Spirit of the Herbs: Teaching and Learning Herbs

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Spirit of the Herbs: Teaching and Learning Herbs


I was an organic vegetable farmer before I studied Chinese medicine. It was very good initial training in how to look at complex living systems in a non-linear way, always aware of the balance of many different elements in dynamic interaction. If bugs appeared, eating my squash plants, I didn’t just reach for the pesticide; my training as an organic vegetable farmer was to step back, look at the whole system, and see what was out of balance — and even more importantly, what I could do, most simply and effectively, not so much to get rid of the bugs directly, but to get rid of the reason why the bugs were there (which of course in turn would in fact get rid of the bugs, but by a means that left the whole system stronger).

I was delighted with Chinese medicine because of its ability to train us to look at the field of the body within the field of its living environment not only in great specificity and detail, but also within a context of larger and larger gestalts. As a farmer, this was what it took to raise a crop: not only lots of specific knowledge about plants and soil and particular cultivation practices, but also an indispensable “feel for the situation” which could only be achieved by getting your head out of the books and into the fields themselves, what we might call Clinical Reality, the actual dynamic field of openly wondering what’s happening here.

So that’s what got me into it, more than 25 years ago. I was, of course, especially interested in the study of herbs, because I felt so attuned to plant life. One might say that, as an organic vegetable farmer, I had spent years being a practitioner to the plants, learning who they were and what they were like when they were healthy, how a tomato is different from a leek, how zucchinis are, how radishes are when they are thriving and well, and learning how to understand what they were telling me about how to support them when they were not well. As a plant grower, I had perhaps some notion that the herbs would be like friends, whose personalities were somehow reflective of the nature of their medicinal effects.

Then, in preparation for my formal study, I got my copy of Dan Bensky’s materia medica. First edition.

As I opened the book and began to read, it was like going to the table expecting a delicious feast, and instead finding myself eating shredded cardboard.

Let me take a moment to be very clear that I am deeply grateful, and deeply respectful of Dan Bensky’s work — I would never want anything else to come to his ears. I am especially grateful for the THIRD edition of the materia medica, which is like caviar. This is important work. To learn herbs without this kind of materia medica would be like trying to learn poetry in a foreign language without a dictionary.

It’s necessary and good; it’s of inestimable importance, to have clear authoritative material medicas to which we can refer with confidence and succinct clarity. We can’t develop a rigorous apprehension of herbs without them. Never let it be said that I implied anything different.

On the other hand, it takes more than a really good dictionary to learn the principles of poetry, and more than a material medica to learn to love herbs.

Notice that I said “learn to love herbs,” not “learn herbs.” It is debatable whether it is really possible to learn something well if you consider it boring. Certainly true mastery is never attained by those who are bored out of their skulls, memorizing by rote a series of indications and functions that are mainly abstractions, especially to a student who is not yet in clinic. The boredom of herb students and how we can ameliorate it with a fuller experience of herb functions is a sub-agenda of this article. In turn, this leads to practitioners who love herbs, and develop a feel for how they can be used, in the context of clinical reality.

What do herbs do? How do we know what herbs do?

Even asking the question, “What do herbs do?” may be problematic. Or the way I often hear it asked is, “What is this herb for?”

When a student asks me, “What is this herb for,” or “What is this acupuncture point for,” I’m liable to shoot back, “What are YOU for?” If they just stare back at me in disgruntled perplexity (as is usually the case), I’ll continue by asking, “What’s a daffodil FOR? What’s the color pink FOR? What are rivers FOR? What is the hair on your leg FOR?”

What’s a tomato for? What’s a zucchini for? What is rain for? What are sun and soil for?

These are ridiculous questions. They bring us out of systemic understanding, into Pesticide World: the narrowness of What’s-it-for.

I prefer, “What’s it like?” or even just, “Tell me about…”

What’s a daffodil like? Tell me about daffodils. What’s a river like? Tell me about rivers.

What’s Chen Pi tangerine peel like? Tell me about Chen Pi tangerine peel.

What’s Shu Di Huang Rehmania like? Tell me about Shu Di Huang Rehmania.

What’s Wu Wei Zi Schizandra like? Tell me about Wu Wei Zi Schizandra.

What’s Ma Huang Ephedra like? Tell me about Ma Huang Ephedra.

As I see it, the problem is that while the precision and clarity of definition of material medica is essential to the rigor of learning medicinal herb functions, it’s not enough. We need to teach not only in lists of symptom indications and patterns addressed; we need to teach in living gestalts, and bring all these listed details into an organic whole, to provide a feel for the gist of what is being spoken here.

We need to do this because this is what the Chinese do, and are very good at doing, without any extra help, because this is how the Chinese language is set up; it is analogical. It requires the participation of both sides of the brain in order for meaning to emerge from each word, from each sentence, from each paragraph. Here in the West, we are not trained to think in this way; we are reductionists, by and large; our very language structure, unlike the Chinese, trains our thinking towards a study of the parts rather than an apprehension of the whole.

How do we as Westerners learn to read herb descriptions as they were designed to be read, and so teach herbs as they were meant to be taught, given that we may need some significant remedial help with this process?

Dan Bensky himself addresses this issue brilliantly in his article written with Volker Scheid, “Medicine is Signification” — Moving towards Healing Power in the Chinese Medical Tradition. Among other things, this article by Dan Bensky and Volker Scheid speaks of the necessity of an ongoing exchange between the rigors of book learning or methodology, and the rigor of cultivating our own ability to open to getting the gist.

To get the gist is to understand as an insider, to have an understanding that encompasses both intellectual data and also the kinds of information come with direct experience. It’s a kind of knowing that takes us beyond the staleness of abstraction, and into the realism of knowledge as a personal engagement with that which is being studied.

Ted Kaptchuk said it memorably well, back in 1989: Knowing herbs is like knowing Brooklyn. Nobody KNOWS Brooklyn. The best that can be said is that you’re not lost in Brooklyn; you’re comfortable there, you know your way around.

That’s what I mean by “spirit of the herbs.” I mean a sense of the gestalt, a sense of the gist of what we’re talking about when we talk about chen pi’s gently widening circularity, when we talk about wu wei zi’s austerity of vertical alignment. Too often we learn herbs by the LIST, not the GIST: symptoms and patterns of disharmony — and of course all of that is important, as important as knowing where Flatbush Avenue actually runs in Brooklyn, but the list will not, by itself, give you the gist.

This fuller kind of learning requires co-operation of both teacher and student. The student seeking a gestalt understanding, a “gist” not a “list,” needs to listen differently — needs to go out of her way to make herself impressionable with all of her senses, with an aliveness that engages not data points but a landscape to be explored. Very literally, the student needs to approach the subject of lu gen phragmatis or bei mu fritillaria with the kind of attention which is rarely, if ever, given in any indoor activity.

Think about it: what are YOU like, as a student, seeking to come to know a river bend, a rose garden, a rock garden, a redwood forest? How do you, as a student, open your senses and engage your whole being in order to learn about the river, the roses, the redwoods and the rocks?

Now enter the classroom. Will you keep your senses open, will you make your whole body and whole mind available to learning? It’s IMPOSSIBLE to teach “gist” to students with what I call Indoor Minds: Everything is about boxes, and they just want to know which boxes to put which things in. It doesn’t work. Imagine trying to talk about a daffodil to someone who just wants to label it, define it, and put it in a category. How far are you going to get?

Of course, the student with an Outdoor Mind, ready to explore the richly nuanced and endlessly detailed world of herbal studies, needs a teacher. And this teacher is facing certain challenges, and has some critical concerns. One is the very real concern of making sure that what is taught is not some airy fairy flakey New Age fantasy, or some romantic psychological crap which is very fascinating and holds everyone’s attention in the classroom, but doesn’t get rid of anybody’s painful haemorrhoids. Or worse yet, that may actually lead to sloppy and dangerous practices like giving herbs solely based on the client’s verbal descriptions of their spiritual aspirations, without solid grounding in the diagnostic physiology of the body’s sign and symptoms, pulses and tongue.

This is where the concept of Gan Ying comes in, and teaching in the spirit of Gan Ying. Gan Ying is the basis of Chinese science, which Unschuld calls systematic correspondence, Porkert calls inductive synthesis, and Needham calls co-ordinative thinking. Like Heiner Fruehauf, I like to translate the phrase Gan Ying as Resonance, because the central metaphor used to explain how Gan Ying functions is that of a lute whose strings, when plucked, cause the strings on another, nearby lute to vibrate. Su Wen Ch. 5 for example is a chapter which demonstrates the principle of Gan Ying and gives us a fundamental orientation into how Chinese medical descriptions are written, and how they can be understood by Western minds as signifiers of an energetic that is inclusive of, but not limited to, the particular set of physical symptoms meticulously chosen to represent the herb’s effective nature.

It’s a very large topic, the topic of how we maintain rigor in every sense, faithfully remaining true to the classical descriptions of the herb functions while doing whatever it takes to translate these ancient characters into practical embodied understandings that will have the highest possible clinical efficacy. We must capture the gist while avoiding the perils of over-simplification, and elaborate a theme while consistently reality checking via both classical sources and clinical outcomes, so that we can be sure that even in our most interpretive moments, we are remaining true to the lineage transmission that it is our privilege to preserve, nurture, and carry on.

This allows us to learn and to teach in the spirit of Gan Dong, which Heiner Fruehauf translates as the true transmission of knowledge which takes place only when the Heart is moved.