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Imagine your Imago - Liberating the Imaginal Cells of the Human Psyche
by Peter Moore and Werner Brandt
Bill Plotkin, PHD, has been a psychotherapist, research psychologist, rock musician, river runner, professor of psychology, and mountain-bike racer. As a research psychologist, he studied dreams and nonordinary states of consciousness achieved through meditation, biofeedback, and hypnosis. The founder and president of Animas Valley Institute (www.animas.org/), he has guided thousands of people through initiatory passages in nature since 1980. Currently an ecotherapist, depth psychologist, and wilderness guide, he leads a variety of experiential, nature-based individuation programs. He is the author of Soulcraft: Crossing in the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche and more recently, Nature and the Human Soul.
In Part 1 of this interview, Bill talked with Alternatives editors Peter Moore and Werner Brandt about patho-adolescence of western (and westernized) societies, and the crises that must be passed through in order to enter the path toward mature adulthood and elderhood. In Part 2, we continue the journey with a discussion of activism and visionary work, living the larger story of our lives (destiny work), an exploration of the subject of sacred wounds and the use of psychoactive/entheogenic drugs, and finally, whether all of this constitutes personal shamanic work, or simply taking responsibility for one’s own precious life.
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How do you as a psychologist who works with the human soul address being engaged and effective in the human realm of political, social and environmental activism?
Big question. What I’d like to say is that what we need now, more than anything, are 21st century visionaries. A visionary to me is almost a synonym for a genuine adult or elder. But more specifically, a visionary is somebody whose primary life choices and activities and projects are rooted in their soul. Which is to say, in their very deep creativity, their profound imagination that springs from a place in the psyche that is more vast than our everyday conscious selves.
A visionary is not “figuring things out”, meeting with other brilliant minds to create blueprints for a healthy society. I don’t think it works that way. I think healthy society comes from the same place it always has, which is from the deep mysteries of the human psyche, which is so much a part of the greater earth psyche. So, a visionary’s projects that they take on in life are rooted in what they’ve learned through what’s called “revelation”, or dream, or visionary experience. That’s where the cutting edge of the development of healthy society comes from, from visionary action. A genuine psycho-spiritual adult is someone who has eco-centric consciousness, which is to say, their sense of personal identity is as large as the planet. And when they say, “we have to defend our lives”, the “our” refers to not just Americans, and not just humans, but the life of the entire biosphere of the ecosystem. And if we had eco-centric politicians, then we not only would live in a true democracy, but we would actually live in a “biocracy”, a more-than-human community in which all beings and all habitats have their own set of rights.
You’ve described your work as “Living the larger story of your life.” How would you explain that? And what is the smaller story?
Yeah, those are the terms I use, smaller story and larger story. What I mean by the smaller story is historical, everyday, middle-world defined story. Now I have to define middle-world. Middle-world is that perspective in which we are merely (or primarily) people living in a certain society with practical concerns like making a living, raising and educating children, maintaining a workable civil society, and so on. We all have an understanding about the life we’re living in that kind of cultural context. That’s what I mean by the small story.
The larger story is what is traditionally called mythology, or our personal mythos. It embraces the meaning and the mystery of our life, the issue of individual destiny. What we were born for. So from a soul perspective, the answer to the question about living the larger story does not include who we’re married to, who our friends are, or the particular work that we have chosen, or that has chosen us. The larger story is articulated in terms of meaning, symbols, images, mythic themes, archetypes.
In most cultures I’m aware of that still embrace the depths of individual human life, the soul story is usually articulated in terms of the images and themes we find in the natural world itself. The larger story says that as individuals, we don’t exist simply within a human society and our lives aren’t defined simply by the human village and cultural modes and practices. Our individual lives in this larger sense are defined by the way we fit into the more-than-human-world, and even the entire cosmos, the universe. The larger story is about what we were born to bring into this more-than-human-world, not just this human village world.
Fears, doubts and habits keep most of us enmeshed in our smaller story. And when we’re not actively making that living, or having that relationship, or raising those children, or putting food on the table, we buttress that smaller story identification with trivial pursuits, like watching television. Most have barely got an intuition that there is a larger storyor we think that if it’s out there, we can never access it. How do you counsel people about accessing their own larger story?
There are two points to be made. The first one is that the sacred stories, the myths we find in other cultures, assure us that every human being does have a larger storybut that there is in fact no guarantee that we’ll ever find it. However, the intact healthy cultures (of which there are not many left in the world) all have generated methods and practices to help individuals, young adults especially, find their larger stories, and consciously live that story. In contemporary English, we would refer to these practices as soul discovery processes, or soul initiation processes.
Most all of these practices have been lost in our contemporary western world, but we can still discover them in the more esoteric or mystery traditions. We can find them in other traditions around the world as well. In the contemporary western world, the most common place we find them is in contemporary depth psychologyJungian psychologies, and post-Jungian psychologies. And we also can find them spoken about by the western soul poets, and some mystery schools that embrace the underworld descent to soul, as well as the upper ascent to spirit.
When people ask that question, I like to mention dreamsthe dreams that we all have every night. Some of us remember them, and some of us don’t, but we know that neurologically normal people have typically five dream periods every night, every eight-hour sleep night. If we embrace those dreams and enter them in a respectful way that allows them to be what they arewhich is to say without our trying to turn them into entertainment or therapywe find in every dream mythic elements, archetypal themes. The gods and goddesses are alive and well and experiencing their lives during our own dream processes. So this is something that everybody can access directly in their nightly experiences of dreams. It’s a world, a life much larger than our everyday ego middle-world life, that is happening in the underground stream of our own consciousnesses.
So, what I would say to these people is, yes, there are practices for uncovering one’s larger story, or soul story. And as a business person (which I don’t normally think of myself as), that is something we specialize at in our work at Animas Valley Institute.
Most of us become wounded in emotional, physical or spiritual ways as we grow up. Can you talk about the core wound, the sacred wound? This seems to have a lot to do with the larger stories of our lives.
A theme we find in the sacred stories or myths around the world, is this idea that for each one of us, our lives are shaped or they unfold in such a way that we each get wounded in some significant way. We get wounded by life events, regardless if there’s someone out there who intended to wound us or not.
A core wound is profound in one’s life. Two criteria describe a core wound. One is an occurrence that impacts our lifeit comes from somebody or something outside of ourselves. It could be a tornado that causes the loss of our home, or a disturbed sibling or grandparent, or a neighbor that is out to get us. And the second criterion for a core wound comes from an inherent weakness, or sensitivity, or vulnerability that we are born with. Thus, the core wounding, the event, occurs when our sensitivity or inborn vulnerability meets that matching outer event or occurrence.
We are all born with the inevitability to be wounded in some certain way by some kind of life event. The sacred stories say this is the way we were designed or shaped by the worldor by the mysterybecause if we didn’t have that vulnerability we would, by the time we were teenagers, have grown into a ‘personality;’ that is, we would have developed a way of belonging to the world so solid and non-vulnerable and invincible, that we would never be cracked open by the world in order to discover and claim this larger story we’ve been talking about, this sacred story, this mythos.
The myths say that we are born in such a way that our first task in life is to create a personality, a way of belonging to our social world that works for us. We become someone who knows how to speak the language and live according to the cultural practices of our people. It takes somewhere between 13 to 20 years in a healthy society to create a personality like that. But that first personality is designed only to be primarily a vehicle, to help people make a descent to the deeper regions of the psyche in order to end the world, to discover and reclaim our larger story. Now, it takes a rather mature personality or individual to do that by themselves. And this is where the core wound comes in. Without this initial wounding, our consciousness never opens to these larger existential questions concerning what our lives are really about. Essentially, the wounding makes our consciousness vulnerable, or accessible to the larger story. And so sometimes, in our middle to late teens, we start asking the bigger questions, and our initial way of being in the world begins to crumble, to fall apart because of this wounding.
But the wounding also holds within it important information for the journey. For when we re-enter the events of our wounding, and remember those experiences, and re-experience the emotions that are associated with that event in our lives, we discover there certain truths, or insights, or images that are essential to understanding our larger story, our destiny. And too, that wounding helps in yet another way. Because of the vulnerability and sensitivity associated with this wounding, there are certain skills, or sensibilities, or capacities, that we develop, partly as compensation for having been wounded that way. And these capacities turn out to be essential powersI call them soul powersthat we actually need to be able to live the larger story.
Can you give an example of that?
An example from my own life will do. My core wounding concerns experience as a child of not being seen by very important people in my life, of not being understood in the way that I understood myself. I was invisible in a way. That kind of wounding made me super-sensitive to questions of what it is to see others and what it is to be seen by others. As a result, my consciousness became attuned to certain kinds of interpersonal dynamics, that maybe other people aren’t quite as concerned about or sensitive to. This has become critical to my soul work that involves listening to other peoples’ stories very carefully, and hearing the hidden and delicate themes in peoples’ lives that people really want others to hear, yet are also afraid that others will hear, because they’re fragile, intimate.
I have a question going in a different direction. I am thinking about wounding that becomes the sacred wound in the context of entheogenic experience. As a young person in the 1960’s, I experimented with the psychoactive drugs of the eraLSD, mescaline and peyote, magic mushrooms, and others. My direct experience was, my psyche melted, I would often enter into an experience of absolute personal terror, and then, as my world reintegrated during the course of the trip, this transformed into what can only be characterized as unification with all that is, and ecstatic bliss. I came away from those experiences in some fundamental way changed. Now, considering your description of the kind of wound that becomes a sacred wound, I think that my experiences of that time acted in a similar way. There was the pain and terror of the ‘event’ as you call it, followed by a unifying flood of ‘larger story’ consciousness which has informed how I view and act in the world ever since. Have you ever explored this issue of psychoactive substances, not just in this culture, but across many cultures, and the roles that those experiences play in wounding and empowerment towards living the larger story?
Great question. Yes. There’s a number of possibilities. Core wounding is not limited to things that happen in our childhood. It can happen later in life. Psychoactive substances can provide that kind of wounding. One possible image is that the psychoactive substance, the psychedelic experience, can be something like a crowbar that knows just how to fit into the weak spot in our psyche and pry it open just a little bit more. So that, for a lot of us, psychedelic experiences, or experiences of an entheogenic nature, can turn out to be the event that undermines our belief in our small story. In fact, it can even be the event that opens our consciousnesses to the possibility that there really is some larger story. We might not have known that there was any such possibility at all. That’s one of the possibilities, that the psychedelic experience can just pry open our psyche in such a way that our psyches are breached, so that the sacred sense of the mystery can come into our consciousness, and then begin asking the larger questions.
You also brought up the possibility that the psychedelic experience can be a wounding experience in its own right. I think that’s true, but again, we have to keep in mind that when it comes to sacred wounds, no event, including the use of psychedelic substances, alone constitutes the wounding. It’s always a place where the impactful event meets the vulnerability we were born with. For some people, the psychedelic experience will never provide an opportunity for the ego to experience a death/rebirth phenomenon. And for others, it would. The particular way that our smaller conversation with the world falls apart is the result of a combination of the particular psychedelic substancebecause they don’t all do the same sort of thingand the particular vulnerability we were born with. Ultimately, the experiences that we have of psychoactive substances are a function of both the substance itself and the particular dynamics and vulnerabilities of our individual psyche.
Just trying to understand here: the entheogenic experience meets the inborn vulnerable place, or weakness, in our psyche, and somehow, from the meeting of that event and that vulnerability, a greater strength is forged to live our larger story. Is that it?
Yes. But there are no guarantees. Because if a person doesn’t have a personality that is well enough developed to meet that psychedelic experience, it can undermine the individuation process of the person completely. In a traditional nature-based society using plant allies, the initiators would be careful not to offer that kind of experience to someone not prepared for it, based on their earlier development. In the western world, there’s many, maybe a majority of young people who are really not prepared for that kind of experience.
In other words, we cannot predict or manage the outcomes of our sacred wound experience? It can either lead to the destiny piece of our larger story, or it can lead to destabilization of a personality. Is that accurate?
Exactly. All the initiation processesone of the things that they have in common is an intended impact on the individual psyche that is progressive. It is always destabilizing. Plant allies is only one of many categories of tools that can be used for initiation. But all of them tend to shock the psyche, destabilize the ego, undermine the person’s current beliefs about what the world is and how they belong to the world, in order for the psyche to be reconfigured and enabled to embrace the larger story.
For the people who will be reading this, would you care to say a few things about Animas Valley Institute?
Animas Valley Institute is something that two colleagues and I founded 27 years ago here in western Colorado, and we have a number of programs. We have about 20 guides and we have about 40 to 50 programs a year, all over the country and some in Europe. All of our programs are designed to help people uncover their souls, uncover the unique individual mystery that they were born to bring into this world. And so, in slightly technical terms related to my new book, which again is this eight-stage model, our work is primarily in Stage Four, which is essential late adolescence, but in the western world, especially among Jungian psychologists, we consider it the threshold to the 2nd adulthood, the soul-loaded adulthood. And so these are initiation practices we use in retreat-center based, and wilderness-based programs to help people uncover the mystery of their own individual psyches and also to immerse themselves more deeply in the mysteries of the natural world. All of this with the goal being a “black passage” that I refer to as soul initiation, which is that moment when we make a very deep commitment to embodying, or to living into the world, the deepest passions of our souls.
So, for instance, would this work encourage people to perhaps leave careers that they are successful in, and have a lot of security in? Do people actually make radical decisions for their lives as a direct result of doing this work?
As guides, we don’t specifically urge people to leave any aspect of their lives. But …. it happens. The soul really calls people to strive deeper into the world, or over the edge, and a lot of people do end up changing careers. Some don’t, some find ways to embody their soul gifts in their current career context. And other people don’t have what we ordinarily call jobs at all, you don’t need to have a job in the western sense in order to be doing your work or be the person you were designed to be. But, yeah, people tend to go through enormous personal changes, and primary relationships often shift, and so on. But as guides, we don’t set out to ruin anybody’s life.
No doubt, people self-select, knowing they’re ready for something major in their life?
Exactly. And that’s why I’d say that it takes a relatively high degree of maturity even to undergo this kind of process. You have to be solid enough about who you are in the world to risk. Everybody knows or intuits what they are risking in order to make this descent into what the mythologies call the underworld, or what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey”, which is very different than what the Hollywood heroes undergo.
The work that you are doing with people, as I understand it, involves experiential, nature-based individuation programs. Would you describe it as a contemporary form of shamanism?
Well, shamanism is a such a complex field. It’s so many different things, and most of what is called shamanism in the western literature is not what we at Animas do. Shamanism tends to be more about healing from physical, or psychological, or spiritual ailments. But the underworld journey to soul is not really a healing journey; it is, to use a shamanic image, a dis-memberment of who we understood ourselves to be.
We need to go on the journey ourselves, no-one can do it for us. This is in contrast to shamanism where the patient is being healed or helped or supported by somebody else, the shaman. The shaman is doing it for the patients.
So, at Animas Valley Institute, we see our work not at all as shamanism, but as soul guides. Our job is to accompany people who are making the descent, but we can’t do it for them. They must walk that path themselves.
Bill Plotkin will be presenting at the following event in Oregon: Wildness and Shadowed Wonder, a five-day Animas intensive at Westwind (on the wild Oregon coast), Oct 24 28, with David Abram and Bill Plotkin, information at www.animas.org or 800-451-6327
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