Finding the wild child
DHS student puts his touch on DMR's new terrain park

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 work.

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 gift is.

“The main problem is that in contemporary society, most people are completely alienated from their souls,” he said.

Soul separation

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 the person.

“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 there.”

Some excursions even include backpacking into the wilderness and fasting for days, a practice commonly known as the “vision quest.”


But Plotkin tends to shy away from that phrase, because many associate it with American Indian cultures and beliefs, he said.

“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
Valley Institute.

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 the problem.

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.









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