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A Brief Reflection on Herbs and Alternative Modes of Healing

There are times when I am truly amazed by the healing power of a few simple herbs. This is often the case even with people who have been through many alternative regimes, or are trying many at once, and often including multiple natural supplements that may contain close to a hundred different herbs and vitamins. What is going on when a few fresh herbs can give more dramatic results than bombarding the body with everything that a person is supposedly lacking?

First and foremost I attribute it to the quality of the herbs. An herb is only as effective as the care that went into its harvest and preservation. I am a big fan of fresh herb tinctures for this reason; their ability to preserve the fresh potency of the herb. Next, I prefer teas over capsuled herbs: one can easily inspect the herb being used for freshness, and like the tinctures, are readily absorbed into the system. Ground, capsuled herbs are too often lacking in potency, one gains little relationship to the herb (no smell, no taste, no visual) and using a formula that can contain up to fifteen different herbs that may be poorly absorbed through the digestive tract may not give impressive results.

Some of the best successes I see with herbs are when I have managed to convey the wonders of a few herbs that a person has growing right in their yard or garden. Here the person has the opportunity to establish a personal relationship with the plant; which is to me a very important part of unlocking its healing potential. That and the fact that you are gathering an herb fresh in your own environment. In my mind there is a potential that won't be found even in the most costly rare herb from the Far East or the Rain Forest.

Within many indigenous cultures, one of the basic techniques of healing is for the patient, often with the aid of the shaman, to step outside of the bounds of human society into the realm of the spirit(s); including the ability to step far enough beyond the bounds to communicate directly with the healing plants. Healing ceremony is directed towards the establishment of a sacred space where the spirit(s) and the spirit of the plants can work their magic. Plants are prayerfully gathered, that the spirit of the plant will be included in the process. The patient, at the same time, attempts to align themselves with the wholeness of their own mysterious spirit. Healing spirit cannot operate where there is too much human design or attempt to contain the spirit. Many spiritual ways relate to the same concept: in fundamentalist Christianity one has to open their heart to healing from the Holy Spirit.

So to what extent do the more rigid systems of alternative healing actually interfere with the process of a person opening themselves to healing forces outside of the realm of human design; or to the healing potential within. In my own studies I have learned much about herbs from Chinese Traditional Medicine. There is a wealth of information on the unique energy and properties of each herb. And yet I have seen where the Chinese system of diagnosis, designed many years ago, are applied to modern folks, and there are times when I feel that the person is crammed into the system, rather than the unique person being the focus. I have seen this potential with Macrobiotics and Ayurvedic; suddenly a person is eating all kinds of exotic foods because of where they fit into the system.

From there, the person is prescribed Chinese herbs, which are too often of poor quality and often adulterated. Attention to the biggest part of the equation is missing; the life-force of the plant. There is nothing magic about a bottle of pills; it s the solar energy and intelligence of the plant beings inside. If these are missing we are not left with much healing potential.

My own approach has been to attempt to study and learn the vast potential of each herb and then apply them to a close observation of the person; using as few herbs as necessary to re-align things. Sometimes it is as simple as the person taking a real substance from the Earth to re-align their whole way of looking at the world. The person that grows and gathers their own herbs is brought even closer to the healing energy of the Earth. There is a balance here, the systems of traditional medicine and traditional uses of herbs have very much to teach, and yet it often gets down to Hawthorn is good for the heart, and the Plantain in your yard is probably the most versatile herb you will find anywhere. My sense is that if we take too many herbs we are showing a basic non-understanding (and respect) of the potential and innate intelligence of each herb.
This re-alignment is the key to healing. Re-aligning to a pattern of wholeness. When we are ill or out of balance, it is easier to access the archetypal patterns and symbols of wholeness that lie outside of ourselves; either in the realm of spirit and/or within the healing forces of the Earth. A plant is a perfect pattern of being and becoming what it is meant to be. The mind is such an important key to healing; combined with a few simple herbs, so much can be accomplished.

The body, too is so adaptable, especially in illness. It's easy to overwhelm it with everything we might be lacking. Our mind combined with the intelligence of the plant can begin a whole cascade of healing. I seldom suggest to folks to make drastic dietary changes unless called for directly in diabetes, for example. Of course, a healthy diet of whole foods I feel can do more than taking a lot supplements; the things missing in our modern diet can bring on all kinds of disease; but diet alone is not always the biggest factor in healing. Where I live in the Ozarks a large number of people are not willing to change their diet of grease at all, and yet I see some amazing results with herbs. Often these folks will go on to eating healthier and making other changes in their life toward balance; a door has been opened. If I hit them right off the bat with a complicated system of healing or drastic dietary changes there will be resistance at best.

There is a tendency in this country to define health by all sorts of mundane factors. I know a practitioner that is convinced that anyone even slightly overweight is headed for the grave. My grandmother was a portly woman who lived to a ripe old age. In a couple of days we are celebrating an aunt's 90th birthday. She has the same physique of my grandmother. She may not be in great health, but a life of prayer has seen her through some times that would have crushed someone with less chutzpa. The practitioner I refer to is perfectly toned, but as high stress a person as you're going to meet. Basically we're all on a short journey, with inner strength and balance being (in my mind) the key to a good life. The balance being of the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. One may have debilitating physical problems but a lot of strength and compassion. Another person may be in great shape, and yet the smallest thing may throw them, or they may have no compassion for others. Do we consider them to be healthy ? The strengths of a person is a good place to start with in healing, rather than their lack of anything.
One thing that herbs have over many supplements is their ability to stimulate the body's own journey towards balance. In some cases, taking things like enzymes and natural hormones that we may lack may relieve symptoms yet create a dependence; whereas the right herb may stimulate the body's own production of these substances.

    These are folks that have been through everything modern medicine has to offer; and their belief in their healing and their handful of herbs is inspiring. I have also seen people  who turn to every alternative method of healing, drastic diets and armloads of supplements who waste away. They take so many things they don t know what is doing what, and where to place their faith. Their life becomes an exhausting and joyless round of juicing, coffee enemas and constant swallowing of a multitude of supplements. Often they are heavily influenced by practitioners who view the body as basically an unclean cesspool of toxins (and/or parasites) that needs to be constantly detoxified. Wittingly or unwittingly, I feel that this approach is based on cultural attitudes that are in turn based on ideas of Original Sin and the Earth (and our bodies) as basically a battleground of evil, rather than our spiritual home in which we can be whole. In the case of cancer and other chronic disease there is a need to aid the body in releasing toxins, but taken to the extreme this line of thinking is not very conducive to the image of wholeness we need for true healing. It is possible for a person to come to a wholeness and a true healing that can include a recognition of disease and even death as a part of our larger journey of life and spirit.

Many times people will turn their entire healing journey over to the diagnosis and recommendations of one alternative healer in a similar way to those who will go to a medical doctor and take a prescription that they know nothing about. I have had folks tell me all the prescriptions they are taking, and when questioned they'll tell me they don't even remember what they are taking and what its for; they've just been re-filling their prescription for years. Similarly, I see folks who are taking various herbs and supplements on someone's recommendations, and they have no idea what they are for. So much for a person aligning themselves with a healing substance.

There are many practitioners using a variety of alternative methods of diagnosis including iridology and muscle testing who may be very good at what they do, but fall short in their knowledge of the herbs they recommend; often relying on proprietary formulas, with little awareness of what the herbs are and how they actually work with the body. I have seen diagnosis based on hooking a person up to a computer that will tell them everything their body lacks, and then a whole slew of supplements recommended. This may be a valuable tool in diagnosis, I can t really say; though I have personal reservations about the role of a machine to tell us everything about ourselves when so much of our troubles stem from a technological society divorced from the Earth. The problem can come when people are told many things about their bodies that, on reflection, doesn't jive with their own intuition about their body. Yet they will continue to follow the program. I would only say that one should take advice from one they respect, but not neglect to study up on the things they are ingesting and to check things with their own intuition.

The purpose of this little essay is not to judge what mode of healing a person may need, but to open a dialogue on some of the basic premises of healing and how they relate to herbs. Some folks may need the order and consistency of an ancient system of healing as a part of their own healing. Some folks may need the shock to their system and their psyche that a more radical approach offers. Others may need only the green, solar, earth-based healing of a handful of herbs gathered at their doorstep.

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