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Becoming An Herbalist “Professional” or Not – Part 1

Posted Nov 26 2012 10:58am

Whether To Become a Professional Herbalist or Not
Choosing Our Path – Part I

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

excerpted from a longer article in the upcoming Winter issue of Plant Healer Magazine

pro•fes•sion: 1. a paid occupation, esp. one that involves formal training and qualification.

We each have an ultimate personal role to fulfill, one that by its very nature maximizes our abilities and imparts maximum meaning to our daily acts.  While it may look something like the roles we see others assuming, it will in certain ways be significantly different from what everyone else does, a position, purpose and way for which we alone are ideally suited.  We’ll need to choose again and again between options and paths as we progress in that fulfillment, basing each choice on our sense of what that evolving role might look like.

One’s personal path of herbalism forks early on, providing an initial and fundamental choice between two distinct – and distinctly valuable – courses we could take.  There will be many other forks and branches as we go along, but one of the very first choices we need to make is between doing what it takes to be a professional herbalist, be it clinician, researcher, professor, or product developer… or going our own way, independently and informally studying and practicing.

Anyone considering their role, purpose, means or place in the broad field of herbalism today, would do well to begin with:

To Be, Or Not To Be?

That is the question.  Or at least, it’s one of the first of many important questions.

If you choose the costs and benefits of becoming a professional, then you need to promptly commit your time and funds to the required formal education, and then apply for and submit to the judgements of both accrediting associations and regulating agencies… preferably without first giving too many years to being uncertain, unfocused, uninvested or directionless.  Likewise, if you end up choosing to forego the costs and benefits of going pro, there is no need to run up a huge bill for a university education.  You can look instead to unaccredited herbal schools, to apprenticeships and even self-education… and when and how you practice will be determined by you.

Before we continue, let me offer this disclosure: I am not, by any account, a professional myself.

While I impose upon myself some mighty high standards, I generally put style and results ahead of both professionalism and income.  I am but a an increasingly wise nonprofessional with satisfyingly no need or desire to be vetted, endorsed, approved or certified by any board, group or agency.  I do not consider my work on this planet to be my profession, even in those rare situations where it makes me money, no matter how many years I have dedicated to it or how much gratitude or acclaim it may have earned me.  My work – of teaching, writing, painting, organizing, activism, wilderness restoration, plant conservation and healing in all its forms – is far more my passion and art, my calling and purpose, my mission and thus my source of greatest satisfaction.

That said, I can step back and see not only problems and drawbacks to professionalism, but also a number of incontestable pluses making a profession of one’s work, investing the long years earning necessary degrees and then qualifying for the recognition and acceptance of honored peers.

Potential Benefits to Being a Professional

•Qualification
Being a professional means to be qualified, which means to have one’s recountable knowledge, skills and abilities tested by those vested with the authority to make such determinations.  Whether it is the government, a university or an established herbal guild doing the testing or approving, the resulting accreditation, title or stamp of approval can result in greater public trust in the value (and safety) of what you have to teach, sell or otherwise offer to the world.
Even in herbalism, there may be roles you’re interested in that are easier to get with a professional degree from an upper tier college, including teaching herbal medicine at the university level.  Both college degrees and certification by peer groups and guilds can contribute to getting hired by professional clinics, certain herbal schools, and businesses involved with the research and development of herbal products.
A standard of competency is a worthy aim, in this form or others.  One of the best measures of our knowledge and abilities comes from holding them up to a recognized standard.  Another is to be fairly challenged and tested, whether by circumstance or in the course of vetting and protocol.

•Legitimacy
Becoming professional is a process of legitimization in the eyes of our qualified peers, the vested authorities, and our students and clients.  It requires, assumes and advertises adherence to professional codes and obedience of regulations and laws.  Unless and until the practice of herbalism itself is outlawed, the professional will have the greatest immunity from enforcement and harassment.

•Authority
An accredited professional is also considered to be an authority and have a “legitimate opinion” that’s more deserving of being listened to.  Like it or not, professional status is what it usually takes to qualify as an authority figure in the larger society… hence we see that the officers giving the orders in the military are professional soldiers, that people spend billions of dollars seeking health care from what they trust are professional if sometimes unbelievably unhelpful doctors, and the public tends to grant even the most thuggish policeman the status of law enforcement professional.
If we want to be able to direct the activities of others, or if we simply want to be listened to and given credibility by the greatest number of or most influential of people, we should at least consider going the professional route.

•Connection                                                                                                                                                                              Being recognized as a professional, results in connections to “powers that be”, but also in being able to link up people, information and medicine in what can be effective ways.  As Bevin Clare (Vice President of the American Herbalist Guild) defines it, “the goal of professionalism is to be able to connect with people.”  And she uses her own experience as an example: “When I began practicing and reaching out to a more financially affluent community in Boston I realized quickly that some parts of my appearance were making my clients feel uncomfortable since they were considered, by them, to be unprofessional. My initial reaction was that I wasn’t going to change who I was to make them comfortable, but when I sat with it I realized these things weren’t my values, and my values dictated that I bring plants and their medicine to as many people as I could.”

•Income
Even the most non-materialist of herbalists has a need for a certain amount of financial income, not only to survive in this day and age, but also to fund those passions or causes that mean the most to us.  The sometimes greater incomes of professionals in any field, can fuel plant medicine research, fund health care for the under-served, or pay for the organizing and activism that may prove essential to the future of this craft.

•Published Codes of Ethics
Every profession is expected to have a code of ethics that its members subscribe to, a standard of behavior that reflects membership morality.  The most laudable of the old time Western outlaws heeded a code that prohibited cowardice, the striking of a woman, and ratting on one’s partner if captured… and the most heinous of villains are those politicos and corporados who, regardless of what they might say, truly have no ethics to anchor, temper or guide them.
A mission statement of general intent is not hardly enough.  Our particular codes of ethics should be spelled out, to ourselves and all others.  Studied and deeply considered.  Tested, and then either resisted if found faulty, or honored and adhered to at all costs if proved worthy.

•Crediting
Professionalism involves not only garnering credit, but also giving credit, beginning with the citing of sources, referencing of research, and the attribution of quotes.

•Infiltration & Integration
Recognized professionals may have additional credibility to help introduce and integrate plant medicine into publicly funded health clinics, hospitals and hospice care, elementary and secondary school curricula.
One way I enjoy thinking of it, is as infiltration – infiltrating a government approved and subsidized, corporate influenced, often unhealthful paradigm with the seeds of change… via those plant extensions and herbal agents who are willing to make the sacrifices, jump through the hoops, speak the language, and conform to a degree necessary to initiate change and ensure improvement.

What we must weigh these benefits against, are the potential problems with professionalism as we often see today.  Only upon consideration of both its advantages and drawbacks, can we determine which of the two main paths to take to our shared general goal of healing with, through or being inspired by nature and herbs.

Potential Drawbacks to Professionalism

The following are indicative of contemporary professionalism in general.  It remains for those making herbalism their profession, to avoid any dangerous pitfalls.

•Problems with Qualification & Inorganic Hierarchy
Hierarchy in itself is not only unavoidable but totally natural, one of the ways that species and individuals within each species sort themselves out according to purpose, role, ability and skill, penchant and character, energetic and action.  It is not always hierarchy involving dominance, as is the case in wolf packs for example, but always a planetary self-evaluation that arranges and assigns according to manifest – both shared and individual – gifts, weaknesses, uses and needs.
The problem with human created hierarchy is that it is often constructed of a very limited number of social classes (roles, and ways to belong), and that those classes are clearly disproportionate in both importance and reward.  In an organic hierarchy there are innumerable subtle variations and there is much overlapping, with a large and adaptive range of roles arrayed not only in order of importance or authority but in patterns of alliance and purpose, ecotones and transition zones.  Professional models usually split all aspirants into a few inflexible castes, beginning with those accepted, and those rejected.  A further breakdown may be between guest members and professional members, or between professional members and executive members.  But usually lacking, is a form that grants a degree of acceptance and support to all well intended and effort making people, with a role (a means to be focused, effective and free valued) that is in at least some ways unique to them, with acknowledgement that truly sees what they offer and do rather than merely grading them as qualified or unqualified, “pass” or “fail.”  An inorganic two or three tier system can result in folks viewing it as an exclusive club, an elite caste to which the common folk need not aspire, or as the only approved means to do the work we’re called to do.

•The Unmeasured
While length of study or practice can be measured, and stored knowledge tested, many valuable skills for both professional and non-professional herbalists can’t be or usually aren’t, including: real wisdom, dedication, genuine intuition, empathy, communication skills, connection making, and the ability to synthesize new ideas and methods out of existing information and models, determining new healing approaches or uses for specific plants.

•Requirement for Permission
Being (or remaining!) professional requires acceptance and approval from one’s “superiors,” along with their direct or codified permission to do things.  This is true for employed nonprofessionals as well, though not with as much on the line to lose.

•Potential for Disempowerment
It can feel powerful to come together in a group with a common cause, reassuring to win admittance and approval, but it can also be disempowering when it leads us to imagine we were ineffective before being admitted, that we are only competent if others agree that we are, only somebody special if a panel of directors confirms, only an herbalist if we have our diplomas or certificates, only free to practice and help this world if and when the latest government regulators allow.  The more we are paid a professional wage, the more we likely need to be concerned about pleasing the market or not contradicting the politics or ethics of our employers.  The more we function as professionals, the more restraint is often expected of us, and the more subject we’re likely to be to external controls.

•Conformity
A need to meet qualifying standards or regulations can in itself contribute to conformity unless guarded against, and is the more problematic when qualification depends on the approval of either feared or admired individuals in power.  When we know not only what the directors, council members or agency directors want, but also what they seem to personally like, prefer or favor – what their politics are or what kinds of people and things they least admire – we tend to reign in those aspects, appearances or attitudes that we worry may be unappealing or offensive, as well as to exaggerate those traits, opinions or styles we consciously or subconsciously feel could win us acceptance.

•Feeding Into Self-Worth Issues
The drive to be admitted, accredited, certified or made legal, can be more of a desire for acceptance and approval than a strategic choice to be a professional herbalist.  The fact that Herbalism is generally sidelined in this society, largely cast as fringe and outside the norm, has increased herbalists’ hunger for acceptance… and acceptance is rooted in the very natural need to belong.
The problem is when self-worth becomes dependent on admittance and membership, or for that matter, on the approval of any person, entity or group outside of our selves.  No one knows our aims, weaknesses, strengths, compromises, failures or accomplishments better than us… when we are honest and paying attention.
Hundreds of years of herbalism being increasingly trivialized, denigrated and vilified by the mainstream, has resulted in many plant people today automatically questioning their role and worth, wondering if they’re “really herbalists” if they don’t have a store front or letters after their names, wondering if they have a place, if others herbalists will accept them, and simply if they are good enough.  Professionalism can feed into herbalist’s self-worth issues, calling attention to our being evaluated, unrealistically inflating the egos of some of those who are accepted, and seriously stifling the aspirations and enthusiasm of some who are rejected.

•False Advertising
Being an accredited professional is formal assurance of knowledgeable, qualified, quality, competent, effective consultations, medicine making, research and conclusions, writings and teachings.  Students, clients and readers expect a level or degree of product or service that is both immeasurable and uncertain.  Professional MDs with enough framed certificates to fill an office wall have in instance after instance done more harm than good to their patients, and many an unflattered granny-wyfe has done wonders while displaying no paper and making no claims.
Professional standards can be misleading, just as the grades a kid gets in school can sometimes lead to the wrong conclusions about his strengths, problems or potential.  Consider how a practitioner may be especially good at one thing such as evaluations, not quite so good at something else such as therapeutics, intimate with a few powerful plants and utterly unable to key out the identities of some others.  And an herbalist may be less than competent when addressing some condition or illness, but have an awesome track record when it comes to treating others.  A practitioner or teacher’s reputation is the best indication of their likely effectiveness, though even this is no guarantee.  And how good you actually are at your work, is in no way dependent on either professional status or official recognition.

•Commercialization
Professionalizing one’s work tends to mean commercializing.  At its most basic, this is simply assigning financial worth to our services, products and time, so that we can actually make a living from doing what’s needed and loved.  Plus we aren’t helping or affecting people if they don’t buy (aren’t exposed to) our medicines or consultations, and my writings aren’t aiding or inspiring new people unless they’re exposed to (purchase) my books or Plant Healer magazine.
The problem is that once we begin to measure our work and apportion our finite hours according to the number of units sold or dollars made, we run the risk of increasingly providing a more profitable but less meaningful, deep, challenging, controversial or life changing product or service. Linking self-evaluation and self-worth to the amount of income produced, gives short shrift to the various cultural, political and aesthetic considerations.  A corporation is forced by design to make decisions based on the projection of maximum profits, even when those decisions might run counter to its own founding mission or other company aims.  Somewhat similarly, professionals are bound to protocols and priorities that make it hard to put beauty and purpose, effects on the community and planet, ahead of success and profit.
Herbalists need an income they can live on.  But what herbalists provide to people is invaluable, even (or especially!) when they do it for very little money.

•Formalism
Professionalism is rife with formalism: excessive adherence to prescribed approaches, forms and methods.  This includes the emphasizing of “formal training” and university degrees while de-emphasizing informal training, apprenticing, and the value of individual experience.  An example in the herbal field is requiring a clinical assessment model from an established tradition, with no provision for a unique personal or eclectic, synthesized variation.  At its worst, formalism obstructs change, dampens spontaneity and makes adventure and debate less likely, constricting natural interaction and relationship similar to the way a professional’s business suit constricts movement, stereotypes them as stuffy and unexpressive, and makes fun food fights less likely.

•Hypocrisy
While most professions and professional organizations have codes of ethics, the pressure to appear to fit in, meet standards and retain support, approval or legitimacy can lead to much fudging and pretense.  One needs only to think of the hypocrisy of physicians sworn to the Hippocratic Oath.  Bringing “no harm” is an impossible goal in the natural world, especially when asked of those risking dangerous measures to potentially save a life… but claims of ethical intentions and standards by the wholesale purveyors of so often harmful pharmaceuticals is disingenuous at best, and often criminal in truth.  Herbalism has so far been one of the least hypocritical and most intrinsically ethical professions, and it is crucial that it stay that way.

•The Religion of Professionalism
All too often professional groups give off the vibe of being exclusive, privileged, superior, elevated, its members ensconced behind a wall of certification like wealthy families sheltering inside the walls of a gated community, cleanly removed from the uncomprehending or even resentful residents of the surrounding ghetto or barrio.

•The Relegation of Professionalism/Amateurism
It is extremely difficult to have a vetted, officially qualified, professional class/caste without the implication that Nonprofessionals/Amateurs are by means of process inferior: less knowledgeable, effective, safe and trustworthy.  This remains an inherent problem of perception, even though many professionals may personally hold certain amateurs, kitchen witches, housewife medicine makers, street herbalists, self-taught practitioners and teachers in high regard.

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In Part II, we will look at reclaiming positive herbal “Amateurism,” and the advantages and disadvantages of being a non-professional Adept.  To read the entire article, subscribe at www.PlantHealerMagazine.com
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