An integrative approach to healing ourselves and our world: honoring people, plants, planet

Archive for the ‘Wellness’ Category

Anatomical ways of knowing

Lichen Heart in moss at Rock Town, GA

Lichen Heart in moss at Rock Town, GA

I love language expressions that convey a deep intuitive knowing using human anatomy, blending body and mind. Two of my favorites are “to know by heart” and “it’s in your blood”. Within these expressions are a poetic understanding of life’s phenomena.

“To know something by heart” is to say that one has learned something to the degree that she no longer has to think about it. It becomes a different quality of memory, which seems to bypass conscious striving for recall, and emanates from a place other than the brain, a place where Taoist acupuncturists say a powerful source of the human spirit resides, the heart.

When we say we know something by heart, the context is usually within the recitation of something that has been memorized. I played the piano years ago and memorized many pieces, playing them by heart at recitals and for the Guild. I’ve also memorized Shakespearean monologues and soliloquies and recited them by heart for teachers, students, friends and for my dog.

A farmer's market potato heart.

A farmer’s market potato heart.

My knowledge of plants is in this heart realm of knowing. When I’m with a plant that I don’t see very often, and I stop to greet it, it’s name comes to me from another place where there is no effort. It’s a different place of knowing.

Recently, I listened to a program by an agency who works with people with Alzheimer’s disease. The presenter described how the mystery of memory presents in people who seem to have lost crucial aspects of their memory, though other memories still remain. The challenge is in discovering what these memories are for each person with Alzheimer’s.

The agency presenter described a case of a caregiver who met with a male patient with Alzheimer’s who had grown quite despondent. The agency learned that this man had been an artist, a painter. The agency suggested that the caregiver get some paints, brushes, canvas, and an easel. Then the agency said to the caregiver to set up the easel in the patient’s room and begin to paint even though she didn’t know how.

The caregiver painted every day in the patient’s room, while he sat in his chair disinterested. One day, the patient got up from the chair and walked behind the caregiver to look at what was on the canvas. The patient grew angry, and said to the caregiver, “No, no, no. You’re doing this wrong.” (That’s my paraphrase.) He took the paintbrush out of her hands, sat down, and began to correct her painting. The agency said that he continued to produce many paintings on his own after that. This was something that he knew by heart.

I wonder if knowing things by heart strengthens that spiritual aspect of the heart which Taoists describe, and if that is the strongest, longest-lasting place of our memory. Perhaps memorization of poetry and music does something for our hearts and our spirits in addition to strengthening our memories. What do you know by heart? It’s likely to be something even more special than that which you could do in your sleep, or know like the back of your hand.

My other favorite expression, “it’s in your blood”, also has a connotation of the type of knowing that avoids the brain; it has a meaning that says we come to something more from a genetic fate, than from learned reason. When something is in one’s blood, it also joins a person to a host of people, the individual merges into a pool of ancestral genes.

We can easily get into the question of nature and nurture here. What about the stories, though, of people who weren’t conditioned by their immediate caregivers to do what they feel led to do?

I was born in West Virginia near my grandparents, but moved to suburban Atlanta when I was a small child. Though we visited the WV family farm annually, I was raised far from the farm-life of my grandparents and great-grandparents. Natural areas and going home to the farm were always special to me. When I discovered from a local herbalist in college how to make medicine from plants, I fell in love. Although it might have looked like lunacy in my suburban upbringing to pursue becoming an herbalist, I knew that it was what I needed to do. While on this path, and visiting with grandmother Ruby, I learned that my great-grandfather James Dovenor (he never knew how to spell his middle name, so I don’t know either), a fur-trapper, carpenter, farmer, and fiddler, also grew ginseng. Knowing that made sense, somehow, of my mysterious longing to work with the healing properties of plants.

Since then, I’ve learned much more from my father and grandmother of how they harvested and used local plants. It was knowledge almost forgotten except that it’s life was in my blood, latent, waiting for a sign.

What is in your blood? What do you know by heart? I would love to know.

Love after Love

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott, 1986

A rare spring beauty of Southern Appalachia

Oconee bell (Shortia galacifolia)

Oconee bell (Shortia galacifolia)

Beauty is a word for the ineffable. It is a word to describe vast feelings that arise within us when we’re in a meaningful relationship with an experience. Birth and death can be beautiful. A bright moon, a child’s laughter, a shared meal, so much in our day can be beautiful when we’re present to it. When we call something beautiful, we are stating that we are aware of being called to a higher place as a witness in this life.

A flower called me to this highest of places. Though it is not a striking flower, something about its rarity, its subtlety, its survival in adversity gives this Southern Appalachian flower the beauty of empowered presence.

The Oconee bell (Shortia galacifolia), or in Gillian Welch’s song Acony Bell, grows in the mountains near the wild and scenic Chattooga River. It can be found in Oconee County, South Carolina, where it gets its name, and also near Highlands, NC, northeast GA, east TN and western VA.

When I saw this plant bloom for the first time on a sunny day in March, I got down on my knees and knelt with it. Another life was here before me. It was a life I wanted to know more deeply. Time passed, yet it didn’t. I continue to call upon the Oconee Bell in my mind’s eye when I need to be reminded of the message of its life and existence.

This flower led me to my favorite Gillian Welch song describing the beauty of its life. This time of year I find myself humming this tune. Hopefully I’ll learn to play it on my hammered dulcimer one day.

The fairest bloom the mountain knows
Is not an iris or a wild rose
But the little flower of which I’ll tell
Known as the brave Acony Bell

Just a simple flower so small and plain
With a pearly hue and a little known name
But the yellow birds sing when they see it bloom
For they know that spring is coming soon

Well it makes its home mid the rocks and the rills
Where the snow lies deep on the windy hills
And it tells the world “Why should I wait
This ice and snow is gonna melt away”

And so I’ll sing that yellow bird’s song
For the troubled times will soon be gone

Return to the beginning and know it for the first time

Lucy & the fiddlehead

Lucy & the fiddlehead

We’re in this weird and exciting place of paradoxical times. The increasing research of medicinal plants for treatment of contemporary diseases feels ironic to me. Medicine is going back to nature to treat lifestyle illnesses which come from living disconnected from nature. It reminds me of the prophetic words of T.S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” We’re always learning, but we may be learning how to appreciate where we were.

While medical advancements occurred from the method of scientific inquiry through reductionism championed during the European ‘enlightenment’ period, what was lost was an awareness of the whole. Medicine’s focus was on fixing disease instead of supporting the balance of the whole.

Euclid’s theory that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts is at work in all biological and cosmological systems. Plant chemicals work as a whole through synergy, as does our body, mind, emotions, imagination and spirit. The current shift in scientific research on healing is trying to put the pieces together to reassemble the whole. And, wow! we’re finding how infinitely complex our body is, and how much we do not know. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We are being called to a humility in acknowledgment that there are vast aspects of nature that remain mysterious.

If we were to see a human being in its complexity, we would not only look at the whole body, mind, emotions, thoughts, imagination and spirit of an individual, but also epigenetics shows us that we must look at the environment in which the person is immersed. We need to ask who else, what else, and where else is in relationship with this human being. If one aspect is left out of consideration, it doesn’t eliminate its influence on one’s wellness or disease. As we are all connected to nature, each other, the universe, a shift in some aspect will result in an adaptation to that shift, for better or for worse, for me and for you.

Where is the beginning?

Some researchers attribute the Western split of humans from nature and the soul  to the Industrial Age, or the Enlightenment Period, but at an earlier point in civilization there is evidence of a split in how healers would see disease. Looking at the following quotes by the revered thinkers, Plato and Hippocrates, gives us an indication when Western Medicine was already looking at the parts of life in isolation, rather than maintaining an awareness of the whole as Asian, African and American Indian healing paradigms continue(d) to hold.

In the quote below, Plato is clearly being critical of the contemporary Greek standard of treatment of the day. Hippocrates is instructing the medical practitioner’s awareness in his quote, which if he had to say it as instruction, we might infer that it wasn’t happening on its own; he is basically recognizing what showed up missing. When he says to observe and to assist nature, he is stating that what we think of disease is nature trying to heal itself. Which leads me to think that the disease was the split…and the split is around the time of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago.

“…it would be very foolish to suppose that one could ever treat the [part] by itself without treating the whole body…just as one should not attempt to cure the eyes apart from the head, nor the head apart from the body, so one should not attempt to cure the body apart from the soul. And this is the very reason why most diseases are beyond the Greek Doctors, that they do not pay attention to the whole as they ought to do, since if the whole is not in good condition, it is impossible that the part should be.”
— Plato

Observe all.
Study the patient rather than the disease.
Evaluate honestly.
Assist nature.
— Principles of the Hippocratic Method

We recognize what shows up missing

Currently, we recognize that we have little awareness of where our food comes from or what it is for, and younger populations–as well as older–are becoming more disconnected due to how we use technology available to us. We are scientifically validating what we’ve known intuitively, that the source of our longing  which manifests as disease can be found in the disconnection to each other, to nature, to our meaning. And a greater movement in medicine, religion, agri-culture and art is working to heal the disconnect. Simultaneously, however, I hear the message that our technology is pulling us in the direction of wider disconnection. More articles in the New York Times and general gripes from people I’m in contact with are expressing the dissatisfaction with how over-use of items that are supposed to foster more connection are actually having the opposite result.

We have an identification of the problem, but there is a sense of defeat in the tidal wave of what’s happening. I would like to offer an antidote to the overwhelm. Do what you can to change how you interact with nature, with your own life journey. The uneasiness is a symptom of the greater self–the hub of your being–recognizing what is showing up missing. Taking responsibility for our personal response to the uneasiness is what matters. Each of us can return to the beginning and know it for the first time. And as parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, teachers, pastors, coworkers, friends, lovers, humans in relationship we will have a systemic effect because as a whole, we operate as a system. As one part changes, the whole system will naturally change in relationship to it.

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