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A Daily Devotion: Passion, Purpose, and Practice for the Herbalist

Posted Apr 15 2013 6:10pm

A Daily Devotion:  Passion, Purpose, & Practice for the Herbalist

by Kiva Rose Hardin

“You too can be carved anew by the details of your devotion”
-Mary Oliver

“It takes long practice, yes. You have to work. Did you think you could snap your fingers, and have it as a gift? What is worth having is worth working for.”
-Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials

Ni Sasih by Dullah

I have frequent discussions with my students in which they’re struggling to understand how they can fit into what they see as the role of an herbalist. Some may base it more on a clinician model, while others have been more influenced by a village wise woman archetype. Either, and anything in between, can work wonderfully if that’s the role that best suits the individual and their context. The trouble comes when someone realizes they don’t fit into any known role, even those they look up to the most. For some, this understanding can be enough for them to simply walk away from herbalism thinking that they don’t belong, and for others it can preface a long struggle of trying to force themselves into a mold they just don’t fit.

Not everyone is cut out to be an herbalist, and some of us realize on our journey that a different aspect of the green world works better for us. However, if we adore practicing herbalism, but struggle with feeling like we don’t fit the models of herbalists we see around us, then we need to find a new model that is unique to suited to us.

I’ve certainly experienced this myself, and have spent long hours in despair over my aversion working in an office like a proper clinician, or conversely, my inability to entirely abandon a scientific perspective when treating people. I have many role models in the herbal community, but I’ve still struggled to find where I fit, and what exactly I have to offer. I see expert clinicians with backgrounds in nutrition and biochemistry and can’t see any way to catch up to their knowledge, or the effortless grace of the wise woman who doesn’t seem to need to work at all in order to cultivate intimacy and trust with those she works with. These kinds of comparisons are not only useless, but often harmful to ourselves and those we’re comparing ourselves to as we foster an attitude of useless competition and potential resentment and envy of someone else’s gifts and skills.

A common fear is that everything we offer is already being done by someone else, and likely being done better. This kind of thinking can cause mental paralysis, shutting down our ability to write about plants, make medicines, or even practice. I don’t know many herbalists who haven’t dealt with this at some point, and it can be difficult to remember how much we each have to offer to each other, the folks we work with, and the community as a whole.

It helps me a great deal to remind myself that herbalism is not just a science or a trade, it’s also an art. And like art, we each have something unique to offer that can’t be replicated by others. When ten different herbalists write monographs about Rose there will certainly be notable overlaps, especially when it comes to general therapeutic applications, but I know from experience that there will also be an incredible number of differences and individual subtleties. These differences combine to create a greater body of knowledge, and a deeper legacy of wisdom and beauty for herbalists to come!

The Medicine & The Muse: Follow Your Interests

Remember that our interests will develop over time, adapt to our lives, and sometimes outright change. While it can certainly be a bad idea to radically alter our lives for every impulsive venture, too many of us are more likely to get stuck in stagnant practices that no longer serve our selves and our work.

In the last few years I found myself increasingly frustrated with strictly clinical work. To be honest, when I first started experiencing feelings of dread every time I even thought about seeing a client, I thought I might be done with herbalism altogether. After many tears and months rife with self-doubt, I’ve come to realize that it’s not possible or even good for me to try to stick myself in a single category of herbalism. I find myself much happier if I follow the meandering flow of my interests, and integrate them as I go along instead of trying to freeze myself into just being a clinician. These days you’re as likely to find me perfecting a new botanical perfume, grinding fragrant resins for incense, photographing a newly opened flower, or brewing up a medicinal mushroom based soup as studying neurophysiology or treating a client.

One of the things I have long loved about herbalism is its innately multifaceted nature that can incorporate everything from botany to cooking, sensory pleasures to clinical therapeutics, counseling to gardening. All of this, and much more, are important parts of the larger pictures of herbalism. Some of us serve in specific niche roles, such as growing and propagating at-risk medicinal plants, while others work as broad generalists to integrate many fields of study into one life of art and practice.

The important thing is not to get stuck in one spot and feel limited by what we’ve chosen, but instead, to constantly follow what we love and feel passionately interested in. Every day we have the choice to expand or contract, dig in or move on. In this ever evolving and growing field, we too are forever falling back into the dark to re-germinate before spiraling upward to the sun.

Envisioning: Periodically Reassessing Goals & Dreams

In the midst of harvesting, medicine making, seeing clients, teaching, writing, studying, and the multitude other tasks that accompany this work, it’s easy to become so overwhelmed with attempting to stay caught up that we don’t notice we may have lost our love for the daily devotions of herbalism. In my own practice, I’ve found it extremely helpful to take periodic looks at what I’m doing, how I’m doing, and how I feel about it.  Running on auto-pilot is bound to happen at times, but when we notice that we no longer have our heart in what we’re doing, it’s time to reassess.

Ideally, we have a planned time for the assessment each year, most likely in the Winter when work is often a bit slower, and it feels most natural to dive inwards. Life doesn’t always follow our version of what should happen though, so we may sometimes need to take an unplanned time out. If we’ve previously written down our goals, needs, and dreams, then it’s fairly simple – although not always easy – to compare our current ideas and ideals with the past and see what aligns, what needs to change, and plot a course in that direction. If we’ve never taken the time to really think this through, it may be a much bigger project to honestly examine our desires and abilities.

For many of us, this whole process is made much easier by stepping away from our normal routine, environment and work while we reassess. Retreating to the woods for a weekend or heading to a location in nature that especially connects us to our purpose and passion can be perfect, but even simply taking a day away from normal surroundings can be enough to give us a much better idea of where we are and where we want to be. Sometimes, we just need that break and breathing room to realize we absolutely love all that we’re doing, and simply need a little more downtime and self nourishment. Other times, we’ll find that it’s time to make a significant shift that may entail entirely restructuring our lives to find fulfillment and satisfaction.

Devotee of the Green World: The Plant Healer’s Work

It’s taken nearly a decade of relentless obsession, intermittent exhaustion, constant studying, hands on experience, and daily wonderment at the magic of plant medicine – for me to finally realize that the key to being fulfilled in my work lies in my daily rededication to it. It’s as simple as that, the understanding that all the work I do is an act of devotion to the land, the plants, and the people. It’s not a race, it’s not compensation for guilt, it’s not even about being a good person.

It’s this simple act of fragrant flowers petals falling into waiting water, of holding someone’s hand while they breathe through their pain, of kissing the leaves of the Alder tree in gratitude for this medicine. This practice, this devotion, this prayer.

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