When a woman or man has embarked upon the journey of soul initiation (a rare pursuit in the contemporary world), the primary focus ought to be soulcraft, not psychotherapy. Psychotherapy itself will not support the encounter with soul. Therapy, in fact, might distract from soul. For people in an emotional healing process, or in need of one, soulcraft might be dangerously counter-therapeutic. For those on the journey of soul initiation, on the other hand, soulcraft might be appropriately and beneficially counter-therapeutic.

I’m defining psychotherapy here as interpersonal practices aimed at helping the conscious self (the ego) improve its adjustment to its social world and its emotional life. The goal of psychotherapy, in this sense, is ego-growth, a personality more in touch with itself emotionally and viscerally, more centered and calm, less conflicted in its social relationships, more capable of empathy and intimacy, and more secure economically and professionally. These goals are valid and important, especially in the psychological stage of early adolescence I call the Oasis. [1] (By “psychological adolescence,” I don’t mean an age range, but a developmental stage that most Western people never grow beyond.) These goals of psychotherapy are also important anytime later in life when we need to develop the personality’s foundational capacities or to address emotional meltdowns or relational cul-de-sacs. Ego-growth is important and foundational to our spiritual development in both the underworld (soul) and upperworld (Spirit) senses of spiritual.

But psychotherapy itself (again, as I’m defining it here) does not help us penetrate the veil of the often-illusory life of the everyday middleworld, nor does it develop our relationship with the transpersonal mysteries of soul and spirit. Psychotherapy, when successful, helps us interpersonally and intrapersonally, but it does not directly support us to become transcultural visionaries who can help change the world and support the Great Turning from egocentric to ecocentric culture. As James Hillman and Michael Ventura audaciously put it in the title of their 1992 book, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse. [2]

This is, of course, not to say or imply that psychotherapy has no value. Given egocentric society’s multiple obstacles to successful ego-growth, psychotherapy is needed now more than ever. But the goals of a soulcentric psychotherapy are not job satisfaction or improved adjustment to a pathological society, but, rather, refined social and emotional skills and enhanced personality-level authenticity — the goals of the Oasis — which provide the foundations for the soul-rooted development of later stages.

But Hillman and Ventura are making an additional point. Psychotherapy, no matter how effective it might be, has clearly not been enough to make the world a better place. Indeed, while the popularity of psychotherapy increased exponentially during the course of the twentieth century, the world got dramatically worse. It’s likely in fact that egocentric psychotherapy has contributed to the degradation of the world by encouraging a focus on narrowly defined personal needs rather than the greater world’s urgent needs. Sometimes and in some ways, psychotherapy has encouraged narcissism.

Hillman and Ventura suggest — and I agree with them — that often the most effective therapy is active involvement in making the world a better place through volunteer service. Not only does service work contribute to a better world, it also engenders better, healthier people.

Service work contributes to psychological health in at least three ways. First, it provides a respite from the self-obsession encouraged by therapy. Second, it builds self-esteem through the experience of being useful, helpful, and a part of a meaningful effort larger than one’s own life. Third, if it is true — as many have come to believe — that our emotional troubles are at least in part, and maybe substantially, sourced in our recognition on some level that our world is threatened, then service work promotes us to being part of the solution. When we engage in activities that address a significant problem, we feel better (and less helpless), and usually right away.

Egocentric psychotherapy does not consider social, political, or environmental activism to be a therapeutic intervention. But it is.

Soulcraft, however, takes yet another step beyond therapy.

In that soulcraft, when successful, engenders initiated adults — actively engaged visionaries of cultural renaissance — and in that the efforts of initiated adults are our primary hope for creating an ecocentric and soulcentric society, then soulcraft (by whatever name) is one of the cultural practices we need in order to make the world a better place. Life-enhancing social transformation is not often facilitated by well-adjusted conformists but, rather, by actively engaged visionaries who are both sad and angry about the state of our world, and who are also deeply hopeful as they create and implement new cultural forms — new ecocentric ways of doing business, healthcare, education, architecture, agriculture, energy production, politics and government, psychotherapy, and soulcraft.

Unlike psychotherapy, soulcraft’s aim is neither for nor against saving our marriages or facilitating our divorces, cultivating our social skills or friendships, enhancing performance or enjoyment in our current careers, raising economic standing, ending our depressions, helping us understand or express our feelings, gaining insight into our personalities or personal histories, or even making us what we would normally call “happier.” Any one of these outcomes might result from soulcraft, but they are not its goal.

The goal of soulcraft is to help people cultivate the relationship between their ego and their soul. This is underworld business —  business that might, at first, make our surface lives more difficult or lonely, or less comfortable, secure, or happy. Soulcraft practices prepare the ego to abandon its social stability and psychological composure and to become an active, adult agent for soul as opposed to its former role as an adolescent agent for itself.

Soulcraft can be counter-therapeutic because it often involves — even requires — dissolution of normal ego states, which can traumatize people who have fragile or poorly developed egos, thereby further delaying, impeding, or reversing basic ego development and social adjustment. A good foundation of ego growth — through psychotherapy or otherwise — is required if soulcraft practice is going to realize its ultimate promise of cultural evolution and soulful service to community. A well-balanced ego is the necessary carrier of the gift of soul.

Soulcraft at the wrong time can undermine the ego’s viability. Shadow work, for example, which helps us recover rejected parts of our selves, may not be the best idea for people in the early stages of recovery from substance addictions, sexual abuse, or other emotional traumas. A vision fast would not be advisable for a clinically depressed person. The soulcraft use of entheogens, even if they were legal, would not be wisely recommended to children, most teenagers, or others with poor ego boundaries.

At the same time, psychotherapy can interfere with soulcraft. To move closer to soul, an initiate might need to leave a relationship, job, home, or role. Some therapists might discourage such changes, fearing an abdication of “adult responsibilities,” a lost opportunity for deepened intimacy, or economic self-destruction. Or a psychotherapy client ready for a soul-uncovering exploration of her core or sacred wound might be counseled — especially by a cognitive-behavioral therapist — that such a journey is unnecessary. Some soulcraft practices – wandering alone in wilderness, practicing the art of being lost, or a solo vision fast — may be deemed nontherapeutic, too dangerous, or even suicidal. Or an egocentric therapist might discourage efforts toward soul-rooted cultural change, thinking his client is merely projecting personal problems onto the outer world.

Although sometimes therapists would be wise to counsel against soulcraft work, at other times, if the individual is ready for the descent or if a sacrifice, psychological dying, or social-cultural risk is necessary to encounter or embody the soul, then such counsel would impede the journey of soul initiation. Without an appreciation of the soul’s radical desires, psychotherapy can interfere with psychological and spiritual maturation and promote a non-imaginative normality that merely supports people to be better-adapted cogs in a toxic consumer-capitalist society.

Malidoma Somé, an African shaman of the Dagara people, gives us an extreme example of how therapy and soulcraft goals can diverge. When Dagara boys undergo their initiation ordeals, the people of the village realize that a few boys will never return; they will literally not survive. [3] Why would the Dagara be willing to make such an ultimate sacrifice? For the boys who die, this is certainly not a therapeutic experience. Although the Dagara love their children no less than we do, they understand, as the elders of many cultures emphasize, that without vision — without soul embodied in the lives of their men and women — the people shall perish. And, to the boys, the small risk of death is preferable to the living death of an uninitiated life. Besides, when we compare Dagara society with our own, we find that an even greater percentage of our teenagers die — through suicide, substance abuse, auto accidents, gang warfare, and military service — in their unsuccessful attempts to initiate themselves. For the Dagara, a few boys perish while the rest attain true adulthood. For us, a larger portion of teens perish and very few ever attain true adulthood. Which approach is more barbaric?

Adapted from Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World (New World Library, 2008).