Bill Plotkin has led thousands of people into the woods, the mountains, and canyons. Far from casual beer-and-sunscreen camping trips, these adventures are crafted to facilitate “the descent to soul.” They help participants find out what is most unique about themselves and what will benefit their communities when they return to everyday life.
A psychologist and wilderness guide, Plotkin, 66, is the author of three books, most recently Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche. He also founded Colorado’s Animas Valley Institute, an organization that offers multi-day immersions in remote wilderness areas and at retreat centers on the edge of wild places. Programs have names like “Becoming Earth: Discovering Soul as Ecological Niche” and “Winter Desert Quest.”
While Plotkin’s work is broadly spiritual, as opposed to narrowly religious, there are many Buddhist undertones. He believes, for instance, along with many people who meditate daily, that change at the personal level—in an individual’s heart and mind—ripples out to impact the broader world. As we spoke, I kept thinking that time alone in nature, when approached from a certain angle, can be much like time “on the cushion.”
I met Plotkin for this interview at his home near the Animas River on the outskirts of Durango, Colorado. It was an autumn morning, crisp and bright, with snow dusting the nearby San Juan Mountain’s highest peaks. We talked for two hours beside a crackling fireplace, pausing only to add more logs to the blaze.
You lead people on pan-cultural vision fasts. What are these?
It’s a practice found in many cultures around the world, including early Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist traditions, as well as ancient and current native traditions of the Americas. It involves going out into the wild alone for three or four days to fast and seek a revelation of soul-infused life purpose. It’s designed to help people uncover their greatest gift, and I mean “gift” not only in terms of what is most unique about them, but also in terms of what they can offer to their people.
Within any human community there are limited resources for maintaining a community’s vitality. From time to time people need to get away from the village, not just physically, but psychologically and spiritually. They need to move beyond what we call “village consciousness” to find something that doesn’t yet exist within the village. All cultures need this ongoing dialogue between the wild and the civilized.
An individual’s deepest fulfillment comes through service. I emphasize this because the Western world tends to be narcissistic. Our psychotherapy is all about fixing “me,” and we’re obsessed with our own personal development. So part of the vision fast ceremony is the reminder that we’re searching for something that will help us serve our people, and that by serving our people we will be fulfilled.
Do we also end up helping the more-than-human community?
Yes. The vision always comes from soul, and soul is an aspect of nature. If the vision is true and we embody it well, we embody our place in the more-than-human world. Doing so always serves the greater web of life.
I don’t mean soul in any religious or New Age sense. To put it simply, soul is our ecological identity. You might say it’s like a niche. A moose has a specific way of belonging to the earth, as does a cottonwood tree, as does a human.
The goal of the vision fast is something completely different from what we call vocational guidance. We’re not seeking a job or a social role. We’re asking what did earth birth me to be in this life?
The answer to that question is communicated to us by the soul or by earth in the form of a nature-based metaphor or image. It seems that our human consciousness evolved to enable us to appreciate a deep resonance with the natural world. If we can quiet our consciousness during four days of being alone and fasting, our awareness will be drawn to a process or a creature or an event.
A true vision reveals a metaphor that is so emotionally resonant that it brings us to our knees. We look into the mirror of nature and see the deepest version of our self reflected back.
Can you tell me about your first wilderness fast?
In my late 20s, I was a psychology professor in Albany, New York. I ran a research laboratory that studied nonordinary states of consciousness. I mentored graduate students and was publishing research papers in psychology journals. But I often wondered whether this was a fitting life path for me.
In the winter of 1978, I drove up to the Adirondacks to do a solo ascent of one of the peaks. When I reached the summit, I looked out over a vast panorama of mountains, everything so still and quiet. Way down below in one valley, the bend of a river was shining. The moment I saw that shining water, an intense emotion that seemed to be both grief and hope rose up from my belly. In that moment I realized that everything—my job, my community, my home—had to be left behind. I had to go off wandering until I found that shining thing in some distant valley.
And this experience put you on the path toward a vision fast?
Yes, this was my experience of what the mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke of as the call to spiritual adventure. I resigned from my position in Albany and not long after, found myself in Oregon training as a psychotherapist, offering early versions of what has since come to be called “ecotherapy,” which is basically therapy conducted outdoors and deepened by the human-earth relationship. That year, a friend told me about Steven Foster and Meredith Little, who were bringing the pan-cultural tradition of the vision fast back to the Western world. I felt very drawn to what they were doing.
In August of 1980, with guidance from Foster and Little, I took myself into the high peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I hiked to an alpine lake just below the treeline and fasted for most of five days. Throughout the fast I communed with one particular spruce, and by the fourth day I began to see it as a monk dressed in a green robe facing the lake. I also got to know a community of pika [small furry mammals related to rabbits] who lived within the talus fields.
It was sometime during that fourth day, as I was focusing on the life of the pikas, that I noticed the monk move his branch-hand. He gestured to his left where I saw a large yellow butterfly. The butterfly flew toward me, brushed the side of my face, and I heard the words “cocoon weaver.”
Honestly, this first felt like a distraction; I was really more interested in the pikas. But moments later, another one of those intense feelings rose up from my belly. I began weeping. I realized I’d just been given an image, or metaphor, that struck at the very core of my psyche. I had no idea what it meant; I just knew it was real.
After the fast was over I spent the following months thinking about this image of weaving cocoons. What does it mean? How will I go about it? My spiritual and vocational path began there. Ever since, I’ve been supporting others to weave cocoons of transformation for themselves.
Monk trees? Talking butterflies? What’s your response to somebody who thinks what you’re describing is insane?
For nature-based peoples whose traditions are still intact, it’s the most common experience to be in communication with the local habitat; everything is animate, breathing, speaking, and connecting. This sensibility is consistent with our innate human psyche, regardless of our culture.
Look at children. No matter the culture, children experience the world as alive and their imagination as real. In the Western world we think the things we imagine are not real, but in fact nothing in life can be fully experienced without a vibrant, deep imagination. It’s not possible to cook well or make love well without imagination. It’s not possible to really engage a pebble or a mountain without imagination. Children have strong imaginations and live in an animate world.
I’ve guided thousands of people on vision fasts and many other ceremonies, and I’ve noticed that for many Westerners these outings are their first visceral experience of the world as fully alive. It’s as if Western culture has built a wall around every one of us. But this wall will often crumble when a person spends four days alone fasting.
Vision fasts are often said to involve a descent and a death. Why would the ego risk its own obliteration?
We’re willing to risk our significance because we know that no matter how much we love the life we have now, it’s only two-dimensional compared to what’s possible. We might say that the call to spiritual adventure feels mystical to us at first, kind of like falling in love.
When we fall in love, it feels like the life we’ve been living is at-risk. But here’s the amazing thing: Most people don’t have a whole lot of qualms about going for it. The romantic allure can be so strong that we say yes despite the danger to our current life and identity. We know if we really surrender and allow ourselves to fall in love—to lose ourselves to the gravity of love—everything will change, and we’re OK with that. This is very much like the relationship with soul, which, in many traditions, is called the great romance.
To play the devil’s advocate: Why should I find my soul? Can’t I get by without it? In a world of mouths to feed and jobs to work, isn’t it a luxury to spend my days in search of soul?
Yes, you can get by without it, and honestly there’s no good reason for you to try and find it. The person asking these kinds of questions is making it clear, just by asking them, that they’re not yet prepared for the quest. Any guide, elder, or therapist who urges that person forward will be doing them a disservice.
The second part of your question has to do with the class aspect, people who are struggling to keep their family fed and perhaps to care for their elderly parents. Everyone needs a “survival dance.” Isn’t the journey toward soul a kind of privilege? Well, yes, it is. But it’s a privilege available to everyone because, as I’ve said, the pull toward soul is innate—we were made for it. In mainstream Western society, however, some groups of people are so oppressed that they rarely get the chance to reach beyond survival mode.
Actually, Western society is designed to keep all people from going on the psycho-spiritual journey toward soul. I think if there were even a large minority of people experiencing vision fasts, the industrial growth society would collapse overnight.
Because most of the mainstream social and vocational roles wouldn’t be of interest to people whose creativity is fully activated. Money, security, power—all these enticements would lose their appeal. Fulfillment is all about participating in the world in a beneficial way, and this alone undermines our capitalist consumer economy. Also, healthy adolescents, adults, and elders are people who experience themselves as members of the more-than-human world; they wouldn’t engage in activities and practices that endanger the health of ecosystems.
What role does wandering play in the journey toward soul?
Wandering is essential to discovering our soul identity, our true place. The poet Mary Oliver says you must “stride deeper and deeper into the world, determined to save the only life you can save.” That’s the life of our soul. To save it we must leave the comfort of our familiar adolescent identity and wander into the mysteries of both psyche and nature.
Your own wandering has led you to various religions. What’s that been like?
I was born into Judaism, my family’s religion. Our temple had lost its roots with not only nature, but with anything remotely mystical. From the beginning, there was no life in Judaism for me.
But I didn’t give up. I kept saying to myself: the spiritual has got to be somewhere. In college I studied Zen Buddhism and meditated daily at a local zendo. Another discipline at that time was the use of hallucinogens, though I prefer the term “entheogens.” Entheogen means “to generate the experience of the divine within oneself.” In college, I also became a student of Kundalini yoga, with its very intense practices for shifting consciousness. And then, while in graduate school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I spent my summers as a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Tibetan Buddhism at Naropa University.
All these spiritual disciplines profoundly altered my sense of the world, but I also felt something essential was missing. These disciplines open our consciousness to what I’ve since learned to call the “upperworld” dimension of spirituality. It’s the experience of being connected to everything else, of being part of the cosmos.
Both the upperworld and underworld spiritualities are transpersonal—meaning beyond the individual ego—but they take us to very different places. The upperworld spiritualities usher us into the universal, whereas the underworld spiritualities guide us into what is most unique about us. We need both. Either one alone is incomplete.
As I became aware that the journey toward what is most mystically unique about us is every bit as spiritual as the journey toward the universal, I noticed that the former journey is entirely missing from the mainstream Western world. If an initiated adult would not have any interest in participating in the capitalistic, life-destroying system, then for that system to exist the journey to soul has to be suppressed. And that’s exactly what’s happened. Upperworld spiritualities are not nearly as threatening to or transformative of consumer culture.
How do we make the shift toward soul if there are so many forces holding us back?
Guides are crucial—people who recognize when someone is hearing the call and say to them: “Don’t worry, you’re not going crazy.” Unfortunately, our psychiatric and psychological system is designed to keep people from asking the bigger questions. When the soul begins to show up, it’s like a weed coming through the concrete. Quick, we need to get you to a psychotherapist to make you a functioning cog again! Quick, swallow this medication! Medication is like a pesticide. Just as a richer life is beginning to crack through the pavement, it gets sprayed.
What does it mean to be a human these days? How do we understand ourselves?
We’re stuck in a number of small stories right now. One story says we’re here to amass as much wealth and as many toys as possible—to have a good time, to be properly entertained and never bored. This story is part of another, larger story about our ecological place in the world, in which we believe that everything was put here for our use; the world is a warehouse and a dumping ground for our waste. Another small story is the shallow religious one that tells us we’re here to do good deeds so we can get to heaven later. These are conformist stories: you’re here to learn the roles and to obey them.
But there are many bigger stories that give us far more agency. I like the story that we’re animals with the capacity to recognize and praise creation. We see this in the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, for example. I also like the version that my partner Geneen Marie Haugen tells, that humans are meant to be the forward-seeing imagination of the planet. As far as we know, we have a capacity that other beings don’t—to imagine possible futures and make them real.
The point is not to settle on one answer, but to look beyond the confines of the story we’ve been given—to stretch our story to see how beautiful and affirming it can get. That reminds me of one more story: We are as natural as anything else on the planet. We emerged from the earth, will enhance life on the earth, and will return to the earth. This becomes clear to us when the walls come down. We just need to remove the obstructions so this ancient human intuition can come flooding back in.
The human ecologist Paul Shepherd has a line: “We can go back to nature because we never left.”
Yes. We’re still native humans. We’ve got an overlay of Western culture’s beliefs, but it’s very thin. The core of us is much older.
Echoing the Tao te ching [an ancient Chinese text], you’ve written that it’s not possible to save the world by trying to save it. What is possible?
What’s possible is belonging to the world in your own unique way. If enough of us find and offer our own gift, the world will change so dramatically that we might end up saying the world has been saved. But really, the world won’t be saved. The world will change. It’s changing as we speak. And we’re participants in and agents of this changing world.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.