This article is an extended version of a page in our book ‘Weeds in the Heart’:
The obstacles are the teaching! Easy to write, but very difficult to apply, especially when you are deep in your own psychic fog. This is why working with others or a guide can be very useful – either with one other person to reflect and be witnessed by, a small self organised group (assuming some skill at navigating group dynamics!) or a structured class. I’ve listed some of the common themes that emerge:
Spiritual hubris: The belief that ‘I know that plant now’. I suspect that the plant is infinite – any finite conclusion is generally a comfort position for the ego. Related to this is the use of any spiritual process as fuel for the ego, a very common phenomenon.
Indifference: At some point the plant may appear to become ‘boring’ to you. Often this is a symptom of rich psychic resistance and well worth exploring. Equally, sometimes it just means you need a break from the plant. It is not unusual to reach a plateau at some point after your first meeting – consider coming back to the plant the following season (after a year) or else try approaching it in a completely different way, putting aside the realisations from your previous dance with this plant being. For instance, your first month may have been spent in daily plant fasting / tea meditation – when you revisit it you might choose to focus entirely on sketching and the creating of mandala’s inspired by the plant.
Dislike/rejection: This is often the most potent gateway for deep enquiry. What does the plant touch in you that provokes this response? In our classes it is often the case that the person who has the strongest dislike for a plant later recieves the most powerful medicine.
Confirmation bias: It is surprisingly easy for people to believe that something they heard or read is an actual experience they have had or are having. In a class setting it is fairly easy to spot these ‘false insights’ as they have a completely different feel to them from experiences arising more directly in the moment. On the whole, if an insight looks too neat and tidy it is generally more suspect! The experiences I see emerge directly from relationship often start as something undefinable and very gradually crystallise into insight or understanding, sometimes over months or years. In a similar way our brains are constantly trying to make sense from chaos – I advise people to try and moderate this process by consciously not trying to make sense of an experience. The danger is that we may be too quick to ‘box’ our experience into something familiar and thus risk learning something completely new.
Habitutation / addiction: This is a subtle and tricky one – it is in the nature of addiction that few addicts believe themselves to be addicted, finding a myriad of ways to justify, explain and play down the addiction to themselves. If you find yourself using / taking a plant routinely consider asking friends for an honest reflection – and be prepared to take on board what they might say! If you think you might have got into an addictive pattern with a plant consider taking a year long break – and then if you do return to it, return with care and critical self-reflection.
Inner critic: This is huge for many people. Learn to recognise its voice and in so doing develop the skill of letting it natter away like a radio in the background – eventually it will give up. Again, this is easy to say but in practice can take many years. I find that practises of meditation and mindfulness are useful here.
Looking to others’ experiences too much: Every person’s experiences are unique to them. Other people’s stories may inspire you to explore and validate yours, but too much focus on this can become counterproductive if you try to replicate them. A similar process can happen by putting a teacher or guide on a pedestal of your own making. Related to this is the use language (e.g. medical language) that is not strongly rooted in your own phenomonological experiences.
Use of non-phenomological language / concepts: As far as I am aware the majority of traditional medical systems are based on phenomonology – the direct experience of the the body and illness. Modern medicine is not phenomonological – its foundations are in bio-molecular science. Sometimes the different is obvious – it would be a brave person to claim that ‘I can feel my mitochondria speeding up’ since mitochondria are known from the bio-molecular realm, whereas ‘the pulse of my blood feels strong and fast, I’ve a sense of warmth moving around my chest and I suddenly feel more awake’ is a statement rooted in direct experiences of the body. I find there is particular confusion with this with regard to immunity – something which can be understood in both bio-medical and phenomonological ways – meaning care needs to be taken not to muddle the two.
Lack of follow through: A vision, a realisation or a ‘peak’ experience (either blissfull or traumatic) do not necessarily in themselves mean that growth or healing happens. Undoubtedly they sometimes can do, but more often than not, the slower work of integration over weeks, months or years is crucial. Journalling is a very useful way to help this process, as is casting a critical eye over your own life and relationships and asking the question ‘have I really taken this teaching on board?’.
Calcified ontology: A fancy way of saying that one’s world view has become rigid and thus unable to adapt to new insights. This can feel like being stuck behind a layer of armour in all your interactions – you see, hear, smell and touch but have trouble really letting anything in. Sometimes there is just one herb that finds its way through! Sometimes a ‘cracking open’ of the armour is helpful (e.g. fasting, solitary nature immersion, vipassana meditation). I’m particularly fond of fasting as a way to move beyond habitual ways of being and thus habitual styles of perception, although it is not suitable for those with chronic anxiety disorders or ‘Vata’ type imbalances.
Difficulty in validating your own experiences: From birth we are trained to value only certain aspects of our experience. For argument’s sake let’s say this is one thosandth of our complete range of peception (it’s probably far, far less). Only you can choose to start validating the other nine hundred and ninety nine perspectives you are capable of.
High degree of internal trauma: All the classes we run at the School of Intuitive Herbalism develop gradually – i.e. we generally don’t dive into deep shadow work in an Introductory class (with notable exceptions – generally for those people who are already skilled and familiar with their own shadow work). If someone has very deep and unresolved trauma, this work can start to bring this trauma to the surface. In this case a higher degree of support is likely to be needed (weekly 1:1 with psychotherapist / skilled bodyworker etc) such that healing can be entered into consciously and not be re-traumatising in an unhelpful way. This is particularly the case with those who have experienced sexual, physical or emotional abuse as children and those with a history of substance addiction. Work with a plant can be a crucial part of your healing in this case, but I would strongly advise ensuring that you have a robust support network to help you with the healing process.
Non-verbal experiences: I would tentatively suggest that the non-verbal aspects of meeting (i.e. those that are very difficult to communicate / put into words) tend to be more powerful, healing and change inducing than those that make a tidy ‘story’. This can be very frustrating to the mind, but it is where somatic exploration in the form of bodywork, conscious movement or dance are particularly useful.
Struggle to access authentic self: I suspect that our social persona – that which we may believe to be ourselves, is completely invisible and irrelevant to a plant … a plant cares little for a finely polished facebook profile! The greater we identify with this persona, the more difficult it can be to deepen your relationship with plants. Coming into our authentic selves is not generally socially acceptable, nor encouraged by popular culture. Immersion in settings and amongst people where this is encouraged is very nurturing for this. Again, often easier said than done. Emotional, spiritual and intellectual repression is endemic; taking the lid off the box is scary and needs to be done slowly and carefully, sometimes with professional support
Seeking soundbites: Realisations tend to either occur spontaneously or crystalise over time, sometimes years. They can not be forced. Intellectual constructs have a very different feeling from authentic spiritual inspiration. With practice and discernment the difference becomes clear.