The Taoists have a parable about our original nature.
In the Golden Age there was no history recorded; there were no great deeds and there were no great people. Birds flew in the skies and nested in the trees. Deer ran in the woods. Cobblers made shoes and farmers grew crops. Children respected their elders. Since everything was as it should be, no one thing was “great” and so there was no history to remember.
Chuang Tzu advocated wei wu wei, “doing by not doing”. He meant leaving things as they are and not interfering in the natural way of life. Some might say “going with the flow.” Somehow simplicity is no longer considered a virtue.
We have involved ourselves in such complexity that it is hard to perceive or believe in a natural order existing and persisting behind this chaotic world of the 21st century. Walk down the streets of any city or town and ask yourself: “Is this a natural ecosystem? How does my environment supply my needs?” There are certain principles and tenets of Herbalism that define its unique method of healing. The first principle is that health is intrinsic to our nature and that if we leave things be they will tend toward balance and harmony. The second is the principle of “Vitalism” which says, in short, that there is a force that organizes matter into complex structures called plants and animals and it is Life. This lifeforce is measured by its effects as it animates. We do not see the wind but the things carried on it or moved by it, such as clouds or birds or bending trees.
One revelation we experienced in our study of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is that complex biosystems maintain dynamic equilibrium through the physical transmission of information. There is intelligence (or “mind”) contained in our physiology. This means that mind directs life and life organizes matter. The converse is life is involved in matter and evolves up to that point where mind, once hidden, is now manifest.
Mind evolves until it reaches sentience or selfawareness. Soon after self-awareness is attained, will blossoms. Self-will implies free will. The evolving life-being may be genetically programmed but is now able to choose a course of action contrary to the herd consciousness.
The French Jesuit PaleoAnthropologist Teilhard de Chardin was present at the discovery of Peking Man in China. Shortly afterwards he wrote his seminal book on evolution, The Phenomenon of Man. He postulates a teleological evolution from energy to matter to animal to sentience and beyond. Simultaneously in India Aurobindo Ghose created “Integral Yoga” to further evolve the sentient consciousness to a “supramental consciousness.” This implies not extending the mental but going above it into spiritual consciousness.
A human being may choose any lifestyle and the consequences will be measurable in his body. We can measure physiological biochemical pathways looking for chemical compounds and analyze (quantify) the information. We can examine the mind and emotions, looking for balance, harmony, and stability. Without applying any pejorative values, we have described the psychosomatic pathway or even the socio-psychosomatic pathway of disease formation and health maintenance. Holistic practitioners prefer to describe a disease condition as a disequilibrium in the whole person (i.e, .physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and social.) All these aspects are intimately interwoven and are equal-opportunity portals to the web of life.
Just as we have sub-divided humans, medical practitioners fractionate plants. Most herbal recipes do not read “add this herb to soup or salad”. We take teas, tinctures, capsules, aromatherapy, and flower remedies. Liquid whole plant extracts separate the soluble intracellular plant constituents from the structural elements. This makes it easier for the body to absorb the medicine with less effort. A whole plant extract may be defined by therapeutic action categories and target body systems. When the products become fractionated down to the molecular level to satisfy limits of chemical standards, the target is then limited to specific metabolic pathways linked to the standardized chemicals. Those plants which produce essential oils can have that particular fraction removed from the plant for medical application. If we examine the medical literature there are two main uses for essential oils. Diagnostic aromatigrams determine which essential oils are lethal to the mix of infectious organisms a person has. The other use is for the physiological effects originating within the limbic system and subsequent mental/emotional outcomes. This would be a somatopsychic process.
Flower remedies are special extracts that require live plants, fresh water, and alcohol. The life-force of the plant is extracted and each plant extract has a precise vibrational quality and the ability to resonate within the human being to exert an influence at the interface of the vital force, mind, and emotions. Essential oils, flower essences, and standardized plant extracts all have in common the property of being a special fraction of a whole plant with a target of a special fraction of a whole person. It is more difficult to treat the whole with a part than it is to treat a part with the whole. Compare healthmaintaining tonics to physiologically driving effectors.
All the plant fractions are contained in the whole plant extract but not expressed so strongly or independently. We must be cautious when we introduce a strong, single force to a complex balance. Much of our skill as herbalists lies in being able to discern what is the original nature of the patient behind the signs and symptoms manifesting, and in understanding how the person might be gently guided back to a state of equilibrium.
The concept of “holism” includes that the whole heals the part. This concept, when it is superimposed over the paradigms of ecology, makes herbal healing particularly relevant. The natural habitat must provide for all the organisms contained therein. If we extend the ecosystem to the whole planet earth, the gases and magnetic fields above, we have an enormous living system. If we now apply the principles of PNI and put mind into this living system, we have a living being which has been named “Gaia”. We are not describing a mechanical/ cybernetic regulation, but the presence of sentience. The secondary metabolites of plants can now be seen to serve functions outside the needs of the individual plant or species. Put the plants into the complex relationships of ecosystems and these seemingly useless secondary metabolites can act like neuropeptides, conducting information throughout the ecosystem via inter-species communications.
Imagine rose, sandalwood, and jasmine serving as “exopheromones”. The whole, Gaia, can heal the part, us humans. When we are feeling our link to the whole with all the other living beings as part of one life, we are connected to our original nature; we are perceiving the presence of Gaia. Another example of how the whole can heal the part is society’s attempt to rehabilitate its stray members. Sadly, our society seems instead to generate pathology when its institutions are applied to cure. Witness the war on drugs. We have created a sub-society that spreads an insidious message. The inebriants are not as terrible as the accepted attitude that we can live in a sub-culture with a sub-economy of billions of dollars controlled by organized criminals all floating on a sea of human misery and bloodshed. All of the resources of this sub-society are drawn off parasitically from the whole. Probably the greatest social institution of rehabilitation in the 20th century was the Satyagraha movement of M.K. Gandhi. India believed that it was colonized by an invading entity that commandeered its resources and threatened its social structures. Satyagraha roughly means “the power of the truth of being”. The other social force was ahimsa, “non-violent non-cooperation” (with evil), or, positively put, “to affirm the right of living beings to achieve their highest good”. Although never practiced purely, the movement still allowed India to achieve political independence and reestablish lasting values of the common people. Satyagraha implies that there is an original nature that forms the template for social interactions. Ahimsa does not imply the passivity of wei wu wei but the conscious application of the will of a sentient being for the good of the whole.
So, we have used a lot of funny sounding words to describe some important concepts for the practice of herbal medicine. Original nature, wei wu wei, Satyagraha, ahimsa, the Gaia Hypothesis and Vitalism, give us some working concepts for perceiving the world around and within us and they give us a way of living. Herbal medicine, practiced in a holistic context, uses plants to re-introduce us to the natural order and our rightful place within it. With plants, we can be healed physically, emotionally, spiritually, and socially.