Bill Plotkin’s “Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche”
On my second week in DC, I had the good fortune to cross paths with Martin Cadee, a social entrepreneur and nature quest guide. He introduced me to the work of Bill Plotkin, specifically Nature and the Human Soul, which I wrote about earlier this year.
Plotkin’s newly-released Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche provides a deeper and, from my perspective, more holistic dive into the concepts he introduced in his first two books. He opens the book with an invitation:
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 institutions of who we are, and to learn again to celebrate, as we once did, our instinctive affinity with the Earth community in which we are rooted… It’s time to take an ecological and holistic look at the human psyche, to make a fresh start with Western psychology.
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, a shift in consciousness. And the key to reclaiming our original wholeness is not merely to suppress psychological symptoms, recover from addictions and trauma, manage stress, or refurbish dysfunctional relationships, but rather to fully flesh out our multifaceted, wild psyches, committing ourselves to the largest story we’re capable of living, serving something bigger than ourselves.
Wholeness is the foundation for true healing. Similar to Joanna Macy, an author/activist quoted frequently in Wild Mind, Plotkin argues that a true worldwide paradigm shift starts with each individual cultivating wholeness. We must connect deeply with the four facets of the Self and understand the limitations and gifts of our maligned subpersonalities. By identifying and cultivating these psychological resources which exist in us all, we can identify the unique gift (“soulcraft”) that we carry for the world.
Plotkin spends much of the book taking readers through his updated, nature-based map(s) of psychological wholeness:
Based on this map, Plotkin describes the four facets of the self (our innate human wholeness) and the four sets of fragmented/wounded subpersonalities to which we are all prone:
- North – The north facet of the Self is the Nurturing Generative Adult, whereas a wounded north can take the form of an inner critic, codependent, or immature pseudo-warrior.
- South – The south facet is the Wild Indigenous One, the sensuous, emotive, erotic, and instinctive aspect of ourselves, while a wounded south might be a wounded child, victim, conformist, or rebel.
- East – The east facet of the Self is the Innocent/Sage (or Trickster or Sacred Fool), while a wounded east can manifest as an addict or an escapist.
- West – The west facet of the Self is the Muse, Inner Beloved, or Guide to Soul, whereas the wounded west takes the form of the Shadow or a variety of Shadow selves such as a drunk or a counterfeit guru.
Plotkin also introduces a vertical axis:
- Spirit – Upward direction; identifies with Spirit (a.k.a God, Mystery, or the nondual)
- Soul – Downward direction; our unique and deepest individual identity (a.k.a the underworld, Hades or the fruitful darkness)
- Eco – The center; at the intersection of the Spirit and Soul, where the Ego rests and where we live our lives
Much of this book is taking readers through these maps, including strategies and practices for understanding your psyche. Each stage of this nature-based wheel contains a task and gift to other human beings. Of great importance is the West (Magician, Wanderer), where when prepared and whole, one sheds their adolescent identity and descends to the depths of their psyche to uncover their sacred calling or gift to the world:
The largest conversation you’re capable of having with the world
Your own truth / at the center of the image / you were born with
It’s the shape / that waits in the seed / of you to grow / and spread / its branches / against a future sky
Few humans, Plotkin argues, ever achieve this level of self-awareness. Most of us are stuck in adolescent, ego-based lives, the core cause behind many of the daunting issues the world now faces. True adults — people who are embodying their mythopoetic identity (soulcraft) as a gift to others — are the visionary artisans of cultural renaissance. Deep and radical cultural renewal, or a paradigm shift, arises from true adults embodying their wild minds and contributing their deep gift to the world.
To achieve “true adulthood,” one must cultivate inner wholeness and confront their subpersonalities. The subpersonalities (such as the inner Victim, Rebel, Critic) are wounded and sometimes hidden fragments of our human psyches, each of which attempts to protect us from further injury. These form in childhood and often operate independently of our conscious selves. For example:
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.
As opposed to the standard approach by Western psychology to squash the symptoms of these subpersonalities, Plotkin argues that we must seek to understand and embrace our inner Victim, Rebel, etc. Through the various individual and group-based practices he offers, we can learn to confront these subpersonalities, thank them for their service, and “help” them to understand that they are no longer needed.
Like Plotkin’s other books, the subject matter can be a bit overwhelming, both emotionally and rationally – there are many layers to the simple-looking maps above. It is impossible not to start digging deeply into your psyche as you progress through the book. Plotkin’s positive and empathetic approach towards this journey, however, left me feeling empowered. Similar to the views I’ve cultivated through my Buddhist practice, Wild Mind reminds readers that we all have the seeds of wholeness inside, as well as the path by which to water them.