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Season 1, Episode 1:
The Four Shields of Human Nature 

Guest: Betsy Perluss


Marina Robb

Hosted by: Marina Robb

Betsy Perluss podcast episode

Betsy Perluss Ph.D. 

Betsy Perluss is my guest on Episode 1 of The Wild Minds Podcast. She is a leading wilderness rites of passage guide and trainer, a depth psychotherapist, practising deep ecotherapy and helping people to apply the natural world for therapeutic purposes.

She specialises in Jungian and depth-oriented psychotherapy, dream work, and nature-based healing practices. Her work is guided by non-hierarchical and trauma informed perspectives. For her, depth psychotherapy is an exploration of the rich resources of one’s inner life, along with a critical examination of the forces that silence what we instinctively already know.

In this episode, Betsy and Marina discuss:

  • How to re-imagine ourselves as intricately interwoven with the world beyond our skin.
  • The four shields of human nature: The body, psyche, mind, and spirit, and the value of seeing and experiencing a bigger reality. 
  • Words like ego and the unconscious – and what happens when our ego is defeated.
  • How can we begin to live in a not-so-human-centric way?

    Music by Geoff Robb: www.geoffrobb.com 


To find out more about all of Betsy Perluss's work, please follow this link to her website: www.betsyperluss.com

The School of Lost Borders - Rites of Passage Training Organisation: https://schooloflostborders.org/

Betsy Perluss is joining us in the UK in May 2024 offering a training called 'Mirroring The Four Shields Of Human Nature: The Art Of Storytelling and Listening'

To join please follow this link:

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(transcribed by AI so there maybe some small errors!)

MarinaHi, Betsy, and welcome to Wild Minds. I'm so grateful that you're calling in from California and being with me tonight. Thank you so much for coming. 

Betsy: It's an absolute delight to be here. Thank you, Marina. 

Marina: So I always start with gratitude. I think it helps me arrive, and it helps me centre. So if you wouldn't mind, I’m going to share a little bit of gratitude and then if you want to, I’d love for you to do that too. So for me, I’m grateful for the water, and I’m particularly thinking of water in a swimming pool at the moment because I’ve been swimming this winter, and it's just really helped me. And I’m just so grateful that I have this chance to get in the water. After swimming, my mind slows down. So thanks to the water. 

Betsy: Beautiful. I would have to say the same thing. Water, and as we were mentioning earlier, California just broke record for the most snow in recorded history. And while there's some disaster and tragedy around that, there's also a lot of water, and it reminds me just how precious water is and to have it in so much abundance right now. There's an element for me anyway of the promise of moisture, of spring flowers that are starting to come up as well. And super blooms across the state, even in the desert. So my gratitude is also for water. 

Marina: Yes. It makes me think that I’m starting to be able to remember different years in my mind. Like last year in England, it was so dry at this time of year and the leaves hadn't composted yet, and now it's been so wet and it really changes the landscape. So water, and we have the flowers. We're maybe a little bit ahead of you. And I have to say it feels good. 

I’m really delighted to have you here because I met you on a trip that I took to California on this journey into the wilderness to really try and learn a little bit about this Four Shields model of what it is to be a human. I understand that you've actually been involved in sharing these teachings for a long time. Am I right? Something like from 1995 you first encountered this model. Is that correct? 

Betsy: Yes, I first heard of the School of Lost Borders, the organization that I’m affiliated with, in 1995. I didn't actually attend a program at Lost Borders until ‘98. It took me a couple of years to muster up the courage because I didn't really know what Lost Borders was about at the time. I’d never been exposed to anything like Lost Borders. When I finally did make it, I immediately fell in love with the people and the form and the philosophy. 

Marina: But am I also right that it wasn't, well, you seem to have so many strings to your story because I looked and did a little bit of research. You also identify yourself as a depth psychologist. Have I got that right? And then I looked to the next thing and I read that a depth psychologist was like deep ecology. There's definitely something deep going on here, and I’m only laughing because I think when I talk about deep nature connection that there's something below the surface that we don't always see. And maybe that's why the word is deep. I’d love you to share what deep psychology is. 

Betsy: That's a big question. What is depth psychology? We can go back to the early works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and many others who pioneered this psychology that focused on the unconscious. Being deep basically means being below the surface of our conscious awareness. And from that developing a psychology where we understand that. How we perceive ourselves, how we perceive the world, is a surface layer of mostly ways that we've been enculturated and socialized by family, by school, by society to see the world around us. 

But the majority of so-called reality is below the surface. It's in the depths. It's not seen. I love the metaphor of deep. I mean, it gives us a sense of going downward obviously. But if we think about it in terms of what we know about deep, it would be underneath the surface of the ground; it would actually be underwater or below the surface layer of the soil.

 So it's there. We know it's there. Our whole life is built upon it, and yet we can't see it in the same way we see things that are on the surface. What's deep or what's in the depths doesn't necessarily match our conscious understanding of things. When we encounter material from the depths, it usually shows up in ways that don’t necessarily make sense to our rational mind or our normal perception, such as dreams, for instance. 

Dreams show up in very odd ways with images that you wouldn't expect to see in ordinary reality. Yet it's a phenomenon that's true. Here it is. You can't deny that the dream showed up and presented itself. It's the matter of learning how to understand the language of the deep so that we can broaden our consciousness to a greater sense of reality or wholeness that's not so narrow, focused. Modern society has really narrowed the focus, modernity, where basically, there is so much emphasis on our capacity to use our rational mind, which is in so many ways so wonderful and at the same time has cut off so much about what's in the depths. What we don't see. It's cut off our intuition. It's cut off our sense of feeling. And in a large part, our bodies and our relationship with the human and the natural world. That's what we're going to be talking about—nature in the modern world has become a material item to that. We can scientifically study and measure and do all kinds of wonderful things with it, but we've lost that deeper kind of connection with it. It doesn't really speak to those of us in the modern world in the same way that it has in our ancient past.

 Marina: To me, when we use terms like depth psychology, I can feel a part of me worrying that I don't understand it. Just bear with me. I don't understand what we're talking about in the sense that I feel like, in my everyday experience, I have feelings. I have different thoughts. I have so much I don't understand. And I wonder how depth psychology provides a different lens or a way of looking at what it is to be human in that way? Is that a way of seeing it?

 Betsy: Absolutely. For lack of better words, we have these psychological words like ego and the unconscious. But if you think about the ego as a small circle in the middle of a much larger circle, the ego, our consciousness, is that smaller circle, and it thinks it knows everything. The troubling part about the ego is that by its very nature it considers itself to be the core of all knowledge, and we need our ego in order to function in the world. But when it becomes the centre of the universe, then we don't see anything else around us. We don't see the bigger reality. We don't see that there's so much more. It takes a relativisation of that ego and the work of depth psychology and deep ecology to shift the ego out of the centre so that it's not the king of the hill—it's not the end all of everything, but it's one perspective of many. We live in a human-centric society where humans, at least in western society, have been considered the most important, most knowledgeable, most reasonable only conscious species on the planet. And that's because that ego is so solid: rigid and thinking it is the king of the hill.

 But what we're learning—or relearning, I should say—is that's not true at all. Humans are one species amongst many with equal value. But that's a defeat for the ego. I need to put other species and the environment and the ecosystem on an equal plane to compensate for the damage that we've done.

 Marina: Is there something about how we make or how we have a greater relationship with the other aspects so that we're not just living our lives through this centre point we're somehow able to widen. I’m wondering what things help us have a wider lens or operate beyond this fixed place.

 Betsy: Wonderful question. How do we begin to live in a way that is not so human-centric? There are two ways. One is to do it. In a way, to be forced to do it. And the other is to consciously turn toward it. When I say forced, for instance, when people come into psychotherapy, most often they come because they're having symptoms such as depression or anxiety. Relationship problems. Trauma-related issues, and those symptoms are indications that something else wants to be acknowledged or tended to.

 As a psychotherapist, I follow the symptoms because I believe they are signs from the unconscious saying there's some work to be done here. The way you've been living your life, the way you have been functioning is not working anymore. It's too narrow or one-sided. So the unconscious gets our attention through disturbing symptoms. And it kind of has to be disturbing because if it's not, we tend to ignore it. I think that's happening on a global scale as well with climate change, climate chaos, social unrest, cultural disintegration. All of these are symptoms on a larger scale that are demanding our attention. 

And if we ignore them, they're just getting louder, and they're getting really, really loud. So that's one way. I think it's preferable if we can consciously turn our attention and say we know enough. To know that there's more to this life than I can fully understand rationally. 

This is why people come to the School of Lost Borders. For example, I want to connect deeper with myself and with nature and with others. So let's consciously turn our attention in that direction. Let's listen for what we don't know. Listening goes a long way. That's why when people come to a program like the one you attended, the Four Shields Program, our first move is to send you out on the land and listen deeply, not just with your mind, but with your body, with your soul, with your spirit. And listen, even though you might not understand what you hear. Then bring that back to the community and share your experience, share your story, and have that reflected back. And together we begin to interpret what this all means. In that practice, there is a deepening of relationship—not just with humans, but with the more than human.

 Marina: But now you're talking about something that, for me, was extraordinary. I mean, I’ve gone out into nature and practiced in nature and have taken groups into nature for 30 years. So I’m not a novice. But it was extraordinary to be in that group with you and others in that way. I can feel my energy rising just remembering it in my body because there was something about the process of going out onto the land and then coming back from the land with a story that in some ways from one perspective I was just telling you what happened. And then to have this. To have you and others reflect back to me and see things that I couldn't see or hadn't consciously seen. And to do it in a way that uplifted me, and it gave me a way of seeing something.

I know that you're coming to England next year and I am jumping on that workshop.

 Because it was something that wasn't clearly your skill. Clearly, you've got years of experience in personally doing it and also doing it for others. But there was this magical imaginable thing that happened that you can't explain. The words won't do it because it was an experience. I’m fascinated by this, and I understood it to be called mirroring as well. But what is this magical quality; do you know how to explain it? Is it possible to explain this magical thing that happens? How do you explain to me how that happened—for every single one of us, something magical happened? And between ourselves and the natural world, between these unseen forces and coming back to the community, and having you and others mirror what's going on there. Really, Betsy? What's going on?

Betsy: I love the question. I feel like it's been my life's work trying to answer that very question, trying to articulate what that is in context to what we've been talking about. I do believe that the ego just gets really tired of itself. I think we get dried out and we lose our sense of connection. And if we're working, living out just simply from an ego place, to have that experience is like the veil suddenly gets pulled away and we see that it's not about us.

I mean, it is about us. It's our story. But it's not just about us. It's in us as part of a much larger whole. And that is an incredible experience. I’m so glad you talked about your experience in our program because it has to be felt. It's not intellectual. If it's not felt in the body, in our feelings, in our whole self, then it just becomes another intellectual exercise. When the ego can step aside and enter into this larger realm of experience,it can feel quite numinous. It's like—I hate to use religious language but—in a way it almost feels like God, having an experience of something bigger than ourselves.

Marina: Because you can't rationalize that because it doesn't feel like one plus one equals two. It feels like I suddenly had a feeling that I just remembered this. I don't know if you remember because you must have so many groups. But for me, well, one story that I’ve always held very close to me is the story of Jumping Mouse that I heard as a 24-year-old. That story has stayed with me. 

And there I was going off along this landscape, and it felt like I was reliving a bit of Jumping Mouse. So you couldn't have made that up. I couldn't; it just happened. There was something—this sense of interconnectedness, which I think we're speaking to somehow. And I want to rationalize. I want to understand it. I want the rule book. Part of me wants to do that. And yet I really feel that I just can't. And I’m not going to be able to do that. I just have to be okay with that experience the way it is and not try to figure it out. 

I’ve read in some of what you've written on your website—which, by the way, I will link to on our website— you said we're using or being with different aspects of what it is to be alive. And that's providing a whole different experience. Am I making sense? 

Betsy: Completely. 

Marina: Thank you. Thank God. 

Betsy: One of the problems in the modern world is there's been such a privileging of mentors. It's where that rational capacity to intellectualize. If we can't intellectualize something, it's not valuable. It doesn't have value. But there are so many ways of knowing. There's body knowing, there's instinctual knowing, intuitive knowing, there's heart knowing. We need to give value to those as well. 

What does it mean to know something? Is it to just understand it or is it to know it intimately? Like, you would know a lover to have that knowledge of somebody. You don't just know about them. You know them. You've experienced them on so many levels. That's the knowing that we're trying to cultivate in our teachings and in our practices.

That's why I love the Four Shields model—or the four we might call the wheel of life—because it includes the body. It includes what we call soul or psyche, which would be more of that dreamscape, the mythic realm. It includes the rational mind because that's part of who we are. And also a sense of spirit and our connection to the divine. How do you put that into words?

But anyone I know who has been awed by an incredibly beautiful sunrise would say it's like experiencing the divine. That experience of our lives, in the world over, hundreds and thousands of years have been somehow translated into the experience of divinity.

Marina: There's something about that model. First of all, we are going to just touch on this. We could go for hours just on one aspect of that wheel. But it speaks about simplicity and balance as well. It's like, so where am I, only operating from one aspect of myself? How is my relationship to these other parts of myself? This balance feels like such an ancient understanding of ourselves. And here we are in 2023, and we're still esteeming a very narrow part of what it is to be human within the natural world. 

Betsy: Absolutely. 

Marina: Go for it. 

Betsy: I worked with children and adolescents in schools for years, and I love working with that population because I learned so much. I definitely learned more from the youth than they ever learned from me. But as a counsellor in education, my job was to help these students. Do better in school, which often meant behaving better in school. All good things. I support that, and it has its limitations. 

With the young people that I worked with, especially the adolescent young people, it just didn't make sense to them. Why should I do better in school? Like, what's the point? I'm just conforming here and it doesn't touch me. So I thought, well, what's going to resonate with you? And as soon as we brought in myth, creativity and expression, it was all there. That narrow intellectualized. You just learn for the sake of learning. 

Perspective was not enough. But if you bring in the mythic part of their lives and the meaning of their lives and how they give form to that, they flourished. That's part of what we're talking about, and I see that in the nature connection as well, because if you go into nature, we can talk about what that means, but if you go into the wild realm, there are so many forms of expression. It’s not just about success or about money or relationship. It's about all kinds of beauty. It's about all kinds of gender expression. It's about different ways of relating to life and death. It amplifies the possibilities rather than what children are learning in school, sitting in a desk in line rows very structured. So I love that you bring that in because kids are wonderful teachers in that, especially when they rebound. I need to listen to what that's trying to express. 

Marina: The closest I get to understanding my adult experience of what I described earlier when I came out to your training is how I experience those really early years. Kids who see that everything is alive, everything is real, everything is in conversation—this animistic worldview. I’m fascinated by that, how we have that, then it goes apparently. So they can express that in their way, and we can enter that with them. It's such a permission to go into that. I agree with you when you think about how much young people can teach us and on all kinds of levels as, by the way, of course, the elders, I want to celebrate the youth, but I also want to celebrate all the stages. But there's something in that. They have something. The air that echoes this—suddenly, everything's alive, and we can welcome it in. We can welcome ourselves as part of it. 

It feels very special. Knowing how precious this time is, I want to think a little bit about this idea of rites of passage. So many of my colleagues as well—we go out into nature. We may do these things in England we call forest school. There could be nature, kindergartens, camps and all these kinds of different experiences, some which have a deeper immersion element. But all through my adult life, I’ve always considered this idea of rites of passage or going out into the wilderness for longer periods to be the cherry on the cake because it's something else. 

I wondered if you would just talk a little bit about the awe of initiation and rites of passage. What does that mean? I understand, again, this could be ours, but just to give us a flavour of the value or importance of this idea of initiation and perhaps its place, if it happens in the natural world—what is that? 

Betsy: Yes, rites of passage is simply the marking of a transition from one stage to the next. We go through that multiple times throughout our life. Each person, usually unconsciously, and we don't fully integrate what that transition is, for example, the transition of going from a child to adulthood. So we have this kind of skewed idea of what it means to be an adult. 

To be an adult is to own a certain amount of things, to have this kind of money or status—when you talk about the valuing of elders, really. Let's talk about what it means to be a true adult, somebody who is there to be in service to life, in service to the children and service to supporting the elders. Our values have been really skewed without a full awareness of rites of passage in these transitions. And where do they come from? This is one of the most beautiful parts about the rites of passage. 

Teaching comes from our relationship with the natural world, because if we observe what's happening in nature, we see that it's continually going through transitions. It's not static. And that's what makes nature wild, that it's a living, moving, changing phenomenon all the time. 

We see it in the changing of the seasons. We see it in the waxing and waning of the moon and the tides, and everything is always in flux. And it tells us that, oh, well, I’m in flux too. I'm always changing. I'm going through these transitions. So I am nature. I'm not just learning this from nature; I too go through the transitions just as nature does, but as a human. It's part of my nature to make meaning out of this. This is a natural biological force in me that's constantly changing and growing and developing, eroding as we age. Making meaning. And that's what the rites of passage helps us to do. It gives us a way of creating a structure and a form to ceremonially make meaning out of this that's part of providing the sustenance to the next generation and to the next generation. 

Most people could agree we live in a world that's pretty scarce on meaning—true, deep meaning. We have a lot of surface level meaning, but intergenerational meaning: what's my life matter to seven generations from now? That kind of meaning. See now to support that. 

Marina: Yes. You wrote that we know that there is no lack of evidence that points to the social and environmental diseases brought about by a largely uninitiated adult population. That got me thinking. If we as adults are not initiated, I wonder whether it brings us back to the beginning; do we then get stuck in a particular lens or a consciousness? We don't know how to or we're not in relationship to this other way in order to really say, hey, come on. We need something different. We need something better. This isn't okay. We're not looking after each other. The future generations. Am I on track with that?

Betsy: I think you are, absolutely. Because one of the diseases of our time is that we live in an essentially narcissistic society. I’m speaking of my society. There are others in which that would not apply but we just look at billboards and the internet and social media. It's all self-fulfilment. It's all about me. And there's this void, this desperate void of trying to feel something to give my life some meaning. Even really good programs, workshops and teachings can't fill that void. They can maybe point the direction, but the void can only be filled through a true initiatory experience where it's not just about me, but me interconnected and interrelated with the world at large.

Marina: An example of that is the vision quest, being able to spend time in a natural space and not eat for a period of time. Would you say that, amongst other things, this could form part of one way to experience some kind of initiation?

Betsy: Yes. The vision fast, which oftentimes but not necessarily includes four days alone in solitude with no shelter or food, is just one model. There are people bringing different models in all the time. And I’m very open to this.

There's something about being out there alone that accentuates that sort of crisis of meaning or that sense of what am I doing here? I don't have all the distractions around me because not eating really is about avoiding distractions. It's not about self-punishment. I don't have the things around me that offer me the usual comfort. It can really bring up that sense of aloneness which can serve as a portal to great connection. People often come to do a vision fast, wanting to make life easier or to solve a problem, or to come up with a plan for their future. And we say, “Well, it's not really about that. But you might actually encounter something quite different. And for a while, your life might even get more challenging and more difficult because what we hear you're really longing for is to live more authentically, more true.”

That most often requires a stripping down of what we think we should be or what people projected on us to be and to like. What is my life path really? What is my life about? That can make it challenging.

Marina: Oh, Betsy. So if people would like to find out more about your work, about the work of Lost Borders, about coming to England, can they go to the website? I’ll put everything on our website as well, but would you like to share where they can find you?

Betsy: Yes. And see if I can get some dates too. I think probably the most useful website would be the school of law sports.org. And just in saying that, I also want to pause and give respect and gratitude to Meredith Little, the co-founder of the school who's still very much involved and supports the work. And her deceased husband, Stephen Foster. They co-founded the school together and started a beautiful movement in this modern day rites of passage work. There's more about that on the website.

I also have my own personal website, which is simply my name: Betsy pearls.com. I will be posting programs and whatnot on that website as far as coming to England. Ishra Goodall and I are tentatively organizing a marine training to take place on May 20th.

Marina: I’m getting that down now. Listen, everybody who's listening, I’ve got that date written down. I'm going to make sure I get in contact and book on, and I’ll put that on the website. Betsy, I know you have to go because I know your car is getting packed to go to another place to hold spaces like we've been discussing, and what can I say? Just huge gratitude to you, to the work that you're enabling in the world and to everything that supports you to do that. Thank you so much; I’ll see you, I hope, soon. You're definitely welcome on this island that we have here.

Betsy: I really enjoyed this, and so appreciate your questions and your presence and the way you held this space. It was a wonderful experience. Thank you. Much gratitude to the work you do in your own forest school as well, which is beautiful.

Marina: Thank you so much.