What Herbalists Really Want: Manifesting Calling & Purpose, Competency & Excellence, Acknowledgment & Income… & Avoiding Being Average! by Jesse Wolf Hardin
It seems that at some point in every generation, articles and posters pop up titled something like “What Women (or Men) Really Want,” checklists with which the so-called “opposite sex” can measure and then hopefully improve their desirability. The language and priorities change some over time, with versions from the 19th and early 20th centuries often sounding ridiculous to modern ears. That said, many of the same themes tend to appear again and again from one era to the next. Women, it is claimed, want a man of strong physique and fine health, good moral character and an unsullied reputation, who is thoughtful, generous, and able to provide income security because of his devout industriousness. While this oversimplification may hold true in our society more often than I would like, the lists are nearly always errant in their failure to include a woman’s desire for sensitivity and empathy, sensuality and sexuality, maturity and playfulness in a man, and a man’s hunger for a woman that is strong and determined, intelligent and clever… let alone for a shared vision of how to live or, better yet, a shared purpose. And even if the herbalists in our community were typical of men and women in general in any ways, what we most want would still encompass so much more than a suitable partner or mate.
It amuses me to picture the various herbalists we know and imagine their possible additions to such a list, both substantial and peripheral: Kids and teens, eager and even insistent on learning the craft and continuing the tradition. Getting fairly paid for herbal work that is so often under-compensated or freely given. The ultimate herbal library, preferably copies signed by the authors. Positive results worthy of a case study, every time one makes an assessment and recommends herbs. An ability to learn the scientific names of plants without so darn much pain, and an end to misidentifications when we’re trying so hard to key something out. Not to mention steamy sex out-of-doors, in wild places or fecund gardens in the company of flowers and vines.
Much of what we want is entirely personal, depending on our individual characters and needs, propensities and dreams. Other desires, we tend to share in common with others of our kind, with similar wants that are shaped by our motivations, experiences, and priorities as healers. First and foremost, herbalists and other folk healers usually want to help. To remedy and assist, comfort and nourish. And many among us, by virtue of this practice, can’t help but want an end to hardship and suffering even when the strengthening value of difficulty and empowering lessons of trauma are fully acknowledged. Many, by extension, also desire and hope or pray for the eradication of all violence on the planet, for everyone living upon it to be amicable with other life forms as well as with other people, wish for all of government to be reformed, representative and just… even if such hopes are at times unreasonable or impractical.
Often, too, we may feel uncomfortable about admitting publicly our needs and desires. We may think it best to reassure our clients, family and friends with the appearance of having, and thus “having it together.” We may worry that by admitting there are things we need to learn, those we are wont to help might think us less able to diagnose and treat, and that by speaking of what we want, people might see us as insufficiently equipped. However, what we want in the deepest parts of our natural beings can be a crucial aide in our understanding of ourselves. Our wants can help define and identify to others who we really are and what matters to us, as well as helping us to determine for ourselves the most meaningful, powerful, effective and satisfying direction to take.
What follows is what I observe to be at the heart of the healer’s needs, desires, and work… some apparently obvious but ultimately defining, some that are seldom either recognized or admitted.
Purpose, Mission & Calling
Herbalists want, have, and need, purpose. We often work best when viewing our most meaningful purpose as a mission to be devoted to and carried through to fruition, or when we sense a specific and insistent call to heal that is specifically ours to hear and heed.
Purpose is one of the drastically missing components of a healthy human psychology, and of a healthy society. Millions and millions of people work at jobs that they not only don’t enjoy, but that hold no meaning for them beyond their weekly or monthly paycheck. In these cases, the only purpose for one’s existence and exertions may be to generate the money needed to feed and house one’s family. When students get to the part in the Anima “Practitioner’s Journey” course where it asks what we feel could be our most meaningful purpose, many feel stuck, denigrate their selves for not knowing, or assert that their purpose is simply “being a mother” or “taking care of my spouse”… with a hint of resignation indicating the person senses or wishes that their could be something else, something additional that tending a family could be a part of rather than preventing or supplanting.
In contrast, when a practicing or budding herbalist answers the question, they almost always write that their purpose is “healing” or “helping to heal.” To emphasize the point, you are likely to cite the events in your lives that first made you aware of this penchant, your extreme compassion for the ill or maybe an unhealthy condition that you have had to deal with much of your life, perhaps an inordinate affinity for things natural and for plants of all kinds, shapes and properties. You might mention having already paid a price by dropping out of college or changing your major, by losing the support of pragmatic parents or struggling because of greatly reduced income. If so, you likely see these costs not as reasons for switching to a new purpose, but as irrefutable evidence that your healing purpose is something more: A mission. Maybe even a calling.
Everything in nature has a purpose – a service to the ecosystem outside its narrowly defined self – though they seldom have awareness of the processes of gifting and reciprocity they participate in. Similarly, a person can serve a special individualized purpose, sometimes even a service of great import and consequence, without ever being conscious of the fact or means. A mission, in contrast, is this sort of special service undertaken consciously, voluntarily, deliberately, intentionally, for a purpose or cause larger and more consequential than simply our own personal well-being and comfort. You might reject the word because of its association with zealous proselytizing, but a mission is what herbalism is. Unlike white blood cells and oil-gobbling bacteria, nature has not preassigned our species with the job of healing. Not all people are born with the tendency or temperament for it. Not all who have the temperament and interest choose to take the time to learn and apply. Only a relatively small percentage of those who do study and use herbs will choose to make the role and work of being an herbalist central to their lives.
A calling differs from a mission not by feeling more important, necessary or even intense, but by feeling as if the compulsion, passion and drive to devote ourself to a particular purpose is our response to an imploring necessity, a beckoning destiny that nevertheless still requires our active participation and focused effort, a role and responsibility magically awaiting our active assumption, commitment and fulfillment.
To Fill A Role
Every species has a general role to play in the ecosystem, and every living thing has a special role to play within its species, community, herd, pack and family, and we cannot be truly psychologically healthy without recognizing and filling one ourselves. Our role is not determined simply by what is needed from us, but by what we are most naturally drawn to, capable of, have the character for, and have the potential to do exceedingly well. Herbalists want to find and fill a role as healers, the specialized practitioners on the edges of the accepted institutional medical system, allied with plants and the natural world of which they and we are an integral and dynamic component, treating not ailments and conditions so much as whole people and their overall wellness. We want and feel determined to fill a role in bettering the world, and choose herbalism and teaching, writing or art, cultivation or conservation, as our natural and preferred means of doing just that.
Knowledge & Understanding
Even with a mission enjoined, or when answering a call, we know we cannot proceed effectively without a foundation of useful knowledge that is substantial and increasing, integrative and interconnective. Even the most intuitive of healers benefit from a base of studied knowledge that can test, contradict, affirm or augment our impressions. We seek knowledge that not only helps provide the how and why of things, but that also suggests the means for best applying and utilizing what we know.
Knowledge is information, facts, ideas and skills gained by any means, though not necessarily developed through or tested by our own experience. While people in this society often seem ill informed, unaware of historical events as well as current context, there is actually a glut of information available in books, in documentaries, and at the click of a computer mouse or trackpad. And even those who are in some ways the most informed often lack essential understanding.
Herbalists want to have greater understanding, by which we mean greater recognition of the components, nature and significance of a thing or action. Such understanding is far more than mere comprehension, because it includes recognition of those forces and elements that cause it or make something possible, the complexities of context and relationship, and a thing or act’s potential effects, results and ramifications.
The herbalist – other than a few rare exceptions equipped with an excess of arrogance – never stops wanting to learn new things. Even those of us with years of teaching experience tend to consider ourselves as lifelong students of not only the healing arts, but of life itself.
To Be Competent
Herbalists want to be, at the very least, increasingly competent at what they do… meaning sufficiently effective and efficient to inspire confidence in our work in those we strive to help.
In medical terms, competency means only that an organ adequately performs a normal function. In the science of communication, it refers to an intuitive knowledge of how language is constructed and used, which is closer to what we mean when we talk about whether we or someone else is a competent herbalist.
They say a judge has to determine if a criminal defendant is “competent” or not to stand trial, meaning not too mentally impaired or emotionally unbalanced to comprehend the charges filed against them. We don’t just want to be competent, we want to reach another level of performance, measurable in other ways.
To Make An Income
We want to produce an income that can support our existence and family, and that can help further our work. Optimally, we accomplish this by getting paid a reasonable amount for our herbal advice or products, or alternatively, by doing whatever non-herbal related work we can find in order to sponsor and fund herbal studies and practice.
It is important that we remember an income is an important form of compensation for our knowledge, abilities and time, and that it can be harmful to think in terms of us “earning” an income with the healing arts. To “earn” implies to “deserve,” and by the very act of trying to help others you are deserving of material or nonmaterial rewards, regardless of whether one is well paid, poorly paid, or working for free.
To Be Valued & Acknowledged
What herbalists want at an even deeper level than just money to subsist on is to be recognized, valued and acknowledged. To be recognized, means to be seen for who we are, to have our intentions as well as methods and effects noticed. To be valued, means that what you know and do is regarded as valuable by folks, even if not always by the people you actually help, and that what you are and give are not trivialized, discounted, or demanded and then taken for granted by the oblivious or entitled. Acknowledgment goes beyond recognition, in being an active giving back. A cash payment can be an expression of acknowledgment and gratitude, as well as a client speaking well of our work to third parties. We are so honored when we see our words quoted and credited in articles or online, making even our most difficult of tasks feel so entirely worth doing.
To Avoid Being Average
While herbalists tend to be way too compassionate and egalitarian to say so in public, I’ve found that many – at least the majority who attend our Traditions In Western Herbalism Conference, or write for or subscribe to our Plant Healer Magazine – very strongly want to avoid feeling average, middling, only passably effective in efforts to treat and advise. This we can accomplish, beginning by honestly assessing our gifts and challenges, weaknesses and strengths, intentions and goals, then focusing our energy, learning, testing, practicing and sharing accordingly, making sure we are doing what we love, passionately engaging our work, and always doing our utmost best even when in the most relaxed and paced ways.
To Become Distinguished & Fill a Niche
We almost all want to distinguish ourselves in some way or another, whether by exceptional accomplishment or making ourselves broadly accessible, through our personal eclectic recombining of methods and teachings or especially tight focus on a particular clientele or condition, by getting degrees and doing stellar research or by being self taught, by being one of the minority who are paid well for their work or the relatively few who go to extremes to fund and manage free clinics for grateful indigents.
This we accomplish by identifying and developing a personal angle, individual style, and/or a particular niche. Let your personal set of knowledge and experiences set your unique angle of approach and delivery. Allow your intentions and preferences, your style, to color and shape your interface with the world. All herbalists, and all people, are unique, even in cases where they strive to be the same. To the degree that you are really yourself, you can have a unique gift to offer.
We might want more than a way, but also a place, a place all your own within the larger community of practices. A niche is a home within a role, a specific appointment or service within the larger generalized role of herbalist or healer. We can distinguish ourselves by delving extra deeply into a specialty we’re obsessed with, such as a particular physiological system like the endocrine or digestive, or a certain family of treatments. In the mercados of Mexico, one’s niche is the specific place – be it a booth, street stall or corner of a building – where they have staked out their space for selling their fruit, other goods or services, and it is thus where repeat customers or clients expect to be able to go to find their certain collection and style of offerings. Each vendor or practitioner is expected to individualize, so that no two provide exactly the same things, in the same way.
In the science of ecology, a specially evolved species inhabits a particular place in an ecosystem, providing a specialized service to its healthy composition and interspecies, inter-elemental function. It is where and how they give best to their world, as well as where and how they best flourish. So it is with many herbalists who seek or have already found their niche, their nexus, the venue for optimal reciprocity, the place where gifts for us are received, and where and from which we can most effectively and most notably serve.
Excellence or Greatness
We may say that we want to excel at herbalism, but that may not be the most accurate expression of what we really mean.
The root of the word “excellent” is the Latin excellere, often defined as meaning “to surpass.” This we do indeed want, although not to surpass the abilities or notoriety of other practitioners so much as to surpass our own previous levels and accomplishments, imagined limitations, disempowering fears and too conservative of hopes. Unfortunately, excellere also denotes something “out of” and “beyond,” with one of the roots, celsus, meaning “lofty”… when what most of our ilk long for and aspire to is something more connective than separative, more grounded than elevated. Our intention is not to be better than others, but to be at least a little better at all the things we do, each and every year of our finite lives.
A more accurate term would actually be greatness, as presumptuous and politically incorrect as that might sound. There’s a lot of negative association with the word, at least for those of us uncomfortable with the historical hierarchy of “great men” and “commoners.” And of the thousands of plant healers that we connect with, I can actually only think of one now who has no qualms about identifying him-or-her-self as a great herbalist. Be that as it may, we also come across darn few practitioners who do not deeply desire to be outstanding practitioners, a person about whom people might say “She does such great work,” or “I recommend him, he’s great at what he does,” or “She’s really great, I can trust her advice.”
“Greatness” is a good word, and a worthy state to desire. It is an ability, quality, extremeness or eminence in being and doing: to do or be great as in exceptionally full, deep, developed, effective, intense or far reaching. To be great is not to be ascendant but to be continuously further: ever further along in our studies and practices, further past our own less-inspired performances, further in our hopes and efforts.
Fulfillment, Satisfaction & Contentment
Herbalists want to eat scrumptious wild or home grown foods that give them strength and clarity, meet wonderful people and exchange stimulating or caring thoughts, to enjoy wild love affairs or loving lifetime-partners, dance under the stars and submerge in a cold river on a hot Summer day. Like many non-herbalists, we may want to find and reinhabit a true and permanent home plus visit other areas to see the plant species that grow there. Bear and raise empowered plant-loving children or stir the hearts and open the minds of the offspring of others. Peculiar to our purpose and role, we want to contribute to the well being of at least other humans, and almost always all being on this planet with which we share a common body.
And along with all the rest of the human and healer desires and hopes, we want to experience the sated satisfaction that ought to naturally attend such purpose and efforts as ours – maximizing our abilities, absorbing knowledge, developing understanding, improving skills, tasting competence, feeling responsible for and good about our results. Through our caring work, through the act of doing best, through our great helping and giving we seek and can find fulfillment. With a purpose fulfilled, and life wholly felt, we may find the satisfaction that we desire. And through all our heartfelt, effort-filled missions and means, we obtain, realize, and savor the precious contentment we want and need.
So be it.