Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Energetics and Ecology: Vitalist Healing Systems and Plant Medicines

Recently, on one of the herbal discussion forums I visit online, we’ve had a discussion about the disconnect between traditional energetic herbal/health/healing systems of the “east,” specifically TCM and Ayurveda, and how “western” herbalists are more connected with the plants they are using, not just HOW to use the plants as medicine.
I can see how the argument could be made, because the west doesn’t have a well developed and centuries old system of energetic healing patterns with which healers can easily classify herbs and ailments. But I don’t think the lines fall along east and west, nor between highly developed energetic systems like Ayurveda and more free form energetics of western herbalists.
Of course there are lines of division, most of the TCM/acupuncture practioners in the U.S. and possibly many practioners trained at medical levels in China, are completely disconnected from the herbs they are using to heal people. But the same problem exists with “western” naturopaths. They can easily prescribe an herbal formula, and give their clients a capsule or tincture made by some company, without ever having seen the plant.
I think the true division lies somewhere in the difference between folk healers and modern “herbal doctors.” The truth is there is a system of energetics developed in the west, that originated somewhere in Persia with Avicenna, and brought to Rome by Galen. This line of herbal energetics was continuous in Europe up through Culpepper to the modern day medical herbalists. This tradition was brought to America with the colonists (English, German and Spanish alike) and was subsequently squelched with the rise of allopathic medicine and the outlawing of herbalism.
Most of us folk herbalists today, who are not trained in medical institutions or naturopathic schools, are left to discover the energetics of plants through our own experience, or by combing the literature of the previous centuries. Knowing the plants, as PLANTS, not just as medicines is part of the exploration and discovery process we all go through to develop our understanding of energetics. The grandmothers of rural China probably understand their healing plants in a similar fashion, by observation of the plants in their natural habitat, gardens, and acting in the body. Just because the Chinese developed a system of energetics thousands of years ago, doesn’t mean that the folk herbalists of China aren’t connected with the plants they are using. But the “doctors” practicing TCM at a medical level are similar to a naturopathic doctor in the U.S. and use their energetic system to prescribe an herbal formula or diagnose an illness without ever having seen or held the plant.
I’m making a lot of generalizations here, I know, but my point is that it isn’t the energetic system that disconnects a healer from his or her medicine plants, it is the model in which the healing is practiced. Even my teacher claims a good clinical herbalist doesn’t need to know botany to understand energetics and effectively heal people.
To some degree this is true.  But it doesn’t sit right with my being. The plants CANNOT be taken as SIMPLY substances that have certain effects in the body according to certain patterns. They are beings that demand respect and knowledge to be used effectively and sustainably. How can one truly understand a plant’s energetics without seeing where that plant grows, or how it adapts to the environment around it?  Plants that grow in or near water are going to be dramatically energetically different than a plant that grows in the arid windswept and frozen tundra or alpine regions. Just as a plant from the Sonoran Desert has different energetics than one from the Amazonian rainforest.        How can one value the medicine and strength of a rare or sensitive plant like Pulsatilla (Anemone) (to be used with a very light hand, in small doses) without ever having seen it growing in just the right conditions or environment? In Arizona, the Anemone only grows for a few weeks out of the year, and only when the rains are abundant. I could harvest it one year, and not see it again for several more because of the environmental conditions. I know that it is a medicine I use carefully, and sparingly, precisely because of its ecological conditions.
I hear countless stories of naturopaths prescribing endangered herbs, or thousands of pounds of American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) being shipped to China for use as a tonic with energetics different from that of Chinese ginseng, just because the “energetics” fit the condition. I certainly don’t discount the validity of energetics of plants and constitutions in healing work. It is a vital part of the process, but without first hand experience with a plant medicine, I don’t think you can be a truly holistic and effective healer.
I also don’t believe that a healer is ONLY a healer of human bodies. A true healer should be as much a healer of the human spirit as a healer of the environment of which we are a part. As a Vitalist, I see no separation between the health of the body and the health of spirit and mind. And I see no separation between the health of the spirit and mind of a human, and the health of the environment in which a human may reside. Anyone using a plant medicine without respect to its place in the environment, and the wholeness of the earth spirit/body is ultimately doing a disservice to all life. We, as human animals, intimately connected with the earth upon which we live, and depend on for air, water, food and spiritual sustenance cannot remain healthy in an unhealthy ecosystem (think of pesticides, unsustainable agriculture, and alienation from the healing energy of nature.) The disconnect in modern “herbal medicine” from the plants is a deeper problem. It is a reflection of our society’s deep estrangement from the earth and our natural state of interconnection and interdependence on the earth.
I honestly believe that if  “Traditional” Chinese medicine and Ayurveda have lost their connection with the Vitalist view of interdependent life, and connection with the healing plants  it is because of the adoption of a modern materialistic and selfish view of the world and healing. Before large scale commercial farming and harvesting of medicinal plants was common, most herbal “healers” had to go out and collect or cultivate their plant medicines themselves, and prepare and dispense herbal remedies themselves, weather they lived in the Appalachian Mountains, India, Iran or China. And most “healers” would have as deep and intimate understanding of the plants they used as the body they were healing, in both an ecological and energetic sense. The prevalence of the use of “this herb for that condition” is purely a materialistic view of the human body. We have an inner ecology which is deeply connected to our surrounding ecology, and a true healer will use energetics of plants, energetics of human constitutions and conditions and an understanding of inner and outer ecology of both plants and people to truly bring wellness and vitality back to the human race and our home, the earth.


Ananda said...

Nice clarification Darcey. It's true there is a disconnect right here in the West as well. There is certainly a presence of well rounded plant poeple, perhaps they are just more hidden. And it's a deeper issue than just energetics. I look forward to an integrated revival.
Great Blog!
Hope you are thriving in your new climate!

Oakmoss Changeling said...

Nicely said, Darcey.

Darcey Blue said...

Colorado is nice today! Sunny and warm! Thanks for reading!

Rebecca said...

Yes, indeed, the difference between traditional herbalism and "herb doctoring" is key. That's why I started the herbwifery forum in the first place! I'm so happy you three have been contributing so many thoughtful posts.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post, Darcey. I hadn't thought about this much before I was steered to this blog post by a FB post drawing attention to it. (Thanks,-Gail).

"The mother of us all, the oldest of us all, Hard, splendid as rock, Let the beauty you love, be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth"~ Rumi ~