The Story of Animas:

How We Learned to Guide the Descent to Soul

Bill Plotkin

Since the early 1980s, my audacious Animas colleagues and I have been learning how to navigate and guide the now rare but perennial journey of soul initiation. We’ve been fashioning a contemporary, Western, nature-based methodology for metamorphosis. We’ve crafted new and modified maps, models, principles, practices, and ceremonies by which to guide the descent to the underworld of soul for the purpose of uncovering the mystery at the heart of each human life. Often it feels like we’re simply remembering what all people have known from the beginning of the human story, mythic patterns and motifs lost and forgotten ages ago, yet with traces that can be unearthed like hidden treasure in the dusty shadowed corners of our own psyches or in the form of memories stored in the land itself or conjured out of the dance we have found ourselves performing, without forethought, while in communion with wild places and wild humans. At other times, it seems like Mystery is taking us for a ride on an indeterminate evolutionary trajectory never before traveled, more like passengers than steersmen.

Revelatory Beginnings

It could be said that our story of (re)discovery began with my first four-day vision fast, in August 1980, at an altitude of 11,000 feet in a glacier-carved granite gorge in the late summer mountains of northern Colorado, self-guided and in solitude, but with the invaluable support of an early handbook written by two of my teachers, Steven Foster and Meredith Little. There, among untamed lakes, streams, and summits, I met a green-robed Zen monk cleverly disguised as a spruce gazing out among the still surface of an alpine lake. With an eloquent wave of his hand, the monk called my attention to a butterfly several yards to my left who slowly flew toward me, brushed my face with her wing and, in the same moment, uttered my true name. She told me I must learn to weave cocoons of transformation for my people (from caterpillar-like adolescence to butterflying adulthood).

One night during my fast, a dream suggested the Animas Valley of southwest Colorado as the place to make my home and to begin my real work. So I did. Both. I had recently completed a year of post-doctoral training as a holistic and transpersonal psychotherapist after having recklessly abandoned my meteoric but brief career as a university-based research psychologist exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness. You might say I left the lab in order to have direct experience in the field … of life. Following my time on the mountain, I was a nearly penniless but enraptured wanderer carrying the three precious gems of a vision, youth, and freedom. (This part of the story is recounted more fully as the prologue to Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche.)

The Birth of Animas Valley Institute

For the next ten years, I grew a psychotherapy practice and, a few times a year, guided a contemporary form of the pancultural vision fast. My unconventional design for this wilderness-based ceremony blended a variety of influences from depth psychology, poetry, and Western mystical traditions as well as from the universal symbols and practices of a particular class of initiatory journeys — those undertaken not by children on the cusp of adolescence nor by teens bravely affirming and demonstrating their independence from their parents, but by mature seekers of gnosis. Under the banner of “Animas Valley Institute,” my early guiding partners and I held evening meetings with groups of locals, preparing them, over a period of several weeks, for a four-day fast in the middle of an eight-day expedition into a remote and wild corner of the Southwest mountains or desert canyons. The ceremonial form we enacted was a vision fast, but this was not a generic rite of passage; it was, rather, something more mysterious, rare, wild, and hazardous.

In the late ‘80s, my colleagues and I redesigned our “Animas Quests” to be an integral 10-day ceremony (later, 12- or 14-days) so to accommodate people from other regions. We also began to design a variety of new, shorter immersions (five and eight days) into the mysteries of nature and psyche, intensives and pilgrimages without fasting or multi-day solos but infused with soul-revealing practices such as soulcentric dreamwork, council practice, trance rhythms and dance, conversations with non-human others, deep imagination, group ceremony, self-designed individual ceremony, shadow work, poetry immersions, expressive arts, and a great variety of solo activities while wandering on the land and in communion with the others.

Guiding the Descent to Soul

It became clear during this first decade that the primary work to which I was called was not psychotherapy, neo-shamanism, ascent-oriented spiritual practices aimed at transcendence or enlightenment, rites of passage, or even the guiding of vision fasts as a specific ceremony. Rather, my outlandish and perhaps heretical calling was to weave cocoons — to facilitate the ancient/modern journey to the enigmatic core of the individual human psyche where one might encounter a profound and unique mystery or, as poet David Whyte puts it, “the truth at the center of the image you were born with.” This truth arrives in the form of a startling yet somehow unsurprising revelation of destiny — and bestows an utterly new compass to steer by. My partner, Geneen Marie Haugen and I came to refer to this truth as a person’s “mythopoetic identity.” (In my new book, The Journey of Soul Initiation, you’ll discover why.) The uncovering of this pre-cultural, pre-linguistic mystery of the individual psyche is the experience I call “soul encounter.” I came to realize, in other words, that my core work was a contemporary rendering of the initiatory journey undertaken by seekers from all healthy cultures from all times — the descent to the underworld of soul with the intent to discover and then embody one’s mythopoetic identity (the weaving of cocoons being one aspect of my own). I named this work Soulcraft.

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

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

Early Discoveries

The Eco-Soulcentric Wheel of Life

A first pivotal discovery in the early years of our work was that some of our participants were psychologically and spiritually ready for the descent to soul and others were not. Most, actually, were not. This was a very disappointing and disturbing realization for us guides — that the journey of soul initiation might not be available for everyone, even when passionately longed for and regardless how sophisticated or extreme the initiatory methods employed. What became clear was that substantial preparation work was needed — the kind of personal development that perhaps unfolds as a matter of course in a healthy culture but that most contemporary societies aggressively obstruct and that can take years of effort to achieve by those who recognize the need and opportunity. Part of what we began to sense as different about our participants who experienced soul encounter was that they had previously achieved in their lives the sort of personal authenticity that enabled them to look you directly in the eye and not flinch when social pressure might tempt them to deny or hide what was true for them.

Even though only about 25% of our participants had soul encounters, virtually all the rest underwent, in their time with us, a variety of other remarkable metamorphoses. One of the most frequent was a first visceral experience of being as wild and natural as anything else on the planet, in ancient kinship with all Earthly life. This experience, which fundamentally changes a person’s life, is what we call “eco-awakening.” Although such a profound communion with nature is foundational to the everyday adventures of children in all healthy cultures, it has become rare, at any age, in the contemporary world. It is, nonetheless, one of the vital experiences preceding a first descent to soul. Gradually we came to understand that eco-awakening was an essential developmental milestone that prepares us for the journey of soul initiation.

A pattern became evident: Participants ready for the descent, in addition to feeling more at home in wilderness, appeared to be in a later stage of human development than those who were not ready. First, they held personal authenticity as more important than social acceptance. Second, they experienced the world not so much as a human-made place of commerce and social engagement but, first and foremost, as an animate, self-organizing mystery into which they had been born (or, better, out of which they had emerged). And, third, they recognized, on some level, that their destiny would not be revealed to them in terms of one social role or another or of this or that vocation but rather in terms of a particular mythos, image, archetype, or dream that they might learn to embody in a manner unique to them, an embodiment that would deliver a visionary gift of real practical value to their people and to the greater Earth community.

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

This first discovery — that the journey of soul initiation is not available or possible for everyone, but only for those who have achieved a certain developmental stage — has been one of the most important in my work. It highlights not only that significant preparatory work is required but that most contemporary cultures obstruct the dimensions of human development that prepare us, and that the journey of soul initiation is likely not possible for most people alive now. With hindsight, this should not have been surprising. We’ve known, after all, that maturation or individuation is a type of achievement. Humans do not mature — psychologically or spiritually — simply by getting older. We’ve also known that human development proceeds best when people, especially children, live in healthy families in healthy cultures, both of which have become rare. Developmental progress is an achievement assisted by others and enabled most easily and effectively within the context of healthy, intact community. Contemporary Western culture has been, as a whole, unhealthy for many hundreds if not thousands of years and is now in a terminal state of psychospiritual decay and collapse. Most Westerners never mature beyond early adolescence or even reach a healthy early adolescence. The journey of soul initiation begins in the next stage, the stage of late adolescence, which I call the Cocoon. (Analogy: Only a healthy, fully-grown caterpillar is eligible to enter the cocoon and begin the transformation to butterfly.)

The primary conclusion from this first discovery was that, to be prepared for the descent to soul, developmental stage makes all the difference. It’s not sufficient, for example, to be a person interested in and able to benefit from psychotherapy. After all, the goal of the journey of soul initiation is not the healing of wounds but rather a radical transformation in consciousness, identity, and life orientation. This journey is not therapeutic; it is indeed counter-therapeutic in the sense that it destabilizes our current identity and life — with associated risks such as insanity, homelessness, and physical injury. Consequently it is advised only for those who have already attended to their foundational healing work. In conformist-consumer cultures, relatively few people are prepared in this way.

The Nature-Based Map of the Human Psyche

A second major discovery was that developmental stage was not the only precondition for the descent to soul. Among our participants who seemed to be in the stage in which the descent first becomes possible, some still seemed under-resourced for the journey in one way or another. In addition to having attained the necessary life stage, it appeared they needed a relatively high level of cultivation of their core human capacities, the sort neglected or actively suppressed by Western conformist-consumer culture, capacities such as deep imagination, full-bodied feeling, empathy, heart-centered thinking, vibrant and full-presence sensing, emotional aliveness, ecological sensitivity and fluency, mindfulness, humor, intuition, and self-nurturance (the latter especially during high-intensity, uncomfortable, or psychospiritually risky conditions). Without these resources, the descent would not commence or it would be aborted in midstream and little of value would be gained. This realization led to a question I may never have asked otherwise, namely, “What are the core capacities that comprise the evolutionary inheritance of all humans?” If we were going to assess participants for both strong and weak capacities, we needed a non-arbitrary and comprehensive understanding of the full set. Despite my years of training and practice as a psychologist, I was not aware of any models that provided such an inventory. So, my colleagues and I began to map the human psyche onto the pan-cultural template for wholeness — the seven-directions sphere of east, south, west, north, upwards, downwards, and center. At first we focused on the horizontal plane — the four cardinal directions — in order to enhance our understanding of what we call the four facets of the Self. This inquiry ultimately yielded what we call the Nature-Based Map of the Human Psyche, a second indispensable tool for helping us prepare people for the journey of soul initiation as well as supporting them to succeed during the journey itself and to effectively embody their soulwork afterwards. (This Map is the subject of my third book, Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche.)

In addition to supporting the cultivation of all four facets of our innate human wholeness, the Map also provides guidance for embracing, healing, and dis-identifying from the four sets of our fragmented or wounded parts (including our inner critics, addicts, victims, rebels, and conformists), a process we call Self-healing. It supports us to develop what has become a rare achievement in the contemporary world — a healthy, mature ego rooted in our wholeness, not in our wounds. Often, as guides, we would observe participants getting stuck on the journey of soul initiation when one or more of their wounded parts — their immature protective parts — would get scared and deploy a childhood survival strategy to divert or abort the journey. Self-healing was needed to get back on track. And Self-healing is always a matter of employing the resources (core capacities) of the four facets of the Self for the purpose of embracing and healing the wounded parts.

A New Model for the Descent to Soul

A third core lesson from guiding four decades of Animas immersions is this: The contemporary journey to the underworld of soul and back is best described by five phases (not the more familiar three favored by anthropologists and mythologists), namely: Preparation, Dissolution, Soul Encounter, Metamorphosis, and Enactment. These five phases constitute the core structure of my new book, The Journey of Soul Initiation.

Our primary mission at Animas is to guide the descent to soul and to train soul-initiation guides — for the purposes of cultivating conscious participation in the dream of the Earth and engendering visionary artisans of cultural renaissance. Our intention is to continuously evolve our methods and practices so that we may gift future generations with the knowledge and methods for the journey of soul initiation, the multi-year process that bears fruit as true adulthood. Looking around at other related work in the world, it appears that Animas is the only organization to have developed a contemporary, Western, nature-based approach to soul initiation. It might simply be that we are the only ones to have attempted such a preposterous thing. But we also keep in mind that a small proportion of Western people, even without a map or a guide, manage, as I did, to stumble upon their own way to self-initiate. In The Journey of Soul Initiation, I explore a few such examples, including Joanna Macy, Carl Jung, and William Butler Yeats.

Soul-initiated people might be more whole and more fulfilled than others, but more importantly, for themselves and our world, they are the ones who “carry what is hidden as a gift to others.” (David Whyte, again.) Their personal transformations are, in every case, seeds for societal and planetary transformation, the Great Work of our time. (Indeed, I have come to believe that such seeds emerge only from soul-initiated individuals.) They have become full partners with the rest of creation in the evolution of life on Earth. They embody the dream of the Earth through the ways they, as initiated adults, lead, heal, invent and design, teach, and nurture, and in the ways they constructively interrupt dysfunctional worldviews and propagate new ones in synergy with the rest of life.

Animas Valley Institute Today

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

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

Animas Valley Institute, founded in 1980 and a Colorado non-profit since 1998, is currently a community of 19 guides, four staff members, a five-person Board of Directors, 25 SAIP apprentices, 60 Wild Mind trainees, and thousands of courageous spiritual adventurers, all of us on the journey to becoming fully human and as useful to the world as we can at this time of the Great Turning.

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