Paul Bergner of the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism once posted an interesting paper entitled How to Become a Master Herbalist in Thirty Years or More. Bergner begins Part I of his paper with the declaration that Western Herbalism is dying in North America and Britain. He argues that 90% of our herbal knowledge has “gone down the drain.” While I am not sure I agree with him, I do think his ideas are worth considering.
Bergner sites an example of the rigorous and diligent study required of herbal students in earlier times and states that without this level of rigor in study and practice, leading to mastery of our subject, our profession is doomed. He goes on to discuss the deepening process that takes place over many years of study and practice and how important this is for current and succeeding generations of herbalists.
In Part II of Bergner's paper he asks – What are some of the routines, practices, disciplines that can lead to progressive development of an herbal career and lead to mastery in the field?
Like Bergner, I too am an elder herbalist “focused on training a younger generation in the routines, practices and attitudes that will lead to mastery.” As such, I would like to address his timely and thought provoking question here.
1 – Sense of Place. The cultivation of a deep sense of place is invaluable for an herbalist. We all emerge out of an eco system, a bioregion, we are all connected elementally, as well as ethereally, to our surroundings, to our place. Understanding this sense of place and how it relates to plants and people is an important part of the herbalist’s path. It is often overlooked, as when a woman in northeastern America is offered an herb that grew in South Africa as a remedy for her ills. Cultivate a sense of place, its critical to understanding the actions as well as possible effects of combining individual plants and people.
2 – Pay Attention - Observation. Concentration. I have lived on this ridge-top herb farm for over thirty years. The thing about living in one place for a long time is that you get to notice things. And you have plenty of time and activity behind you to base observations on. It takes a long time to notice some things; like how plants move naturally across a field, on their own, over a thirty year span. Or the length of time it took your usnea tincture to turn orange the last few times you made it. Observation is one of the most important skills of an herbalist. Whether you are or aspire to be a wildgatherer and medicine maker, a clinical herbalist or herbal nutritionist, whatever your particular herbal path is, you will need to develop keen observation skills. How do you do that? By paying attention.
An herbalist must pay constant attention to life. All of life and life processes. One way to do that is by tending a garden over many years. Goethe said that he spent his whole life in the garden and thus discovered the entire world. Start seeds and watch them grow. Welcome the same plant stands back year after year. Notice everything about your plants in every season. Notice their effects on people, animals, insects, other plants, the soil, the air. Visit your garden often, taking time to breath deeply, smell deeply, see deeply, listen deeply, relax deeply. Breathe from your heart. Watch the bees and butterflies, feel the breeze.
3 – Become humus. Humble yourself. Kneel on the earth, place yourself at the foot of the herbs, ask them for help. Tell them what you need. Do this day after day, month after month, year after year. Leave all your problems in the soil, they will be transformed, like everything else, by unseen soil microorganisms…
4 – Learn to open your wild heart, connect with your inner wild nature. It is this open, wild and compassionate heart that resonates with the wild heart of the earth, the wild heart of the plants. In order to work with plants, and people, intuitively you must be able to connect with them. Opening one's wild heart clears communication pathways…words are unnecessary, communication is instantaneous. There becomes a knowing. This is different from what you read in books. This is the true body of knowledge, this is wisdom. It is accrued over many years of observation, study, practice and commitment. This knowing comes in moments of intuition, when many diverse facts converge into one coherent understanding. You enter this path to the degree that you are able to open your wild heart. Practice doing so every day.
4 – Herbal Ally. Pick a new plant each year to focus on. Be sure to grow the plant, or meet it in the wild, observe it, make different medicines and foods with it, use it in many ways, consume it regularly, or use as applicable as often as possible, and constantly observe. Noting all you observe. Keeping your own notes is critically important. Learn to meditate with plants. Learn to take care of them, learn to process and use them, one by one. Fall in love with each and every plant you work with, one by one. Recognize the living being there, the spirit of the plant. Respect its power. Open your wild heart to it.
5 - Study, study, study. When my children where young I would wake up at 4:30 in the morning, light some candles quietly in the kitchen so as not to wake anyone, and read and study for a few hours until the kids woke up. Then I would spend all day during the growing season working in the garden or wildgathering. At the end of the day, after the kids fell asleep, I again lit some candles and read by firelight before going to sleep myself. I was completely consumed by my studies. I was obsessed. You will need to be serious about attending to your studies. You will have to make time for them. This requires commitment. You may have to make some sacrifices.
Read, read, read. Read plant books & herbals from all traditions,study botany, read medical journals and herbal monographs, books about all kinds of healing, delve into psychology, sexuality, addiction, depression, skin diseases, nervous afflictions...cover it all, leave no stone unturned. But do take your time. Absorb, don't just skim. Be diligent in your reading, your studying, your research. Read everything you can get your hands on, and keep reading and studying your subject and related subjects for the rest of your life. It helps to keep notes on personal reading as well as observation…keep copious notes. Collect whole volumes. Underline your own notes…
If you want a teacher, go out and find one you are attracted to. Find one whose approach to working with plants and people lines up with your own. Someone who shares your values. A teacher can be someone just passing through your life, or someone you will consider to be your teacher and mentor for many years. Choose carefully. Then apply yourself to learning all you can from your teacher. Soak it all up from A to Z. Offer thanks. And be sure to include a grain of salt.
6 – Simplify your life. Live as simply and as naturally as you can. Try to drink wild water, eat wild plants. Swim in natural lakes and ponds or the ocean. Get yourself back to nature, first in little steps, then run, as fast as you can. Look up at the sky at night, notice the phases of the moon, the situation of the stars. Welcome the sun rise in the morning, go to bed when it gets dark. Light candles instead of turning on electric lights. Sleep outside on the ground as much as possible. Walk barefoot on the earth. Do these things day after day, month after month, year after year.
7 – Cultivate your spirituality. Learn to pray. Pray often. Smudge by burning herbs. Give thanks often, many times a day. Fall in love not only with plants, but with all of life. Fall in love with your clients. Commit to them. Pray for them. It is on this level of prayer, the spiritual level that you will connect most deeply with both plants and your clients.
Develop a spiritual discipline if you do not already have one. Cultivate your innate spirituality. Whatever that means to you. Be upright, honest, fair, clear and impeccable in all your dealings. People and plants have to trust you. You must be worthy of that trust. You have to keep your word. You have to be true. Be ethical in the way you interface with life and especially with the earth, with plants, people and all living things. Your way of life, attitudes and sense of ethics, as well as your approach to herbs and herbal medicine, is in large part what will attract others to you.
Cultivate hope. Hope is a critically important part of the healing equation. Your positive attitude is critical to your clients ongoing healing. I tell my community herbalist students that if your client does not turn around to you at the end of a consultation session and say words to the effect of “Thanks, I feel so much better already.” Then you have not done your job.
8 – Listen to your clients. Practice deep listening. Breathe deeply from your heart when you are with a client. Look into their eyes. Listen to the words they use as well as to their tone of voice, where they pause, swallow, take a breath. Learn to listen deeply. Allow your client to tell you what is wrong, what they need. Then commit to helping them. Practice noticing everything you can about your client. Look for the health, look for the radiance, look for the bright light in your clients. Nourish this.
9 – Be your own refuge. OK, the Buddha said this, but it’s worth repeating! It helps to live away from the crowd. Learn to do your own thing. Dance around the rim, live on the edge. Be the center of your own universe. Attract supportive, loving people to surround you. Love them back, but keep your space. You’ll need it. You need to become who you truly are, express what is within you to be expressed. You may want to mirror the plants, but not other herbalists. Learn from others, but develop your own ways, your own formulas, your own path. Practice being yourself.
Get to know yourself. Reall well. You cannot know plants or people well until you know yourself. Admit your foibles, acknowledge your strengths, and build upon your knowledge of self to extend help, love, compassion and healing to others.
10 - Practice learning. Talk to others about your interests. Keep company with others who share your passion. Exchange ideas freely, share your knowledge. Ask others what their experience/observation is. Listen and learn.
As an elder and a teacher I can tell you that some of the people I learn the most from are my young students. They continually keep me fresh and on my toes with their new ideas and information. They inspire me. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something. We are all learners here. Practice learning every day.
This ten-fold path outlines some of the routines, practices and disciplines that I believe will lead to progressive development of an herbal career and lead to mastery in the field of herbalism.
Oh, just one more thing. I don't believe that herbalism is dying. Nor do I believe that 90% of all herbal knowledge is lost. I don't think that it ever could be.
I believe that this knowledge of the herbs is inherent knowledge. This is the knowledge deeply embedded in our cells, this knowledge is our birthright. It is part of our heritage as human beings on this planet. This deep knowledge of the herbs cannot be lost, but it may have been temporarily forgotten.
Follow this Ten-Fold Path and become a master, not only of your craft, but of your life. Begin now to recover the quiescent wisdom within your own wild heart. Be an active, participating member of the herbal revival!