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Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche

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For millennia, ceremonies and initiation rites have helped societies survive and thrive by marking life transitions. In contemporary America, except for bar mitzvahs, graduations, and weddings, these rituals are conspicuous by their absence. Written for people in search of their true selves--particularly those on the verge of adulthood and those at a major crossroads such as divorce or carrier change--"Soulcraft restores the ritual to its rightful place as a crucial part of personal growth and self-employment. Exercises and insightful stories explain how to discover one's unique gift, or "soul purpose," to be shared with others through a ceremonial event. Drawing on ancient traditions, this vision quest serves as a modern rite of initiation.

400 pages, Paperback

First published August 29, 2003

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About the author

Bill Plotkin

8 books69 followers
Bill Plotkin, Ph.D., is a depth psychologist, wilderness guide, and agent of cultural evolution. As founder of southwest Colorado's Animas Valley Institute, he has, since 1980, guided thousands of women and men through nature-based initiatory passages, including a contemporary, Western adaptation of the pan-cultural vision fast. He's also been a research psychologist (studying nonordinary states of consciousness), professor of psychology, rock musician, and whitewater river guide. In 1979, on a solo winter ascent of an Adirondack mountain, Bill experienced a "call to spiritual adventure," leading him to abandon academia in search of his true calling. 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), and Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche (an ecocentric map of the psyche -- for healing, growing whole, and cultural transformation). His doctorate in psychology is from the University of Colorado at Boulder. To learn more about Bill Plotkin and Animas Valley Institute, visit http://www.animas.org

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 99 reviews
Profile Image for Avonlea Rose.
157 reviews23 followers
June 14, 2017
Plotkin is an eco-therapist and wilderness guide, who writes about what he terms the "soul," and the art of engaging and understanding it. He explains that encounters with our soul provide us with our life's purpose, and help us to live in harmony with nature. I had picked up the book anticipating more of a guide book about what one does to achieve "Soul Crafting," particularly as the book is set up this way; however, it turned out to be more of an expose on the experience.

I was completely interested and hooked in at the beginning of this book; but I felt my interest in it dwindling as I went along. My initial reaction to this book was that the best way I could relate my experience of this book is that it is rather like entering a thrift shop: with many things that are not so appealing about it, yet, if you persevere, there are some gems hidden amongst it. At the end of the book, however, I was left wondering if those few gems were good enough to merit the rest of it.. and my final answer is no.

Plotkin can be incredibly long-winded and often redundant. He is particularly keen on providing endless examples and anecdotes, even if they aren't interesting for the reader, such as his use of his dream about Blue and Red. Another thing about Plotkin is that he likes coining his own phrases and repeating them often (such as "Second Cocoon") which I find to be an irksome, and somewhat distracting, habit. In some instances, it can leave the reader at a loss as to what Plotkin is even trying to get at; such as in Plotkin's list of events where we might have encountered our soul (on page 317), which includes "a dark night of the soul." Just what is "a dark night of the soul," Mr. Plotkin? However, Plotkin nonetheless has a smooth and pleasant narrative that is poetic and rich with imagery, which will likely appeal to many readers.

I did enjoy a number of Plotkin's ideas; however - a warning to the reader - some of his other ideas do get quite out-there. He fancies talking about feeding bodies to vultures, for instance, and, in another, smearing shit on oneself in order to re-enact a dream. Another thing here- I had hoped Plotkin would provide more evidence to support his ideas (being his occupation as a psychologist), but he doesn't seem really interested in that and instead draws primarily on anecdotal evidence and other non-academic works. He goes on a few great leaps and bounds, asserting several times, for instance, that we are reincarnated souls. Perhaps I could and should have expected this from a book that is ultimately a book on spirituality.

One last thing about "Soulcraft," and which annoyed me, was the reckless manner that Plotkin uses to endorse many "soulcraft techniques" that could be dangerous. For instance, he goes on at great length about the benefits of fasting; but, never once does he seem obliged to forewarn anyone that fasting may not be for everyone, or that it may be advisable to see a doctor before fasting for long lengths of time. He devotes much of the book to writing about adventuring in the wilds and going on vision quests; but he barely touches on the practical concerns of such an endeavor, or provide recommendations for developing practical skills before embarking on these adventures and quests. Maybe Plotkin hopes that everyone will seek out Animas Valley Institute for help adventuring in the wilderness. Or perhaps Plotkin simply does not care about the reader's safety, as he often writes that danger and dances with death are required for "encounters with the soul." On page 37, he tells us about the Dagara people who undertake initiation rituals where "the small risk of death is preferable to the living death of an uninitiated life." Perhaps for some, but I question the ethics of composing a book that encourages people to endanger themselves.

Although I didn't enjoy this book myself, perhaps if you are a patient reader and are especially interested in nature-based spirituality and eco-psychology (I see this book possibly appealing to the hippiest of hippies), then this book may be worth your time and provide a starting point for getting in touch with "true self" and "finding more meaningful ways to exist in the world". I, however, would still suggest that you most definitely want to explore other books on the topic, and seek out more complete resources. Plotkin does provide some of his own suggestions at the back of his book.

Yet I wouldn't recommend it. In summary, it started as a reasonable read with some interesting ideas, but was lacking in constraint, focus, and a certain je ne sais quoi that would have kept me more engaged. It didn't help that, along the way, it just got way way too out there for my personal tastes with far more bad than good. It would be more suiting to name this one "Soul Crap."
30 reviews5 followers
March 29, 2016
After a four-month journey savouring SoulCraft – reading, contemplating, rereading, questioning, discussing, and rereading again, I closed the cover today, tenderly as if biding farewell to a much loved friend. I have loved this book.

I facilitate a Spiritual Literacy Group, for a group of international and interfaith women who gather together with the shared intent of cultivating spirit and a soulful dimension to life, through reading and discussing spiritually themed books. We meet twice a month, spending weeks and sometimes several months on any given book. A reference to Bill Plotkin and Soulcraft caught my eye while the group was reading Linda Kavelin Popov’s A Pace of Grace – The Virtues of a Sustainable Life. In a chapter entitled Lead with a Passion, Popov cited Plotkin’s use of a quote by Frederick Buechner in Soulcraft: "Our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world’s hunger meet." In a chapter What is Your Yes? she refers to Plotkin’s groundbreaking work (Soulcraft) saying he "presents a model of the life of the soul that delineates each phase of life from birth to elderhood and the soul tasks that accompany each stage. At times we need the virtues of purposefulness and determination, at other gentleness and detachment. Each of us is here for a purpose and it is our sacred obligation to become mindful enough to discern it." (pg 174) Plotkin’s central theme is helping his readers to understand that everyone has a purpose. Then with beautifully crafted prose, he guides us the wayfarer or wanderer on a path to identify, claim and embody our soul’s purpose, not only for our self-betterment, but for the service and betterment of the world.

Why did I love Soulcraft?

For one it reacquainted me with profound ideas from authors I have read in the past in a new meaningful light: Joseph Campbell, A Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God; C.G Jung and his explorations of the unconscious mind, James Hillman and James Hollis. It prompted me to explore indigenous nature-based people’s spiritual communion of the human soul with the deeper powers of nature and with a dependency on a universe that provides for both physical and spiritual needs. (I’ve enrolled in an online course on Native American Spirituality and Religion as a result.)

Reading and contemplating Soulcraft placed me on a new learning curve – intellectually, psychologically as well as spiritually. For a person who has considered themselves a spiritual seeker for more than thirty years, that’s exciting. I had never before considered that spiritual development and growth was a dual journey – that of a Descent into darkness and Soul as well as an Ascent to the light and Spirit; which together bring about a connection of ego, soul and spirit and ultimately wholeness.

It opened my eyes to the sanctity and sacred powers of nature, as well as to our dire collective need to escape our soul-squelching twenty-first century saran-wrapped enclaves in order to glean ancient truths and wisdom of nature as treasured by generations of indigenous people. There is another way to live.

The path of the wanderer, collective unconscious, a second cocoon and second adulthood, sacred wound, loyal soldiers, soul initiation, ego centric and soul centric relationships and more-than-human-world are all part of a liturgy of terms and concepts in Soulcraft that stimulates, baffles, releases, broadens, illuminates and ultimately enlightens.

While reading Popov’s A Pace of Grace, mentioned earlier, our Spiritual Literacy Group was introduced to Popov’s Virtue Cards and the concept of a virtue pick – a pack of cards which describes in detail a particular virtue, what that virtue looks like, and how it is practiced. A virtue pick is a random selecting of a virtue card, followed by discussion on how it might apply to a person/group. Our pick for the last session discussing Soulcraft was the virtue of initiative:
Initiative is originality and creativity in action. When we have initiative, we boldly express new ideas, discover a new method, or find a different way to solve a problem… We accept responsibility as an engaging opportunity to apply our own ideas. We spring to challenge with enthusiasm. We call on discernment to forge a new way. We use our creativity to bring something new in the world. We initiate, we dare to be original.

Among Plotkin’s parting instructions is: "You must now speak your vision into the world." "You must learn to act on what the soul has revealed to you." "You must create ways to act on what you received. A vision without a task is just a dream."

Profile Image for Byron Barnes.
3 reviews
September 11, 2020
Had I read Soulcraft years ago, I'd have dismissed it as New Age garbage. Plotkin implores us to speak (out loud) to animals and rocks, engage in "deep imagery" with an animal totem pole of our chakras, stand in raging storms after starving ourselves for days, and (of course) carry healing crystals around with us to protect ourselves. It's all too much.

But I still enjoyed reading about it. I think any perspective which shifts us a bit more towards intuition, spirituality, and a general softening of attitudes could be beneficial in an age of dispassionate rationalism.

Why only three stars? It goes on a bit too long, and the underlying assumption that everyone is destined to go on this soul/underworld journey is a bit dogmatic. There are plenty of people not far enough up Maslow's heirarchy to be wading out into their dream worlds. Perhaps if Soulcraft was just a bit more rooted in this reality it could speak to everyone and not just the privileged.
5 reviews
March 24, 2010
Soulcraft masterfully explores the deep and mystical connections between the human psyche, soul, and nature and does it using simple, eloquent language to describe richly nuanced ideas about spirituality, wholeness, initiation, and truth. Although the entirety of Bill Plotkin’s inspired work is magical, radical, and thought-provoking, I found the sections that describe the ceremonial opportunities provided by our transition into adulthood the most fascinating and, to use an en vogue term, relevant.

The authors’ descriptions of soul and spirit are critical to understanding his message. He describes spirit as ethereal, upperworld, a recognition of Oneness, and a transcendence of ego and attachment. Uncovering one’s soul requires that we search inward, downward, into our own dark depths. Plotkin explains, “Our spiritual growth is meant to go in both directions, toward the fertile darkness and the glorious light; each of us having the opportunity to bridge earth and heaven – through the trunks of our middleworld lives” (p. 34).

Having defined these key terms, Soulcraft asserts the following: 1) each of us embodies a unique soul that holds within it our life’s purpose, the framework of which is service to others 2) an initiation is necessary to become a true adult and to recognize and live this purpose 3) violence in all its forms is permeating our post industrial society more and more because we no longer value or practice formal initiation into adulthood 4) we must, therefore, discover/explore/invent new rites of passage that address our unique, modern needs 5) these new ways of initiation, if implemented will save us from destroying ourselves.

Plotkin’s soul initiation process utilizes many of same elements found in traditional rites of passage in most nature-based societies. He divides the experience into three main parts – severance, soul encounter, and return. It begins with an initial “call to adventure”, leaving home, a period of wandering, facing challenges both internal and external, solitude in some form, manifesting activities, soul encountered, truth revealed, obstacles overcome, a return to community, sharing knowledge gained and offering of new insights.
The author makes another important observation that resounds throughout his text. Plotlkin asserts that to live with soul, to manifest out truest natures, we must engage in sacred service. “Our sacred work is what nature-based traditions call our giveaway to our people and place” (2003, p. 39), Plotkin explains. He believes that the chronic despair and emptiness experienced by so many in the western world is due in large part to the fact that we are not connected to our communities through benevolent work. We grieve this absence of involvement with something outside ourselves because it goes against the true, interconnected nature of humanity. But all is not lost. Plotkin suggests that “by consciously honoring our grief – the absence of vision and sacred work – we take our first steps toward soul discovery and personal fulfillment. We begin the return to our true nature” (2003, p. 41). Soulcraft affirms with great wisdom and profound clarity that soul initiation and encounter are not only possible in this world but also essential to our healthy survival.
Profile Image for Sara.
161 reviews10 followers
March 12, 2020
I really wanted to like this book. I have been trying to read it for months, and I've only made it about 200 pages in. I'm admitting defeat. It goes back to the library today, where hopefully someone else will benefit from it. Maybe it didn't hit me at the right point in my life. I mostly just felt depressed that I didn't know my soul, and this book was really nebulous about how to do that. "Wander in nature starving yourself," "go into a trance," "sign up for my institute." Rather than making soulcraft seem accessible, this book made it feel impossible. I can't just quit my job and wander through the wilderness, hoping to find my true purpose in life. Maybe if I'd managed to read the whole thing, I'd have found ways I could actually implement, but every time I sat down to read this book, I found my mind wandering and would have to reread paragraphs. I think because the writing was a little meandering and unfocused, but I'm not entirely sure why I didn't connect with it. TL;DR: maybe other people will find it to be the book they need to change their lives, but this wasn't the book for me.
Profile Image for Megs.
65 reviews20 followers
February 9, 2011
I would give this 3.5 stars if I could. My advice regarding this book is to read its pages with an open mind and take away from it whatever resonates with you.
Profile Image for Nick.
690 reviews22 followers
September 29, 2010
Plotkin's premise is that we must each discover our purpose on this planet, not just by "ascending" into the spiritual realm, but by "descending" into the realm of the soul, which is where our uniqueness lies. To do so, he suggests a radical life disruption involving nature, things like vision quests, mountaintop fasts, and group rituals (much of which he offers in his own practice). I'm not ready to sign up yet, but his cosmology is fascinating. My key reservation is the length of the examples. I'm not nearly as interested in his clients' lives as he seems to be.
Profile Image for Sarah Esmae Wolfe.
164 reviews78 followers
January 2, 2021
I think this book is excellent but I don't think everyone should read it. It would be a 5 star read for me but I subtracted a star because I believe fasting in any form to be problematic. If you have struggled with an eating disorder or are currently suffering from depression (the author makes this disclaimer himself), don't pick this up. If not and you are looking to connect your spiritual practice with nature, I highly recommend. It changed the way I view a lot of things especially going into the darker half of the year.
11 reviews3 followers
November 20, 2008
I read this a few years ago (while I was transitioning out of Bastyr College of Naturopathy). I loved the concept of marrying yourself; meaning, acknowledging the divine feminine and masculine in yourself and finding balance & wholeness within.
October 1, 2015
Powerful perspective changer. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will need to revisit this book frequently.
Profile Image for Nurete.
15 reviews2 followers
April 5, 2019
Some quotes from the book that moved me:

"The gift you carry for others is not an attempt to save the world, but to fully belong to it. It's not even possible to save the world by trying to save it. You need to find what is genuinely yours to offer the world before you can make it a better place. Discovering the unique gift to bring to your community is your greatest opportunity and challenge. The offering of that gift - your true self - is the most you can do to love and serve the world ... and it is all the world needs." Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft.

And also:

The call to adventure is the prologue to the journey of descent. The call comes when it's time to inherit a greater life, to plunge yourself into the limitless expanse and depth the world affords. This is both a crisis and an unsurpassed opportunity. The old way of life has been outgrown. The familiar goals, attitudes and patterns of relationships no longer fit your developing sense of who you truly are. The time as arrived to step over a threshold into a whole new way of being...Whatever allows you to hear the call, you find your nose suddenly pressed up against the existential questions you have been successfully avoiding. What is my life about anyway? For what do I live...
It is always possible, however to refuse the call entirely and to turn th eear back to the egocentric interests of unrewarding work, relationships and "culture." The refusal of the call turns our flowering world into a wasteland of open-pit mines and clear cut, strip malls and billboards." Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft, Pp 48-49.
Profile Image for Andjelka Jankovic.
171 reviews6 followers
May 29, 2019
I honestly think this may be one of the most transformative books I’ve ever read - speaking directly to my curiosity to ‘this can’t be it’ by unravelling the life you are meant to lead, if you are courageous enough to go after it.

Bill writes like a soul who has been there and done that, and come back with stories and revelations to prove his points. I love the concept that your first life is your ‘summer house’ and the life you are meant to live - one of freedom and living your life’s purpose - comes after you leave your first home.

Recommended reading for anyone who’s ever had a crisis of self (so basically everyone!)
Profile Image for Madalina Nastase.
120 reviews11 followers
March 21, 2019
I loved how practical this book ended up being. In addition to providing a framework for the soul/spirit dilemma, it guided me through a journey that seemed 'unchartable'. From daily practices to words of wisdom, it gave me the legend and the map for the things I didn't know I was searching for. It will take a few rereads to integrate all these lessons :)
Profile Image for Lisa.
64 reviews
August 20, 2021
There were some good gems in here but I didn't connect much with the stories. I love the work of the Animas Institute and this book provides the framework. I resonated more with Wild Mind, though I'm glad I read both.
Profile Image for Johnny Stork, MSc.
31 reviews3 followers
September 26, 2014
Although a long read, with some dry and even repetitive sections, Bill Plotkin’s Soulcraft is good introduction for anyone who might be feeling like their life is not their own. Soulcraft is about allowing yourself to recognize, experience, seek-out, value and most of all, nourish and encourage the essence of your soul. I am not talking about some sort of ethereal, ghost-like apparition that flies out of your body at death and is judged by some bearded guy in the clouds who decides to shuffle you off to some Heavenly or Devilish eternity. That particular view of soul is a silly, childish and naive fairytale developed out of human ignorance, mythological/religious misinterpretation and a psychological/spiritual vacuum. I am talking about that True Nature of who you are in your essence, the soul of your Being. The core and fundamental aspect of who and what you are unblemished or discolored by social or ego-driven influences. We often hear the expression “be authentic” or “be true to your True Nature”. This is the soul that Plotkin writes about in Soulcraft. And all through his book Plotkin reminds us that this journey of identifying and nourishing our True Nature, our Soul, is not an easy task given how relentlessly our ego, and society, will work to keep it hidden, compliant, inauthentic and disingenuous.

“The ego fears an initial encounter with soul, and understandably so: on the way to soul initiation, it will have to surrender everything it has come to believe about itself. Initiation is a process “costing not less than everything,” to use T. S. Eliot's phrase.7 Our ego's job, after all, is to draw the line between what is possible for us personally and what isn't. To undergo a radical change in self-concept, there must be a shift in our understanding of what is possible. This can occur only when we encounter what previously had been literally unthinkable. Such an encounter requires a non-ordinary state of awareness.” (Bill Plotkin)

But the effort is certainly worthwhile as there is nothing like the sense of confidence, certainty and of course clarity and fulfillment that comes when one is comfortable in their own skin - secure in their sense of self and authentic to its expression. There are many ways through which one can identify, nourish and live a life true to one’s nature, true to one’s soul. Bill Plotkin shows us many of those ways, techniques and opportunities to hone your own Soulcraft.

“The good news is that if you commit yourself to uncovering and living your soul image, to living as if your place in the world mattered, you will embark on the most engaging, mysterious, and fulfilling journey of your life, a journey of enchantment, pathos, joy, life, and death. If you dare to sing your true song, you shall inherit the beauty and terror of your deeper life. On your deathbed, you will not be filled with regret for a life unlived. And, following soul initiation, you will experience the unparalleled rewards of contributing your unique gifts to a world in need, more in need now than ever. Doing so allows your deepest human nature to once again join greater nature.” (Bill Plotkin)
Profile Image for Kenzie.
150 reviews
March 9, 2021
This book points to the turn away from intuition, nature, and soul that much of Western civilization has taken and offers a way back. Our science and capitalism has given us the significant gifts of health and easy--even pleasurable--lives, and yet we have payed the price in terms of losing deep meaning that often comes from confronting our human frailty within the bigger natural world. Soulcraft is Plotkin's way of recovering meaning in our lives, in way that balances the typical Western attitude of transcending nature and ignoring embodiment. His final thoughts on returning to the world were very helpful to me, particularly his assertion that soul images rarely translate directly to job titles (p 306). If soulcraft is a way to reconnect with our individual gifts and purpose, of course we can't confine ourselves to culturally constructed identities. On the level of these ideas, I loved this book.

On the level of how to get there, I'm more ambivalent. The stories and "pathways to soul" he includes are inspiring, but I'm not sure I needed so many stories as were included. I ended up skipping large sections of the book because the stories weren't suiting my needs. As far as the pathways are concerned, they just didn't resonate. I'm finding that seasonal rituals and more mundane ways of being in nature (walking, gardening, paying attention) are good for me. Of course, the whole point of Soulcraft is that we Westerners need to radically alter our connection to nature, and yet I feel that my reorientation toward more soulful living has been quite gentle.
Profile Image for Tracy.
282 reviews
December 2, 2018
Can’t really decide on 3 or 4 stars for this one. I really, really enjoyed this book and got so much out of reading it. The problem was the emphasis on the wilderness expedition as a requirement for soul craft. I love being in nature and obviously think it’s an enormously important component of soul development. I just don’t think i need to put myself at risk by heading out into an unknown environment without food or shelter for days on end. One can develop one’s soul without being stupid. Additionally, being able to engage in an expedition such as the ones described is a huge sign that one leads a very privileged life. It IS possible to engage in many of these practices without having to spend thousands of dollars on an experience.

All that aside, i still loved the book. So 4 stars it is. I’m incorporating the ideas into my every day life. No 4 days of naked starvation in the desert required.
Profile Image for Zornitsa Tomova.
27 reviews19 followers
October 24, 2018
Wow! Just wow. What a book! The deepest resource on soul and meaning I've encountered, coming into my life at exactly the right time. It introduced me to a framework that allowed me to understand the big picture of my soul journey so far, as well a huge set of tools and practices I can't wait to explore further. But most importantly - it gave me inspiration and support for deepening my nature- and soul-centric work and bringing its gifts out into the world. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Teri P.
22 reviews14 followers
December 10, 2012
I am enjoying this book. Recommended for a guide to initiation. Finished this book. I am not in complete agreement with this author's explanation of soul. However, I found it very worthwhile read. The book lays out basic components to initiation, which is helpful. He is obviously influenced by James Hillman, which is a great source of reading about the nature of soul.

Profile Image for Kaycee Paget.
1 review2 followers
December 8, 2018
This book challenged me and stretched me and involved many a-ha moments. Very thought provoking. Well written. Beautiful poetry. A must-read for anyone interested in expanding and growing in a deeply connected way.
Profile Image for Brynne Betz.
Author 2 books14 followers
September 28, 2008
wise fodder for a hungry psyche....I hear and ingest this man's insightful perspectives and recommend him to anyone interested in some good old fashioned inner work.
4 reviews
Currently reading
June 8, 2008
a beautiful guide to continue the journey of following one's soul path... one of the deepest and moving books I've read
Profile Image for Aaron Hoopes.
Author 18 books18 followers
March 8, 2014
Absolutely fantastic book on the process of crafting the soul and putting to rest all of the habits and behaviors that no longer serve us.
28 reviews
June 6, 2010
A distillation of 20 years of 'work' in these varied disciplines...an incredible inquiry of spirit, earth and self.
Profile Image for Eva.
14 reviews1 follower
June 28, 2010
As I read, I learn more about, "an unmet longing for wildness, mystery, and a meaningful engagement with the world." (p. 1)
Profile Image for Stephanie.
240 reviews6 followers
August 29, 2013
A profoundly insightful book into the process and experience of soul initiation and individual purpose in a modern world.
Profile Image for Nick Z.
1 review
November 2, 2014
Transformational! I'm seeking to meet others who incorporate soulcraft practices into their daily lives.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 99 reviews

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