western mind seem so strange, mystical, and improbable — really do exist, and for everyone. These truths, these images, these conversations — and the niches, roles, functions, identities, meanings, and purposes associated with them — are not cultural or even merely human; rather, you were born with them, and they are ecological and mythopoetic, which is to say clothed and communicated in the metaphors, symbols, images, dreams, and archetypes of the wild world and of our own wild minds. As Diane di Prima (1990) reminds us:

… you have a poetics: you step into the world

like a suit of readymade clothes …

This is actually true of all creatures, not just humans: every being has its own innate poetics. And there is no better way than poetry to identify a unique ecological niche. Try describing the niche of a fox, for example. You can point to some of the primary relationships she has with other species in a particular habitat and perhaps the way her uncommon cunning allows her to carry out her distinctive calling, but her niche is something more than that and categorically different. Her niche is the sum of all the relationships she has with everything else on Earth, if not the whole universe, something we cannot even get close to fully describing. The best way to understand a fox’s niche is to live for several years as a native in her neighborhood while offering your daily reverent attention to her wanderings and ways. Then you will know something of her niche but still not be able to describe it precisely or systematically. Your best option, really, for portraying her niche would be to recite fox stories, preferably outside at night around a fire or in the dark beneath blazing stars. Or fox poetry. Or vixen myth. And that of course is precisely how nature-based people have always done it.

It’s no different when it comes to linguistically portraying an individual human’s soul.

Through the journey of soul initiation, we come to understand that we each were born as something like a particular poem, as a unique dance, as a story in conversation with other stories, as an essential and utterly singular episode in the unfolding story of Earth, of Cosmos. As Gary Snyder (2007, p. 160) wrote,

The world is made of stories. Good stories are hard to come by, and a good story that you can honestly call your own is an incredible gift. These stories are part of a bigger story that connects us all.

 

A Few Sketches of Soul

Some examples might be helpful, even though it’s impossible to communicate the numinosity of the human soul in a few words. Much better would be a handful of intricate stories or poems, something that would require too many pages to include here. (The single best way to understand an initiated person’s soul purpose is to live in community with them and experience them in action.) That said, I will offer here a few linguistic sketches with the hope this will at least convey a feeling for the difference between a social-vocational identity (middleworld) and a soul identity (underworld) — and how both differ from an identity in relationship to or merged with Spirit or the Ultimate Mystery (upperworld).

There are a great number of people whose mystical encounters with soul I have had the pleasure and privilege to learn about and to witness the embodiment of. The following are four exceedingly brief word portraits that embody the wild mysteries of such encounters and how they have been communicated mythopoetically, each of these examples being mere intimations of the genius and destiny of these four individuals:

  • the overseer who guides others into the oceanic depths of the psyche
  • the one with a sparkling heart who walks the path of the bear
  • she who generates perception-expanding images and identity-destabilizing questions
  • she who dances the Earth and dreams song to feed the longing

Despite their brevity, these portraits of soul-infused identities and purposes contrast strikingly with middleworld cultural roles. They do not remotely resemble job descriptions or advertisable services. They are not the kinds of recommendations a vocational guidance counselor would offer. They are of the dreamtime or the mythic. And they are the kinds of purposes utterly core to our deepest, innate human identities.

Another example: The preface to my book Soulcraft recounts my own story of how I received, on my first vision fast at age 30, an initial glimpse of my soul identity or ecological role as the one who weaves cocoons of transformation (Plotkin, 2003).

Three more: Malidoma Somé, the West African elder and teacher, identifies his destiny, his place in the world, as “he who makes friends with the enemy/ stranger,” something revealed to him (by Mystery) as a young man during a month-long initiation process (Somé, 1994).

Joanna Macy, the North American ecophilosopher, spiritual activist, Buddhist scholar, and Earth elder, experienced a life-shifting numinous image during a meditation session in the early weeks of her Buddhist practice, while living in India, at age 37:

To my inner eye appeared a bridge, slightly arching, made of stone. I could see the separate rocks of which it was built, and I wanted to be one of them. Just one, that was enough, if only I could be part of that bridge between the thoughtworlds of East and West, connecting the insights of the Buddha Dharma with the modern Western mind. What my role might be — at the podium of a college classroom? at a desk in a library tower? — was less clear to me than the conviction possessing me now: I would be a stone in the building of that bridge (Macy, 2000, p. 106).

Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1996, pp. 59–60), in his mid twenties, discovered that his destiny or soul-calling was to

… pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.

Soulcraft and in Nature and the Human Soul, includes much more elaborate accounts of soul encounters and identities (Plotkin, 2003, 2008).

 

Soul Purpose vs. Delivery System

Soul images, like these, do not tell a person how to embody their souls — what practices, projects, professions, arts, tools, or crafts to use, or in which settings to work. Rather, they inform the person what it is they are doing whenever they are doing their soul work. Their soul images reveal the deepest significance of their work and of their existence. Their conscious understanding of their soul’s purpose allows them to assess to what degree their everyday actions are successful embodiments of their soul — and to make corrections as needed. These soul images are like navigational tools. They are the human equivalent of what allows monarch butterflies to migrate from New England to Mexico. The what is much deeper and more essential than the how. The how is in service to the what. The what — the soul image — is given to us, by Mystery. The how is determined, fashioned, and implemented by us, by our mature egos.

The what is what I call soul purpose. The how is what I call the delivery system for soul. The what might also be called a vision, and the how might be called a task:

A vision without a task is just a dream.

A task without a vision is just a job.

A vision with a task can change the world.[11]

The what — the soul image, the navigational aid, the vision — might also be understood, metaphorically, as what William Stafford (1998, p. 42) calls the “thread you follow”:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost. …

 

Underworld Purpose vs. Middleworld Purpose — and the Sacred Marriage

Social or middleworld purpose is a perspective on personal meaning that is psychologically adolescent — again, referring here to a developmental stage, not an age range. (By calling it “adolescent,” no criticism or diminishment is intended. Acquiring middleworld purpose is an essential early stage in human development.) Middleworld purpose defines us in terms of our social roles, our job descriptions, or the intended outcomes of our creative projects. Although a social or vocational perspective on purpose is necessary, appropriate, and healthy in psychological adolescence, it does not derive from the depths of the psyche or go to the depths of the world and is not enough to build a fulfilling life upon.

After awakening to our underworld, soul, or ecological purpose, there is no longer what we might have earlier called a middleworld purpose. Now we have a middleworld delivery system (and identity) for our true (soul) purpose. Our social roles and vocational endeavors are means to an end. Following my soul initiation, for example, I have been in the roles of psychologist, vision fast guide, author, and soulcraft facilitator, among others, but none of these social-vocational roles constitute my purpose. Rather, they have been, for me, delivery systems for the weaving of cocoons. Yeats delivered his silver and golden apples with the vehicles of poetry, theater, and metaphysics. Malidoma Somé befriends the “enemy/stranger” by interpreting African indigenous wisdom for Western people through writing, speaking, community rituals, workshops, and trainings. In addition to writing and speaking, Joanna Macy embodies that stone in her imaginal East-West bridge through the delivery systems of Buddhist scholarship, systems thinking, Buddhism-infused activism, and an East-West theory and methodology for personal and social change she calls the Work That Reconnects.

From the perspective of our middleworld lives, the soul is a dream. From the underworld perspective of our soul’s purpose, our middleworld lives — when disconnected from our souls — are illusions or phantasms, or drudgery.

But our middleworld lives are not incidental to the soul. Far from it. The healthy, mature, middleworld ego is our means for making real our soul’s underworld desires. This relationship is reflected in the belief, found in many cultures, in a love affair between the soul and the ego; when they come together in partnership, this is (a version of) the Sacred Marriage. Each has what the other lacks and longs for and is deeply allured by: The soul knows our true, destined place in the world, holds the knowledge of what is truly worth doing in our lives. But the soul has no means — no head or hands — to manifest that purpose. It is the healthy, mature ego that can fashion things and achieve outcomes in the material middleworld. The soul is captivated by this strategic capacity of the ego’s to manifest, especially when accomplished artfully. The ego, in turn, is moonstruck by the soul’s visions and passions. The mature ego wants, more than anything in life, to make real the dreams the soul has been weaving since before our birth — this is the deepest love-making. And it is life-making. The soul wants, more than anything, to be partnered with an ego with that vast desire and that elegant and artful set of reality-shaping skills. How absolutely romantic!

Notice as well that upperworld purpose or awakening (transcendence) is in no way a substitute for soul encounter and soul embodiment. Nor is it more valuable. Absent soul encounter, people who have experienced transcendence lack a conscious alignment with their unique life purpose and consequently are much less likely to contribute their singular gift to the evolutionary unfolding of our world.

 

Upperworld and Underworld: The Two Complementary Realms of the Spiritual and Transpersonal

In the Western world, the spiritual has been largely identified with the upperworld of God, Spirit, transcendence, enlightenment, or nondual consciousness. But the underworld realm of soul is equally spiritual, equally mystical, and at least as essential to human development. Spirit and soul are both transpersonal (i.e., beyond the personal, beyond the realm of the ego’s everyday conscious self-awareness), but more specifically and significantly, they are both spiritual in the sense of being numinous (i.e., of the sacred or holy) and in the sense that both are types of ultimates — ultimate realties and meanings (Shideler, 1992). Spirit, in whatever way specifically conceived, is always the ultimate whole or reality that contains or infuses everything and gives ultimate meaning, value, and significance to all that exists (which is why one might call it the Ultimate Mystery), while soul (as unique ecological niche) is a thing’s ultimate place in that ultimate whole (Plotkin, 2008).

A thing’s ultimate place is its place in the great scheme of things, its quintessential place in the world or the universe. Soul is the place or niche that most centrally and comprehensively identifies a thing — a thing’s unique and truest place. When we speak of soul, we are calling attention to the very core or heart of a thing’s identity, its decisive meaning, value, and significance, its raison d’être.

Within the domain of spirituality, the upperworld is the universal transpersonal (the realm of Spirit), while the underworld is the unique individual transpersonal (the realm of soul). While upperworld spiritualities focus on transcendence, the underworld journey provides for inscendence (Berry, 1988).[12] The underworld and upperworld are the two complementary realms of the spiritual. Either alone is incomplete and imperfect.

In the mainstream Western world, most religious organizations operate primarily in the middleworld of personal healing, charity, community, and morality, some in mature and life-enhancing ways, some not. In the relatively rare instances when religious people in the West truly approach the spiritual, it’s virtually always of the upperworld, as is also the case in the East.

But upperworld practices alone result in an incomplete spirituality. They catalyze the profound experience of oneness, of full conscious presence to the “now” or to the divine, of the interconnectedness or interbeing of everything, of oneself as an integral part of God or Spirit, and of the felt-sense of being unified with all of creation — along with the often accompanying sense of peace, joy, vibrancy, and deep wonder about the world — but they do not help us find our unique transpersonal or spiritual role in this world, the individual ecological niche that makes possible our greatest service to the world as well as our deepest fulfillment. Transcendence, although often joyous and peaceful, can be ungrounded, purpose-less, complacent, or detached without the experience of soul encounter.[13]

Conversely, the underworld journey alone is incomplete. Living from soul, although deeply fulfilling and life-enhancing, can become too heavy, self-centered, or stressfully goal-oriented (overly attached to outcomes) when not integrated with the transcendent experience of oneness.

Upperworld spiritual awakenings infuse us with the “power of now” (Tolle, 1999), while underworld spiritual awakenings usher us into the “power of Here” (Plotkin, 2008). The first time we consciously inhabit our unique ecological niche or place and act from our soul is the first time we can say, “Here,” and really know what it means. We have arrived, at last, at our own center. As long as we stay Here, everywhere we go, geographically or socially, feels like home. Every place becomes Here. This is the power of place, the power of Here.

Before soul initiation, wherever you go, there you are (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). After soul initiation, wherever you go, Here you are.

Upperworld spiritual development in no way implies or requires underworld spiritual development. And vice versa. You can be an enlightened Zen master and not have a clue about your soul purpose — probably true of most Zen masters. And you can be a soul-initiated adult and never have had an experience of transcendence.

But people who have awakened in both the upperworld and underworld senses enjoy an unbeatable combination: Here and now.

Actually, the universal and unique transpersonal are inextricably interwoven whether or not we have consciously experienced either one or their interconnectedness. Given that everything is what it is by virtue of its relationship with everything else, each thing has a unique and ultimate place in the ultimate reality or Ultimate Mystery. In just two thirteenth-century sentences, Rumi — the Persian Sufi mystic — managed to sew together the spiritual upperworld and underworld or, better, showed how one cannot exist without the other:

God picks up the reed flute world and blows.

Each note is a need coming through one of us,

a passion, a longing-pain. … (Rumi, 1995, p. 103)

The soul of anything — human, flower, frog, or fox — is a unique, God-originated passion or longing-pain pouring through one of us creatures.

 

Contrasts Between Inscendence and Other Realms of the Transpersonal and the Unconscious

To my knowledge, an underworld and ecological conception of soul — or, more generally, soul as an underworld spiritual ultimate — is found nowhere else in transpersonal theory, depth psychology, or ecopsychology (nor in contemporary Western religion or spirituality). For example, in his excellent review of transpersonal theories, Daniels (2009) proposed “three distinct ‘vectors’” that comprise the transpersonal: “ascending, descending, and extending.” The ascending vector corresponds to what I refer to in this article as the transcendent (Spirit-oriented) or upperworld (or “higher”) transpersonal, while the extending vector refers to the relational-participatory perspective (“promoting a spiritualconnection to others and the world,” p.94) best articulated by Ferrer (2002, 2011b).

Daniels’ identifies the third, the descending vector, as corresponding to “the depth psychological perspective,” which “essentially argues that transpersonal development involves the exploration and integration of unconscious material (of a spiritual kind)” (Daniels, 2009, p.94). As examples of this perspective and this sort of unconscious material, he includes personal psychosynthesis (Assagioli, 1971), Shadow work (as in Wilber, 2006), “cocreative participation with body, emotions, unconscious” (Ferrer, 2002), “initiation into inner reality (archetypes)” (Jung, 1964), the “regressive return of the ego” (Washburn, 1994, 1995, 2003), and “COEX systems; Basic Perinatal Matrices” (Grof, 2000). However, Daniels (2009) does not include the word soul in his survey nor any concept that corresponds to a thing’s ultimate place. This supports my view that soul, as I define it, is a realm of psyche absent (or not explicitly identified) in transpersonal studies and depth psychology.

What soul has in common with the phenomena identified in the psychological models of Daniels’ descending vector is merely its inclusion (prior to its conscious encounter) in the realm of the unconscious or underworld, but there are at least two definitive differences: the specific realm of the underworld involved (soul as a spiritual ultimate vs. the more general elements of the unconscious) and the goal of the exploration (soul encounter and the initiation into true adulthood vs. the assimilation of elements of the unconscious for the purpose of psychotherapeutic healing or the cultivation of egoic wholeness). Soul encounter contrasts in several ways from the processes and goals of psychotherapy and healing (Plotkin, 2008, pp. 290-293). Indeed, the journey of soul initiation is often counter-therapeutic (and appropriately so for those who are psychospiritually prepared for it), because it necessarily undermines the person’s adaptation to their current social and vocational life and personal identity.

Daniels’ conceptualization of the descending vector is useful for a variety of purposes, but the theories or models he notes as representative of this vector differ in significant and definitive ways from what I am identifying as soul and the encounter with soul. With some models (e.g., Assagioli, Wilber, and Ferrer), there is simply no evident overlap in the range of possibilities being discussed. With other models, there is some overlap, but the differences between these other perspectives and mine are considerable (e.g., Jung, Grof, Washburn).

To differentiate my perspective from these others, it is useful to ask three questions of their models: (1) What realms of the unconscious are conceptually and/or experientially accessed in their work? (2) What are their stated goals in accessing these realms? (In what ways do they see their work as facilitative of human development?) (3) If they include a concept of soul in their work, what is their definition and is that definition spiritual as well as more broadly transpersonal and yet distinct from Spirit?

In Roberto Assagioli’s model of the human psyche (Assagioli, 1971), which includes a lower, middle, and higher unconscious, Daniels’ descending vector corresponds to the first of these. Assagioli’s lower unconscious contains the “co-ordination of bodily functions,” “drives and primitive urges,” emotionally-charged “complexes,” “dreams and imaginations of an inferior kind,” “lower … parapsychological processes,” and “various pathological manifestations” (Assagioli, 1971, p. 17). Assagioli’s goals for accessing the lower unconscious, a process he referred to as “personal psychosynthesis,” include “helping the patient to reach the normal state of the average man or woman by means of the elimination of repressions and inhibitions, of fears and childish dependence; to find his way out of his self-centeredness, his emotionally distorted outlook,” etc. (Assagioli, 1971, p. 55). It is clear, then, that what I mean by soul and soul encounter do not fit in any way within the scope of Assagioli’s “lower unconscious.” Nor is it encompassed by his middle and higher unconscious (which are, essentially, what I refer to as the middleworld and upperworld).

Daniels (2002, p. 12) suggested that “Assagioli was concerned to reintroduce the concept of the personal soul into psychology,” but Assagioli (1971) did not actually use the word “soul.” Rather, as Daniels (2002, p. 14) pointed out, “Assagioli’s equivalent to the personal soul appears at the apex of the higher unconscious … [which] … Assagioli variously refers to … as the Self, Higher Self, Spiritual Self, True Self, Real Self, Noumenal Self, or Transpersonal Self.” There is no resemblance, however, between Assagioli’s Transpersonal Self and what I mean by soul. His Transpersonal Self is upperworld spiritual (of the Ultimate Mystery), while my concept of soul is underworld spiritual (ultimate place).

Jorge Ferrer, with his relational-participatory perspective on spirituality and the transpersonal, is likewise focused on Spirit and the upperworld transpersonal. He wrote, for example, “the participatory approach holds that human spirituality emerges from our cocreative participation in a dynamic and undetermined mystery or generative power of life, the cosmos, and/or spirit.” (Ferrer, 2011, p. 2). His “undetermined mystery” corresponds to what I mean by Spirit or the Ultimate Mystery. Although Ferrer posits that each person might have a “distinct spiritual realization,” he means we can each cultivate a personal relationship with the mystery or Spirit (cf., Plotkin, 2003, pp. 298 – 301); he is not signifying the range of possibilities I mean by soul.

Ferrer proposed that the goals for any spiritual path ought to be to “foster both an overcoming of self-centeredness and a fully embodied integration that make us not only more sensitive to the needs of others, nature, and the world, but also more effective cultural and planetary transformative agents in whatever contexts and measure life or spirit calls us to be” (Ferrer, 2011b, p. 8). While I agree and celebrate this way of embracing spirituality, Ferrer approaches these goals through a cultivation of a relationship with Spirit, while inscendence furthers these goals (and others) by way of the descent to soul. Furthermore, soul encounter, by ushering us into a mythopoetic self-understanding of our ultimate place, enables us to reach a deeper, more potent appreciation of our unique way to serve as “transformative agents” and thereby the capacity to more effectively choose the “contexts and measure” (i.e., the delivery systems).

As with Assagioli and Ferrer, Ken Wilber approaches transpersonal experience in terms of the development of an experiential relationship with Spirit. In Wilber’s neo-perennialist approach, nondual consciousness or “One Taste” is the ultimate destination (Wilber, 1995, 1999, 2000). There is very little in Wilber’s work relevant to the transpersonal or spiritual underworld (other than his denigration of it), and his inconsistent use of the word soul ranges from meaning ego to meaning Spirit. For example, he distinguished between “a person’s immortal-eternal spirit and a person’s individual-mortal soul (meaning ego)” (Wilber, 1998, p.4). In contrast, in his book The Marriage of Sense and Soul(1999b), despite that “soul” in his title, the primary entry in his index under “soul” reads simply “see spirit.” The subject matter of soul as the unique spiritual or as the ultimate underworld transpersonal is entirely absent from Wilber’s model.

With depth psychologists Jung, Grof, and Washburn, in contrast, there are evident overlaps between the range of possibilities they explore and what I mean by soul and soul encounter, but the differences in perspective are considerable. These differences include that (1) they do not incorporate a concept of soul as a type of spiritual ultimate (one that reveals our transpersonal uniqueness in contrast to our egoic, personality, or social uniqueness), neither in a broad sense nor in a specifically ecological sense, and (2) they do not identify a transpersonal or spiritual goal or process that corresponds to what I describe as soul encounter or inscendence (Plotkin, 2003, 2008, 2011).

Jung’s model of the human psyche features what he calls the collective unconscious, comprised of images, memories, emotions, and ideas (collectively, archetypes) shared by all humans. These archetypes include the Shadow, the soul-image (anima/ animus), the Self (the totality of the psyche), the Hero, the Wise Old Man, and the Great Mother. Jung’s primary goal in accessing the realms of the unconscious is the integration of the conscious and unconscious within the larger totality of the Self. Doing so corresponds to what I have called the cultivation of our innate human wholeness (Plotkin, 2013), which concerns the maturation of the ego and is ontologically distinct from accessing our soul, in the sense of our unique ecological niche or our ultimate spiritual place. Jung’s goal is transpersonal, in the sense that the collective unconscious is beyond the personal (the ego) as well as beyond the individual (i.e., it is collective), but his goal is not spiritual in the sense that he is not, in his theory or psychoanalytic work, explicitly attempting to facilitate the encounter with either Spirit or soul (soul, that is, as a spiritual ultimate).

Jung does, however, use the word soul (when he writes in English), and distinguishes it from what he means by psyche[14]:

By psyche, I understand the totality of all psychic processes, conscious as well as unconscious. By soul, on the other hand, I understand a clearly demarcated functional complex that can best be described as a “personality”. (Jung, 1971, p. 425)

This “personality,“ Jung goes on to explain, is what he means by anima and animus or his composite word soul-image.

In other words, although Jung’s use of the word soul is transpersonal and distinct from the idea of Spirit, it is not spiritual in the sense of something ultimate, nor is it ecological. Rather, by soul, he refers to a facet of the psyche others have called the muse (as I have; Plotkin, 2013). There are no significant similarities or overlaps between Jung’s use of soul and mine.

On the other hand, when Jung refers, autobiographically, to his own “personal myth,” he is accessing a realm of the psyche that is at least consistent with what I mean by soul. In 1927, at age 52, Jung had his “Liverpool” dream, out of which, he wrote, “emerged a first inkling of my personal myth.” He elaborated, “The dream depicted the climax of the whole process of development of consciousness. It satisfied me completely, for it gave a total picture of my situation” (Jung, 1965, p. 199). Sonu Shamdasani, the editor and cotranslator of Jung’s Red Book (Jung, 2009) commented, “… if the question in 1912 [when Jung’s personal ‘confrontation with the unconscious’ began] is ‘I needed to know what my myth was,’ by 1930 [when he completed sixteen years of transcription of The Red Book and his analysis of what he experienced in late 1913 and early 1914] he’d found it. Now the question was how could he help others find their own myths” (Hillman & Shamdasani, 2013, pp. 62 – 63). Although not an ecological concept and although not an explicit element of his formal model, Jung’s notion and informal use of “personal myth” is at least resonant with what I mean by soul.

Stan Grof’s model of the transpersonal, in the view of Daniels (2002) “is perhaps the most comprehensive of all the major [transpersonal] theorists.” Although I concur, I have found nothing in Grof’s model (e.g., Grof, 1993, 2000) that corresponds to an underworld spiritual conception of soul nor the goal or process of soul encounter. Grof conceives of three domains of the psyche: the personal (biographical) unconscious of psychoanalysis, the perinatal domain, and the transpersonal. Daniels (2009) suggests that Grof’s rendition of the descending vector corresponds to both his biographical and perinatal domains, in particular Grof’s “COEX systems” (“systems of condensed experience,” which are both biographical and perinatal) and his “Basic Perinatal Matrices.” The former, similar to Jung’s complexes are “emotionally charged memories from different periods of our life that resemble each other in the quality of emotion or physical sensation that they share” (Grof, 2000, p. 22). The latter are four archetypal patterns of intrauterine and birth experiences associated with bliss; dangerous and grotesque nightmare creatures; optimism, struggle, and sexual ecstasies; and visions of light or union with the divine; which correspond respectively with the intrauterine state, contractions, movement down the birth canal, and the moment of birth. The goal of accessing these mystical experiences is “mobilization of the deep inner intelligence of the clients themselves that guides the process of healing and transformation” (Grof, 2000, p. 18). These transpersonal experiences, as profound and transformative as they are, and the goals of accessing them (essentially healing/ psychotherapeutic and what I call the cultivation of egoic wholeness; see Plotkin, 2013) do not correspond — at least in the way Grof describes them — to what I am identifying in this article, as soul encounter.

It’s important to note, however, that Grof’s impressive survey of a wide range of what he calls holotropic states (i.e., experiences that move the individual toward wholeness) include some that might very well be encounters with soul or at least experiences that either lead or could lead to soul encounter. For example, he writes of initiatory crises experienced by shamans-to-be in a variety of nature-based cultures, crises that include “a journey into the underworld,” psychospiritual death and dismemberment, and rebirth, all of which prepares the novice shaman to commence their work. Whether these experiences are actually encounters with soul (i.e., experiences that result in an understanding of mythopoetic identity) is difficult to tell by Grof’s descriptions, but it is possible they are. Nevertheless, Grof’s model does not include a concept of soul (whether ecological or otherwise) as distinct from Spirit, or a differentiation between spiritual experiences of a universal ultimate, on the one hand, and spiritual experiences of an individual ultimate (soul), on the other.

In the psychology of Michael Washburn (1994, 1995), transpersonal development, which in his model does not start until mid-life, involves the reconnection and reintegration of the ego with the original nonegoic core of the psyche, which he calls the “Dynamic Ground.” At the commencement of this process, the person withdraws from the world and begins to experience the Dynamic Ground, which at first seems primitive, dark, and both dangerous and alluring. Daniels (2002, p. 16) in his review of Washburn’s model notes that the ego is then “thrust into an abyss of darker, frightening, negative experiences such as guilt, worthlessness, dread, cynicism, paranoia, intimations of evil, strangeness, visions of wrathful deities and devouring demons.” Washburn sees this journey into the depths of the psyche as a “regression in the service of transcendence,” which makes clear the upperworld goal Washburn sees for this process of reintegration. The process eventually leads to what Daniels (2002, p. 17) summarized as “a sense of enchantment, spiritual intoxication, rejoicing, religious ecstasy, love, rebirth, integration, guiding or angelic visions, and a sense of greater connection with other people, the body, and nature.” The final stage is “regeneration in spirit,” leading to an “integrated life” characterized by what Daniels (2002, p. 17) summarizes as “transparency and I-Thou intimacy, the feeling of blessedness, ‘hallowed resplendence’ (the equivalent of One Taste or cosmic consciousness), mature contemplation (enstatic absorption, with or without form), ‘tertiary cognition’ (creative thinking), and the physical embodiment of spiritual qualities.” These goals are predominantly upperworld spiritual and not similar to the experience or goals of soul encounter.

A final note here: Although this quick review suggests that, in the work of transpersonal theorists and depth psychologists, the realm of the psyche I identify as the soul or the process of soul encounter is either absent or not explicitly identified, we do find very resonant ideas and images elsewhere in Western culture, namely in the realms of poetry, fiction, biography, myth, and mythology. Representative sources can be found in footnote 15. We can also find great resonance in the accounts of the initiatory practices of some non-Western, nature-based peoples (e.g., Somé, 1994; Prechtel, 1999).

 

Moltings: Radical Shifts in Middleworld Purpose

There is one kind of awakening often mistaken as soul encounter, as a shift from a middleworld identity to an underworld or soul identity, but is actually a transition from one middleworld identity to another. I think of this type of change, which can be quite profound, as a “molting,” a metaphor borrowed from the lifecycle of moths and butterflies. The caterpillar is the larval or adolescent phase in the order of Lepidoptera. Caterpillars shed their skin several times, each time growing a larger one. Each of these sheddings is a molting. We can imagine that losing one’s skin and growing a new one is a radical experience. But it does not hold a candle to the life change that occurs later during the chrysalis stage when the caterpillar’s body totally dissolves within the cocoon, enabling its cells to be reconfigured into the radically different adult form of a moth or butterfly. We can sense that this transition from earth-crawling caterpillar to winged butterfly is that much more profound than from one caterpillar incarnation to another.

Likewise, humans often go through a series of moltings — shifts from one social, vocational, political, religious, or spiritual reality to another. This might, for example, be a transition from high school to college, or from single to married or the reverse, or from a job in advertising to a career as a psychotherapist, or from living in Louisiana to a life in L.A., or from being a closet gay to one who is out, or from being Christian to being Hindu. Some moltings are quite earth-shaking, and involve extreme shifts in worldview, such as with religious or spiritual “awakenings.”

For example, a journal of contemporary Buddhism recently published a woman’s inspiringaccount of what she called a “complete emotional breakdown” in her late twenties (Washam, 2016). She was in a dysfunctional relationship, living in a bad neighborhood, with an office job she hated. She became depressed, anxious, and desperate, and began using drugs and alcohol to dull the pain. Then she got fired. After a week or so of despair, she heard about a weeklong Buddhist meditation retreat in the desert. She packed up, left behind the life she had been living, and went to the retreat. During that week, she grieved wildly, learned to meditate, and was introduced to the Buddha dharma. By the end of the retreat, she made a vow to follow the Buddha’s teachings. She eventually became a Buddhist teacher herself. Clearly, this was a radical shift in worldview, lifestyle, and purpose that made all the difference in her life, a shift she refers to as an ”awakening.” But it was not an upperworld experience of transcendence. Nor was it an experience of inscendence or a revelation of underworld identity. It was, rather, a middleworld molting. Saying this is not intended to diminish its significance, but rather to contrast it with an underworld soul encounter or chrysalis passage, which shifts us not from one lifestyle or cultural identity to another, but from an identity rooted in the middleworld of culture to a soul identity that is ecological and mythopoetic, an entirely different category of personal transformation.

In a similar vein to the experience of this contemporary Buddhist teacher, one of the Buddha’s own earliest awakenings occurred when, as the young prince Siddhartha Gautama, he first left the confines of his father’s castle and encountered four things he had not known about: old age, sickness, death, and the lives of saints or monks who seek only truth or enlightenment. These encounters changed everything for Si