How Do You Explain Yourself?

, March 24, 2015 in Reflective Essays

We live in a country that prides itself for its multi-cultural population. One of the first differences noted by Canadians on observing Americans is that one is pressured to relinquish all ties to one’s cultural heritage and “become” an American. Unless you are running a restaurant that serves ethnic foods, you are free to be a participant in the dream of your new country. When an ethnologist is studying another culture, their success in reporting is proportional to their ability to understand the nuances of the metaphors of the language of the people being studied. Imagine your favourite book of poetry being translated by a scientist instead of by another poet. How would it sound? We believe we are our own selves but how much of whom we are and what we do is predicated upon our culture? How many children in Perth, Ontario want to become shepherds compared to Perth, Scotland? How would you feel if a group of Uzbekistani scientists set camp in the city park and began interviewing your neighbours? Would you be the same person if they moved into your neighbourhood and began filming?

How are we acculturated? As children, we learn to speak from our parents and siblings. Our vocabulary, grammar, cadence and idioms are first acquired at home. Next, we enter the community and our religious & scholastic training enriches our language and thinking. There are two kinds of thoughts associated with our thinking. There are the thoughts we think about and the thoughts we think with. We call the things we think about ideas and concepts. Some examples would be: Truth, Beauty, Good governance, Ecology, and Health. The thoughts we think with are called paradigms. The paradigms filter and assemble our perceptions into patterns like principles or ideas. A principle would be the element that unites a sequence of events like mechanical causation and ideas would be what separate chairs from beds i.e. sitting in and lying on. So, what does all this gibberish have to do with herbal healing?

For most of us, our first experiences of healing were magical. We ran and fell over and began to cry. Our mother would scoop us up and coo into our ear whilst holding us close to her heart, nestled in her bosom. If we had a boo-boo on our knee, she may kiss it. Soon the pain subsided and the wound was forgotten. If we were a little older and we fell playing hockey, our friends would tell us to rub snow on the pain and get back into the game. “Walk it off” or “skate it off” can be heard wherever children are playing. Doctors and nurses are not kissing boo-boos and pharmacies are not filled with snowballs. If when we were children, we woke up with a fever or some childhood disease, our parents had a program of bed rest and special foods & drinks and perhaps, a medicine. We were convinced of the efficacy of the regimen and waited until the ordeal was over. If those same Uzbekistani ethnologists were to interview all the readers of the journal, they would find a level of consensus or agreement that would have statistical significance in that our very membership in the OHA provides a basis of selectivity. What the scientists would find is that we all believe in the efficacy of herbs and that our list of herbs we used would have significant overlap. As a reader of the Herbal Forum, it would be clear that our usage of the same herb sets ran from a degree of magical energetics as described by Matthew Woods through Traditional medicine like Ayurveda to Physiomedical to finally, Phytotherapy that uses chemical causation to explain the efficacy of the plant protocols. There is an old saying in medicine: “First the word, then the herb, then the blade.” It’s meaning is clear. Healing may come merely by communicating a truth, i.e. the word and if more is needed then administer the herb and if it is too late, take out the blade and cut out the sickness.

Those foreign scientists studying our use of herbal medicine would have a hard time with a large majority of our membership. Although we would be consistent in our internal agreements about the name of the herbs and the conditions they could help in, many of our explanations on the how herbs work could not fit any scientific category. Like accountants, who create a miscellaneous column to pick up stray numbers, the foreign ethnologists would have to use creative theories or rely on the old placebo effect to explain the numerically large set of unscientific uses. Ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman is one such author who addresses this problem of unscientific usage analysis and comes up with his theory by looking at what he calls the “meaning response.” (1) One example he cites uses what would be labeled a use based on the doctrine of signatures and power by sympathy. If a plant has little hooks on it that would make it hook on to your clothes then putting the powder of the herb into a coat pocket would make it sell faster as it hooked a customer. Love medicines and spirit medicines are not common to clinical situations but there is a place for them in our society and we need an understanding that can explain all the plants’ uses utilizing some unified system or body of knowledge. Ayurveda and Tibetan medicine use energetic explanations, include space for spirit beings, and have a long literary tradition. Cherokee medicine may be able to explain itself within the confines of its culture but there is no established literature of Cherokee origin, only translations of conversations between informants and scientists. Lastly, science has been unable to translate humoural metaphors or find meridians and nadis.

Two schools are trying to unite all the disparate medical systems. They are called Integrative medicine and Naturopathic medicine. They are built on paradigms of healing that are increasingly inclusive of traditions that come from different cultures and different ways of perceiving and thinking. Slowly the two schools are approaching each other as their roots are in natural medicine and orthodox medicine, which were once mutually exclusive. Sadly, they both are presently failing in the primary fact that neither is a unified body of knowledge but more like a collection of things that work. There was a time when all science was called Natural Science and there were no specialists. Faith and Reason could once eat at the same table without fighting because each knew its place. Now, both are being applied to religion and science blurring the division that has kept them apart. The principles of Naturopathic medicine and the principles of Integrative medicine are more directed at how to choose from the smorgasbord than what constitutes it. For now, this is a good start and we herbalists need to organize ourselves if we want to join the buffet line. Is herbalism a primary care system of healing or an adjunct to the others? Should we be teaching doctors how to practice herbalism or should we be teaching people when to choose a herbalist? Or both? What would we call this unified body of knowledge and how can we assemble it?

The only science of all and everything is cosmology. There is physics and meta-physics but they are never taught as one subject as each part contains mutually exclusive concepts and paradigms. Cosmology is now considered an aspect of astronomy. Let’s look at little dots of light in the sky. Next, we will observe and describe their various movements. With a little math, we can now explain all and everything in the universe? This is not the kind of cosmology we need. How about a cosmology that explains the creation of the universe, its evolution and final demise? Something that explains the history of humanity, matter and spirit, good and evil, duality and unity, sickness and healing, life and death and more. This cosmology would be found in the 12th century writings of a visionary nun, Hildegard of Bingen. We cannot send our scientists back in time to study her but we have her many writings, songs, and artworks to ponder. When we look at her herbal medicine, we will need to adjust some of our own paradigms and concepts so that her writings are consistent and maintain their inspired position. We each have our own set of metaphors that help us explain life to our children so they can thrive in the world that would otherwise be confusing and dangerous. Even after you explain the world, it is still dangerous and only a little less confusing. There are movements afoot to standardize and regulate herbal medicine. Clearly, we can hardly define what herbal medicine is and where it belongs in the grand scheme of things. How are we to distill or reduce something that is not contained? Let us find a new set of paradigms that let us see the whole picture in which every element has a place and purpose. Let us see ourselves in that picture. Cosmological medicine uses hope, faith, reason and herbs too, also. Please try to avoid the knife.