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Author Interview with Bill Plotkin

Wild Mind:A Field Guide to the Human Psyche

What does it mean to have a wild mind?

As author Gary Snyder notes, “To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness.” To have a wild mind is to have a whole mind. People with wild minds are those who have cultivated and embodied their innate human wholeness — the full rainbow spectrum of capacities, talents, and sensibilities that constellate our evolutionary birthright. My new book, Wild Mind, is a field guide to the cultivation of this astonishing medley of wholeness. It introduces what I call the Nature-Based Map of the Human Psyche, which identifies and describes the four facets of indigenous human wholeness.

Collectively, these four facets of wholeness make up what I call the human Self (with a capital “S”). The Self contains all the innate human resources we need to mature psychologically and spiritually, to become fully human, to serve life well — actually, to do anything well. And the thing we most need to do well now in the early twenty-first century is to transform our Western and Westernized cultures from being life destroying, as they are now, to being not only life sustaining but actually life enhancing.

Sadly and tragically, mainstream Western culture does little to support the cultivation of any of the four facets of the Self — and actively suppresses two of them — but healthy traditions around the world, including those found in Western culture, provide an abundance of practices for cultivating the fourfold Self. Wild Mind presents an eclectic collection of contemporary, Western, nature-based practices for the cultivation of the Self.

What are the four facets of the Self?

There’s a facet of the Self associated with each of the four cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. Describing the Self in this way is in keeping with traditions around the world that have mapped human nature onto the template of the four directions (and the closely related templates of the four seasons and the four times of day: sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight).

As a brief introduction, the North facet of the Self is what I call the Nurturing Generative Adult, the compassionate and competent aspect of our psyches fully capable of providing for the wellbeing of others and ourselves and of caring for the habitats that sustain us and for all species that collectively make up Earth’s web of life. This North facet of the Self is what enables us to empathically and courageously serve our human and more-than-human communities as leaders, teachers, parents, healers, builders, farmers, designers, scientists, and artisans. The Nurturing Generative Adult is at the core of archetypes such as the benevolent King or Queen, mature or spiritual Warrior, Mother, and Father.

The South facet is the Wild Indigenous One, the sensuous, emotive, erotic, playful, and instinctual dimension of ourselves that loves being embodied as a human animal, celebrates the experience of all emotions, is fully at home in the more-than-human world, and enjoys a visceral and deep-rooted kinship with all other creatures and with the diverse ecosystems we inhabit — the rivers, mountains, deserts, plains, and forests of our local bioregions. The Wild Indigenous One is resonant with archetypes such as Pan, Artemis/Diana (Lady of the Beasts), and Green Man (Wild Man).

The East facet of the Self is the Innocent/Sage — an amalgam of the Innocent, who perceives the world purely, simply, and clearly, and the Sage, who possesses a lighthearted and big-picture wisdom about the world. The Innocent and Sage actually have much in common — they both, for example, love paradox. Consequently my name for this East facet is the paradoxical fusion: “Innocent/Sage.” Our Innocent/Sage sometimes takes the form of a Sacred Fool (who lives beyond the rules and norms of the everyday social world) or as a Trickster (who uses humor and chicanery to help us lighten up and appreciate the greater realties of our lives and the world).

The West facet is the Muse or Inner Beloved. This is the adventurous and visionary dimension of ourselves that loves to explore the unknown; the fruitful darkness; the processes of decay and death — the natural recycling of things; the world of dreams and imagination; and the realms of metaphor, symbol, poetry, and myth. The Muse-Beloved is our inner romantic who is attracted by liaisons and experiences that are both dangerous and alluring, including the descent into the underworld mysteries of soul. In addition to the Muse and the Beloved, this facet is also resonant with archetypes such as Anima/Animus, Magician, Wanderer, Hermit, Psychopomp, and Guide to Soul.

We’re born with the capacity to embody each of these four sets of psychological resources, but we must consciously cultivate them in order to have ready access. Mainstream Western culture ignores or suppresses all four facets because the embodied Self is incompatible with egocentric ways of life. This renders human development much more challenging in the contemporary West than it is in healthier cultures.

Psychologically mature women and men are deeply troubled by the life-destroying features of contemporary Western culture even if they themselves are in some ways caught up in it. Mature humans — those who have cultivated their fourfold Self — are developing the infrastructure of future mature societies. As agents of cultural transformation and renaissance, they’re succeeding in extraordinary ways in realms such as education, economics, religion, and governance. In their everyday lives, these women and men are fashioning and fostering contemporary ways of being human that are sustainable and life enhancing. Doing this requires the foundational cultivation of the fourfold Self.

What is “nature-based” about your Map of the Human Psyche?

Well, at least three things.

First, as I mentioned, the qualities of the four facets of the Self are based upon and derived from the qualities of the natural world we observe when we face each of the four cardinal directions as well as the qualities of the four seasons and those of the four times of day (sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight). What I’m introducing in this book is a map of psychological wholeness that is rooted in nature’s own map of wholeness.

Second, as I write at the very start of the book, “It’s time to take another look at ourselves — to re-enliven our sense of what it is to be human, to breathe new life into ancient intuitions of who we are, and to learn again to celebrate, as we once did, our instinctive affinity with the Earth community in which we’re rooted. We’re called now to rediscover what it means to be human beings in a wildly diverse world of feathered, furred, and scaled fellow creatures; flowers and forests; mountains, rivers, and oceans; wind, rain, and snow; Sun and Moon.” Our instinctive affinity with the more-than-human world is seen in the nature of each of the four facets of the Self, but perhaps most clearly in the South facet, the Wild Indigenous One, which, as I say, loves being embodied as a human animal, is fully at home in the greater Earth community, and experiences our kinship with all the other creatures and habitats of our world.

Third, the book includes a great variety of practices for cultivating the four facets of the Self and the resources they bestow upon us. Many of these practices are best enacted in wild or semi-wild places — in a nearby forest, canyon, or beach, or at least in a city park. The practices in the book include a variety of walks with specific intentions, the creation of four-directions circles on the land and specific processes to use in them, conversations with other-than-human beings, sunrise and sunset practices, artwork with nature’s media, and nature meditations.

Is it easy to cultivate the Self? How much time and commitment is required?

It’s actually not that difficult, but it does take some time. You just need to know a few things about how to go about doing it. And you can do it in the course of your everyday life, in any setting in which you work or play. Wild Mind explains how.

In healthy, mature societies or families, the cultivation of the Self begins in childhood. In mainstream Western culture, it often never begins at all. But it’s never too late to get started or to take the next steps.

Each of us experiences one of the four facets of the Self to be relatively easy to cultivate. We’re born this way. For some people, it’s the North that comes most naturally. For others, it’s the West, South, or East. In the Western world, we tend to overemphasize this one facet, which results in an imbalance of our personalities, a distorted version of ourselves, the primary version we enact everyday in our world. What is normally a strength can become an overdeveloped peculiarity. To become fully human, we must consciously cultivate the other three facets in addition to the one with which we’re most at home.

And it appears to be the case that the facet on the opposite side of the circle from our innately strongest one is the facet that’s least developed and most challenging to cultivate. But it’s also the one whose resources we most need in order to live a balanced and effective life, the one we most need to embody the gifts of our souls. So for example, people with naturally strong Nurturing Generative Adults often are poorly developed in the emotional, embodied, and nature-attuned qualities of their Wild Indigenous One. And those with naturally strong Innocent/Sage facets tend to be rather weak in the deeply imaginative and romantic qualities of their Muse-Beloved.

When people are not living from the Self, when they are not embodying their Selves, what are they embodying? What aspects of the human psyche are being enacted?

They are enacting the aspects of the psyche I call the subpersonalities. Other common phrases for subpersonalities are complexes or wounded parts of ourselves or fragmented selves or immature inner voices. There are four categories of subpersonalities. In Wild Mind I’ve mapped these, too, onto the cardinal directions. Each subpersonality is an immature, wounded, or fragmented version of the facet of wholeness associated with the same direction. Subpersonalities form in childhood with the purpose of helping us survive and to be accepted in our families and communities. They protect us by getting us to live small or safe versions of ourselves. They protect us physically and socially by suppressing our natural magnificence and wholeness, which are often an annoyance or threat to our families and communities. Early in life our consciousness and behavior is dominated by our subpersonalities. But by cultivating the Self, we gradually learn to live more and more from the Self and less from our subpersonalities.

The North subpersonalities are the ones I call Loyal Soldiers. What distinguishes the Loyal Soldiers from the other three categories of subpersonalities is that they try to keep us safe by inciting us to act small, to act beneath our potential or one-dimensionally so that we might secure a place of belonging in the world. They help us secure such a place by avoiding risk and rendering us nonthreatening, useful, or pleasing to others or by urging us into positions of immature, dominator power over others. In contemporary society, we have a lot of names for the great variety of Loyal Soldiers, including Rescuers, Codependents, Enablers, Pleasers, and Giving Trees; Inner Critics and Inner Flatterers (the kind of flattery that motivates us to be useful and nonthreatening to others); Tyrants and Robber Barons; and Critics and Flatterers of others.

The South subpersonalities are our Wounded Children, who try to keep us safe by attempting to get our basic needs met, using the immature, emotion-fueled strategies available to them. They do this by appearing to be in need of rescue (these are our Victim subpersonalities); being harmless and socially acceptable (our Conformists); being coercive or aggressive (Rebels); or being arrogant or condescending (Princes or Princesses).
In the East are our Escapists and Addicts, who try to keep us safe through evasion — rising above traumatic emotions and circumstances and sidestepping distressing challenges and responsibilities. They do this through strategies such as addictions, obsessions, dissociations, vanishing acts, and delinquency. Versions include the puer aeternus and puella aeternus (Latin for “eternal boy” and “eternal girl”), Blissheads, and Spiritual Materialists.

And in the West are the Shadow and our Shadow Selves, who try to keep us safe through the repression (making unconscious) of our unacceptable or inconceivable characteristics and desires. Shadow characteristics can be either “negative” (what the ego would consider morally “beneath” it) or “positive” (what the ego would consider “above” it and out of reach). The Shadow is not what we know about ourselves and don’t like (or like but keep hidden) but rather what we don’t know about ourselves and, if accused of it, would adamantly and sincerely deny. Our Shadow Selves attempt to maintain psychological stability by briefly acting out Shadow characteristics and doing so flamboyantly or scandalously, but without our being conscious of what we’re doing — letting off steam as the only available alternative to complete self-destruction.

One thing that all the subpersonalities have in common is that they’ve been doing their best all our lives to help us survive the most difficult features of our childhood and adolescence. In other words, they are deeply loyal, and we probably would not have survived at all without their interventions. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. The problem, of course, is that their strategies are immature and limited and keep us from growing into our potential. After a certain point in life, their protective efforts become the primary obstacle to our personal development.

But our subpersonalities can be healed and integrated into our mature functioning. The key is to learn to embrace them from the consciousness and resources of our fourfold Self. But before we can do that, we must cultivate that Self. Then we can heal ourselves — much more effectively, actually, than any healing derived from the psychotherapeutic services of another person. I call this “Self-healing.” Wild Mind is a guide to both wholing and Self-healing. It’s also a guide to the descent to soul and the ascent to Spirit.

At this time in our journey as a species, we’re being summoned by the world itself to make many urgent changes to the human project, but most central is a fundamental re-visioning and reshaping of ourselves, ashift in consciousness. Wild Mind guides us to reclaim our original wholeness, our indigenous human nature granted to us by nature itself. The key is not to merely suppress psychological symptoms, recover from addictions and trauma, or manage stress but rather to fully flesh out our multifaceted wild minds, committing ourselves to the largest story we’re capable of living, serving the greater Earth community.

As we grow more whole, do our subpersonalities disappear?

No, we never eliminate or finally grow out of our subpersonalities; we can only learn to embrace them from the perspective of the Self and in this way gradually heal our wounds and integrate our subpersonalities into the functioning of a more mature ego. Although our subpersonalities never disappear, we can mature to the point that we seldom get hijacked by them and instead live most often from a mature ego and the resources of our wholeness, the four facets of the Self.

Are there any other aspects of the human psyche other than the facets of the Self and the four categories of subpersonalities?

Yes. The fourfold Self and the four groupings of subpersonalities collectively constellate the horizontal plane of the Nature-Based Map of the Psyche. But there’s a vertical axis of the Map, too, which encompasses Spirit and soul. Spirit is above the horizontal plane, and soul is below it. By “Spirit” I mean the universal psyche, consciousness, intelligence, or vast imagination that animates the cosmos and everything in it — including us — and in which the psyche of each person participates.

By “soul,” I mean a person’s unique purpose or identity, which is a mythopoetic identity, something much deeper than personality or social-vocational role, an identity revealed and expressed through symbol and metaphor, image and dream, archetype and myth. Another way to say this is that soul is the particular ecological niche, or place, a person was born to occupy but may or may not ever discover or consciously embody. Or, in a more poetic vein, quoting David Whyte, soul is “the largest conversation you’re capable of having with the world” or “your own truth at the center of the image you were born with” or the “shape that waits in the seed of you to grow and spread its branches against a future sky.” Or, as my partner Geneen Marie Haugen puts it, soul is “your individual puzzle piece in the Great Mystery.” My first book, Soulcraft, focuses on the nature of the soul, the descent to soul, and the process of soul initiation.

At the center of both the vertical axis and the horizontal plane of the Map is the ego, which is the locus, or seat, of conscious self-awareness within the human psyche — what we mean by the word “I.” So this Map of the psyche is 3-dimensional, with the ego at the center. You might say that the goal of human development is to cultivate an ego that has easy access to all four facets of the Self as well as to Spirit and to soul. I call that kind of a mature ego a “3-D Ego.”

To succeed on the descent to soul or the ascent to Spirit, we must first cultivate the four facets of the Self.

Your previous books, Soulcraft and Nature and the Human Soul, have focused on soul discovery or, as you say, the descent to soul or the descent to the underworld. And you write that the descent to soul is key to cultural renaissance. What is the relationship between the wild mind, the soul, and cultural change?

Well, I recently composed six sentences that I think neatly summarize these relationships. Here they are:

  • To embody our wild mind in our everyday life is to become fully human.
  • Becoming fully human requires the cultivation of our innate wholeness, the four facets of the Self.
  • Growing whole — cultivating the Self — is the foundation for the descent to soul.
  • The process of soul initiation — the discovery and claiming of our mythopoetic identity — is the gateway to authentic adulthood.
  • True adults — people who are embodying their mythopoetic identity as a gift to others — are the visionary artisans of cultural renaissance.
  • Deep and radical cultural renewal arises from true adults embodying their wild minds.

You write in Wild Mind that “Conventional Western psychology has focused on pathology rather than possibility and participation, and this renders it incomplete . . . and in many ways obsolete.” In what ways is Western psychology obsolete?

Western psychology emerged in the late nineteenth century. It was seeded in that era’s prevailing practice and philosophy of medicine. Its focus was on diagnosis and treatment of symptoms, diseases, and “mental illness.” It was, and in many ways still is, an attempt to identify what could and does go wrong with the human psyche. With few exceptions, there’s been too little consideration of what is inherently right and inspiring about human beings. There’s been insufficient tending to the process of becoming fully human — an active, deeply imaginative, contributing member of what cultural ecologist David Abram calls the more-than-human world, a world that includes human society as a subset of a much more extensive Earth community.

Western psychology’s established ways of understanding ourselves have unintentionally cramped our abilities to grow whole and fully mature. The agenda of mainstream psychotherapy has been, from its beginnings, remarkably limited and, consequently, limiting. What if, for example, our primary human need and opportunity is not to endlessly attend to our emotional wounds and the eradication of perceived psychological disorders, but rather to fathom and flesh out our natural human wholeness (the Self) and to embody this integral bounty as a gift to others and our world?

Wild Mind introduces a holistic and integral ecology of the human psyche that encompasses the best insights of existing Western psychologies but also stretches far beyond them, extending our appreciation of the psyche’s untapped potentials and its inner diversity, intricacy, and structural elegance. The Nature-Based Map of the Psyche highlights our positive, life-enhancing resources and perspectives and extols them as foundational to our humanity. The accent is not on our fragmented parts or wound stories, or how our psyches stall out in neurotic patterns, or how we might merely recover from trauma, pathology, or addiction; rather, the accent is on our wholeness and potential magnificence, how we can enhance our personal fulfillment and participation in our more-than-human world, and how we can become fully human and visionary artisans of cultural renaissance.

We have a vital opportunity now to shape a new Western psychology that acknowledges humanity as, first and foremost, natural, of nature — not separate from it. It’s time to rewild psychology with ideas and methods rooted in the rhythms, patterns, principles, and other-than-human encounters of greater nature.

You say that at this point in time our collective journey requires a radical shift in the human relationship with the community of all life. Can you explain more about what you mean by that and what needs to happen for it to become a reality?

Individually and collectively, we are now launching into an uncertain future — at once, both perilous and full of possibility. Our accustomed, culturally determined roles and identities are inadequate for navigating the sea change of our time. Our collective journey requires a radical shift in the human relationship with the greater Earth community — a cultural transformation so profound that future humans might regard it as an evolution of consciousness. Safe passage requires each of us to offer our full magnificence to the world. Popular culture cannot help us uncover our unique gifts; contemporary institutions do not invite their expression. Our particular genius can be discovered only in an initiatory journey — an accidental or intentional descent into the mysteries of soul. For over thirty years, guiding the intentional descent to soul has been our work at Animas Valley Institute.

At Animas, we employ what we call “soulcraft skills and practices” to evoke the world-shifting experience of soul encounter — the revelation of our unique mythopoetic identity, an identity embodied in a mysterious story that whispers to us in moments of expanded awareness and exquisite aliveness. The shape and rhythm of this story reveals the hidden treasure that each of us carries for the world — a world longing for the transformative contributions of visionary leaders and artisans of cultural renaissance. Soulcraft practices spring from wilderness rites, depth psychology, ecopsychology, the poetic tradition, nature-based peoples, and from the wild Earth itself — and constitute a contemporary, Western, and nature-rooted path to the terra mysterium of soul initiation.

The goal of soulcraft practices is to discover the meaning and destiny at the heart of each person’s life. This is accomplished through an initiatory journey — a descent into the mysteries of nature and psyche, where our outgrown ego-identities are shed; where tricksters, demons, and perhaps angels are encountered; and from which a new self emerges as a vessel for a person’s distinctive genius and world-transforming gifts. Although the descent to soul evokes nonordinary perception and ways of knowing, it is not shamanism, nor is it primarily rites of passage, wilderness-based psychotherapy, or emotional healing. The journey to soul is not designed to transcend the ego, solve everyday personal problems, or help people better adjust to — or be happier in — the flatland of contemporary Western culture. Rather, the intent is a deep-structure shift that matures the ego and elicits each person’s most creative, soul-rooted response to our critical, liminal moment in the unfolding of the world’s story.

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