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The Quest for Better Questions

In the Spring of 2018, a friend introduced me to the work of Bill Plotkin. His model of nature-based psychotherapy was a revelation to me and I eagerly ingested everything he’s written.

Later that Summer — after graduating as an Ayurvedic Doctor and finding myself lost in a psycho-spiritual and professional wilderness when my immediate career plans became untenable — I participated in a Rocky Mountain High Country Quest, hosted by Plotkin’s Animas Valley Institute.

These 11-day Quests consist of five days full of self-study, solo wanders and nature-based ritual to prepare the psyche for the next four days of fasting and three days alone at a nearby site of our choosing.

Inspired by the vision fasts enacted by indigenous societies across all time, the Animas Valley uses Plotkin’s nature-based map of the psyche and wheel of human development to adapt the quest for those of us born and trained in Western consumer-conformist-colonialist culture.

At the time, the experience thoroughly altered my perspective on self, other and world, and its impact continues to reverberate throughout my life. In addition to the profound internal shifts wrought by this first quest, I immediately identified the complementary overlap of this work with Ayurveda and Vedic Astrology and set out to integrate the Animas model into my professional practice.

So for the past two years, a cohort of Colorado-based seekers have worked our way through most of the Wild Mind Training Program. As we approach the concluding week of intensive workshops later this year, our primary guide suggested that we as a group pursue a quest together.

And so, later this month we set off for an 11-day quest in the canyon country of Southern Utah. Three years since my first quest, I am reflecting upon the extent to which the longings and laments I expressed at that time have evolved or resolved; how much more well-rounded is my awareness of the parts that compose my wholeness; and realizing that that first quest initiated a journey that I have been on ever since.

In preparation for this quest, I am reading Plotkin’s most recent book: “The Journey of Soul Initiation: A Field Guide for Visionaries, Evolutionaries and Revolutionaries.”

This entire 400-something page book is devoted to a particular transition point within the nature-based model described in his previous books “Wild Mind” and Nature & The Human Soul”.

Specifically, it deals with what Plotkin calls “the descent to soul,” a process by which an individual roots their egoic identity deep in the soil of soul and thereby discovers their “unique ecological niche” in order to give their truest gifts to both the human and more-than-human community.

Plotkin elucidates the experience of Carl Jung as recorded in “Memories, Dreams & Reflections” and “The Red Book” as his primary example what this descent looks and feels like.

Plotkin describes five essential phases of the process:

  1. Preparation: in which one cultivates wholeness and gains access to the psycho-emotional resources needed to have a chance at successfully navigating the descent.

  2. Dissolution: in which the egoic self is removed from its familiar reference points and, like a caterpillar, turns to unrecognizable, amorphous goo in the cocoon.

  3. Soul Encounter: at which point the amorphous individual encounters or is claimed by an image-feeling of their most authentic expression as a living being; this image-feeling is characterized by an earth-shaking quality that stimulates a boundless desire to embody the truth you were born with while simultaneously feeling burdened by the apparently impossible magnitude of the task. Plotkin discusses and describes the nuanced qualities of Soul Encounter at great length to distinguish them from “an eruption of Shadow” or “an experience of Spirit.”

  4. Metamorphosis: in which the Soul Encounter is gathered, preserved and embraced in order that it may reshape the ego into a form more resonant with the newly discovered mythopoetic identiy which then allows the individual to seek out the skills and knowledge necessary for the final phase of Enactment.

  5. Enactment: in which the individual returns to the Village in order to contribute to their unique gifts in a deeper and more significant manner than previously imaginable — not because it is fashionable or profitable but because they simply cannot help it, it is who they are. They have become “an active conscious agent for what Thomas Berry calls the dream of the earth. You become a cultural visionary and evolutionary.” This is the culmination and ultimate purpose of the journey of Soul initiation.

Photo by Me of Zion National Park (Soul Canyon?)

The thing I love about Plotkin’s work — the same thing I love about Ayurveda and Vedic Astrology — is that I recognize such intimate aspects of myself laid out in the context of universal patterns.

In this case, I am gobsmacked by how accurately this evolutionary template names the process in which I have been enmeshed for the past three years (at least).

At this time, I am firmly in the Dissolution phase. The Preparation phase had me cultivating wholeness in the study and practice of Yoga, Ayurveda, Astrology, Non-Violent Communication etc and so on. My Dissolution began with graduation and the subsequent crumbling of all my plans.

Living out of my car, in search of something unnameable, my first Animas quest truly activated and accelerated my Dissolution process, which has been intensifying for three whole years now.

Only vaguely aware of the nature of this phase, I resisted it, investing my energy in new social roles and professional duties, staying busy building up the someone I felt meant to become instead of actively embracing the transformational dismemberment.

When the pandemic turned my one-month trip into an 18-month odyssey, stranding me in Scotland then Portugal, there was little choice but to acknowledge the extent to which I was dislodged from all my familiar reference points.

In the past year, since receiving this precise insight about my current phase from Plotkin, I have allowed my normal social/vocational roles to fade into the background (regular readers may have noticed…) in order to allow space and time for a more thorough reckoning with this terrifying phase.

Terrifying because even though the promise of becoming a butterfly is powerfully alluring, I have only ever known my caterpillar self and quite naturally feel nervous about psychologically dissolving into amorphous goo.

However, courage is not the absence of fear, so it’s ever onward into the heart of mystery. I will report back after this quest and let you know how the process is evolving.

In the meantime, I am curious to hear from you!

  • Are you familiar with Plotkin and the Animas Valley Institute?

  • Do you recognize yourself in any of the phases described above?

  • Have you ever had a Soul Encounter? Tell me about it! How has it changed you?

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