An Herbal Cosmology

 An Herbal Cosmology  is an advance excerpt from Sean Donahue's excellent contribution to the upcoming Fall issue of Plant Healer Magazine, a call for a greatly nuanced, entirely integrative, deeply personalized approach to “healing.”


The stories we tell ourselves and each other about the world and peoples’ places in it shape the ways we practice medicine.

When we work with them consciously and intentionally, those stories can be an integral part of the healing process – shifts in the ways people understand themselves can bring profound shifts in their way of being in the world which in turn can bring profound shifts in their health. But if we do not examine the patterns of belief that underlie and guide our practice, we can end up unconsciously acting on the stories and assumptions of the culture that surrounds us – the very logic that got us into the kind of mess we are trying to get out of.

One of the strongest critiques many herbalists have of mainstream biomedicine is the way it treats people like a conglomeration of symptoms and values on lab tests and treats everyone who displays similar symptoms and similar lab values pretty much identically, no matter who they are or what gave rise to the conditions they are experiencing. But it occurred to me last semester while teaching my “Energetics of Western Herbalism” course that if we aren’t careful we often end up just replacing one set of diagnostic categories for another, one set of rote guidance for another.

For example, five elements or three doshas can become just another set of diagnostic criteria guiding the application of increasingly rigid protocols. To be sure, such an approach can guide us to giving medicine that will help people feel better. But most of us came to herbalism because we were frustrated or alienated by mainstream medicine’s approach of treating symptoms and syndromes and diseases instead of people. And if we want to avoid replicating the problems of the dominant medical system (albeit in a greener and more humane way, at least at first) then we need to ask ourselves: if our goal as practitioners isn’t just to treat disease, what is it?

Acupuncturist Lonny Jarrett offers one possibility, rooted in his own fusion of Taoism and Ken Wilbur’s “integral philosophy.” He sees the practitioner’s role as “nourishing destiny” – helping people move along the path of embodying the potential they bring into the world. From his perspective, the degree to which a person is living according to their true nature can be discerned by the relative integration of the many parts and aspects of themselves. People come to us in relative states of dis-integration, and we can tell we are helping them if they become increasingly integrated as we work with them.

 So what is the goal of medicine? My usual cop-out answer is that I want to help people experience themselves and the world as fully as possible by shifting whatever gets in the way of their participation in that ecstasy. I say that’s a cop-out answer because it sounds nice, and gives lots of weight to liberal notions of choice and autonomy, but it ignores and disguises the fact that I really do have an agenda. Fundamentally, my desire is to bring people into relationships with plants in ways that will introduce them to the possibility of more fluid relationships with themselves and with the world.

Disease can be seen as the repetition of a pattern of response or reaction to a stimulus that continues to the point where it begins damaging tissues and disrupting allostasis – the ability of an organism to respond to a changing environment in changing ways. In a sense it can be seen in terms of a rigidity of response – a characteristic the diseases most people I see have in common with the organizing logic of the dominant culture.

 Our ancestors evolved in a context where they were constantly taking in a varied abundance of medicines through breathing in the chemicals plants were releasing into the air, absorbing chemicals from plants as they brushed against them with their skin, drinking in the chemicals that filtered from their root systems into the water – and that is not even taking into account the plants they ingested. This wove them integrally into the ecosystems they inhabited, and the fluidity of those ecosystems and the ever changing nature of the chemical inputs into their bodies created a fluidity in their experience. Water soluble compounds from plants interacted with their endocrine systems and oil soluble compounds from plants altered their brain chemistries, shifting their perceptions.

 While I don’t see it as possible to replicate or reconstruct that kind of experience for most people today, I see my role as an herbalist as being an intelligent vector for the reintroduction of the creative chaos of the mind of the living world into people’s lives through introducing plants into their bodies to change them from the inside. To be sure these changes serve to change patterns of disease on an individual basis, but my interest extends to the ways they can shift patterns on the level of communities, cultures, and ecosystems.

You can hear Sean speak about these topics in his class at the HerbFolk Gathering at Mormon Lake, AZ in September, and you can read his entire thoughtful article by being or becoming a Plant Healer Magazine subscriber.


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