Imagine your Imago - Liberating the Imaginal Cells of the Human Psyche The InnerView with Bill Plotkin
by Peter Moore and Werner Brandt
Bill Plotkin, PHD, has been a psychotherapist, research psychologist, rock musician, river runner, professor of psychology, and mountain-bike racer. As a research psychologist, he studied dreams and nonordinary states of consciousness achieved through meditation, biofeedback, and hypnosis. The founder and president of Animas Valley Institute (www.animas.org/), he has guided thousands of people through initiatory passages in nature since 1980. Currently an ecotherapist, depth psychologist, and wilderness guide, he leads a variety of experiential, nature-based individuation programs. He is the author of Soulcraft: Crossing in the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche and more recently, Nature and the Human Soul.
Editor Peter Moore and Contributing Editor/IT Specialist Werner Brandt interviewed Bill in early May.
For someone not familiar with your work, and specifically your book, “Nature and the Human Soul”, could you briefly describe the developmental model that forms the basis of this book?
“Briefly” is the challenging part. [laughter] This is a nature-based model of human development. There are eight stages that we are designed, as humans, to progress through. It’s how nature has designed humans to grow. Unfortunately, the model looks quite a bit different than the way most people develop in the western, and westernized societies.
In each stage there are two developmental tasks. And the way we progress through each stage is through having some degree of success with those developmental tasks. We never complete any of the tasks of any stage, but that is how we progress.
One task in each stage is nature-oriented, and the other is culture oriented. In other words, one task is developing our relationship with human culture and the other task is developing our relationship with the more-than-human world. In the western societies, we have neglected, for the most part, the nature-oriented task in each of the stages. By the time we get to the 3rd stage, which is early adolescence, in the western world, most peoples’ development tends to stall, right there in the 3rd stage. And so, we live in an adolescent society.
I believe we do, simply in the sense that most people don’t progress beyond psychological adolescence. And when that happens, the whole culture begins to crumble in terms of its deeper psycho-spiritual infrastructure, that which helps us grow as humans. And so I refer to westernized societies as patho-adolescent.
How’s that for an attempt at a brief overview?
Good, it gets us going. Assuming that most of us have developmental deficits according to the model you describe, what is the response required once you have an awareness of that? Is there something to fix or heal? Where do we go from there?
Yes, we absolutely can address our developmental deficits from any of our previous stages, as well as continue working on the tasks of our current stage. And that in fact turns out to be the impact of much of the work I’ve been doing to help people of adult age to address the tasks from earlier stages. For example, the nature-oriented task of the first stage is the preservation of our original innocence. And that task is, of course, not the child’s, but the parents’ or care-givers’ task. It’s one of the two tasks of the care-giver in the first stage. If our innocence wasn’t well-preserved in the first stage, then later in life, we have a slightly different task. This one has the same kind of significance, and that is to reclaim our original innocence, and what our innocence is—it sounds like a simple topic but it’s actually complex—our innocence is essentially our capacity for present-centeredness. To be here now, present with everything and every person in our lives. That’s a quality that doesn’t survive for a lot of us into later childhood and adolescence. But there are things we can do, and in fact, a lot of people on the spiritual path in the western world are indirectly, whether they think about it or not, that’s what a lot of us are doing with meditation disciplines. We are reclaiming our capacity to be present. Which is something we are born with, and we lose, especially in western societies where there is so much emphasis on getting ahead and becoming someone different than you are, and parents wanting to shape their kids into being successful in the dog-eat-dog industrial world where you gotta be better than others to survive and thrive. At least we think that’s true. So, that’s just one example of reclaiming our innocence. There are disciplines, like meditation disciplines, there are psychotherapy practices, gestalt therapy would be a great example of a practice or discipline that helps individuals come back to the present moment. And this general pattern is true for developmental deficits from stage two and three as well.
Is it a sequential progression there? For instance, must you work on middle childhood, with the sense of wonder that you had lost prematurely, before you can work on tasks involved in adolescence?
That’s a good question. I think actually, let’s say we’re in Stage four, we can address the tasks of any stage. I don’t think it is necessary to do this work sequentially. I don’t think so, because all of us have some capacity for present-centeredness. But that can be deepened with practices. So I think we can start almost anywhere, or not have to focus in just one place. You mentioned wonder, which I think is the most outstanding quality of the middle childhood, actually. And it’s very much related to our capacity for imagination. And that faculty for wonder and imagination is something that a lot of people of adult age in our society have lost or it’s been diminished. Spending time in the wild world, which is something we do in almost all of our programs, helps bring that sense of wonder alive again.
But your question, must it be sequential, I’d say not necessarily. We can address the developmental deficits from any earlier stage any time.
Speaking of wonder—the other side of wonder, it seems to me, is cynicism. Cynicism is highly regarded in our society. If you’re not a cynic by the time you’re an adult, you’re obviously missing something, like you didn’t “get it”, the world as it actually is. Do you address that directly in your work?
No, I haven’t, but that’s a great point, I think. Because it really is pretty common isn’t it, among especially intellectual circles. We don’t want to be seen as credulous, gullible.
You refer to our society being ruled by pathological adolescence? Would you agree that such is our political condition?
Yeah. Political, social, economic, religious, educational … it is our condition. There is something obviously unnatural for the majority of people in a society not to progress beyond psychological adolescence. And because of that unnaturalness, it kind of defines the psychology and sociology of most individuals in society. In other words, there is absolutely nothing pathological about adolescence, healthy adolescence—but if the whole society is stuck there, arrested there, and there are only a few genuine adults and elders, then there is something missing in the whole, in the system. And the lack of true adults and elders results in adolescence that itself isn’t healthy. Each stage of life is prone to certain kinds of pathologies, and the worst kinds of pathologies that we see in the world today are early adolescent pathologies.
What is the process that transforms adolescence from pathology to Path—i.e. the path leading towards mature adulthood and elderhood?
All the nature-based people, and all the sacred stories from all the countries from around the world, the myths, tell us that to become fully human we must undergo a very challenging, very difficult, almost ecstatic descent to what is traditionally called the lower world, or the underworld. The image I use for that—and many other people have used it too—is that of the cocoon. This is the 4th stage of the 8 stages of life I talked about. Psychologically or psycho-spiritually, the cocoon phase is late adolescence.
So this 4th stage is the cocoon, and we all know what happens in cocoons in the insect world. The caterpillar spins or weaves the cocoon, and in that cocoon, what the caterpillar is creating is his own tomb. We don’t know if he knows that or not. And he crawls into it, and his body liquefies. Complete disintegration of caterpillar. But in that caterpillar soup are these cells that have been in the caterpillar’s body all along, called imaginal cells. Isn’t that a fabulous word? Imaginal cells. It’s called imaginal by botanists because the adult form of that creature, the butterfly, is called imago. So these are imaginal cells, but to me those cells are ‘imagining’ flight. And these imaginal cells know how to take the soup and reconfigure that into a butterfly, an adult.
I believe nature has designed us humans to go through a similar experience. The indigenous peoples around the world—including the ones that everyone in “modern” society descends from (because we’re all from indigenous peoples if you go back far enough)—all of them had their practices, their myths & traditions, their initiators, their elders, to help people go through that cocoon experience. Because no one in their right mind, even in a healthy society, would want to do it, because they are saying goodbye to everything they thought their life was about in early adolescence.
Again, this cocoon phase is late adolescence. As far as Jungians are concerned, it is what you start in Jungian analysis when you’re age 45. The nature-based people say early teen years. In a modern hypothetical society, I believe it could start mid- to late-teens. The elders and initiators are helping the young people, or people whenever they are ready, to go through this positive disintegration, where our identity, our way of belonging to the world, essentially dissolves, leaving us no firm clear identity for awhile.
I expect the cocoon phase to last at least a year, and often 3-4 years in a healthy society. And often in our society, people who get to the cocoon stage—which I guess is only 20-30%—people of adult body get to it, but in our society you can be in the cocoon stage for 20, 30 , 40 years and maybe never get out if you don’t get some help. It is a very difficult part of the maturation process.
I want to say a bit about how the cocoon stage begins. I want to borrow from the great German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. In this poem, he talks about a huge storm. That’s the way the cocoon starts. It’s kind of like coming into an autumn time, or fall, a descent time of your life. There is a great storm and what we are essentially doing is leaving the summer time of our life. Early adolescence. We are leaving that and running into fall. And not just fall dying, but a big storm to boot. You will hear images here about the storm and the summer house; a major theme image here is trees. Trees show up a lot in Rilke’s poetry. The trees’ blood, the sap, the life of the summer that we’ll hear as rising and falling at one point and another.
Rilke is the first poet that I read, that I really began to understand what poetry was. I was actually 30 and I had no idea what it was. Didn’t know that I didn’t know, but once I knew, I knew. I believe this poem speaks both to our individual storms and our individual dark times in life, and also to the collective storm—or some would say, the perfect storm—that the planetary body is going through right now. There is a lot of interest in correspondences between the storm we are all in now collectively as earthlings and the individual storm we go through, a few different times in life, but especially when we first enter the cocoon.
I believe Rilke* is talking to you. And he is talking to you who have entered the cocoon. And now he is talking to all of us at this time on the planet.
You are not surprised at the force of the storm— you have seen it growing. The trees flee. Their flight sets the boulevards streaming. And you know: he whom they flee is the one you move toward. All your senses sing him, as you stand at the window.
I hope you forgive me if I comment a little bit by stanza. All your senses sing him. This great storm—there is something in the body that knows, ‘this one is for me’. Notice, by the way, you are still in the house.
The weeks stood still in summer. The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel it wants to sink back into the source of everything. You thought you could trust that power when you plucked the fruit; now it becomes a riddle again, and you again a stranger.
Feels like a betrayal. Summer, everything was great, the weeks went on and on forever. We trusted in life, in our bodies, in society, in some way, at least our peer group.
Summer was like your house: you knew where each thing stood. Now you must go out into your heart as onto a vast plain. Now the immense loneliness begins.
The days go numb, the wind sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.
Rilke is telling the truth. He’s not pulling any punches. The elders and initiators do not pull punches. They might kidnap you and take you into the wilds. Then they tell you the truth.
Through the empty branches the sky remains. It is what you have. Be earth now, and evensong. Be the ground lying under that sky. Be modest now, like a thing ripened until it is real, so that he who began it all can feel you when he reaches for you. That’s how the cocoon starts.
We might say that we are in our own cocoon now as a species, as the planet. If there is one way this poem doesn’t quite say it right about our current time, it’s the “modest” part. This must not be taken to imply any kind of passivity, for this is a time to be very active and engaged, all of us in helping reshape society.
End of Part 1. Catch the other half of this interview in the Fall issue of Alternatives, September, 2008. Bill Plotkin will be presenting events in Oregon in 2008, including: • New Renaissance Bookstore - Portland, OR - author event - Tuesday July 1, 7 - 8:30pm (speaking about and reading from Nature and the Human Soul) • Sweet Darkness, a five-day Animas intensive at Breitenbush Hotsprings, July 2 – 6, with Bill Plotkin and Dianne Timberlake, information at www.animas.org or 800-451-6327 • Wildness and Shadowed Wonder, a five-day Animas intensive at Westwind (on the wild Oregon coast), Oct 24 – 28, with David Abram and Bill Plotkin, information at www.animas.org or 800-451-6327 * Credits for poem from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.