upon a time, healing was considered an art. Healing was understood by
all to be a complex interaction between the patient, the healer, the
community of living people, the communities of the plants and animals
(and insects and rocks and fish), the communities of the non-living
people (such as ancestors, spirit guides, and archetypes) and that
mysterious movement known by so many names: Creator, God/dess, All High.
The healing arts included a keen knowledge of human
behavior, a thorough knowledge of plants, a flair for the dramatic
arts, especially singing/chanting and costuming/body painting, and a
comprehensive knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry. (If
you think these areas are not arts, look at the system used by
Traditional Chinese Practitioners which includes such “organs” as the
triple heater and a dozen different pulses.)
Art does not preclude or oppose science. Science is,
after all, only the honest testing of ideas and the ability to observe
clearly the confusing relationship of cause and effect. The best of
science is deeply indebted to art. Art understands that science is
left-brained and art is right-brained, and a whole brain includes both.
Science, however, is not so easy with art. Science
believes art is superstition. Science believes art is fuzzy, soft,
not-replicable, and therefore untrustworthy. (It is interesting to me
that the Liberal Arts University I attended — UCLA — required
students to take a variety of science courses, but the Science College
I turned down — MIT — did not require students to study the arts.)
Science defines itself as factual and art as fantastical.
Truly great scientists understand the need to honor
intuition along with information. But the world is rarely run by the
truly great. So bit by bit, the art of healing is denigrated and the
science of healing is venerated. The healer spends more and more time
interacting with machines and drugs and technology and less and less
time with the patient; more and more time studying books and less and
less time learning about the strange, symbolic, provocative powers of
the psyche. The healer focuses more and more on fixing the sick
individual and less and less on the patient’s need for wholeness in
self, family, and community.
The herbalist becomes a biochemist. The pharmacist
no longer needs to know botany. Herbs are presented as drugs in green
coats. And the active ingredient is the only one worth mentioning.
Is this what I want? Is this what drew me to herbs?
Is this what fascinates me about herbal medicine? My answer to all
these questions is absolutely NOT. While acknowledging the usefulness
of science, I maintain the right-brain’s superior abilities in the art
of healing. I defend the rights of the miracle-workers, the shamans,
the witch doctors, the old-wife herbalists, the wise women, those who
have the skill, the personal power, and the courage to midwife the
changes — large and small, from birth to death and in between — in
the lives of those around them.
Herbal medicine. Magical plants. Psycho-active
plants. There is a thread here, and it goes a long way back. At least
40,000 years. The plants say they spoke with us all until recently.
Forty thousand years ago we know our ancestors were genetically
manipulating, hybridizing, and crossbreeding specific psychedelic
plants. And using them in healing. Maria Sabina, one of the twentieth
century’s most renowned shamanic healers, went into the forest as a
small child and ate psilocybin mushrooms because they spoke to her. She
healed only with the aid of the
“little people” (mushrooms) and she healed not just
body but soul. In the Amazon, the students of herbalism, of healing,
are apprenticed to psychoactive plants as well as to human teachers.
There is a lot of talk lately about the active
ingredients in plants. I’ve had many a chuckle as product ads claim to
have the most of this or that only to be superseded by the announcement
that a new, better, more active active ingredient has been found.
For example, when Kyolic Garlic was shown by
Consumer Reports to have virtually no allicin (the “active”
ingredient), Kyolic countered with an ad campaign claiming superiority
because it contained a different, stronger, active ingredient.
For instance, most standardized St. John’s/Joan’s
wort tinctures are standardized for hypericin. But the latest research
shows that hyperforin is the real active ingredient!
To illustrate: an article several years ago in JAMA on use of Ginkgo biloba
to counter dementia explained that no active ingredient from among the
several hundred constituents present had been determined and it was, in
fact, likely that the effect resulted from a complex, synergistic
interplay of the parts. An article in the New York Times, however,
cautioned readers not to use ginkgo until an active ingredient had been
It happened to me: An MD on a menopause panel with
me told the audience that no herb was safe to use unless its active
ingredient was measured and standardized. What can I say? To me the
active ingredient of a plant is the very part that cannot be measured:
the energy, the life force, the chi, the fairy of the plant, not a
“poisonous” constituent. To the healer/artist/herbalist, the active
part of the plant is that part that can be used by the right brain to
actively, chaotically, naturally, “jump the octave” and work a miracle.
This active part is refined away in standardized products, for the real
active part is the messy part, the changeable part, the subtle part,
and the invisible part.
Does science have anything to do with it? Certainly!
The process of identifying specific compounds in plants, replicating
them in the laboratory and mass-producing them as drugs cannot be
replicated by or superseded by any healer or herbalist. Preparation of
standardized drugs protects the consumer (usually) and protects the
plants from over-harvesting (although the net effect on the environment
may be detrimental).
If we put into the lap of science anything having to
so with measuring and certifying, then surely I beg science to be the
guardian of the purity of the herbs we trade in our commerce, knowing
that art is the guardian of the purity of the herbs we gather
ourselves. (A tip from the apprentice book: When Harvesting put only
one kind of plant in a basket. This allows one to quickly and easily
notice if an interloper has been mistakenly introduced.)
This story doesn’t have an ending, for it is
ongoing. The dance of health and illness, of art and science (and don’t
forget commerce) has no pause. So the ending of our tale is not happy,
but neither is it sad. Take a look, the real ending of the rainbow is
in your own heart.
|About the Author:
Susun Weed, green witch and wise woman, is an extraordinary teacher with a
joyous spirit, a powerful presence, and an encyclopedic knowledge of herbs
and health. She is the voice of the Wise Woman Way, where common weeds,
simple ceremony, and compassionate listening support and nourish
health/wholeness/holiness. She has opened hearts to the magic and medicine
of the green nations for three decades. Ms. Weed’s four herbal medicine
books focus on women’s health topics including: menopause, childbearing,
and breast health. Visit her site www.susunweed.com for information on her
workshops, apprenticeships, correspondence courses and more! Browse the
publishing site www.ashtreepublishing.com to learn more about her
alternative health books. Venture into the Menopause site
www.menopause-metamorphosis.com to learn all about the Menopausal Years the
Wise Woman Way. This article is an excerpt from Healing Wise.
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