starting from scratch

As I was contemplating beginning this blog I pondered beginnings themselves. I went ahead and began, but my ponderings continue to haunt me. We herbalists are so obsessed with doing things from scratch. We want to know how things are made and what things are made from. How do you start from what presents itself in the natural world and go from there? And what’s the history of that? And that? And back and back and back, to the source.
When I teach about herbs, I’m often asked how I know what I know. The answer people want is usually something simple – what books? what schools? what websites? As if knowledge is a commodity easily purchased, if you just know where to get it. I do my best to give a helpful answer and hand out a resource list. But inside, or to an earnest and open student, the answer is more vague and just leads to further inquiry.

Where does my knowing come from? It comes from my senses. And what are those? I remember one of my favorite lectures I ever attended, James Snow’s “Understanding Herbs through Sensory Perception” at the American Herbalists Guild’s 2010 symposium. I learned so much from that talk about the sort of mechanical side of how we collect and synthesize information from the outside world. Yet, ironically perhaps, it deepened my trust in what is often labeled my intuition. It made me understand that the senses do not divide up as easily into discrete categories as we are taught – vision, touch, smell, taste, hearing. In fact, our minds take vast numbers of nerve impulses and synthesize them into these groupings. And, I think, possibly others. Those vague, unnamed knowings that weren’t clearly defined for me when I learned the five senses in kindergarten: those may be based on real nervous system data as well.

I strive to keep this whole sensory apparatus tuned. Mindfulness of experience has many benefits for the mind and spirit, certainly. Important to me as an herbalist, though, is that it also helps me better perceive the herbs, my clients and patterns I observe. It keeps my perceptive abilities toned.

When I am first learning an herb that is new to me, or even when I am wanting to deepen my knowledge of an old, familiar ally, I try to approach it with a neutral mindfulness, to be an open channel of perception. I’ll check first that there are no major contraindications or cautions, but not read up or ask around further. Then, I’ll experience the herb through my own body. I record my impressions, whatever they may be. Then I will check with what others say about the herb and compare and contrast my own findings.

This attitude, of wanting to engage directly rather than through a mediator, sometimes slows me down and often leads me on wandering, dead-end paths. The reward, though, is that I am left with the kind of knowledge that can’t be memorized or passed on, only felt and remembered. It helps me stay connected to the web, grounded, doing my work as High Priestess of the Cult of the Obvious.

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