Unpacking herbalism

“It doesn’t matter how long you have forgotten, only how soon you remember”-the Buddha


The way we approach our own health and wellness always comes from somewhere. Whether it is our family, friends, job, our culture, the media, the health care industry, the “alternative” health care industry or a direct phone line to Zeus our attitudes and beliefs about our bodies do not and cannot exist in isolation from this input. There is a practice amongst people who like to talk about their feelings called unpacking. Groups unpack their beliefs like an imaginary backpack, examining them in a greater context and deciding what to let go, what to hang onto and what it all means. I propose that the herbal community unpack, as a community and as individuals, our ideas and decide anew what we believe in–and continue to do so forever, or  until pigs fly.

We humans are often trying to view ourselves in isolation and treat ourselves/others in isolation from our communities, our cultures, our personal baggage, our environment and our patterns. While in acute situations this is not a huge problem, as your trauma or your alignment or your emotional baggage doesn’t really matter as much when you just need a wound cleaned out or some mucus thinned, it is a HUGE yes huge aspect of  chronic conditions.

I believe that making symptomatic fixes in chronic health and wellness situations without viewing the context, causes and feelings involved is not really alternative health care at all. It is merely the substitution of  Mullein for NyQuil, the substitution of Valerian for Ambien, never facing your inner life.

“We don’t ever isolate. You’re a system of systems.”-Kelly Starrett

I propose that we, as herbalists and other health practitioners, say “Look, I can give you something to get you through this, to help shift your energy and/or support this body system or transformation. But in order to achieve long-lasting wellness you need to examine your patterns. You need to unpack your health.” We can choose to reach across modalities to form alliances with other types of practitioners and educators, “alternative” or not,  including open-minded MDs and PTs, nurses and therapists. We can work together using mutual aid concepts in many cases rather than see false separations.

Why is this important? Because, my friends, what actually heals? It is not herbalists that heal. It is not the plants that heal. Plants support our healing, but they generally cannot force it upon us…nor do they want to. That’s a human trait. Plants help us by removing blockages to healing, supporting processes like circulation, elimination, lymphatic movement, relaxation. Plants help us find the space for healing to happen…and it is the body that heals itself. Tension constricts and blocks both energy and actual fluids and substances which bring healing to our body parts. The removal of tension allows healing juice to circulate freely.

Herbalists and health practitioners ideally help this happen by observing and teaching folks about patterns, matchmaking between person and plant medicine, helping people find their plant allies, listening, offering gentle nudges about nutrition or movement and referring people toward further assistance such as massage or therapy or movement coaching when appropriate and/or sharing information and education too.

In addition to plants I feel like movement is important to explore further here. Paying attention to how we move, how it feels, our body’s alignment, our long-held patterns and our compensations can do wonders for improving our body’s flow. It makes no sense to repeatedly apply a salve to a “bad knee”, for example,  without fully exploring all the causes of the pain–from poor mechanics to weak muscles to restricted circulation to evil shoes to long-held trauma. Even if not all causes can be immediately resolved just knowing what they are and observing our own patterns can shift the way we view our pain. Pain is, ultimately,  the body’s voice and should be respected as such.

We often think of pain as being caused by a big dramatic injury or illness but in fact it can be caused by a lifetime of poorly performed functions which. over time, add up to stress on a body part or system. Our culture is not built for wellness and the way we spend a lot of our time contributes to pain and  dis-ease. Shoes and other fashions, obsessions with odor elimination, chairs, tools, sitting, driving, TVs everywhere, processed foods, air pollution, all of this crap adds up to a big ol’ excessive load on our emotional and physical selves. Unpack it! Examine it! 

I am absolutely not suggesting we stop using herbs to treat our health issues. Merely that we do not do so in isolation, or without context. By combining our herbal knowledge with deep nutrition, body movement, strength training, emotional release, therapeutic talking and/or touch, community building, environmental restoration, massage, attention to alignment and mobility work we can actually take over the whole world with wellness! Go forth, my friends, and take your lighter backpack along for the ride.Image


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