Nature and the Human Soul

By Bill Plotkin


New World Library 2008

In the first issue of AAP Conversations (1999) on “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: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World, 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. [i]


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.[ii]

By spirit I mean the single, boundless, and eternal mystery that permeates and animates everything in the universe and yet transcends all.[iii]

By Self I mean our personal wholeness, a totality that holds all the original capacities, potentials, and resources of our humanness… [iv]

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.

[i] Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul. Novato CA: New World Library. 2008, p. 30.

[ii] Ibid, p. 37

[iii] Ibid, p. 41.

[iv] Ibid, p. 289