Rites of Passage for the Soul and Hope for Human Survival: A Book Review

(A review of Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche by Bill Plotkin and originally published in Alternative Therapies, April, 2004.)

Bill Plotkin would appear to be an interesting man.  He has certainly written a very interesting book--part autobiography and part textbook for soul initiation.  In it he details what he has learned in the last quarter century as he has created and evolved his own multi-faceted program for nature-based soul initiation, and has guided thousands of people through its practices in the wilderness areas of the American southwest.  I have followed his work from a distance and have consistently been impressed with the extent to which it has seemed to be much more substantial than many of the personal-growth-through-wilderness-vision-quest programs that have become so popular in the last 15 years.

Reading Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche has reinforced my positive impressions of Bill Plotkin and his work.   It is a work which flows from a pivotal experience he had in 1980 while fasting alone for four days in a wilderness area in Colorado and which turned him away from a successful academic career.  It is also a work based on a series of assumptions which includes the following: (1) each person has a unique soul which determines that person’s calling or purpose in life, (2) this purpose always involves some aspect of service to others, (3) some kind of initiation is necessary to bring one’s soul’s purpose into conscious awareness so that it can be fulfilled, (4) everyone needs such an initiation in order to become a genuine adult, (5) many forms of violence, including war, economic oppression, and environmental destruction are a direct result of the absence of such initiations in the lives of a great many people in industrialized western culture, (6) the forms of initiation which have always been central to indigenous cultures the world over are not necessarily appropriate for modern western culture, and (7) modern forms of initiation, still based in nature like almost all others, can be created and may just save humanity from self-destruction.

Enter Bill Plotkin and what he calls “soulcraft.”  It is his attempt to create, or to allow to be created through him, a collection of tools for modern culture to use for this critically important process of soul initiation.  The overall process is conceptualized in terms of three sequential stages: (1) severance--the separation from usual activities, modes of thought and feeling, and ways of experiencing oneself, (2) soul encounter--the descent into soul initiation, and (3) return--the integration into one’s ongoing life of the newly discovered purpose of one’s life.  Within the second stage, soul encounter, Plotkin provides more than twenty specific procedures, or pathways, including soul-oriented dream work, trance-inducing rhythms and dancing, self-designed ceremonies, soul poetry, ceremonial sweating, talking across species boundaries, working in council to speak one’s deepest truths, modern forms of the ancient vision quest, and opening oneself to signs and omens in nature.

 The creation of this modern approach to soul initiation is certainly not being done without Plotkin’s being well aware of the historical and current indigenous parallels.  The very extensive bibliography he provides at the end of the book attests to his wide acquaintance with the literature on such indigenous practices, as well as modern depth psychology.  It is clear that these two domains, traditional indigenous practices for soul initiation and modern depth psychology, overlap greatly in intention, if not technique.  

Interestingly, Plotkin seems to see less overlap than I do in a number of areas.  He divides human development into ego growth, soul embodiment (the goal of soul initiation), and spirit realization.  Ego growth, the development of competence in dealing with the interpersonal, emotional, and material aspects of one’s life, he sees as the province of psychotherapy.  Spirit realization, whereby one ascends to a state of transcendence of individuality through merger with the Divine, Plotkin assigns to the mystical traditions in all the great religions.  That leaves soul embodiment, the descent into the most intense experience of individuality in the form an encounter with one’s unique individual soul and the initiation into this uniqueness to such an extent that one literally embodies it and takes joy in serving one’s community through it for the rest of one’s life.  Plotkin sees his soulcraft  work as specifically, and almost exclusively, addressing this process of soul embodiment.

My experience has been that the process of soul embodiment has much more overlap with ego growth and with spirit realization than Plotkin describes.  I have known people who are engaged in practices very similar to those Plotkin uses for soul initiation, such as traditional Native American vision quests, who have had profound experiences of spirit realization in the process.  Similarly, I have known people engaged in depth psychotherapy to experience profound encounters with their individual souls, and sometimes successful initiations into soul embodiment as a result.  Jungian Bud Harris’ recent book, Sacred Selfishness, describes many such cases.  Hence I would say that the processes of development in ego growth, soul embodiment, and spirit realization are often more interdependent than they are portrayed in Soulcraft: Crossing in the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche

Another aspect of the book that did not fit comfortably with my experience has to do with the importance of ongoing community in supporting growth in any of the three developmental areas being explored here.  My impression is that an ongoing tribal community, which is stable over time and meets on a regular basis, is an important element in providing a safe enough container for the facilitation and integration of  the kinds of profound experiences being explored by Plotkin and his associates.  The fact that they have facilitated experiences for thousands of people over a couple of decades would make it appear that such an intimate ongoing tribal context is not part of the experience for many of these thousands.  This is not necessarily a criticism of the work being done.  It is entirely possible that the task of developing soul initiation rituals for western culture requires making opportunities available to large numbers of people.  My hope would be that many of those who have had the chance to experience the practices described in Soulcraft: Crossing in the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche will go on to create their own local tribal context for the continuation of the process begun with Plotkin and his associates.

Plotkin may well have intended to support just such a continuation when he decided to include in his book an extensive section entitled “Resources for Further Exploration.”  Here he provides the interested reader/seeker with many suggestions for additional reading material related to almost every type of practice described in the book.

Perhaps one of the most compelling examples in this book of soul embodiment is the book itself, which reflects in part the embodiment of Bill Plotkin’s soul.  It is a story reflecting a mixture of vision, courage and wisdom.  As such it provides a valuable example of the very process it is seeking to describe.  It is also a reminder that the most critical domain of research for humanity’s future survival is still the subjective domain of inner experience.