DHS student puts his touch on DMR's new
Set back from Florida Road and nestled
at the base of a hill amid the pines is the headquarters
of an institute where Bill Plotkin and others help seekers
find their souls.
The soft-spoken Plotkin, a psychotherapist, is passionate
about reconnecting people to the wildness that is in them.
So in 1981, he founded the Animas Valley Institute, a
Durango-based nonprofit that leads people on wilderness
excursions to help them commune with nature and their
souls. And this year, he published a book Soulcraft: Crossing
into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche to continue his
Plotkin defines soul as the untamed part of human nature,
the part that makes people creative, inspired and passionate.
Each person has a unique gift to bring to the world, he
said, and Soulcraft helps people figure out what that
“The main problem is that in contemporary society,
most people are completely alienated from their souls,”
Plotkin said Western society is designed to keep people
separate from their souls and nature. He cited television,
consumption, an educational system that rarely teaches
imagination and even mainstream religions, which he says
keep people from searching for a deeper purpose in life.
On the contrary, those who have reconnected with their
souls are “creative, autonomous, self-directed adults,”
Plotkin said. And those people
are bad for business, he added.
“Those adults are not interested in being consumers,
or a cog in a machine,” he said. “Our Western
industrial economy requires that the majority of citizens
are alienated from their souls.”
He said people can experience this alienation in several
ways: When they feel they don’t really know what
their lives are about; when they feel like they are not
making a meaningful contribution to society; when they
feel their lives or relationships are boring; or when
they are having a good time in life, but feel there is
something more that they’re missing.
That’s where Soulcraft comes in.
Making the soul at home
Describing Soulcraft is easiest by telling what it is
not, Plotkin said. It’s not a primary form of therapy.
It’s not an attempt to transcend the human body
to connect with the divine. It’s not an appropriation
of any specific American Indian or indigenous culture
or beliefs. And it’s not New Age.
It’s not a religion either. Plotkin said the difference
is that the religions of the world focus on pathway to
the divine, while finding one’s soul focuses on
“Any person who finds out what their soul wants
also finds out what God wants. And that’s why Soulcraft
is compatible with every religion,” Plotkin says.
Soulcraft is a contemporary approach to finding meaning,
he says. It’s an approach that uses a number of
practices – such as drumming, and4 work with dreams
and imagery – to help people.
Nature plays an important part in the Soulcraft process.
While some of the events are held at retreat centers and
others involve camping, all include the natural world.
“The reason we go into nature, into the most wild
environments, is because the soul is at home there,”
Plotkin said. “It is inspired and speaks a bit louder
Some excursions even include backpacking into the wilderness
and fasting for days, a practice commonly known as the
But Plotkin tends to shy away from that phrase, because
many associate it with American Indian cultures and beliefs,
“The kinds of practices we use are the kinds found
in every culture,” Plotkin said. “What we
have done is adapted them to Western industrialized culture.”
The differences between the adapted practices and those
of indigenous cultures are varied. For instance, most
indigenous vision quest traditions involve a spiritual
leader telling a person where to stay for the quest.
“I have come to believe that we are at a point
where it is important that each person determines where
their personal power lies,” Plotkin said. “So
they find their own spot.”
And there are age differences, too. Plotkin said that
in most indigenous societies, a person is sent out to
fast right after puberty. “In our modern society,
people are generally not mature enough.”
The quests last for days. In general, the first two days
are spent at a retreat center, where one prepares for
a quest with Soulcraft practices and is sent out on walks
and told how to converse with a natural being, such as
a cactus. Participants’ equipment is checked, and
they are given basic survival training, and then on the
third day, they are driven to the place where they will
backpack into the wilderness.
The next day is spent with more Soulcraft practices,
and the day after, participants begin fasting after breakfast
and then go in pairs to look for places where they will
make their quests.
There are a few ceremonies before the participants go
off to their quests for the next three days.
When they return, the participants are given breakfast,
and they rest. Then they meet with the guides, who listen
to the participants’ stories and thoughts on what
they just went through. Back at the retreat center, participants
are shown ways in which they can incorporate the experience
into their everyday life.
|Bill Plotkin, founder of the Animas
Finding your own way
The Soulcraft practices, designed to help alter consciousness
to make encountering the soul easier, come from numerous
places – from Plotkin’s former teachers, including
Dolores LaChapelle, one of the first deep ecologists;
psychotherapy; Jungian, or Depth, psychology; and just
taking people out into the wilderness.
“Some of us have gone to shamans and spirit teachers
for help,” Plotkin says, “And that’s
great, but I’ve come to believe it’s time
for us to find our own way.”
Since Plotkin began taking small groups out into the
wilderness in the early 1980s, the institute has grown
to include more than 20 guides, a board of directors and
two other staff members besides Plotkin. They serve about
300 to 350 people a year from all over the world and even
conduct quests in other languages.
The institute grew by word of mouth, until it was listed
in a catalog and got a Web site about five years ago.
It is still growing, but is in a quandary at the moment.
The institute is without an executive director and can’t
afford to hire one, and is relying on donations to rectify
Deepening into one’s self
Anita L. Smith, a local bodywork therapist, first heard
about the institute from one of her clients while she
was still living in Miami. Smith had been looking for
a nature-based spiritual journey. She had taken a few
of the courses offered by the institute before undertaking
a vision fast in August of last year.
“This was an experience of great joy. This time
I got to fully experience being in nature with my ‘wild
child,’” she laughed.
Smith said the experience offers “an opportunity
to not have any other thing identifying you but yourself.”
“What I’ve done with (Plotkin) has allowed
me to deepen more into myself, and I can bring that to
others,” she said.