Image by Septimiu Balica
...There’s only one question:
how to love this world....
— MARY OLIVER
I agree with Mary Oliver: This is the question.
Our principal and most essential inquiry at this time on planet Earth is not, for example, how to create a sustainable society. That’s a good question, an urgent one, but not the most essential.
How to create a life-enhancing society is closer to the mark, but still not it.
The most important question is not how to survive biodiversity loss, climate disruption, ecological degradation, pandemics, and fascism. It’s not even: Will we survive?
It’s this: What would it look like if we really loved this world, our more-than-human world — as fully as we’re able, both individually and collectively?
If enough of us got good at living this question, we’d be well on our way to building a healthier society that is not only sustainable but life-enhancing. By getting better at loving this world, we’d also be doing all we can to foster species and human diversity, ecological health, climate stabilization, and life-enhancing governance.
The primary question, then, is not, How do I take care of myself or my family or my community? but, How do I care for the world?
If this were the principal question enough of us lived — or the question most of us lived most of the time — we would, among other things, be doing what is best for ourselves, our family, and our community.
Loving The World
What does it mean to love the world?
For everyone, it means to intimately know, deeply care about, and actively care for a particular place on Earth — its creatures (including its humans of all races, ages, classes, creeds, and genders), landforms, waters, soils, and air; its health, integrity, and stories.
For those who have been through the journey of soul initiation, however, the single most effective way to love this world is to embody what was discovered on the journey. When we are living the truth at the center of the image we were born with, we’re making our greatest contribution to ecological vitality and cultural evolution — and, in a time of societal collapse, to cultural revolution and renaissance as well.
Mary Oliver’s question cannot be answered well by a cognitive process of deduction. The ultimate answer is born with us. We are born as that answer. We embark upon the journey of soul initiation to uncover and become the answer that has always been waiting within us.
Did Gaia Goof?
Many people have come to think of the human Ego as the most unfortunate and dangerous thing to ever appear on Earth. Ecocidal. They’ve got a point. But I believe the emergence of the human Ego was not a mistake, even if it was the start of a terribly risky experiment.
When we as a species learn to take our natural place as a collective agent of the natural world — if we do — the power of human conscious self-awareness will be merged with the creative powers of evolution. This would put human consciousness back in alignment with Mystery (or enable this for the first time, depending on how you see it). This would support and amplify the dream of the Earth beyond what any of us could imagine. This alignment might be tantamount to the conscious awakening of our planet. The journey of soul initiation, widely implemented in most societies, is the way to reach that goal.
To fully embrace and facilitate the journey of soul initiation, a society must have enough true Adults and Elders to support all its children and Adolescents to grow whole -- because only healthy Adolescents are prepared to embark on the journey. (see Nature and the Human Soul)
Did Gaia goof by creating humans? No, I don’t believe so, but she did take a big chance on us, one that could result in the destruction of most of the life-forms she has generated over the past 300 million years or so — or it might yet turn out to be an unprecedented accelerator of evolution.
Humanity is in the midst of a profound initiation journey and, consequently, the Earth is as well. Will we make it through? It appears to be a cliffhanger. It all depends on the collective decisions we make and the actions we take this century. What a blessing and opportunity to be alive at this time!
Cultural Therapy and the Dream of the Earth
Speaking bluntly, Thomas Berry, a lifelong student of world cultures, referred to the current, near-universal commitment to industrial progress, unlimited growth, and a consumer society as “the supreme pathology of all history.” A valid response to such a pathology, he says, must include remedial treatment:
The entrancement with industrial civilization.. . must be considered as a profound cultural disorientation. It can be dealt with only by a corresponding deep cultural therapy.
...At such a moment a new revelatory experience is needed, an experience wherein human consciousness awakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the Earth process. This awakening is our human participation in the dream of the Earth.... We probably have not had such participation in the dream of the Earth since earlier shamanic times, but therein lies our hope for the future for ourselves and for the entire Earth community. (Berry, The Great Work)
I hear Thomas saying that the cultural therapy we need springs from revelatory or visionary experience, an awakening to the dream of the Earth. The Earth’s dream is what Thomas describes as “a mutually-enhancing human-Earth presence.” To realize this dream, he tells us, we must individually journey into the mysteries:
More than any other of the human types concerned with the sacred, the shamanic personality journeys into the far reaches of the cosmic mystery and brings back the vision and the power needed by the human community at the most elementary level. . . . Not only is the shamanic type emerging in our society, but also the shamanic dimension of the psyche itself. In periods of significant cultural creativity, this aspect of the psyche takes on a pervasive role throughout the society and shows up in all the basic institutions and professions.(Berry, Dream of the Earth)
The Descent to Soul
What Thomas refers to as “the shamanic dimension of the psyche” is what I call the Dark Muse-Beloved, the West facet of the Self, the dimension of our psyche that revels in night, dreams, destiny, death, and the mysteries and qualities of the underworld. This is the facet of our human wholeness that guides us on the Descent to Soul — the facet also known as the Guide to Soul, Magician, or Psychopomp. This “shamanic” dimension of the psyche is one of the two (along with the South facet) that are least developed in the contemporary world and that must be cultivated if the Descent is to be fruitful.
Given that our awakening to the dream of the Earth calls for a journey into the mysteries, our cultural healing requires a means to facilitate that journey. Thomas suspects we have not had such a methodology since “earlier shamanic times,” but he is not advising us to return to or recapitulate the methods of older traditions but rather to generate our own contemporary ways. This, precisely, has been our goal at Animas Valley Institute: to create a never-before-seen Western and nature-based way to participate in the dream of the Earth by way of the Descent to Soul (and the journey of soul initiation, more generally).
I spent much of the first half of my adult life as a psychotherapist, but this book does not offer a new or old form of therapy, at least not for individuals. Rather, what I’ve introduced here is a form of what Thomas called a “deep cultural therapy” — for societies that have crumbled, folded into themselves, and become traumatized due to the loss of the practices and ceremonies that create true Adults and Elders.
The distinguished environmental lawyer Gus Speth, founder of the World Resources Institute, also spoke to the need of what amounts to a deep cultural therapy:
I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change, I thought that with thirty years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy. . . and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that. (Steve Curwood May 5, 2016 interview with Gus Speth)
Death, Love, and Soul
We are going to die, each one of us. There’s no question about that.
What there is a question about is whether in this lifetime we will manage to contribute our unique, Soul-rooted gift to this world — or even discover the nature of that gift. In the implacable reality and lucid light of our mortality, what other question could hold greater relevance and urgency?
This is ultimately about love, about love in its most expansive and most selfless form, a love for the world that has become rare, a love that is wild and mature. This form of love grows out of an identification with and a commitment to something bigger, much bigger, than our individual lives. If, while alive, we can offer ourselves fully to the world, there is, in a certain sense, nothing left of us when we die. By merging with this world before we leave it, we never really leave.
If, through a life of Soul work, our Ego identity expands until it’s as wide and deep as the world, there’s nothing lost when we take our last breath. On the Soul level, we were never separate anyway because, as an ecological niche, our Soul is an integral element of this world — and it will continue to be so even after our body has returned to Earth and our Ego has been reabsorbed into a greater consciousness.
To experience this love and live from it, we must first make peace with our mortality. Indeed, we must uncover our deep gratitude for our mortality, a mystical apprenticeship to Death not as something opposed to life but rather as an indivisible component of it, of the life we had once found much easier to love than death when we thought they were somehow separate.
Are you willing and able to love this world even though your Ego is fated to leave it, even though this world requires your Ego to leave it? Long before your final breath, will you risk your current life and identity for the possibility of uncovering your most sacred of tasks, your unique Soul-infused service to this world?
©2021 by Bill Plotkin. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
The Journey of Soul Initiation: A Field Guide for Visionaries, Evolutionaries, and Revolutionaries
by Bill Plotkin, Ph.D.
Soul initiation is an essential spiritual adventure that most of the world has forgotten — or not yet discovered. Here, visionary ecopsychologist Bill Plotkin maps this journey, one that has not been previously illuminated in the contemporary Western world and yet is vital for the future of our species and our planet.
Based on the experiences of thousands of people, this book provides phase-by-phase guidance for the descent to soul — the dissolution of current identity; the encounter with the mythopoetic mysteries of soul; and the metamorphosis of the ego into a cocreator of life-enhancing culture. Plotkin illustrates each phase of this riveting and sometimes hazardous odyssey with fascinating stories from many people, including those he has guided.
Info/Order this book. Also available as a Kindle edition.
About the Author
Bill Plotkin, Ph.D., is a depth psychologist, wilderness guide, and agent of cultural evolution. As founder of western Colorado’s Animas Valley Institute in 1981, he has guided thousands of seekers through nature-based initiatory passages, including a contemporary, Western adaptation of the pan-cultural vision fast. Previously, he has been a research psychologist (studying non-ordinary states of consciousness), professor of psychology, psychotherapist, rock musician, and whitewater river guide.
Bill is the author of Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (an experiential guidebook), Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World (a nature-based stage model of human development through the entire lifespan), Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche (an ecocentric map of the psyche — for healing, growing whole, and cultural transformation), and The Journey of Soul Initiation: A Field Guide for Visionaries, Evolutionaries, and Revolutionaries (an experiential guidebook for the descent to soul). He has a doctorate in psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Visit him online at http://www.animas.org.