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Nature and the Human Soul:
Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World

by Bill Plotkin

Reviewed by Linda Buzzell, M.A., M.F.T.

A new book by ecotherapist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin, Ph.D., founder of the Animas Valley Institute and author of Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, offers many practical riches for therapists and practitioners or students of ecopsychology.
In a fascinating synthesis of indigenous wisdom, non-Western spiritualities, depth psychology, social activism and ecology, Plotkin introduces an ecopsychology of human development that reveals how fully and creatively we can mature when soul and wild nature are allowed to guide us.
He outlines an eight stage wheel of “eco-soulcentric” development from early childhood through death, and includes practical methods of proceeding naturally through these stages.  Some of the names he gives the stages can be confusing or even a little precious (“The Thespian at the Oasis,” “ The Apprentice at the Wellspring”), but a close reading reveals their purpose.
I do a lot of career exploration work with clients, so was especially interested in the stage he calls “The Wanderer in the Cocoon,” which encourages us to follow Native American teacher Harley Swift Deer’s advice to find both our “survival dance” and “sacred dance.”  Plotkin says that this transition is typically seen in late adolescence in indigenous cultures but in our culture may continue into the mid-life crisis era of the 40s and even beyond.
Plotkin includes psychotherapy as one of many valuable tools to employ as we journey through the stages, and he encourages us to explore the “sacred wound” which “holds a key to your destiny.”  
Rather than merely patching up clients and sending them back out into unquestioned, nature-disconnected surroundings after 6 brief sessions or a course of meds, Plotkin suggests that therapists encourage clients to Allow the wound to do its work on you. In the contemporary West, conscious investigation of the sacred wound, when attempted at all, most commonly takes place in those rare psychotherapies that journey deep into the psyche to encounter the demons and monsters of our greatest fears.  These wounds can also be approached through exceptional forms of bodywork or through ceremonies that expose our grief and allow its full experience.  In a soul-centered setting, the elders, who know we all carry sacred wounds, offer rituals and nature-based practices that help us uncover and assimilate the lessons and opportunities, the treasure, hidden in our wounds.

Plotkin’s greatest concern about current Western society is that we are stuck in an adolescent stage (Duane Elgin also expressed this in his excellent book Promise Ahead) in which we are, in the absence of natural initiation, prone to addictions and highly destructive behavior.
Sooner or later, we each have to address the paramount addiction in the Western world: our psychological dependence on the worldview and lifestyle of Western civilization itself.  Ecopsychologist Chellis Glendinning makes this point brilliantly in her book My Name Is Chellis, and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. The Western worldview says, in essence, that technological progress is the highest value and that we were born to consume, to endlessly use and discard natural resources, other species, techno-gadgets, toys, and, often, other people, especially if they are poor or from the global South.  The most highly prized freedom is the right to shop.  This is a world of commodities, not entities, and economic expansion is the primary measure of progress. Profits are valued over people, money over meaning, our national entitlement over global peace and justice, “us” over “them.”  This addiction is the most dangerous one in the world, because it is rapidly undermining the natural systems of earth
Plotkin also worries that our surface-oriented culture prevents us from developing desperately-needed ensouled elders to guide both the young and the middle-aged towards their soul’s purpose in life.  Using the inspiring examples of theologian-cosmologist Thomas Berry and ecophilosopher-ecotherapist Joanna Macy, he tracks the life development of these sages through each of the stages to their current “Crowned” status as revered guides through the Great Work (Berry’s term) and the Great Turning (Macy’s), helping us transition from the egocentric “Industrial Growth Society” to a soulcentric “Life-sustaining Society.”




Linda Buzzell, M.A., M.F.T. is a psychotherapist, ecotherapist and career counselor in private practice in Santa Barbara and Woodland Hills.  She is the founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy and the co-editor with Craig Chalquist, M. Sc., Ph.D., of Ecotherapy: Psyche and Nature in a Circle of Healing (in press, Sierra Club Books).


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