How to become whole?
Exploring two development journeys beyond everday's life

How Bill Plotkin’s definition of Spirit and Soul helped me to fill these words with meaning.

For a long time when I heard the words Spirit and Soul – Geist und Seele, Spirito e Anima – I got mixed feelings. I linked to them many historic narratives of abuse, manipulation, and illusion. Nevertheless, I felt that around these words I could find inspiration for questions that deeply matter to me. Such as why are we here? What am I here for? What is the bigger picture life is embedded in?

The way Bill Plotkin described his understanding of the words – Soul and Spirit – in his book Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche particularly touched me. It provided me images that allowed me to make these words become my own. It helped me to start grasping what narratives could answer some of my “big questions”. Below I summarized Bill Plotkin’s definition of these words and the images he uses to “glue” them together.

Spirituality: the exploration of what lays beyond the surface life

Let’s start from the basics. Bill Plotkin defines spirituality as “the sphere of experience laying beyond the surface life”. He talks about spirituality as the “opening of our awareness to the ultimate reality of our existence”. Spirituality is about asking and exploring in different ways big questions like who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is our collective purpose? Why are things as they are? Etc. In this sense

Spirituality is the practice of exploring what is beyond what we can easily see.

In spirituality, for Bill Plotkin, there are “two realms, which together form a whole”. By letting out one of them or focussing only on one of them, at some point we will miss something in our lives, we will feel incomplete.

The ascent to Spirit: being one with all

Bill Plotkin illustrates that the first realm that we generally associate with spirituality is the “ascent to spirit”. Elevating ourselves to feel connected to the spirit is about letting go of the ego and the strategic mind, constantly thinking about the past and the future. It is about developing the ability to be fully present, in peace, with a calm mind. Being innerly illuminated, feeling one with the creation, “rise to heaven”, to the nirvana, being pure light and bliss. These are some of the expressions used in different cultural contexts to describe the rise to spirit. Many practices developed by religions all over the word, like praying or meditation, help us to come to states of consciousness in which the boundaries of the Self seem to disappear and we become one with all.

“Spirit is what is in all things, it is the mystery that permeates and creates everything in the universe”

The descent to soul: uncovering and sharing our uniqueness

The second, much less explored realm, is the “descent to Soul”. This exploration is about getting fully into our bodies and the ability to sense what is hiding and wants to emerge from our inner depths. The descent journey is about letting ourselves “fall into the darkness, mystery, and secret longings of our innerself”, as Plotkin writes. This journey is about getting in touch with our “true self”, our inner wild nature, the essence of our individuality. It is about connecting to our inner guidance or intuitive knowledge.

The descent to Soul is about taking a torch and stepping into the dark caves of our unconscious: there we encounter our “inner monsters”, the parts of ourselves we fear and are not proud of, as well as “treasures”, our unique powers, capabilities and skills. The descent to Soul is about listening to our deepest longings and discovering our most heartfelt purposes.

“Soul is the essence of our individuality: the seed that waits in you to spread its branches to the sky” – as David Whyte writes

In the same way, as there are practices to ascend to the Spirit, there are practices to descend to the underworld of Soul. Among other ones these include coaching, psychotherapy, wandering in nature, using nature as a mirror of our inner-selves, group sharings in settings like council circles, dreamwork, and many more.

Spirit and Soul

My experiences with Spirit

I experienced several moments in life in which I just felt like being one with all creation. These were moments in which I felt boundless. Pure being, pure bliss. A lot of times these moments happened to me when I was in nature and active at the same time. I remember for instance this evening when I was kitesurfing during a sunset in Spain. The sun was approaching the water on the horizon. It was big and fired up in red. I watched it while I was kitesurfing on the water surface at full speed. I was pulled by the wind, while zigzagging on the waves with the board. My body was fully in action. I was in the flow, present in the moment and at the same time immersed in the beauty surrounding me and filling me with so much gratitude, that I could not contain it anymore.

In that moment, I felt deeply touched, in peace with everything. Fully nourished of something I was not even aware of being hungry of. After reading Plotkin’s book I realized that I can call such moments spiritual experiences, ascents to spirit. 

The exploration of my Soul

On the other hand I also experienced processes in which I focussed on understanding myself better, “descents to the soul” in Plotkin’s words. For example during a coaching session I realized that the deepest wound I carry in my heart from childhood, is the feeling of not being truly seen. I remember how my mom would talk about how beautiful I was and what a good kid I was. She would be proud of my good grades. These are common comments of parents and I believe she had no bad intentions with them.

However, as she talked about what she saw, there was no space for me to actually tell her how I did feel about my appearance, about school, about the grades. She did not listen. She moved on and kept talking. And I felt lonely inside.

Nowadays when she comments on my appearance I still become slightly irritated, but soon I take a few deep breaths. I know, by now, that she’s projecting stories on me, about me, which she likes to tell herself. I know that sometimes there are openings to truly share bits of what really matters to me with her. And more importantly I know that I can share big slices of what matters to me with other people in my life.

The gift laying behind the wound of not being seen, of not having someone truly listening to me, made me become a careful listener, curious of understanding what is hiding between the lines and beyond the words expressed. I love to listen and then share what lands in me, which images appear and which emotions resonate. So I figured that this wound also comes with the gift of listening and seeing beyond the surface. The amazing thing is that listening deeply comes with ease to me, and when I do it I also get the feeling that it matters, it makes a difference to the person I hear and it gives me a sense of purpose.

Exploring the own pains, the own inner darkness and identifying the strengths we gained thanks to them, is part of what Bill Plotkin calls “the exploration of Soul”. In his books Plotkin shared more wonderful ways to describe “the invisible, the mysteries, the journeys to the essence” and also how a healthy eco-centric human development looks like and how it can be supported. I’m looking forward to write more about it.

Some food for thought:

  • What do you associate with the words spirit and soul?
  • What do you think about Plotkin’s interpretations?
  • Did you experience moments in your life you could call spiritual?
  • What do you know about your biggest wounds and gifts?