In a recent conversation with a very clever and courageous herbalist, I found myself articulating just what it is that I love to do when it comes to herb work and magick. In my classes both online and in the garden, regardless of the subject matter, whether a course on flower essences or the home apothecary, the heartbeat of my teaching is the importance of practice and developing your very own devotional rhythm to guide you through your studies, herbwork, and personal journey of wellbeing. So, in the continuation of our series about the path of the herbologist (see part 1 and part 2), I would like to offer some of my thoughts on taking root and deepening your herbal practice. As always, these are offered in the spirit of this-is-not-all-that-there-is-to-consider and change-it-leave-it-dance-it-as-you-will.
1. Learn daily. Cultivate a healthy appetite for exploration where every day holds an opportunity for learning something new, becoming more adept at a skill, making mistakes, and re-membering truths you may have forgotten along the way. You might choose to learn one new item of information about a plant you are currently working with each day, but learning more about herbs does not mean you need to be continuously learning about herbs. Learn how to relax, how to skateboard, how to build an app or cook your great-grandmother’s red bean cake recipe really darn well (and then share some with me, oh please). Having a healthy practice of conscious learning helps us switch into student mode when we are presented with an unexpected learning opportunity as well as doing all those good things like keeping our brain muscle fit, our heart engaged, and our curiosity primed for action.
2. Find your plant ally. I have already written about connecting with plant allies, but briefly, by investing in long-term relationships with plants we grow our depth of understanding for their healing qualities, often in unexpected ways. Also, our plant ally is able to learn more about us and those we serve, sharing its greening perspective of our humyn-ness.
3. Become aware of your breath. Breath is the foundation of wellbeing. If we stopped breathing that pain in our back or chronic psoriasis doesn’t matter too much. Become aware, right now, of your next inhalation. Now, be aware of your next exhalation. Be aware of your breath for the next five minutes and you’re well on your way to developing a meditation practice. Through breath we take up, nourish, and circulate. We also release, unwind, and give away. Explore breath techniques like measuring your breath by heartbeats, pranayama, and how to ground and center through the breath. Breath work grows awareness and mindfulness and lays the foundation for my next suggestion.
4. Start meditating. The practice of meditation is as varied as the practice of herbalism. Find a technique that you enjoy and proceed from there. Meditation grows mindfulness and I feel pretty safe in saying that nearly every one of us could benefit from more mindful behavior. Whether your eyes are closed and you are sitting or your eyes are open and you’re running along a country road, meditative states can be accessed and propagated. Mindfulness can lead to more attentive listening, being more aware of what triggers certain emotions in our psyches, and acting rather than simply reacting to a situation. All these skills are skills of the herbologist.
5. Get uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to push past the boundaries of our comfort zone in order to grow. If something makes you uncomfortable or fearful, examine what lies beneath. Often times we discover pieces of ourselves that we have hidden away. Imagine the wholeness of calling those pieces of ourselves back home. The importance of feeling uncomfortable can also be understood in the context of the healing crisis. A healing crisis occurs when we release that which no longer serves us but we have been holding on to for a long time. It may occur during a period of detoxification when environmental toxins are released from our bodies. A healing crisis might emerge when we let go of stubborn tapes in our head that tell us we aren’t worth being well or that we are permanently broken. A healing crisis is uncomfortable, at times disorienting, but we are reshaping ourselves to align more clearly with our truth. Another important way to get uncomfortable is to examine the narratives of privilege, accessibility, oppression, and discrimination that infuses our North American culture, including in paradigms of healing both allopathic and holistic. Get uncomfortable, examine your privileges and oppressions, and then continue to do the joyful work of inclusivity, accountability, and kick-ass compassion. From the Ground Up: Herbalism For Everyone is a (free!) resource that I recommend getting started with if you’re curious about the cross-sections of herbal medicine and social justice.
6. Return to your center. Just as it is important to stretch your boundaries, remember to always be coming home. Figure out what fires you up about your herbal practice and follow its light to your heart’s content. I love making herbal remedies and it is a central part of my herbal practice. When I get caught up in research, writing, teaching, and consulting, where I can feel my energy reserves wavering, my focus breaking up, and the rumble of burnout on the horizon, I get back in the Apothecary and I make something. Whether a blah-busting brew or an herbal gift for a friend, I know that I feel renewed and connected to joy when I am making herbal remedies. I make sure to carve out enough time in my schedule to be in the process of remedy-making, knowing that it will support all the other work that I do as an herbologist because it centers me in my practice. Find your center and us it as a compass. If you feel inspired, create a mission, vision, and value statement for your practice to use as a written and visual compass for your practice and goals as an herbologist.
7. Invest in your education. Whether spending regular time in your local library or bookshop reading materia medicas, visiting your local herb garden, attending workshops or herb festivals and conferences, make sure you invest in you and your learning. When you learn more those you serve learn more and the cycle of dissemination of information continues. Mountain Rose Herbs has a great list of herb schools in North America and for those of you looking for an online community course about herbal medicine and magick with a lunar gaze and a group of amazing womyn, come this way. Make time every week for your herbal studies (and then, of course, disregard that suggestion and spend a full week only learning about how to make vegan ice cream). Learn about subjects that you feel shaky in from anatomy and physiology, to Traditional Western Herbalism energetics, or your understanding of terminology like analgesic, febrifuge, ecbolic, and catarrhal. To make your studies effective and fun, figure out what your learning style is and pursue knowledge through that lens.
8. Examine what kind of herbologist you are. You might not even be an herbologist! You might be an herbalist instead or an herbal healer or any myriad of terms used to describe folks who work with plant medicine. Beyond what you call yourself it is more important to figure out just what you do. Some plantfolk are called primarily to be teachers while others are growers and gardeners. Other plantfolk are remedy-makers, clinicians, festival organizers, writers, and activists. All of us possess a myriad of skills as plantfolks, but most feel a calling to one or two aspects of herbal medicine and magick in particular. I have met a number of plantfolk for one reason or another worry that they are not able to be or call themselves an herbologist because they are unable to or do not like doing a particular aspect or possibility of herbal practice. I have heard folks say, for example, “I love growing and harvesting herbs, but have no desire to see clients, so I’m not really an herbalist.“ Untrue and not useful, I say, to think in such a way. I identify primarily as a remedy-maker and apothecarian – it is the aspect of herbology calls most deeply to my desire. I only see a select few folks for consultations, I am learning how to grow herbs in ways that they feel most nourished, but I am happiest and doing my best service to my community when I am mixing up a new blend of tea or brewing up a new extract. Give space for change in your practice as the aspects of herbology that you feel most call to can change over the years as you change. Keep your compass handy, find your happiness as an herbologist, and pursue it with pleasure.
9. Follow the wheel of the year. Reconnect with the cycle of the seasons in your local bioregion. You’ll learn the best time for harvesting various local herbs and it is important that as plantfolk we dwell in plant-time. You can begin to create a rhythm of time that is dictated not by the linear constraints of the clock, but what I personally believe to be a greater authentic and accountable relationship to the land and sky of where you are. As we engage open heartedly with the seasons, our journey through the year becomes less about keeping up and more about moving with. A fantastic way to develop a seasonal practice is to create your very own seasonal tonics that incorporate local herbs and assist your mind, body, and spirit with the transition and the presence of each season. What would a fall tonic look like, for example, as opposed to a spring tonic?
10. Be always in practice. Every moment is an opportunity – whether for learning a new skill, taking time to rest, enjoying a meal, laughing out loud or burying your nose in a book. Engage with the world as an herbologist, practice the ideals that you hold in your heart, and be aware of the moments you are performing rather than practicing your craft. Through practice we realize we are always in practice and that there is always space for us to free up and grow. Come home again and again to your values and marvel at all the ways you are shaped by the truth of your story.