Photo by Jerry and Pat Donaho | https://tricy.cl/2kuGWMP
Bill Plotkin, a psychologist and wilderness guide, talks about the Buddhist connection to going into the woods to find yourself.By Leath Tonino
ll 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?…