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The Art and Practice of Healing with Plant Medicines
The Medicine of the People
excerpt from Chapter One
Enjoying good health is everyone's birthright. Plants offer a healing relationship in which we can find good foods and medicines to keep ourselves on track. Comprehending these gifts -- both in the everyday and for specific therapeutic purpose -- has long been the province of the community herbalist. Many people today do not have this healing link with nature. An incredible transformation awaits those who bring open-minded intention to the green nations of the plant realm. To be alive is to be able to heal. Immersing ourselves in the wonderful offerings of the plants brings far more than a cure for what ails. True healing restores the life circle of body, mind, and spirit. A herbalist works with the life circle of the plant world to help people experience their own innate wholeness in an infinite universe.
Milky oats for the healer's call
photo: Michael Phillips
The desire for a simpler and more natural lifestyle grows as human lives seemingly become more complex and further removed from earth-based reality. Western culture pushes incessantly for more riches, more comfort, more individuality, more science. More will always be balanced by Less somewhere else. Any of us can ponder the ledger books for these material times: less peace, less community, less health, less holistic understanding. This curve ball we've collectively pitched to ourselves needs examination from every angle if we're to bring wholeness into all areas of our lives.
Thankfully, contemporary patterns and group thinking do not carry the individual day. Human consciousness continues to evolve and make headway over the course of many generations of cultural blunders and affairs of the ego. Honest. Good hope begins in understanding these broader currents where spiritual insight leads to heartfelt thankfulness for this moment now. Context matters. Looking at our medicine -- how we care for ourselves -- bespeaks the need for gentler ways that recognize all aspects of mind, body, and spirit.
A medicine of the people will foremost be nearby. Caring begins with the people who know us. A cellular harmony exists between plant and animal species sharing the same environment. Certainly conventional medical care serves good purpose in apt situations. We want our seven to nine minutes with the doctor should the need arise. Yet in between our body's innate ability to heal itself and conventional medicine's high dollar attempt at a cure lie many situations calling to be bridged by common sense and a compassionate connection to the world into which we are born. A bridge which knowledgeable herbalists can offer. A world which the plants are ready and willing to share.
More than 83 million Americans -- more than 42% of the population -- reported tuning into so-called alternative medicine in 1998, according to a nationwide survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The therapies most commonly used were chiropractic, herbs, massage, and relaxation techniques. The numbers are not the telling consideration here. More and more people are naturally going to turn to healing modalities that work effectively, cost less, and do the desired good with fewer side effects. The term alternative medicine is more revealing, for now we broach the political and economic pulls that shape choices deemed conventional and on the up and up. A passel of history shapes all cultural destiny, and medicine is no exception. We shall examine the thousands of years of herbal knowledge garnered from plant-based experience that proceeded the allopathic doctoring to which many now turn in times of illness or injury. Today's swell of so-called conventional medicine rides on a healing ocean of innumerable depths, both explored and unexplored. Ultimately, we swim in waters to get well that no one wave can claim exclusively as its own. The point is that we get well.
Doctor friends have told us that a good three-quarters of the people coming to see them have come to the wrong place. Patients come quickly at the first signs of discomfort or irregularity. Expectations are focused on a fix for obvious symptoms. Over-the-counter medications possess all the glimmer that advertising can muster, yet a pill prescribed by a doctor carries the heavier stick. People naturally want assurance and to understand the current predicament of their bodies. We're fearful, inconvenienced, and downright whiny. The big picture of where we are in life -- our relationships, satisfaction with our work, those persistent stress points, our diet, physical exercise, time spent nurturing the spirit -- rarely enters in against the germ of our current demise or a chronic reckoning demanding our attention. We place our responsibilities at the feet of professionals and pay for high-end service rather than provoke our own reality. Not all physicians are reluctant to acknowledge the state of affairs that exist in doctor's offices across the country:
"It is estimated that 70-80 percent of the people who go to doctors have nothing wrong with them that wouldn't be cleared up by a vacation, a pay raise, or relief from everyday emotional stress. Only 10 percent require drugs or surgery to get well, and approximately 10 percent have diseases for which there is no known cure. Most illnesses run a benign course if left to what the Hippocratic physicians called the healing power of nature. The natural healing mechanisms of the body build -- in an 80 percent recovery rate from all illnesses regardless of medical intervention. . . . Harm done by over-treatment and over-use of technology may exceed the benefits of modern medical care, especially in hospitals. . . . Encounter medicine is able to cure and keep alive as many as 10-20 percent of the population who need curative therapy during their lifetimes, an achievement of inestimable value. . . . At issue is not the legitimate function of the physician, but the extent and character of physician's practices. Too many medical practices are not of benefit to patients, or are not worth the cost."
-- Thomas Preston, M.D.,
The Clay Pedestal
(Seattle, WA: Madrona, 1981), p. 114-5.
Creating yummy tea blends at Nature and Spirit Camp
photo: Michael Phillips
We are thankful for good doctors. Medical intervention proves itself whenever the surgeon repairs bones or removes stones, the internist uses antibiotics or insulin appropriately, or the pediatrician excludes a food that an enzyme-deficient infant cannot metabolize. Yet many situations call for more personal involvement and home-grown understanding. Interfering in the natural processes of body can and does cause trouble. Iatrogenic (treatment-caused) harm is every doctor's worst nemesis. The listed side effects of pharmaceutical drugs should give patients pause in considering the additional risks to health to obtain a predicted benefit. Working humbly with these limitations makes physicians good at what they do. The mechanical repair of the human body can never be assured to the extent that the preponderance of medical malpractice suits might suggest. Doctors are as human as the rest of us.
Taking care of yourself and your family for the majority of everyday health needs is both plausible and sensible. Empowerment begins with knowledge. That 70-80 percent overdose of conventional health care certainly suggests a livelihood long-honored in earth-centered communities. Herbalists can help people use plant remedies respectfully and intelligently. Going to medical school is not essential in order to be able to help people feel better. We have deeded the legal practice of medicine to an elite group on the basis of one type of training to our own chagrin. A significant chunk of our well-being will always depend on intimacy with our whole selves and the green world outside our door.
Interest in a herbal approach to health is growing rapidly. This high regard for natural living more often than not, however, comes with an allopathic perception of illness we've been raised to view as routine. We now take this herb for that condition. Holistic plant medicine goes well beyond this kind of narrow minded, simplistic thinking. Each individual is different in his or her constitution. Different therapeutic strategies for seemingly similar conditions account for the biological, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of each individual. Modern medicine insists upon a physical explanation for each cause and effect. Symptoms are treated accordingly. The whole of the matter often goes unresolved. A good herbalist not only helps people get medically self-sufficient but shares the journey into the big picture of who we are.
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