Active Hope – How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy

by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

New World Library, 2012

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I consider it a “must-read” for anyone involved in environmental and social justice work, ecopsychology, or deep ecology, for anyone concerned about the mess humanity now finds itself in. Active Hope provides perspectives and practical tools to strengthen us through both the Great Unraveling and the Great Turning, now happening simultaneously around the planet.
I read the book slowly because there is so much to reflect on and take in; I needed to do so in small batches. After more than 20 years of being steeped in this work, I still need reminders of its philosophical and spiritual depths, and this book does the job. The book addresses the individual reader, with short exercises along the way, while Coming Back to Life (which I co-authored with Joanna) is more of a manual for workshops with groups. Active Hope joins hands with the reader and walks along side, pointing out the sights. I am grateful to Joanna and Chris for creating it together.
Reading the book helped me realize something about my own approach to doing the Work That Reconnects. I realized I have been trying to do it all by myself! I haven’t consulted with Gaia nor called on the powers of the land and creatures around me. I need to pull back, reconnect, and see what arises. Active Hope reconnects me with what I know so well in my heart, but what my mind (conditioned by our culture) can so easily forget and ignore.
Read it, give thanks, weep, and act with hope again.

Nature and the Human SoulCultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World

by Bill Plotkin

New World Library, 2008

In the first issue of AAP Conversations (1999), entitled “Ecopsychosynthesis”, Bill Plotkin critiqued psychosynthesis for failing to differentiate among Self, Spirit, and soul. I have been pondering this challenge ever since. Reading his new book, Nature and the Human Soul, has convinced me that his challenge has real merit.
The book offers an ideal model for “soul-centric” human development within the close embrace of wild nature, with children, adolescents, adults, and elders living in harmony with their inner gifts, one other, society, and the natural world. As I read the book, I was inspired by the richness and beauty that he believes is possible for human beings (as do I). And I saw even more clearly the stark contrast of our “ego-centric” society today—stunting the development of so many people, and causing so much suffering and destruction.
Plotkin’s concept of soul lies at the heart of his model:

   By soul, I mean a thing’s ultimate place in the world. I use the word thing to embrace the fact that everything has a particular place in the world and therefore has a soul — all creatures, objects, events, and relationships…
By place, I mean not a geographical location but the role, function, station, or status a thing has in relation to other things. A thing’s place tells you how it fits in the world…
When we say “ultimate place” — which is to say, when we are speaking of soul — we are calling attention to the very core or heart of a thing’s identity, its decisive meaning or significance, its raison d’être…
The set of relationships a thing has with all other things is a unique set: each thing occupies a unique place, a particular node in the web of life. Therefore, the soul of each thing is unique.
The human soul is a person’s ultimate place in the more-than-human world…
If your soul is your ultimate place in the world and you need to live from that place to be fully yourself, then the world cannot be fully itself until you become fully yourself.

      It seems clear to me that Plotkin’s concept of soul is not the same as the psychosynthesis concept of “I”—which is without qualities: pure awareness and will. Plotkin’s “soul” suggests a person’s specific gifts, purpose, and calling—which in psychosynthesis we place in the superconscious. We often speak, however, of a person’s having a center or core, beyond the idea of the superconscious. We also place a great deal of importance on purpose—on a person’s contacting and being guided by his or her life purpose. These are the very things that Plotkin addresses in his book.
In psychosynthesis, we often think of Self (or Higher Self) as encompassing both Spirit and soul, both universality and individuality, both transcendence and immanence. Plotkin’s soul seems to refer to the individual immanent aspect: how we each “fit” into the world, and how we are each uniquely called to contribute to the web of life. As students of a holistic psychosynthesis, we would do well to expand our understanding of the immanent dimension of Self—the soul. The activation of this dimension is sorely needed today to address the very real problems of our world.
Assagioli sometimes used the terms Self and soul interchangeably, as many of us do. Jean Hardy entitled her 1987 book on the evolutionary context of psychosynthesis, A Psychology with a Soul. Although he has studied and respects psychosynthesis, Plotkin holds a slightly different perspective. He believes that soul, Self, and Spirit should refer to distinct dimensions of our inner life.

   Yet another way to define soul is as the deep structure of a thing, its primary organizing or unifying principle.
By spirit I mean the single, boundless, and eternal mystery that permeates and animates everything in the universe and yet transcends all.
By Self I mean our personal wholeness, a totality that holds all the original capacities, potentials, and resources of our humanness…

     Here Plotkin’s definition of Spirit is reminiscent of the psychosynthesis concepts of Transpersonal Self and Universal Self. Plotkin traces the development of the human being through eight stages, rooted in the cycles and qualities of the natural world, and gives each an archetypal title: early childhood—the Innocent in the Nest; middle childhood—the Explorer in the Garden; early adolescence—the Thespian at the Oasis; late adolescence—the Wanderer in the Cocoon; early adulthood—the Apprentice at the Wellspring; late adulthood—the Artisan in the Wild Orchard; early elderhood—the Master in the Grove of Elders; and late elderhood—the Sage in the Mountain Cave. He dedicates a full chapter to each stage, exploring its challenges, tasks, and rewards in depth.
Plotkin suggests that with the support of a soul-centric society, people would naturally grow through these stages throughout their lives. However, sadly, in our ego-centric society, he believes most people never develop past stage 3, early adolescence. As people stuck in this stage grow older, they become “patho-adolescents”—and we see the results of this everywhere in our world, with greed for wealth and power driving the engines of war and environmental devastation, now reaching a crisis in global climate change.
Our society supports ego development, but not soul development—what Plotkin would call “soul work” or “soul craft.” Without a strong sense of connection with the soul, a person may spend years wondering what he or she “should” be doing, working at inappropriate jobs, and seeking fulfillment through material possessions, addictions, and “entertainment”. Plotkin has lead numerous wilderness trips—often called vision quests—to help people connect with their souls within the supportive embrace of wild nature. I for one have had my most intense experiences of “soul” by fasting in the wilderness with the support of knowledgeable guides, including, on one trip, Bill himself.
I can’t begin to summarize the vast amount of knowledge and insights contained in these 450+ pages. I can only urge you to read this book, find yourself and your life throughout its pages, and learn more about how to bring your soul gifts into the world. We need the full potential of every human being to survive and thrive through the challenges of the 21st century.

Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it.

by Ellen LeConte

New Society Publishers, 2012.

In her excellent book Life Rules, Ellen LaConte describes how human misbehavior has gone “viral” in today’s global capitalist industrial economy. “We are living beyond Earth’s means, inducing a critical mass, a syndrome that is undermining Earth’s immune system of natural and human communities and is caused by a global economy that has gone viral. The economy is behaving as if it were larger than Life. It’s not. Life is the largest complex system on Earth. Life rules. We don’t.” (p. 50)
LaConte suggests great unravelings and great turnings have occurred several times in past millennia, many of them before humans appeared on Earth. She calls these times of crisis “Critical Mass,” which she defines as: “…a point in time or a process when enough of something has been literally amassed that a spontaneous transformation occurs. After critical mass is reached, something new emerges or is created, or a new state of being is achieved.” (page eight)
Each time Critical Mass has been reached—for example, when bacteria over-populated the world 3.9 billion years ago—living systems have self-organized through trial and error to find new ways to function and survive. During the first Critical Mass, bacteria invented photosynthesis, so they no longer had to rely on fermenting organic material for energy. “They went solar, just as we will have to do” (p. 117). LaConte recounts two other such life-threatening and transforming crises and what living systems learned—how they self-organized—in response. Understanding those lessons, which LaConte outlines as “Life’s Economic Survival Protocol,” (p. 122) can guide us humans through our current “Critical Mass” crisis, brought on by the global capitalist economy gone viral. I highly recommend her book as a guidebook for the Great Turning.