The Journey of Soul Initiation: Q & A with Bill Plotkin

February 5, 2021
Engagement Team
Tell us about the title of your book The Journey of Soul Initiation.

Perhaps the most fundamental crisis in the world today is a psychological and spiritual one: the loss of meaning or purpose. All other major crises in our world today — social and racial injustice, environmental pollution, mass extinction, psychopathology, family dysfunctions, political dysfunctions, climate disruption, war — grow out of this bedrock existential loss: so many people experiencing their lives as empty, or suspecting human life, more generally, to be meaningless.

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The Journey of Soul Initiation

presented by
Bill Plotkin

Friday, February 19, 2021
11:00 am – 12:15pm (Pacific)

The world is not well tended or engaged by people who don’t know what they are for, who don’t know why they were born, or by people whose socioeconomic circumstances don’t permit the luxury of a purpose beyond survival. And the world is not well led by people whose foremost motivation is to reap the shallow rewards of material wealth or self-aggrandizement. Many people are searching for meaning but too many are looking in the wrong places.

One of the seemingly radical propositions in this book is simply a version of a conviction that is foundational and transparently obvious in most indigenous traditions, which is to say in the cultures of the people from whom each of us are descended: This is the recognition that the deepest and most fulfilling meaning in life comes from discovering the unique individual place we were born to take in the greater Earth community, and then embodying that place as our gift to others and to the world.

The Journey of Soul Initiation is the spiritual adventure by which we discover our singular place in the greater web of life, the song that only we can sing in the grand symphony of diverse species and habitats. Imagine a world in which everyone’s primary loyalty is pledged not to the abstract idea of a nation, a religion, or a corporation but to the land, to one’s place of primary belonging in a particular watershed, in a life-supporting relationship with all the beings that make that place home. This book gathers together the most important things I’ve learned during my forty years of designing and guiding a contemporary, Western approach to adult initiation, a spiritual adventure that has disappeared from most cultures and religions and yet is as old as humanity. In addition to presenting a new map of the descent to soul, the book features a collection of extraordinary stories of modern people who have undergone the joys and hazards of the journey of soul initiation — including W. B. Yeats, Carl Jung, Joanna Macy, and many of the people I’ve had the honor to guide.

The subtitle of the book is “A Field Guide for Visionaries, Evolutionaries, and Revolutionaries.” Why is your book written primarily for them?

The journey of soul initiation, when successfully navigated, results in true adults, initiated adults, people able to fashion deeply fulfilling lives as visionary artisans of cultural renaissance. What the world most needs now are such visionaries, people who have discovered what they were born to do in this world and for this world. But a truly adult way of contributing to our shared world can never be defined in terms of social roles, jobs, careers, or vocations. Rather, it must be understood in terms of the unique psycho ecological role one was born to fulfill. Initiated adults — visionaries — are and will be the most effective leaders and shapers of a future world that is not only life-sustaining but life-enhancing. To be and act as such a visionary is to be someone capable of consciously cooperating with evolution — not someone who merely figures out something they believe will support evolution but rather someone who has discovered their destined role in the unfolding and enhancing of life. To live such a life in these times is always and necessarily subversive to the cultural structures of our current life-destroying societies. Consequently, such a visionary, an evolutionary, always ends up being a revolutionary as well — whether intended or not. This book was written for those who yearn to take their place as culture interrupters and as shapers of a life enhancing future.

What is the Descent to Soul and what is its relationship to the Journey of Soul Initiation (JoSI)?

The Descent to Soul is the central experiential component of the JoSI. The JoSI always includes at least one Descent and often incorporates several. On a Descent, you plunge into (or are abducted by) the underworld, are shorn of your former identity and story, and, with luck, glimpse something of your unique place or purpose in the world. A Descent is not a short or easy excursion; it generally takes place over a period of several weeks or months. Each Descent has five phases. This book describes in detail each of the five phases, illuminated by many stories from contemporary people. The central phase of the Descent is what I call Soul Encounter, when we receive a vision or revelation of our unique place in the greater Earth community. The full sequence is: Preparation, Dissolution, Soul Encounter, Metamorphosis, and Enactment. The JoSI, in contrast to the Descent, is a longer process that takes a person from the end of psychological adolescence, through a liminal initiation stage that typically lasts several years, and culminates in the major life passage I call Soul Initiation, which marks the beginning of true adulthood.

As an analogy, you liken the Descent to Soul to what happens for a caterpillar in a cocoon or chrysalis. Why?

A Descent to Soul, especially our first, radically changes the kind of human we are — analogous to the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly or moth.

This isn’t a change from one phase or period of psychological adolescence to another. It’s not a shift, that is, from one job, marriage or partnership, spiritual discipline, social network, or address to another. It is, rather, a transformation from a person whose primary identity is experienced and expressed in terms of a career, relationship, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, sport, and/or hobby, or a member of a particular religion, neighborhood, or social network — to a person whose primary identity is experienced and expressed ecologically in terms of a unique place in the greater web of life.

After your first Descent, you no longer understand yourself primarily by way of any social, vocational, or religious affiliations but rather in terms of what you were born to bring to this world. Such a radical shift in consciousness is analogous to the transformation that takes place for a caterpillar in a cocoon or a chrysalis: from an earth-crawler to a winged flyer.

For humans, this is the shift from psychological adolescence to true adulthood, a passage that has become rare in the world today. For the caterpillar, the phases of this transformation include the near complete dissolution of the caterpillar body and then the reconfiguration of the recyclable elements of that body into a wholly different creature. I find the cocoon analogy so helpful because the phases of the Descent map easily onto the phases of the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly or moth — and in a way that illuminates and clarifies the nature of the Descent. I also appreciate the cocoon analogy because my own first soul encounter showed me that my place in the Earth community is to support others to weave cocoons of transformation for themselves. This is literally what I was told in that moment of soul encounter.

While your book is about the individual journey of soul initiation, you also suggest that humanity as a whole is also in the midst of an initiatory journey. What do you mean?

Along with all other species, we’re still very much on an evolutionary adventure. Perhaps a new human species is in the process of emerging, but the new wrinkle is not in our visible anatomy but an alteration in our mode of consciousness. Geneen Marie Haugen proposes that at the heart of this shift in human consciousness is our expanded and amplified capacity for imagination. Earth may be trying to imagine her own future through soul-initiated humans. We might suppose she is supporting us to evolve in order to help herself evolve. Soul-initiated imagineers might serve as Earth’s faculty of forward-seeing imagination, people who see the possibilities that their unique eco-niche enables them to see. But these future possibilities are not conceived by human egos. Rather, Earth herself conceives them, and soul-initiated egos serve as her midwives, her way of giving birth to and manifesting these possibilities. The ultimate meanings are not synthesized by human egos but discovered by them. This is a symbiosis between humanity and Earth that deeply serves the health and evolution of both. As a species, we are now in a Cocoon. What is possible now in our emerging future is a soul revolution for both humanity and Earth, the opportunity for humanity to discover and embody our unique ecological niche on Earth and for Earth to more fully realize her destiny in the Cosmos. Our previous human revolutions — including the agricultural, scientific, industrial, and digital — were necessary earlier steps, steps that make possible a soul revolution but in no way guarantee it. Only if we wake up in time will it come to pass. All initiation journeys are dangerous opportunities.

Would you like to go deeper? Join us for a free live webinar with Bill Plotkin on February 19th!

Author Bill Plotkin shares insights from his new book about The Journey of Soul Initiation — the spiritual adventure by which we discover our singular place in the greater web of life.

About Bill Plotkin

Bill PlotkinBill Plotkin, PhD, is the author The Journey of Soul Initiation. As a depth psychologist, wilderness guide, and founder of western Colorado’s Animas Valley Institute, he has led thousands of women and men through nature-based initiatory passages. His previous books include Soulcraft, Nature and the Human Soul, and Wild Mind. He lives in Durango, Colorado, and you can visit him online.

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