Soulcraft Musings 27/10/17 – Confronting Your Own Death, Pt1.

Confronting Your Own Death, Part 1 (reproduced from Animas Valley Institute
This is the third part of a four-part Musing (one per week)

Friday, October 27, 2017

The courageous encounter with the unalterable fact of mortality supplements and extends the activities of the death lodge. In the death lodge, you made peace with your past and prepared to leave behind an old way of belonging to the world; you prepared for a “small death.” Now you have the opportunity to prepare for your inevitable and final death, look your mortality in the eye, and make peace with the brutal fact that, ultimately, you will have to loosen your grip on all of life, not just a life stage.
On September 11, 2001, Ann Debaldo was leading a journey in a remote corner of Tibet, unaware of the events unfolding in the United States. But like most Americans that day, Ann had the opportunity to become more intimately acquainted with death. At 14,000 feet in the Himalayas, Ann witnessed the extraordinary Buddhist ceremony of sky burial while, elsewhere in the world, people witnessed another kind of sky burial in the air over New York City.
We were camped near Drigung Til Monastery. The evening before the sky burial, we attended the powa practice. A specially trained lama sat in front of the four corpses, each of which was folded into a small bundle and wrapped with blankets tied with ropes. Offerings to the monks — bags of flour and other staples — were taken off the horses by family members who had carried the bodies here, a journey of many days, perhaps weeks. The lama went into a profound meditation and at regular intervals made a loud sound — phat! — to open the crown chakras of the corpses, allowing any remaining life force to depart. We sat in silence as the offerings were casually divided among the monks and the lama performed his task.
Very early the next morning, we walked silently and slowly up to the hilltop where the sky burial would take place. I walked with an elderly man whom I had earlier tried to discourage from coming to Drigung Til. He was ill-prepared to handle either the altitude or the primitive camping, yet in Lhasa it became clear to me that attending the sky burial was what his journey was all about. The group moved ahead and we took the less steep pathway, his labored breathing increasing with each step. As we reached the top, a monk gently untied the ropes on one of the bundles and removed the blankets revealing a very old woman with limbs lying at impossible angles to her torso. A great calm came over me. The old man gasped and almost fell. To prepare the food for the vultures, the monk flayed the meat and then crushed the bones into grain on a great round stone. We were so close that bits of flesh landed on our clothes. The old man was unable to stand and so we moved even closer to lean upon the stone wall next to the monk. I felt a warm strength as I supported my companion’s weight, understanding how close he was to his time of departing this life. I could feel his heart beating and his heavy breathing as the huge golden vultures edged nearer to their breakfast.
Each corpse was similarly handled. Wave after wave of vultures descended upon the meat and grain until abruptly, there was nothing left. I watched, filled with a strange joy as the great birds lumbered down the hill before jumping into the sky and soared away over the valley toward the snow peaks in the distance. Oh, to fly freely — man becoming bird! What is death but an opening of a door?
We walked in silence down the steep hill toward the monastery where the monks began parading and chanting to the sounds of their great long horns and drums. As I sat in the hot sun, I shivered so hard I almost fell off the wall, my mind reeling. It was difficult to think and perhaps consciousness was briefly lost. Then, in my belly, I felt the presence for the first time of a great mountain of peace and silence — a feeling of solidity and calm strength, quite new to me. We left the monastery, each of us affected in our individual ways, but certainly forever changed by our visit to the burial grounds.
Confronting your own mortality, intimately and bravely, imagined or vicariously witnessed in graphic detail, is a powerful soulcraft practice, possibly an essential one. The embodiment of soul that you seek is not going to go far if you are living as if your ego is immortal. Put more positively, your soul initiation will be rich to the extent you can ground yourself in the sober but liberating awareness of limited time. This very moment may be your last.
To read parts one and two click here.

Soulcraft Musings 20/10/17 – The Death Lodge, Pt2.

The Death Lodge, Part II (reproduced from Animas Valley Institute
This is the second part of a four-part Musing (one per week)

Friday, October 20, 2017

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

– T. S. Eliot [1]

Most people enact a vision fast with an intention, or at least a need, to grieve significant losses. The death lodge is an essential preparatory practice.

A man in his mid-twenties came to grieve his father’s death that occurred when the young man was eighteen. Thomas, who himself became a father at seventeen, had many questions about what it meant to be a man. He grieved his father’s premature death, his uncertainties about his own fatherhood, and his sense of being deprived of the cultural rituals that might have helped him become a man earlier and more completely. Like everyone, his time in the death lodge included sorrow for what might have been.

Many people embark on a vision fast or on the descent to soul, more generally, in part to say good-bye to an identity they have outgrown, in a sense to attend their own funeral. Some write a eulogy for themselves, a farewell to the old story. Although the new story stirs inside them, they know the old one must first be laid to rest.

Anita, a professional and mother in her forties, came to formally mark her empty nest as her youngest entered college. She wanted to honor the end of twenty-one years of soul work, the labor of love of raising two fine young men. And then there were the two failed marriages, an alcoholic father, and a mother who died when Anita was four. In the death lodge, she also said good-bye to her way of being a psychotherapist; she knew a more creative and artistic path awaited her.

In the two years before his first vision fast, Steve, a young psychiatrist, lost his mother and brother, his career fell apart, and he at long last severed his abusive relationship with alcohol. He came to formally end his decade or more of what he called “being dead,” staggering through a lonely life of despair. In his death lodge, he finally experienced his rage at his dad for the years of brutal criticism and ridicule — and all the grief waiting in line just behind the rage.

Tom, a Harvard M.B.A. in his forties, made millions as a successful (and ruthless) corporate mercenary. He found himself with a trophy home and boat, a second ruined marriage, no idea who he really was, and his only son suicidal at the end of high school. Stunned to find himself bereft of the American dream, he came to his vision fast recognizing he and his son were facing the same crisis of meaning, one at the threshold of emancipation, the other at midlife, but both with the opportunity for true freedom. Tom, who was beginning to discover the fine human being beneath his former corporate persona, had much to surrender in his death lodge — buckets of tears and everything he once thought life was about.

* * *

In the death lodge, you loosen your grip on your former identity and world. You cut the cords, then gingerly step along the narrow ledge above the abyss, your back to the crag. At last, you turn and extend your arms against the half-truths of the old life, your fingers lightly pushing away.

To relinquish your former identity is to sacrifice the story you had been living, the one that defined you, empowered you socially — and limited you. This sacrifice captures the essence of “leaving home.”

Once you have in earnest entered the journey of soul initiation, you begin to live as if in a fugue state. Imagine: after developing an adequate and functional identity, you now have become as if amnesic, dissociated from your prior life. But, unlike the victim of amnesia, your goal is not to discover who you used to be, but rather who you really are.

Your time in the death lodge grants freedom. Untied from the past, you dwell more fully in the present, more able to savor the gifts of the world. You find yourself projecting less and seeing the world more clearly and passionately. You experience a deepened gratitude for the richness of life, for the many opportunities that await you.

Soulcraft Musings 13/10/17 – The Death Lodge, Pt1.

The Death Lodge, Part 1 (reproduced from Animas Valley Institute
This is the first part of a four-part Musing (one per week)

Friday, October 13, 2017
A candidate for soul initiation knows what she has taken on. She’s preparing to die in order to be reborn. She must abandon her old home to set out for her new home. She longs for the journey but is understandably terrified by the prospect. To help her approach the edge, her guides might suggest some time in the “death lodge.” [1]
The death lodge is a symbolic and/or literal place, separate from the ongoing life of the community, to which the Wanderer retires to say good-bye to what her life has been. She may dwell there a full month or more, or, during the course of a year, an hour or two every day, or several long weekends. Some of her death lodge work will take place in the cauldron of her imagination and emotions, while at other times it will occur face-to-face with friends, family, and lovers. She will wrap up unfinished emotional and worldly business to help release herself from her past.
In her death lodge, she will see that the life she is leaving has contained both joy and pain, success and failure, love and the absence of love. Some of the central people in her life have played the roles of villains or victims, others of heroes. No matter. Now all the paths of possibilities within her former life are going to converge at a single inevitable point up ahead: the ending of her old way of belonging to the world.
In the death lodge she will say good-bye to her accustomed ways of loving and hating, to the places that have felt most like home, to the social roles that gave her pleasure and self-definition, to the organizations and institutions that both shaped and limited her growth, and also to her parents or caregivers who birthed her and raised her and who will soon, in a way, be losing a daughter.
She might choose to end her involvement with some people, places, and roles. In other cases, she might only need to shift her relationship to them. Although she must surrender her old way of belonging to the world, she need not violate sacred contracts. Some contracts might have to be renewed at a deeper level. It is essential she does not fool herself: embarking on the underworld journey is not a legitimate justification for abdicating preexisting agreements or responsibilities to others.
Whether ending or shifting relationships, she will feel and express her gratitude, love, forgiveness, her good-byes. She will say the difficult and important things previously unsaid. She may or may not visit with each person in the flesh, but she will certainly have many poignant and emotional encounters.
If her parents were not criminally abusive, she will forgive them for not being who she wanted them to be. If they are still alive, she will attempt this in person. This may be the most important and difficult part of her death lodge. She knows by now no parents are perfect nurturers and all have their own wounds. She knows that surrendering her former identity requires her to heal her own wounds to the point she no longer harbors the fantasy that her human parents will somehow become perfect (or merely healthy or responsible) or that she will find someone else — a lover or therapist — to be her perfect parent. As in her Loyal Soldier work, she must learn to relate to herself as a healthy parent to a child.
In her death lodge, the Wanderer also mourns. She grieves her personal losses and the collective losses of war, race or gender oppression, environmental destruction, community and family disintegration, or spiritual emptiness. Not only does she cease to push the painful memories away but she invites them into her lodge and looks them in the eye. She allows her body to be seized by those griefs, surrendering to the gestures, postures, and cries of sorrow. She grieves in order to let her heart open fully again. She knows at the bottom of those grief waters lies a treasure, the source of her greater life. David Whyte writes:
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.[2]
Each of us has been, at times, the one who stood above a dark well and “wished for something else” — namely, that we ourselves wouldn’t have to descend into the waters of grief, that our wishes would come true without our having to suffer in the process. During the descent to soul, we surrender our comfortable lives above the waters. We enter depths so dark we fear we will die, and in a way, we will.

Soulcraft Musings 22/9/17 – Finding Heart in the Dark Pt1.

Part 1 Finding Heart in the Dark (reproduced from Animas Valley Institute
This is the first part of a two-part Musing (one per week).

Friday, September 22, 2017

During my first few years of backcountry wandering, I carried a large hunting knife, at least seven inches long. I never showed it to anyone, but at night it lived with me inside my sleeping bag. I was panicked by what I imagined might come out of the night to eat me. Every night, upon first getting into my bag, I would repeatedly practice unzipping it as fast as humanly possible, grabbing my knife, and unsheathing it — all in one motion. Just in case. I didn’t sleep well.

Gradually, through years of wilderness immersion, I learned to befriend the dark and to uncover (sometimes) the personal demons I projected onto the outer shadows. Now I can say there is no place that feels more like home than my sleeping bag beneath a roof of stars. And I haven’t seen that knife for years.

Michael, a fellow psychologist and wilderness guide, has also wrestled with his fear of the wild dark — on the first night of his first vision fast, for example.

It was past midnight, moonless black, when I prepared my altar. Questions and anxieties began to fill my mind.       What if I got really sick? No emergency room up here. What if I became hypothermic or dehydrated, or got stomach cramps? Then I imagined grizzlies, mountain lions, and bobcats. I began working myself into a full-blown panic.

I heard a rustling of leaves in the woods, not ten yards away. My heart jumped. I tried to make out an image. Ever so slowly, the noise moved through the darkness toward me. It must be an animal of some kind. Friend or foe? A grizzly or some psychotic killer hiding out in the backcountry? I froze. A dark shape approached, seeming to show no fear. I sensed a gentleness, an openness. I closed my eyes and tried opening my heart. The sound made its way through the dark. I opened my eyes. Something passed in front of me and mysteriously continued into the woods. A doe! Her beauty and grace deeply touched me. My eyes welled with tears. Such gentleness in the midst of my fears!

On the last day, I began to have anxieties about how to incorporate what I had experienced; how to stay true to myself and not let demands of my home and work life overtake me. I prayed to see the doe a second time. I knelt down, kissed the grass, gave thanks to the earth, trees, air, and the Creator for providing safe passage. I looked up — and there she was. My body shook with elation. I wept.

I knew then that, come what may, life would flow on, as fierce and gentle as the river and the wind. My task was to let go and let myself be carried, each day closer to home.

For me, the key element in Michael’s story is this: in the midst of his fear, he closed his eyes, voluntarily going deeper into the dark, and opened his heart.

To read past Musings click here.


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


2018 Programs launched – Early bird runs until November 1.

With much pleasure, we welcome you to our new website and our 2018 Soulcraft Australia programs. We will once again be joined by two American guides, Brian Stafford and Rebecca Wildbear, for a rich and varied range of programs. Robert Boyle, co-producer of Soulcraft Australia and a senior apprentice with the Soulcraft Apprenticeship and Initiation Program (SAIP), will also be joining the guide team.

Following on from from our successful 2017 program, (see 2017 Programs and Testimonials), we now present a series of new courses. As with our inaugural courses, our 2018 offerings have not previously been run on home shores. Before 2017, for those wishing to experience the work of the Animas Valley Institute, the only option was to travel overseas.

First up, in early Autumn 2018 we offer the Wild Mind Intensive,  a 5 day experiential exploration of our human psyches as unique expressions of the universal forces and patterns of nature. This will be followed by the Blue Mountains Animas Quest,  a contemporary Western embodiment of the ancient, pan-cultural vision fast – a dynamic wilderness rite for men and women seeking greater depth and clarity about life purpose and meaning. The third program, Courting the Muse offers an opportunity to participate in the conversation between Mystery and Manifestation, Ego and Soul, and Self and World.

We are currently working on further programs to be presented in Spring 2018. Stay tuned for updates.

Please visit Upcoming Programs for more information and Register and Pay if you would like to register for any of these courses. You can register and pay online using Paypal or direct deposit.

Places are limited so please let us know whether you are interested in any of these wonderful nature immersion experiences. A thirty percent non refundable deposit will reserve your place. A ten percent Early bird discount applies until November 1, 2017.

Any questions, do not hesitate to contact us,

Wild wishes,

Carin Eisen and Robert Boyle


Inaugural Soulcraft Musings from Bill Plotkin 20 January 2017

 Soulcraft Musings Inaugural Introduction (reproduced from Animas Valley Institute

Today, January 20, 2017, we inaugurate Soulcraft Musings, a new offering from Animas Valley Institute (see below). This is the same day America inaugurates a new president, a cultural upheaval currently mobilizing thousands of response teams worldwide. On this day we commence our humble project of Soulcraft Musings in support of the deepening, diversification, and flourishing of all life. At this time in the world, may we all inaugurate actions and projects that collectively give birth to a life-enhancing society.

The journey of descent to soul has largely been forgotten in mainstream culture, but there is nothing more essential in the world today. The experiential encounter with soul is the key element in the initiatory journey that culminates in true adulthood. And true adults — visionary artisans — are the generators of the most creative and effective actions in defense of all life and in the renaissance and evolution of generative human cultures.

The encounter with soul is not a weekend workshop but an unfolding journey over many months or years. Harvesting its fruit and feeding the world with its bounty plays out over the rest of one’s life. Every day holds opportunities for each of us to prepare for the journey to the underworld of soul, or, once we have embarked upon the journey, to take our next steps, or to gather its mystical treasures and hone them into practical shapes, or to fashion never-before-seen delivery systems for carrying these gifts to the Earth community.

We, at Animas Valley Institute, would like to gift you with this weekly email of trail markers (cairns) on the journey to soul. These Soulcraft Musings, although each only a couple minutes of reading, will be, we trust, valuable guidelines and support on your journey. Each includes references for further reading, study, and practice. And each features a resonant image and poem.

The central theme that ties together all the Musings is, of course, soul and the human encounter with soul. But even the original depth meaning of the word soul has been lost to the modern mind. What we at Animas mean when we speak or write about soul is not what you’ll find in contemporary religious, spiritual, philosophical, or psychological traditions or in everyday conversation. We’ll explore these and many other fundamentals and principles in Soulcraft Musings.

If you’re already on our list, you’ll receive an email with a Soulcraft Musing once a week. If you’re not on our list and would like to subscribe, please click here.

And please feel free to share Soulcraft Musings widely with friends, family, and colleagues.

In wildness and wonder,

Bill Plotkin


Animas Valley Institute