When someone identifies himself or herself as a herbalist, what are they saying? What do you have to do to become a herbalist? What do you have to have to practice herbalism? What do you have to be to practice herbalism? What are the tools of the trade? What are the distinguishing marks between the laity and professionals?
Many people have hobbies that use the equipment and jargon of the respective professionals. The hobbyists and professionals preface their descriptions of their work with explanations detailing, “work for pay” opposed to “work for joy.” Photography and astronomy are two professions that attract numerous hobbyists. Whilst amateur photographers can button hole you, trapping you with their picture books documenting every aspect of their lives and what they believe is interesting, astronomers tend to hide in the dark, late at night awaiting for the clouds to part so they may observe some faint smudge of light in a vast sky of stars.
When we are introduced to someone, it is normal to ask him or her: “what do you do?” They in turn may answer what they do for a living or for fun or both. If they have their dream job and are doing for pay what they do for joy they may demonstrate a high level of contentment. No one becomes a herbalist for the pay but it is the dream job of many. Once there was a time when, if you asked someone their occupation they may answer: “I am a carpenter like my father was and his father and his father before him; and so on and so on.” In that society everyone knew their place and had some security and stability based on the need for tradesmen, labourers, clergy, military, and gentry. Family names like Smith, Potter, and Miller, indicate someone in the genealogy with that trade and names like Koenig (king) bespeak erstwhile nobility. In many ways people are confusing their being with their doing instead of infusing their doing with their being. That is, when you ask them who they are, they tell you what they do. In today’s society it is said that anyone can be anything that they want to be. If you do not know then you can take a standardized aptitude test to see what you are likely to be good at doing. How odd! Once, our elders would observe us as children and announce what we would become. Those children, who brought in wounded, stray animals and nursed them to health, were showing signs of being healers. The elders would set up situations to test the children again to see and know their aptitudes. The children when young adults, would have to demonstrate that they have the calling. They would need to have a vision of their becoming. Soon they would begin collecting and fashioning the tools of their trade and seeking a teacher.
A good teacher is an educator. All you Jesuit trained readers know that the word “educate” comes from the Latin root “ex ducare” which means, “to lead out.” The implication comes from the Platonic notion that all knowledge is inside of us and needs to be properly led out. We do not fill our heads with knowledge we liberate it from our souls, what is bred in bone. As we evolve along the spiral of life different aspects of our inner being are expressed and it can be reflected in our doing, in our work. This is not some didactic exercise in semantics. This is the right understanding of identity. In order to do something we must be it first. We may travel to distant Universities and have degrees conferred upon us but if we had not been motivated by a deep inner knowing of ourselves and our purpose for life then we have gained nothing. All that we truly have is that which we are. What are the tools we need to use to express our idiom? What are the tools of the trade? A clinical herbalist in today’s society can be considered as an important adjunct to the primary care giver, the physician. For a very small segment of society, clinical herbalists are the primary care givers. We hope that in the future, clinical teams will routinely include the herbalists. A clinical herbal therapist may have a white lab coat, a stethoscope around her neck and will ask for a urine sample. At first a CHT may appear like a doctor but they should be way different on the inside in their thoughts and concepts. The actions of the therapy of a herbalist may be even the opposite of a doctor. The simplest example is treatment of flu with fever. Left to its self the body will fever and shake and sleep in the fetal position. Most physicians will prescribe useless antibiotics, acetaminophen (Tylenol) to cool down the fever, and perhaps cough syrup. This is not unlike the auto mechanic installing a louder stereo system so you cannot hear the engine noises. A true healer like a herbalist, from any tradition, would aid the patient in returning to balance and harmony. Even if that means discomfort. Seeking comfort and being always symptom free is essentially antithetical to the healing process. We need the lines of communication open. We need to know how we are in order to know what to do. John Scudder, an Eclectic physician, studied and used herbalism, specific medication, homeopathy, Physiomedicalism, and orthodox modalities. He had the fortune to practice during the pinnacle of the many complementary medical systems. Scudder also practiced at a time before the multitudinous laboratory tests excluded the physician from directly knowing. He describes the human being as the most perceptive and perfect instrument for diagnosing the patient’s condition. With self-awareness, the practitioner uses self-assessment simultaneously to assessing the patient. In other words, some of the signs and symptoms are actually read inside the practitioner, himself or herself. The practitioner becomes part of the process and yet remains impersonal. Ask a Taoist to explain and they would use a nature metaphor probably including water, their favourite element. Collect a cup of rainwater or scoop it from a river. Examine closely the water and it will reveal some of its secrets. Now throw the water up into the air and let it rain down into the river and flow away without a trace. Only in its relationship with the whole could the water be and do what is its full nature. Isolated, it becomes stagnant and irrelevant. In the last installment we discussed the dangers of alienation in its manifestations in our ecology and in our psychology. The cup of water was neither the rain nor the river but could be a part of it. A herbalist must be a part of the healing process. Jars of dried herbs and tinctures are separate until the medicines re-enter the systems of life within the patient and there begin to form relationships and integrate themselves with the whole. The practitioner knows that health is intrinsic to the patient’s being and he knows that by skillful means he will help liberate the hidden health condition. The herbalist will be an educator. The herbs provide the elements to bring the parts back into the whole. The herbalist, the patient, the herbs, society and nature are the living systems always seeking balance and harmony and dynamic equilibrium through relationships. Like clouds and rain and rivers are all related as manifest forms of water so to are the people and plants related by life, spirit and consciousness manifesting in various forms.
So, what do we do now? As soon as you know who you are, you will then know what to do. It will be your nature.