Soulcraft Musings 22/12/17 – A Few Sketches of Soul

A Few Sketches of Soul   
 This is the seventh part of a fourteen part Musing (one per week) (reproduced from the Animas Valley Institute
Friday, December 22, 2017

The Song of Wandering Aengus

 I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream

And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
– William Butler Yeats
 Some examples of mythopoetic identity might be helpful, even though it’s impossible to communicate the numinosity of the human soul in a few words. Much better would be an intricate story or poem, something there’s not space here to include. (The single best way to understand a person’s soul purpose is to live in community with them and experience them in action.) That said, I’ll offer here a few linguistic sketches with the hope this will at least convey a feeling for the difference between a social-vocational identity and a soul identity.
There are a great number of people whose mystical encounters with soul I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to learn about and to witness the embodiment of. The following are four exceedingly brief word portraits that embody the wild mysteries of such encounters and how they’ve been communicated mythopoetically, each of these examples being mere intimations of the genius and destiny of these four individuals:
  • the overseer who guides others into the oceanic depths of the psyche
  • the one with a sparkling heart who walks the path of the bear
  • she who generates perception-expanding images and identity-destabilizing questions
  • the one who dances the earth and dreams song to feed the longing
 Despite being so brief, you can sense how these soul-infused identities and purposes contrast with middleworld cultural roles. These are not job descriptions you’ll ever see advertised. They are not the kinds of recommendations you’ll get from a vocational guidance counselor. They are of the dreamtime or the mythic. And they are the kinds of purposes utterly core to our deepest, innate human identities.
Another example: The preface to my book Soulcraft recounts my own story of how I received, on my first vision fast at age 30, an initial glimpse of my soul identity or ecological role as the one who weaves cocoons of transformation.
Three more: Malidoma Somé , the West African elder and teacher, identifies his destiny, his place in the world, as “he who makes friends with the enemy/ stranger,” something revealed to him (by Mystery) as a young man during a month-long initiation process.[1]
Joanna Macy, the North American ecophilosopher, spiritual activist, Buddhist scholar, and Earth elder, experienced a life-shifting numinous image during a meditation session in the early weeks of her Buddhist practice, while living in India, at age 37:
To my inner eye appeared a bridge, slightly arching, made of stone. I could see the separate rocks of which it was built, and I wanted to be one of them. Just one, that was enough, if only I could be part of that bridge between the thoughtworlds of East and West, connecting the insights of the Buddha Dharma with the modern Western mind. What my role might be — at the podium of a college classroom? at a desk in a library tower? — was less clear to me than the conviction possessing me now: I would be a stone in the building of that bridge.[2]
Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in his mid twenties, discovered that his destiny or soul-calling was to
… pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.[3]
In Soulcraft and Nature and the Human Soul, you’ll find much more elaborate accounts of soul encounters and identities.[4]
Now that we have a better feeling for how our mythopoetic human psyches experience soul and communicate it to our conscious minds — by way of numinous images — next week we’ll consider the vital difference between our soul images and what we do to embody those images, which is to say the difference between our soul purpose and our delivery system for soul.
To read part one through seven click here.

Soulcraft Musings 15/12/17 – Soul and Mythopoetic Identity

Soul and Mythopoetic Identity  
 This is the sixth part of a fourteen part Musing (one per week) (reproduced from the Animas Valley Institute

Friday, December 15, 2017

Because knowledge of our place in the greater web of life is something we’re born with, it is necessarily pre-cultural and pre-linguistic. As a consequence, our unique place in the world can’t be identified, described, understood, or experienced in conventional cultural terms or in the direct denotative way we specify a middleworld identity. But if we can’t refer to our soul’s place as that of a physician, pianist, priest, president, or parent, or even more generically as a healer, artist, or leader, then how can it be done?

Here’s an additional way to appreciate the difficulty: We humans possess a special realm or veneer of consciousness — our ego’s conscious self-awareness — that rides on top of the more extensive consciousness we have in common with all other species.[1]  Our human ego is both a great boon and a great barrier. For example, because each individual ego, unlike the soul, is a child of culture and language, we at first — in our childhood and teen years — come to understand our place culturally and linguistically, which is to say in terms of social, vocational, and religious roles. This is unavoidable, entirely necessary, and a good thing. But we’re also born with an entirely different kind of knowledge, a felt-sense about our ecological place or niche in the world, knowledge that exists only within the deeper realm of consciousness that all species share, knowledge that is not linguistic but imaginal, knowledge that an immature, egocentric ego cannot access.
So the question becomes: how do we discover what this is, this innate, imagery-based, and mysterious knowledge about our ecological place in the world? How do we discover what it is when it exists at a deeper level than the ego-consciousness that dominates our experience and sense of self by the time we’re in our early teens? And how do we linguistically identify it to ourselves and others once we experience it consciously?
In a word: metaphor.
When it comes to identifying soul, we can only point to it or allude to it using metaphor — in the manner of poetry or myth. We can linguistically understand our souls only indirectly, only mythopoetically. Not coincidentally, this is precisely how we learn about our souls in the first place: We discover (or remember) our innate place, our true home, our soul’s purpose, when the world mirrors it to us by way of nature-based metaphors, human archetypes, or other mythic or poetic images or symbols. We don’t choose these metaphors or figure them out. Rather, we’re shown them in a moment of numinous vision or mystical revelation. They are shown to us by … by what? “Mystery” is as good a way as any to name our benefactor, our guide, our initiator.
Soul is a child of nature, not of culture and language.
What I mean by “soul,” then, is something mystical but not upperworld mystical and not any more mystical than monarch migrations. It corresponds to what poet David Whyte refers to as “the largest conversation you can have with the world,” a conversation you were born to have and that only you can have and that the world needs you to have for it to be whole. The seed or catalyst for this conversation has existed within you from birth or conception in the form of what Whyte calls “the truth you make everyday with your own body” or “the truth at the center of the image you were born with.” Take a moment to consider that these two sorts of truths — which to the Western mind seem so strange, mystical, and improbable — really do exist, and for everyone. These truths, these images, these conversations — and the niches, roles, functions, identities, meanings, and purposes associated with them — are not cultural or even merely human; rather, you were born with them, and they are ecological and mythopoetic, which is to say clothed and communicated in the metaphors, symbols, images, dreams, and archetypes of the wild world and of our own wild minds. As Diane di Prima reminds us:
… you have a poetics: you step into the world
like a suit of readymade clothes …[2]
This is actually true of all creatures, not just humans: every being has its own innate poetics. And there’s no better way than poetry to identify a unique ecological niche. Try describing the niche of a fox, for example. You can point to some of the primary relationships she has with other species in a particular habitat and perhaps the way her uncommon cunning allows her to carry out her distinctive calling, but her niche is something more than that and categorically different. Her niche is the sum of all the relationships she has with everything else on Earth, if not the whole universe, something we can’t even get close to fully describing. The best way to understand a fox’s niche is to live for several years as a native in her neighborhood while offering your daily reverent attention to her wanderings and ways. Then you’ll know something of her niche but still not be able to describe it precisely or systematically. Your best option, really, for portraying her niche would be to recite fox stories, preferably outside at night around a fire or in the dark beneath blazing stars. Or fox poetry. Or vixen myth. And that of course is precisely how nature-based people have always done it.
It’s no different when it comes to linguistically portraying a human’s soul.
Through the journey of soul initiation, we come to understand that we each were born as something like a poem, as a unique dance, as a story in conversation with other stories, as an essential and utterly singular episode in the unfolding story of Earth, of Cosmos. As Gary Snyder writes,
The world is made of stories. Good stories are hard to come by, and a good story that you can honestly call your own is an incredible gift. These stories are part of a bigger story that connects us all.[3]
Next week, we’ll explore several examples of mythopoetic identities. And we’ll consider the essential difference between our soul’s purpose (our mythopoetic identity) and the means by which we embody or manifest that purpose — such as a job, craft, project, art, or profession.
To read part one through five click here.

Soulcraft Musings 8/12/17 – Uniqueness and Differentiation

Uniqueness and Differentiation (reproduced from the Animas Valley Institute
This is the fifth part of a fourteen part Musing (one per week)
Friday, December 8, 2017

Some people assume that individual members of other species do not have unique gifts or destinies, that whatever uniqueness there is exists on the species level, not the individual level. One flower or frog or fox, they might say, has exactly the same ecological place, niche, role, or function as any other individual of their species, more or less. If so, why would it be any different for us?

But one thing we know about evolution is that life grows ever more complex, diversified, and differentiated. This is a universal principle. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry put it this way:
In the universe, to be is to be different. To be is to be a unique manifestation of existence. The more thoroughly we investigate any one thing … the more we discover its uniqueness. … Ultimately each thing remains as baffling as ever, no matter how profound our understanding. … The universe comes to us, each being and each moment announcing its thrilling news: I am fresh.[1]
As life on Earth evolves, speciation accelerates. Intra-species differentiation increases as well. From four billion years ago until less than a billion years ago, there were only single-cell organisms on Earth, although innumerable kinds of them. Now, in addition to countless species of bacteria and microbes, there are millions of complex, multi-cellular species and untold variations within species. Among mammalian species, there are a variety of social roles within any family or extended group. While our own innate human capacities seem minimal at birth, compared to other species — we’re born, after all, remarkably vulnerable and helpless — we make up for that by possessing perhaps the greatest intra-species differentiation, something that becomes increasingly evident as we get older. Even within the same culture, even within the same family, there ends up being an absolutely astonishing degree of variation among us in talents, personal style, taste, personality, values, personal goals, and even gender embodiment.
But our individual uniqueness is not only on the social-personality-vocational-gender level. It is also, and more importantly, on the soul or ecological level. We’re each born with distinct and differentiated destinies, our own unique ecological place or niche in the world, our own particular genius. This is a very old idea woven into the myths and sacred stories of all cultures. It is most likely true for all species to some degree, but it appears to be comparatively truer for us. For good or for ill.
Whether for us or any other species, the unique ecological niche for each individual creature is specific to its particular place in a particular environment. The niche of a specific fox, for example, has everything to do with the precise swath of forest in which she roams; with her relationship, for example, to the pattern of bird nests in those climbable trees and the location of rabbit warrens and rodent tunnels, as well as with her relationship to other foxes in her pack. But her individual niche is not simply or primarily a matter of how she “makes a living.” It is also about how she uniquely participates in and enhances life in her forest and about the effects and influences only she can have on the local habitat and the other species there.
All this is true for us humans as well: we each have a unique set of relationships and potentials within both our local and global communities.
Soul: Your Place in the Greater Web of Life
Here’s the most important thing I know to emphasize about underworld or soul purpose: This knowledge of what it is to be fully and uniquely yourself, of the gift you were born to bring into this world, can never be identified or described in any social, vocational, political, religious, or other cultural terms. No one is born to have a particular job or role in a particular human community. Rather, like all other species, we’re each born to take a specific place within the Earth community, to fill a unique ecological niche in the greater web of life, to provide a suite of unique ecological functions. And that place is what I mean by soul, and occupying that psycho-ecological niche and providing thosefunctions is what I mean by soul purpose. This is the realm of purpose nearly absent from contemporary discussions and most all contemporary practices and methods for uncovering and embodying purpose. And it is the most essential of these realms, especially in this time of radical, global change.
Next week, we’ll explore answers to these questions: How can we recover our innate knowledge of our unique ecological place in the world? How do we discover what it is when it exists at a deeper level than the ego-consciousness that dominates our experience and sense of self by the time we’re in our early teens? And how do we linguistically identify it to ourselves and others once we experience it consciously?

To read parts 1-4, along with other past Musings, click here.

Youtube video: Animas Quest – Pan cultural rite of passage

Rebecca Wildbear and Brian Stafford discuss the distinctive aspects of the Animas Valley Institute approach to vision fast for those who are “done with their own way of knowing” – a solo fast and a ceremony focussed on “deep listening and intimacy with our selves and the wild world”, soul encounter and initiation and psychospiritual death.

Soulcraft Musings 1/12/17 – An Underworld and Ecological Concept of Soul

An Underworld and Ecological Conception of Soul (reproduced from the Animas Valley Institute
This is the fourth part of a fourteen part Musing (one per week) 
Friday, December 1, 2017

What exactly do I mean, then, by “soul” and how does this help us understand why the uncovering of what I call soul purpose has become so uncommon in the contemporary world? For an answer, we’ll need to cross a threshold into a domain of discourse and experience that in the materialist precincts of the West would be considered “mystical.” Otherwise you might dismiss my perspective simply because it’s unfamiliar or perhaps feels dubious at first. So let’s begin by reviewing how commonplace the “mystical” is in the lives and existence of other-than-human beings. Then, perhaps, you’ll find it less surprising, esoteric, or mysterious that such extraordinary and astonishing realities apply to us humans as well.

What Every Flower, Frog, and Fox is Born With
The mysteries to which I refer here concern, in their essence, ecological place or niche — the fact that the young of all species are born with an understanding of their place in the world. By “place,” I don’t simply mean geographical location or habitat. Rather, I mean a creature’s ecological niche — its function, role, or “profession” within its community or ecosystem.[1]  The young of all species, in other words, already know at birth how to be members of their species. This innate knowledge includes basic-yet-vital items such as how to move around, what to eat and not eat, how to avoid predators, and how and when to mate and with whom. But by far the most important knowledge they are born with is how to contribute to the world their unique skill or offering. They, in other words, are born with what we might call ecological purpose, an implicit knowledge or apprehension of their place or niche in a wildly complex and differentiated world of multiple habitats and countless species. They are born with all the capacities they need to serve the world in a way no other creature can — including how they can further develop or co-evolve their own niche — and they do not have to be taught or shown “the one life they can call their own”; this knowledge and capacity is inborn. They do not have to go through an initiation process to uncover it. Although birds and mammals learn a lot of behavioral specifics from their parents and primary social group, most of the capacities that enable them to function as members of their species are innate. The newborn of species other than birds and mammals — 95% of all species — receive minimal to no parenting beyond being conceived and birthed. They are born with all they need to know to have a good chance of survival, to be who they are, and to provide the “ecological functions” only they can.
This is entirely natural and ordinary, but it is also utterly astounding and miraculous, even mystical. The common-but-misguided Western philosophical impulse to try to explain this reductionistically in terms of genetics misses the most essential point. Genetics might be one piece of how this knowledge is transmitted (part of the “mechanism”), but the method of transmission is categorically and conceptually distinct from whatis transmitted, and the unfathomable mystery remains that this knowledge and know-how exist and are transmitted at all.
You might say we humans, too, are born with a version of such capacities: for example, our precious innocence enables us to inspire other humans to provide the love, nourishment, and basic shelter we need; or, more mysteriously, our capacity to easily acquire human language. But it seems other species are born with a far greater innate understanding of their place in the world. And, as far as we can tell, they never have identity crises. The fact that we do, and regularly, says something significant about us as a species or about our contemporary cultures, or both.
Many examples of the innate knowledge and know-how possessed by other species are absolutely staggering. For example, consider the annual migration of monarch butterflies: They fly immense distances from their summer habitats in the eastern U.S. and Canada to their winter homes in Mexico, or from the Rocky Mountains to southern California. They manage this long and wildly complex navigation even though it takes four generations to complete a single migration. Furthermore, they arrive at the very same trees their great-great-grandparents tenanted the year before. None of them learn how to do this from other butterflies. They are born with the knowledge of how to migrate thousands of miles, through countless habitats and weather systems, and end up in precisely the one spot that is theirs, something akin to finding a needle in a haystack. This is downright mystical. And, as it turns out, this sort of miracle is entirely commonplace on Earth.
Given that such mysteries are demonstrably true for other species, how could we doubt something comparable is true for us? In the contemporary world, we tend to believe that everything important that we know we learned from others — parents, other family members, teachers, books, the internet, and so on. And indeed we’ve learned quite a bit this way. But we, too, like all other species, are born with certain innate knowledge of our unique place in the world, of our ecological niche, of what has been called our destiny or our genius. The problem is that this knowledge is not conscious when we’re born because, after all, we’re not conscious oanything in our first couple years. And by the time our conscious self-awareness develops — somewhere between our third and fourth birthdays — we are more than busy with other things to be conscious of, like the enchantment of the other-than-human world or how to be a member-in-good-standing of a particular family and peer group and a particular culture or ethnic or religious group. Learning these things is the natural priority throughout our childhood and early teen years. But — and here’s the rub for us humans — by the time our conscious knowledge of self and world is established in our mid teens, we have strayed a long ways from our deeper, innate, unconscious knowledge of self and world, which is now obscured, buried, unremembered. It’s still there within us, but we can’t access it and we might not even know it exists. Consequently, as soon as our basic cultural and ecological education is complete, it comes time to “remember” the knowledge we were born with: our particular, destined place in the world, our original personal instructions for this lifetime. All healthy cultures provide initiatory processes (much more extensive and categorically different than a rite of passage[2]) to help their youth uncover just that. In the Western world, these initiatory processes were forgotten and lost millennia ago.
Next week, we’ll further explore the nature of individual uniqueness, especially on the ecological level.
To read part one, two and three click here.

Soulcraft Musings 24/11/17 – Breakthrough: The Underworld Passage

Breakthrough: The Underworld Passage (reproduced from the Animas Valley Institute

This is the third part of a fourteen part Musing (one per week)

Friday, November 24, 2017

Before finding anyone who had written about or guided others into this realm, I stumbled into it experientially — in 1980 during my first vision fast. This was a solo, self-guided ceremony conducted in a contemporary Western manner, not in imitation of Native American people or other indigenous traditions.[1] But my discovery might have been made through any one of a number of other practices or ceremonies, or even sparked by seemingly random life events. What’s important here is what was discovered, not how I discovered it.

What I discovered, in addition to my first glimpse of soul, was that the entire framework of purpose, meaning, and identity that I had been raised with and had been living within — and that most people in the contemporary Western world live within their entire lives — was no longer applicable or particularly relevant to me. It was over, done, bankrupt. Like a capsized swimmer in uncharted whitewater, I was navigating a life passage that relatively few people undergo in the contemporary world, into a realm of experience about which I had no previous knowledge. I had embarked upon the descent to soul, the underworld journey into the mysterium tremendum at the core of the human psyche.

In the course of healthy human development, we are each meant to reach this breakpoint, this crisis, this divide beyond which we’re no longer able to decisively define ourselves in terms of social or romantic relationships, or in terms of a job or career, a creative or artistic project, a political affiliation, a theory or philosophical perspective, a religious or ethnic membership, or a transcendental spiritual goal. We are propelled — compelled! — toward an underworld self-definition, a soul-infused experience of meaning and purpose and identity. True for all humans, this is our evolutionary birthright, a necessary passage on the way from psychological adolescence to true adulthood. (By “psychological adolescence,” I don’t mean an age range, but a developmental stage that most Western people never grow beyond.)

The mainstream currents of our contemporary cultures neither assert nor deny the existence of an underworld identity; it has simply disappeared from awareness. Even middleworld purpose has become difficult to attain. It’s increasingly common for people to find themselves marooned in a world of restless emptiness with a sense of not truly or deeply belonging to anything — or with an unrelenting numbness or depression, a sense of lurching through life or just going through the motions. From age four until our mid-teens, middleworld purpose is all we need. But beyond our teen years, middleworld purpose alone never deeply satisfies. Even if you add upperworld purpose, there still remains a thunderous void.

This passage from a middleworld social-vocational-political-religious scaffolding of self-definition (and/or one of the universal, one-size-fits-all versions of upperworld identity) to a unique, soul-derived, underworld framework is a categorical shift in orientation. It’s not a shift from one cultural definition to another. It’s not a progression from one career to the next, from one romance to another, from being an addict to being a professional success, from being a mid-westerner to being a Californian, from being born into a Jewish family to becoming a Buddhist. Nor is it a shift from middleworld specifics to upperworld universality. And it’s not a shift we can simply choose or make happen. It is, rather, the involuntary demise of our entire comprehension of the nature of meaning or purpose, of the ways we understood ourselves and the world through childhood and psychological adolescence, and an abduction into the depths of the psyche and the mysteries of the world toward encounters that will eventually enable us to identify “the one life we can call our own.” A psychologically risky journey of many months or years, it makes possible a personal transformation that can happen only after we reach a developmental stage that few in the West ever reach.

To read part one and two, click here.

[1] Although a solo experience, my first vision fast was elegantly, wisely, and invaluably supported, through correspondence and written materials, by Steven Foster and Meredith Little, founders of the School of Lost Borders. I recount the story of this fast in the preface to Soulcraft: Crossing Into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche  (New World Library, 2003).


Soulcraft Musings 17/11/17 – Realms of Purpose through the Lifespan

Realms of Purpose through the Lifespan (reproduced from the Animas Valley Institute

This is the second part of a fourteen part Musing (one per week)

Friday, November 17, 2017

As a child, I didn’t think much about purpose. You probably didn’t either. It’s not what children should be thinking about. But if you had asked me what I most wanted, I probably would have said I wanted to please my parents, play with my friends, do well in school, ride my bike, and mess around outside, especially in the forests that surrounded my New England hometown.

As a heterosexual teenager, girls and sex became my foremost interest, although sports, fast cars, and playing the electric organ in rock bands became primary purposes, too. Doing well in school and being liked by my peers remained vital.

In college, much of this was still true, but by then my conscious purpose leaned more toward the exploration of nonordinary consciousness (through experiential as well as scholarly channels) and, more generally, spirituality as accessed by Buddhism, yoga, and other non-Western practices; the co-creation of a primary romantic relationship; martial arts; political activism and cultural change; the exploration of the western half of the US especially by motorcycle (road trips!) and of wilderness anywhere I could find it; and the need and opportunity to choose a career.

During graduate school (psychology at CU Boulder), followed by my first university research and teaching position, and then a post-doctoral internship, my earlier strands of purpose continued (the common developmental pattern of “transcend and include”), but my primary conscious trajectory was to develop the skills of a research and clinical psychologist, establish a body of work of my own, make a living, and contribute something of value to society.

Although the specifics vary from one person to the next, the underlying pattern in my life into early “adulthood” is common in contemporary societies: We derive our primary meaning and purpose — if we experience them at all — through our social, vocational, political, and spiritual (or religious) pursuits. Most of these realms of experience are what I think of as “middleworld” purposes, namely those rooted in our everyday social and cultural life. A smaller subset consists of “upperworld” purposes, the desire to ascend or transcend, to experience “enlightenment” or “bliss,” or to “awaken” to divine, nondual, or unity consciousness. All my examples above, from childhood through early professional life, are instances of middleworld or upperworld purposes.

But there’s another realm of meaning and purpose that awaits beyond these, a deeper realm that, as human participants in the Earth community, we long for, whether or not we have a conscious connection to it, a spiritual realm entirely neglected by the mainstream world as well as by virtually all spiritual and psychotherapeutic traditions, but a realm essential to growing whole, becoming fully human, and experiencing fulfillment.

Despite my extensive early explorations in psychology and spirituality, which began in college, it wasn’t until my late twenties that I had a first conscious clue that this realm of purpose even existed. It was entirely overlooked in the psychologies I studied, despite my focus on the humanistic and transpersonal. It was never considered in any of the eastern spiritualities I read about and practiced, including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Kundalini Yoga, Sufism, and Taoism. There was hardly an allusion to it during the six-week summer 1973 program I attended in Berkeley on “Human Consciousness: Exploration, Maps, and Models” (co-sponsored by Esalen Institute and the Association of Transpersonal Psychology), nor during my three summers, 1974 – 1976, as a student at the spiritually oriented, Buddhist inclined Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado.

Most every spiritual teacher with whom I studied in those years (and since) used the word “soul” at least occasionally and often extensively — and, among them, they meant quite a wide variety of things — but not one was referring to the realm of psyche I have since associated with soul nor of the deeper realm of purpose I am addressing here.

In the next Musing, I’ll tell you what led to my first experience of the spiritual underworld, the realm of soul — and its consequences, including what I discovered about purpose.

To read part one, click here.


“The natural world mates and creates through an alluring love dance, and it wants you to feel and remember your part. Many male bird species create an exquisite show to at-tract females. Frogs, spiders, ravens, eagles, and a variety of other animals each have their own unique courting rituals. Furthermore, wind dances with trees, and the first snow flakes of winter kiss the grasses. A thunderstorm roars, and lightning brightens the sky.” Rebecca Wildbear

Rebecca Wildbear and Robert Boyle are excited to offer the poetry and practices of the Animas Valley Institute’s six day Courting the Muse Intensive.

Are you called to dive in, dance and play with nature, creativity and soul?

We are extending the Early bird discount on this program until December 24.

Consider it a gift to nature, self and soul.

For more info go to:

To see Rebecca’s biography, go to:

To register, go to Register and Pay on our Home page

Bill Plotkin’s Soulcraft Musings 10/11/17 – Purpose, Pt1.

Purpose, Part 1 (reproduced from Animas Valley Institute
This is the first part of a fourteen part Musing (one per week)

Friday, November 10, 2017

…There is only one life
you can call your own
and a thousand others
you can call by any name you want.
Hold to the truth you make
every day with your own body,
don’t turn your face away.
Hold to your own truth
at the center of the image
you were born with.
Those who do not understand
their destiny will never understand
the friends they have made
nor the work they have chosen
nor the one life that waits
beyond all the others….
~ David Whyte[1]

Everyone yearns for — and needs — a purpose that can be embodied, a meaning that can be lived. Our mortality demands it of us. Our love for our own life, for all living things, and for community pours itself into the world, like a prayer, through our deepest purpose. But what we mean by and experience as “purpose” depends on our stage of life and our depth of psychospiritual development. In the contemporary Western world, when people speak about personal life purpose, most everyone means a mix of social, vocational, political, and/or religious goals or intentions. A much smaller group means a desire to awaken to the divine, nondual, or the universal.

But there’s a third variety of purpose that is very rarely considered, that has no place or presence in mainstream Western consciousness, that is completely absent from contemporary maps of human life, even the maps of specialists in human development, including those who write about and guide “integral” development. And yet this is the single most essential realm of purpose, especially in our current critical and liminal moment in the unfolding of the world’s story.

The near absence of attention to this most essential realm of purpose is not a coincidence or an oversight. For millennia, Western civilization, among others, has shaped itself in ways that suppress access to this realm. Today this realm of purpose is rarely experienced — or even consciously recognized as a possibility. Our educational, media, and religious systems and our mainstream parenting practices are shaped in ways that divert us from this vital domain of human experience. This suppression of human development has become a necessity for Western civilization in its current form; it would simply not be sustainable otherwise. Conversely, widespread access to this realm of purpose would be the single most potent factor in the termination of Western society in its present life-destroying iteration — and in the creation of a just, life-enhancing, and deeply imaginative culture with its roots in the genuine achievements of the Western tradition.

The lack of access to this particular realm of purpose is our most significant human deficit at this time. The diversity of life on Earth is now being extensively diminished precisely because of this deficit — and has been for hundreds if not thousands of years. Additionally, as beat poet Diane di Prima writes, “men die everyday for the lack of it.”[2]

It is also not a coincidence that most societies and traditions that have treasured and preserved this now-rare realm of purpose have been wiped out or culturally disrupted over the past few millennia. This realm of purpose is the single greatest threat to the consumer-conformist-imperial-dominator mind, to its business as usual, as manifested not only in the contemporary West but in all egocentric societies now prevalent across the globe. If we are to survive the twenty-first century — if robust life on Earth of any sort is to survive — there are many things we must do in the short-term (like save from extinction as many species and habitats as we can, reverse global warming, create true and universally just democracies and biocracies, and abolish nuclear weapons) but, in the long term, the single most important measure is the reshaping of all human cultures so as to support every child to grow in a way that enables the uncovering and embodiment of this particular, now exceedingly rare, realm of purpose.

The central fact that explains why this sphere of purpose is so seldom attained is this: In order to access it, what is required is a level or stage of human development rarely achieved in contemporary cultures — again, not a coincidence — despite the fact that this stage of development, in a healthy and mature Western culture, would be commonplace among 15-year-olds. No special training or preparation would be necessary. More on this below.

I hesitate to name this realm of purpose due to the likelihood you’ll think I’m referring to something I’m not. I have often called it “soul purpose” but this misleads most everyone because I mean something by “soul” that almost no one else does in the contemporary Western world, including those writing about purpose and soul. Better phrases would be “mythopoetic identity” or “unique psycho-ecological niche” but, to be coherent, these phrases require careful unpacking and elaboration.

But before I do that, I’ll review, in next week’s Musings, some of the other, more commonly addressed and accessed realms of purpose.

To read past Musings, click here


[1] From David Whyte, “All the True Vows,” in The House of Belonging (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 1996), p. 24.

[2] Diane di Prima, from “Rant,” in Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems, (San Francisco: City Lights, 1990).

Soulcraft Musings 4/11/17 – Confronting Your Own Death, Pt2.

Confronting Your Own Death, Part II (reproduced from Animas Valley Institute
This is the fourth part of a four-part Musing (one per week)
November 3, 2017

The confrontation with death is an unrivaled perspective enhancer. In the company of death, most desires of adolescence and the first adulthood fall away. What are the deepest longings that remain? What are the surviving intentions with which you might enter your second (soul-initiated) adulthood? The confrontation with death will empty you of everything but that kernel of love in your heart and your sincerest questions. It is in such a state of emptiness and openness that we hope to approach the central mysteries of our life.

As a Wanderer, it is a good practice to look Death in the eye. Contemplate your unavoidable aging and inevitable demise, “the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat,” as David Whyte puts it. You might, for example, look carefully at photographs of decaying bodies, of human and other skeletons, of people dying of horrible and wasting diseases or starvation, of autopsied cadavers and funeral pyres.

You might make it a practice to imagine your own aged, diseased, or mortally wounded body. Remind yourself regularly that you, too, like all flesh, will one day leave behind your body and all else, and that it will happen on a day very much like this one, maybe in a place, if you are fortunate, like the place where you are this very moment, with or without the presence of the other people who are with you now. Visualize your own earth burial, sky burial, fire burial, and/or water burial.

During your wandering time, you might visit cemeteries, mortuaries, crematoriums, or charnels and sit there for hours or days and really look and listen and feel and breathe the thick air in those places. You might learn the traditional and sacred practices of those who prepare a body for burial or cremation.

Perhaps you will volunteer for hospice and spend hours gazing into the eyes of those who lie at death’s door, your heart stretching ever wider, both your eyes and your companion’s peering over the edge of life’s cliff. In hospice, you will witness the dying process, life ebbing away, and the moment of death itself. You will see people die well and not so well. You will see how families deal with death or refuse to deal with it. You will see some people embrace their deaths and celebrate their lives, and others die bitter and angry, never having acknowledged they were dying.

Discuss death with your guides and fellow Wanderers. Sit in councils specifically dedicated to talk of death. While alone, wonder about death, wander with it, wrestle with it. Feel its presence, both emotionally and physically. Ask yourself and others questions about death and share your feelings and speculations. Along with Mary Oliver, rhetorically ask, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

Should you suffer the loss of a loved one, permit the force of that death to transform you with its weight, fully feeling and expressing the immense grief, allowing it to irrevocably alter the world and your place in it. And should your people suffer an unthinkable loss at the hands of others (as on September 11, 2001), surrender to your anger and grief, but also look for the enemy of life within, the elements of self not in alignment with life. Find where death lives inside.

When you progress from one stage of life to another, celebrate the promises and possibilities of the new, but do not shirk from grieving the little deaths inevitably accompanying these shifts — the death of youth, unrealized dreams, cherished hopes, bedrock illusions.

Gradually, you will come to live in the light of death, not morbidly but with an increasingly joyful appreciation for this moment, and your presence in it. You will cling less and less to who you are and how you are and become more attuned to your destiny, with allegiance to neither your social past nor the current accommodations of your personality.

As Carlos Castaneda was taught by his teacher, the Yaqui sorcerer don Juan, ask death to be your ally, to remind you, especially at times of difficult choices, what is important in the face of your mortality. Imagine death as ever present, accompanying you everywhere just out of sight behind your left shoulder.

In these ways, make peace with your mortality. One day you will find you are not so attached to your life being just one certain way. Then you will be better prepared to converse with soul and its outrageous requests for radical change.

With any soulcraft practice, the Wanderer seeks to put his ego in a double bind, a checkmate that makes it impossible to continue the old story. Confronting the inevitability and ever presence of his death loosens his grip on his routines, dislodges his old way of obtaining his bearings, ushers him to the threshold beyond which lies the unknown. Horrified, he discovers he must give up everything in order to get what he really wants, with no guarantee of success or even of surviving his quest.

He is like a dog playing fetch when someone suddenly throws the stick into a bonfire. Stunned, the dog stares into the flames with big eyes. The soul wants the Wanderer to jump into that fire. The Wanderer’s deepest instinct for survival is counterbalanced by his passion for the quest. What will he do?

By confronting the truths held by death, the Wanderer gradually relinquishes his illusion of immortality and finds himself with a new hope for the world. He sees all things must change to evolve. He sees that death and impermanence provide hope for an evolving universe.

To read parts one, two and three click here.


Adapted from Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing Into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche  (New World Library, 2003).