All folk medicine traditions also acknowledge that the body is a network of energetic pathways. In Chinese medicine, these are described as meridians that run throughout the body. When any part of this system becomes blocked, whether from physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual reasons, disease occurs. Clearing the blockages in these channels and allowing the body to resume its free flowing state is an essential part of the healing process.
Traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, Native American, and Greek medicine, which forms the foundation of our own western herbal tradition, all teach that there is an intelligence that guides and directs the movement and ordering of all the elements of nature, including the lives of humans. Our own culture has abandoned this notion and consequently our system of medicine has evolved without a solid foundation anchoring it to the world around us.
Instead of recognizing patterns of imbalance and harmony, the currently accepted western system of medicine, also known as allopathic medicine, looks for agents of disease—viruses, bacteria, and other microbes—and eradicates them without considering the deeper constitutional factors that lead to states of illness. Folk medicine traditions, on the other hand, view the human body in a holistic way and seek to support the body’s innate ability to heal itself. A cure is achieved not by “fixing” one part, but by returning harmony and balance to the whole system.
To work with plants in this way, we need to understand how imbalances manifest and how to restore harmony to the human organism. If we can read the energetic patterns visible in the human body, we can select the correct herb or herbs that match the imbalance in the body that needs healing and bring the body back to a state of health.
The most commonly used energetic system in western herbalism comes to us from the Greeks. It is represented by hot, cold, dry, and damp. At the most basic level, it can generally be said that if there is a condition of heat in the body, administer cooling herbs. If there is dampness in the body, give drying herbs. As you progress in your study of plants and the human body, you may find that there are more subtle interactions that take place, but for our purposes this simple system will serve us well.
The flavor, smell, and taste impressions of herbs can also tell us a lot about their medicine. The human tongue and nose are very sensitive at detecting even the slightest variations in taste and smell. When first learning about a plant’s medicine, I highly recommend tasting the plant in a very intentional way and paying close attention to its flavors and how it feels in the mouth. You can do this with the fresh or dried plant, a tincture, or a tea. While doing this type of research, avoid eating spicy or greasy foods, avoid perfumes or strongly scented shampoos and soaps, and keep your palate as clear as possible. It may be difficult to discern the different flavors and impressions at first, but everyone has the ability to perceive in this way. Keep practicing: the understanding you will gain is well worth the effort.
-excerpted from Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants to be published April 2017