In my practice as an herbalist I often work with plants at a simple level. My daughter is fussy and wound up and I give her a small cup of linden tea with a touch of honey. It’s flu season and I start taking elderberry elixir and occasionally some fire cider made of strong spicy pungent herbs. I throw in some bay leaves and coriander in my chili to help with digestion and for the taste. This is simple folk herbalism that has been used for thousands of years. No special training needed. No complex formulas based on temperament and illness patterns. Just a little kitchen herbalism.
But there is another form of plant medicine that we don’t talk about as much. It’s a form of herbalism that is based on the energetic and spiritual healing power of plants. Deep Herbalism, a term coined by herbalist David Hoffman in his article here, describes the path of working with plants at a more intrinsic level. Some words from his article:
“Deep Herbalism has little to do with specific herbs or health care programs. It results from a bridging of the alienation deep within the psyche, the separation from the embrace of both nature and soul that plagues humanity. Such experiences cannot be created or predicted, but there are times when the use of green herbs touches us in an experience of ‘the Green’. The medieval herbalist and mystic Hildegard Von Bingan, talks of ‘Viriditas’, the Greening power. By greening power, I interpret her to mean a vital energy that is life, the spirit of the planet, the divine in form, that heals & transforms humanity. ”
This idea of plant medicine is quite different from the concept of taking valerian to help with sleep or taking some herbal supplements for digestion. It is a much larger and broader definition of herbalism that encompasses human being’s relationship to the whole plant kingdom. Deep herbalism points to the fundamental rift we have with the natural world and the need for reestablishing a harmonious relationship.
The fundamental trauma of our time is based on how we view and treat the land; as forests to cutdown for housing, as land to fill with chemicalized andmechanically harvested monocrops transported thousands of miles away until we have forgotten where food came from at all. Our focus on dominion and exploitation of nature for maximized profit is at the core of the traumatic rift which is sending us headlong into ecological catastrophes, global warming and mass extinctions.
From the essential trauma of how we treat the Earth comes the multifold traumas of how we treat each other. Resource wars, systemic poverty, racism, and injustice comes in large part due to our rapacious desire for dominion, power and wealth based on extraction of the Earths resources. We treat each other like we treat the natural world. Our individual experiences of trauma are often due to a larger picture of being out of balance, the chaos that ensues when we are not in harmony with the natural world.
Deep Herbalism is the path of reestablishing connection to the plant kingdom based in respect and reciprocity. It is centered in ancient ways of seeing the natural world, where each blade of grass, plant leaf and tall tree is seen as alive and vibrant with meaning. Deep herbalism is a pre-religious sense of the world, seeing it as animated, meaningful, and due mindful attention, care and respect.
Deep Herbalism Techniques
Most traditional cultures incorporate plants and the natural world as a key component of healing. This is the more subtle level of healing with plants that does not simply consider orally ingesting herbs as medicine, but sees plants as part of a larger path of returning to wholeness. Traditionally, there have been a variety of ways of contacting the deeper beauty and healing power of plants.
Here are a few…
1- Smudging/incense. Throughout the world, the practice of purifying, cleansing and sanctifying a space through the use of burning herbs such as sage, copal and cedar has been common since ancient times.
2- Deep Listening Perhaps the most essential way of working with plants on a deep level is simply visiting them in the field and forest and spending time in their presence. The act of watching them through the seasons, studying their morphology and scent, and being present to them are cross cultural and time-honored ways of working with plants deeply.
3- Sacred Movement- Many cultures practice sacred movement that mimic forms from the natural world. Yogis engage in elaborate “asanas” such as tree or lotuspose. Tai chi practitioners often do movements outdoors where they can draw in the energy from the trees, the plants and the Earth.
4- Rattles and Drums. All musical instruments are made at least in part by plants. When one plays a drum or uses a rattle, one is also playing the medicine song of the tree and plants from which the instrument was made. Each tree has its own narrative and voice and the song and healing spirit of the tree comes through when the drum is played respectfully.
5- Flower Essences: Starting with homeopathy in the 19th century and then with flower essences in the the 1930’s, a Western tradition of energetic deep herbalism has developed. Flower essences are imprints of flowers carried in water and preserved with alcohol. The soul and narrative of the flower comes through this medium and are specifically offered for helping people work through deep emotional and spiritual issues.
Respect and Reciprocity
These are all subtle forms of deep herbalism, connecting to Earth and plant based rhythms to provide a bridge between humans and the natural world. That idea of calling forth “Viriditas”, or The Green, is at the core of ancient pre-civilized healing traditions, and something we often overlook in our desire to be cured of some ailment. What can I take for this and what is this herb good for are questions we often hear. But perhaps the more important questions are…how can I reestablish connection? How can I live in better respect and mindfulness? What can I give back?
These are not notions we think about usually when we get recurrent colds, or we become plagued with anxiety and confusion. We generally look to taking something…anything…to just make it go away. But that neglects that there is a give and take with the natural world. What you put out is as important as what you put in. That is why most indigenous cultures have traditions of ritual and ceremony where humans can give thanks, pray, make offerings, go through special diets and fasts…as a way of paying respect, of giving back. These are important skills that we as modern people can begin to learn again. Another prime way of giving back is to act as an activist, to protect and defend wild places from profit based extraction. Without a give and take, then we go back to the practice of seeing the natural world as something to use to make us more comfortable, happy, rich and healthy. Instead the give and take of deep herbalism implies that healing is a partnership. Plants are glad to share their medicine but the medicine works best when both are doing some work.
In my path as an herbalist and a therapist I often see people when they feel most broken, confused and alone. Usually there has been quite a lot of trauma inflicted on them from family members and society as well as self inflicted pain from drugs, alcohol, poor diet and lifestyle. The trauma cannot be taken away but plants offer a way of shifting our attention and returning to a place in ones heart that is untouched, whole, connected to the Source, to the Green, to Viriditas. By connecting again and again to this place, we can remember our essential goodness, our whole self untouched by the pain and trauma of this world. The path of deep herbalism is the path of returning to the forests and the meadows, returning to the steady pulse and rhythm of the drum and the slow medicine of sacred movement, towards honoring the plants we eat at the table and the herbs we take as medicine, towards respect and giving back again and again as we learn to sing our true song.
You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.