Set alongside a mill lake in the beautiful and biodiverse Horsely valley, the School of Intuitive Herbalism has been offering courses in Herbalism for over ten years. It has grown organically, from initially offering short evening courses to our current program which is now focused on a year long ‘Foundation in Intuitive Herbalism‘ class, immersive short retreats (6 days) and a four to seven year professional training in Insight Herbalism.
The aim of all courses is to help you enrich and develop your own relationship with the herbal world. Though the skillful development of your own innate intuitive awareness, you can learn from the herbs and in turn pass these teachings on in a practical, useful and healing ways.
As the legal and financial aspects of herbalism get increasingly tightened up, I believe there is even more need for people to develop their own, first hand experience of real, living plants as medicine. It is those who have this passion who keep the tradition of herbal medicine vibrant, learning from our ancestors and developing the craft after our own experiences. You’ll find that it is an incredible gift to be able to share skills in healing with those around you, and a relationship with the herbs that grow nearby is key to this.
Previous students range from those just starting out on a path of healing to experienced practitioners wanting to widen their skills. Whilst many students are deeply drawn to the deep therapeutic and healing work guided by the plants, a significant proportion are also developing creative and artistic ways of sharing the plants. We strongly believe these sacred arts can help inspire people and be part of reframing destructive cultural narratives with ones rooted in relationship, reciprocracy and deep ecology.
The focus in all our teaching is to help you develop your intuition around herbs and healing by means of direct experience. Teaching is highly experiential; this approach is a great way of learning about herbs – books are great but information is quickly forgotten – learning by experience means that once learned never forgotten! In any day of working together, at least eighty percent of our time is are entirely experiential, with enough supporting structure, teaching, guidance and supervision to help integrate and frame our experiences.
I started my exploration of plants whilst studying a Chemistry degree with a particular interest in pharmacology. I still remember clearly the atmosphere in the lecture theatre as a large brick of opium was passed around! I went on to study a second postgraduate degree in Medical Herbalism which involved four years of full time study.
Herbalism is a complex field of study, and the tendency within the herbal profession today in Britain has been to somewhat medicalise the approach to herbs. By this I mean that the diagnostic framework and approach to therapeutic strategy has been increasingly adapted to be easily congruent with Western orthodox medicine. Whilst this approach has definite positives, there is an entirely different side to Herbalism which is more congruent with traditional approaches to healthcare, worldwide traditions and our animistic-shamanic roots. This is the side we primarily explore in the classes I teach.
Since I came from a highly rational and academic background, the medical version held little of new interest to me. I had been immersed in medical pharmacology for years, so though the topic is fascinating, it felt too limited in its scope when wishing to explore the qualities of herbs. However, the approach to herbalism where the plant is truly honoured as a spiritual as well as a physical being increasingly fascinated me.
Since my intial training I have spent over twenty years exploring the spiritual, somatic, relational, trauma-informated and process-orientated aspects of healing, and now know without doubt that all illness has powerful emotional and spiritual elements that are of equal importance (or sometimes more so) than the physical manifestation of illness. Over time, my healing work and my herbal practice have met, and I now have a robust way of working with herbs that has its foundations in the spiritual, not in the biomolecular. This is in no way to dismiss the biomolecular effects of herbs, but rather to seat them in a broader, spiritual context.
I feel this is a unique perspective I can share, since my passion is creating bridges between experience, the spiritual and the physical. This persective has helped birth our professional training in Insight Herbalism, a deeply relational and enpowering way of working with herbs.
The class was brilliant because Nathan involved us from the start and made us experience for ourselves instead of telling us what we ‘should’ experience or know.’
One of my greatest pleasures is in facilitating opening ‘the doors of perception’ for people to experience herbs directly themselves, meaning that they can draw their own conclusions!
Biochemistry and pharmacology are both very rich ways of modelling the world. However, in clinical practice, these models can be very limited and fail to draw on the full potential of the plants or the richness of our traditional herbal heritage.
Through years exploring the worlds of healing I started to see that the art and craft of herbalism were just as important (and often more important) in practice than the science. I started to understand that my personal relationship with the plants, alongside the depth of my empathetic dynamic with a client were key to catalysing the process of healing.
At the School of Intuitive Herbalism, we honour all aspects of herbalism, but put personal relationship with the plants at the core.
With a great degree of over-simplification we could subdivide the areas of practice within Herbalism as:
• Structural approaches
• Evidence based approaches
• Intuitive approaches
There are many conceptual frameworks for making rational prescribing decisions in herbal medicine. You may choose a biomolecular model (orthodox medicine), traditional chinese model (TCM), ayurvedic model, unani tibb model, a humoral model (tracing back to Hippocrates), or one of a multitude of psychotherapeutic models.
They don’t all always agree with each other.
My experience, as seems to be the experience of many of my professional colleagues is that we have to a great extent lost our traditional framework for prescribing, and the adoption of a purely biomolecular framework fails to ask or answer many important questions within herbalism. This failure is most apparent in the artificial mind-body split of biomolecular medicine – a split that is not found in traditional systems such as TCM or Ayurveda.
However, I live in Britain, working with European herbs. Thus for me, though I can draw incredible value from studying non-European heritage (and I do), this does not satisfy a need in me to work in a way that is congruent with this land and our herbs.
Evidence based herbalism
Evidence based herbalism attempts to compile the best available evidence for any intervention and make a decision based on this data. In theory this is great. In practice, we so far have only about 1% of the data we need to cover the vast range of herbalism.
Evidence based medicine will often draw heavily on research completed within the last 20 years or less. Whilst this is valuable, in herbal medicine we have another 3000 years of evidence that does not particularly fit an EBM mould. There are those who see little value in this previous knowledge base, though I would consider that to reject this is to reject the wisdom of our ancestors and the very knowledge base that we can draw on to study further.
Intuitive and Insight herbalism
We have a vast amount of learning passed down from our ancestors, yet this learning needs skillful interpretation. There are two distinct ways you could do this. One would be to take an academic approach of attempting to evaluate old information within the context it originated. The alternative is to attempt to experience the herbs as our ancestors did – in other words a phenomenological approach.
My interest leads me ever deeper into how to work with our experiences, ourselves, our human organism, our consciousness, our awareness in ways that open up the wisdom of this ancestral heritage. So far I find this has been something you experience, it is not something that can be easily explained or understood through intellectual enquiry.
Like learning to carve wood – you could spend your whole life reading books about wood carving, but have no real wisdom until you set your hands to a piece of word and let the wood teach you itself.
We name our school the ‘School of Intuitve Herbalism’, since, as a student, you are diving deep into developing and refining your own intuition. Our professional training is named Insight Herbalism as graduates develop the skills to support and guide others into their own insights and realisations with the help of the plants.
I teach Insight Herbalism because I see, experience and believe that the plants will teach us themselves if we allow ourselves to listen. Learning to listen is a task in itself, but a very rich and rewarding one.
In clinical practice I have a continual dialogue going on between structural, evidence based and intuitive approaches, yet I find it is my direct experiences of the herbs and with people that build my skills, understanding and compassion in the deepest way.
Trusting and becoming skillful with your intuition is the same as trusting and becoming skillful with your truth, learning to listen to the rich wisdom of your body, and discerning projection from insight.
Most of us have either subtly or profoundly adapted our truth to fit our culture, society, parents, siblings, peer aspirations or work environment.
Simply put, the more you live in your truth, the more soulful you feel, the more complete life feels. The more you live in someone else’s truth, the more disempowered you feel, the more uncertain. As we delve into what this truth actually is, we find it is woven into our dreams, our relationships, our ancestors and the land we live on.
There can be a difficult balance to strike. We are all social human beings, we all wish to cooperate and interact with each others. However for a whole host of reasons we often find it difficult to stand in our truth whilst communicating in a socially appropriate way. As a simple example – if someone identifies themselves as being ‘nice’, those parts of the personality that do not fit this model of ‘nice’ will be ignored, tucked away, repressed and eventually forgotten. These parts will then tend to surface in phenomena such as dreams, strong emotional responses, addictive behaviours or somatised ‘illness’. The ‘nice’ persona thus risks dominating the more truthful and intuitive one.
When we work closely with a plant, with the heartfelt desire to really meet it, we may experience a range of phenomena. The essence, or spirit of that plant will clothe itself in clothes of our own making. What we perceive has a plant at it’s core, but may well have many layers of our own imaginary/emotional memory. Developing intuition with plants is about recognising these layers, understanding what is a projection of your own being and what is a pure quality of the plant.
This is not easy! However, the depth to which you question and examine your own projections will match the depth to which you can truly meet the plant. The process of walking towards the heart of the plant is medicine itself, since very often our projections are also expressions of our deepest needs and pains.
There are many ways plants can teach us, but two fundamental themes are affirmation of our visions and healing of our deepest pains. On the whole affirmations are supportive, light filled and wonderful. However, arguable, it is when plants unlock our hidden pain that the deepest healing can happen.
When this happens we touch a critical point with two possible pathways, and for me the junction into the more advanced classes with herbs:
(1) On a wound being touched we can react, be consumed by an emotion relevant to the wound (e.g, fear/anger/grief) and hit out in what is a deeply instinctive protective response. This hitting out can take many forms, but generally something of the shape ‘You did this to me….’, ‘She is a really angry person….’, ‘The world did this to me…..’ The mind will tend to grab on to a situation that is perceived to have caused this response – sometimes very much in the present, sometimes a figure from the past.
This reactive stage is a typical first reaction, where a person is unable to internalise and own their emotional response. With practice, this can pass quickly to the next stage in growth which is to fully understand and be willing to move from this reactive reflex to a more inner-reflective one. This can be supported by mindfulness practice and patience, and for those who want additional support their are many skilled healers and therapists who can help guide you through.
(2) On a wound being touched we can react, consciously allow ourselves to enter into the emotion relevant to the wound, and explore the internal reality of this place. This can be difficult at first and requires skill and practice. It requires us to stay in our vulnerability and trust that others are there and willing to support us, even though all our programmed reflexes might tell us differently. As we deepen our skills with this we become able to self-regress, embrace the story that the body is holding, and in the embracing let go of it.
The advanced classes provide support to do this self-regression (which can be very difficult alone), but only once you have made the conscious and empowered choice to go to these places – this is a choice only you can make.
• Developing intuition is equivalent to living in your own truth and listening to the wisdom of your body
• Plants will reflect ourselves back at us, but in consciously movement through these layers of projection is itself part of the healing of the plant.
• As we move into our truth, the barriers that have stopped us doing this before appear
• These barriers can be scary, and if we react to them by projecting outwards, the possibility for going inwards and thus develop greater self knowledge can be lost
• If we see this barrier and choose the unknown path through it, we can walk deeper into our own truth and thus our own intuition.
• The more we remove these inner barriers, the more intuitive wisdom is available to us.