This page is written for educationalists and herbalists who would like to understand the nature of the work we do more fully.
In my 20 years of practice I’ve noticed that this work can attract certain familiar projections – responses often fall into three broad categories – open enquiry, which I tend to encourage!, fetishisiation, an overly postive / glamourising perception, and demonisation, a critical percepetion based on incomplete understanding. This is to be expected – there are a multitude of radical approaches we take to eduation and herbalism, so this page is to attempt to introduce these approaches within a pedagogical framework. I really welcome genuine questions for anyone and everyone who is interested!
“Education is not about the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” WB Yeats
Animism - a global and historially sound ontology
In searching for the roots of herbalism in Britain we have to search beyond the Romans, and the Christianity they brought with them. Unfortunately there are few written sources and those that exist are heavily filtered through a Roman world view – and the greater part of the oral tradition is likely lost. Archeological evidence unfortunately doesn’t shed much more light here either.
It is likely that the vast majority of organised religions have their origins in animism – it is generally accepted these islands were broadly animist in before the advent of Christianity. This animism may have taken the form of Druidry in some places, though Druidry itself does not necessarily encompass the full breadth of animism.
Though written ancient information is scant, our own bodies hold an immense amount of unexplored tacit knowledge. Did you learn to breathe from a book? Did you learn how to digest an apple from a research paper? Clearly not – yet we are quite capable of these things. In the same way, our bodies respond to the plants in a myriad of ways that we are in the tentative, systematic process of exploring.
To do the work we do, we enter into an animist ontology. Some students choose to embed this deeply within their lives – for others it is a tentative early exploration. Fortunately animism can bridge to almost any other religious belief system (including secular agnosticism and atheism), assuming the person with that belief system is interested in finding the bridges.
As we dive deeper into an animist ontology, it becomes apparent how much of our unexamined belief systems and models of reality can tend towards post-Christian secularism. This is wired into language, meaning that at the school we have adopted creative and radical approaches to giving the animist-self a voice. These include kennings, song, poetry, music, art, movement – all of which can often allow greater freedom of expression of relational-experiential derived truths than language can.
At core we believe that our bodies already know the plants – perhaps through hundreds of generations of co-evolution. Listening to our bodies opens the door to this incredible implicit knowledge.
Radical Student Centred and Plant Centred pedagogy
Student Centred: What would a training look like if every student followed a different path? This is broadly what we encourage and, for sure, it presents challenges, but the benefits are incredible. Our traditional education system tends towards a hierarchial curriculum – we are commited to letting our curriculum continually evolve from a bottom-up perspective. This means listening very closely to each student’s path and as far as possible, integrating their unique process into the body of work that the school explores. Or to put it another way – the school is here to learn from you, and adapt to you, as much as you are to learn from the school. The school is itself a pedagogic action-research project.
Plant Centred: 75% of our teaching is held in the relational field that presents itself between us and the (generally living) plant. The key learnings do not come from a body of written knowledge, they come from an enquiry into our experiences of our own human-plant relationship. Of course, we do then later put this in the context of the established knowledge base within the herbal literature and research, but this only comes after several months of the individual student developing a deep 1:1 relationship with the plant. The concept of experiential ‘energetics’ is familiar within the herbal world – I think what we do is better described as proto-energetics, essential a deep dive into experiences, some of which (but not by any means all) can be described within the language of energetics.
Plurality of knowing - somatic, emotional and spiritual wisdom
Education within Britain tends heavily toward the nurturing of the intellect. This is great, but it potentially misses and even risks belittling other aspects of our human experience of the world. The majority of students find that in the first years of study they enter into a de-education process, re-learning how to learn, guided by their own vision and own sense of autonomy, rather than by an established road map.
There are many, many ways of knowing, but for the purpose of supporting people in their own plurality of knowing, we initially frame this within the realms of somatic, emotional and spiritual intelligence. Our Foundation year training explores these in depth.
Emotional intelligence is now an accepted concept (though only in the past 20 years or so). However, somatic and spiritual intelligence are hardly on the radar within mainsteam education.
Very broad (and crude) definitions might be:
Somatic intelligence is the ability to listen and respond to the knowing of your body. The ability to recognise one’s own somatic-trauma / somatic-story and develop healing and integrative relationships with it. At the school we work extensively with the somatic through bodywork, body-meditations, breath, movement and dance.
Spiritual intelligence is the familiarity with the potential and limitations of our own ontology and the ability to naviagate the non-physical in a way that serves life. At the school we work with this through dreaming, journeying and a critical reflective dialogue around our experiences.
Initiation and process as pedagogy
Everyone who trains with us feels the call to herbalism as a vocation. This means that there is often very little seperation between personal-process and the process of training as a herbalist. We very much welcome this and it is part of why the apprenticeship is 7 years long!
It is not unusual that chunks of time during training are more focused on personal-process / development than ‘aquiring’ and ‘new knowledge’ or quantifiable skills. We see this not only as desirable, but important, as we observe a natural process of experience followed by integration.
Many are familiar with the problem in education of ‘cramming knowledge’ for an exam which is then largely forgotten a year or so later. By taking a slow approach, where every new understanding is given the space to integrate fully into each individual’s life, we create incredibly strong foundations as a herbalist that come from being internally tested, challenged and supported over many years.
We don’t have any exams, prefering a gradual development of a rich portolio covering the many aspects of practice as a herbalist. As students refine the art of self-reflection, self-assessment and peer-assessment, they gradually internalise an iterative process of skill development that will serve them throughout life – as any herbalist knows, learning doesn’t stop at graduation!
Furthermore, we have noticed that critical pedagogic thresholds overlap with personal thresholds and we recognise these moments as ‘initiatory experiences’. We see education as an ongoing process of stepping into these initiatory experiences and growing both professionally and personally. Many, but not all, of these initiatory experiences emerge through relationship with the plants.
Equality witin client-practitioner relationship
Very early on in the development of the school, I decided to move away from the classic power structures within medicine, whereby there is a strong power dynamic between doctor (/herbalist) and ‘patient’. This is not a straightforward process, since implicit understandings and expectations of this type of relationship are deeply embedded within our culture. However, we continually move toward a place where as herbalists, we meet the other (‘client’) as equal – this has several implications we’ve disovered:
– Supporting an individual to believe in their own capacity for healing and to listen to the wisdom of their body means that we have to be doing this ourselves! Neither of these work as an intellectual or conceptual exercises, we have to live the reality of this.
– Opening someone into relationship with a plant and its potential for teaching and healing means that we have to have made that journey ourselves.
– In the therpeutic encounter we are willing to learn and be changed by the person we are with. I highly recommend the writings of Irvin Yalom (Existestial psychiatrist) to explore what this really looks like.
– We are constantly challenged in our ability to love (‘unconditional positive acceptance’) and thus in the process need to engage with and work with our own trauma and the ways we have closed ourselves from this.
– We approach plants as living conscious being, not as resource, a cure, or source of ‘active compounds’. Part of this involves challenging some languaging around this such as ‘using a plant’ and moving towards ‘learning from’, ‘connecting to’ or ‘relating to a plant’. This doesn’t mean rejecting other approaches to working with plants – it is simply a choice to draw on all forms of knowledge whilst focusing on the experiential and relational. This approach, as any, has its potential and its limitations, which is why we also celebrate the diversity of approaches to herbalism that can be found throughout Britain.
We prioritise a process-orientated approach in both teaching and clinical pratice.
This is best explained by example:
In a more traditional medical outcome-orientated approach, the intention within the doctor-patient dynamic may be to ‘alleviate the symptoms of asthma’. As this narrative unfolds, inevitably the patient goes through an inner and outer process (e.g. perhaps relationship with an inhaler in this case). Outcome-orientation tends to bring more focus on the disease and symptoms and less on the individual. It can sometimes deliver quick results, but at the risk of sabotaging a deeper healing process.
In a process-orientated approach, the herbalist and client are on a journey of exploration together. An initial case history would reveal both the asthma and the desire to improve the symptoms. This is kept in mind, but the focus would be on the individual’s relationship with their body, their relationship with their lungs and, of course, their relationship with their experience of asthma. The focus is on the process they enter into, whereby ‘outcomes’ inevitably emerge from process (compare this with above – where process emerges from outcome).
Generally a process-orientated approach will take a little longer to produce ‘results’, but those results will be on a stronger foundation of self-knowledege than would tend to happen within an outcome-orientated approach.
These are broad generalisations, and there are times and places where one approach is preferable to the other. For instance, in any acute situation, ‘outcome’ will almost always trump ‘process’. However, in chronic, long term health conditions, it is often the other way – an ‘outcome’ focus can and does sabotage ‘process’ (often for years or decades), whilst a ‘process’ orientated approach does not preclude short-term symptomatic ‘outcome’ related interventions.
Non-partisan with regard to Professional Associations
There are several professional association in the UK with various approaches to herbalism – each with different styles of practice.
Since we prioritise a highly student-centred ethos, it would not make sense to align the school to a particular professional association – each student has a different path and vision for themself as a herbalist.
This is why we currently have no intention to seek institutional-accreditation, prefering to support apprentices in pursuing an individual-accreditation pathway geared to each individual. All the Professional Associations have individual accreditation routes so our focus in on supporting each individual whichever route they choose.