Some Basic Concepts

, March 24, 2015 in Reflective Essays

We are trying to define and legislate what is a herbalist and how do they operate.

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 the 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.

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 towards balance and harmony. The second is the principle of “Vitalism” which says, in short, that there is a force that organizes matter into other structures called plants and animals and it is life. This life-force 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 bio-systems 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 self-awareness.

The French Jesuit Paleo-Anthropologist 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 supermental consciousness. This implies not extending the mental but going above it into a spiritual consciousness.

Soon after self-awareness is attained, self-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. A human being may choose any lifestyle and the consequences will be measurable in their body. We can measure physiological biochemical pathways, looking for chemical compounds and (quantify) analyze 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-psycho-somatic pathway of disease formation or 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 remedies 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 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 literature there are two main uses for essential oils. Complex aromatigrams determine which essential oils are lethal to the mix of infectious organisms a person has and an anti-biotic formula is generated. The other use is for the mental/emotional effects originating within the limbic system and subsequent physiological outcomes. 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 special vibrational quality and ability to enter 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 health-maintaining 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 manifestations behind the signs and symptoms, and in understanding how the person might be guided back to a state of equilibrium. Knowing the centre of gravity of the manifesting condition allows the practitioner to select special remedies.

The concept “holism” is 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 earth, the moon and sun, 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. 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 “exo-pheromones”. 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.

Another example of how the whole can heal the part is society’s attempt to rehabilitate its stray members. Sadly, our society seems to generate pathology instead, 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 so terrible as the accepted attitude that we can live in a sub-culture with a subeconomy of billions of dollars controlled by organized criminals all floating on a sea of human misery and bloodshed. Probably the greatest social institution of rehabilitation in the 2oth 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. Satya Graha roughly means “the power of the truth of being”. The other social force was ahimsa, “non-violent noncooperation (with evil)”. 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 re-establish lasting values of the common people.

Original nature, wei wu wei, Satya Graha, Ahimsa, the Gaia Hypothesis and Vitaliism, gives 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.