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Know Thyself! Understanding herbs starts with you.

By Stephanie Hazel, Clinical Herbalist


Studied through a variety of lenses, the academic and scientific, and through different modalities, I’ve come to see that there are multiple ways of understanding herbal medicine. 

Likewise, as human beings, we have multiple ways of ‘knowing’. It’s only when we learn to integrate these different forms of knowledge, that we gain true insight into our relationship with herbs. 

Scientific, Experiential & Metaphysical: Can knowledge of herbs change the world?

Scientific knowing

About 300 years ago, the Enlightenment occurred, resulting in a profound change in the way we  understand knowledge itself- what it means ‘to know’ something.

The Enlightenment saw the birth of rationalism as a philosophy of thought, a philosophy that underpins how we understand everything in the West today – from engineering to medicine, the body, disease, and the earth. Rationalism pulled the West out of 200 years of church oppression, did away with superstition, and replaced it with logic- an understanding of reality based on tangible evidence.

It taught that only when we can understand something rationally and logically, when it is ‘seen’ – can it be real. 

Other experiences of discovery, such as bodily sensation, intuition, dreams, any personal or internal experience – became invalidated in the face of logical and rational analysis. This philosophy became the foundation for the entire industrial revolution, and more importantly for herbalism, the pharmaceutical revolution. 

At its root, rationalism instigated a disconnect from the body, a disempowerment of personal experience.This led to scientific knowledge becoming the only knowledge, the only truth and the absolute authority in our culture. With the dominance of scientific knowledge, we lost superstition, but we also lost intuitive knowledge, and connection to self and earth (ironically a loss that began with the church). 

Science is based on understanding the mechanism of how something works with absolute specificity – a valid way of knowing and learning about the world. 

However, it is not the only way of knowing.

Know Thyself! Understanding herbs starts with you

Bodily knowing 

A bodily knowledge of herbs, the way plants taste, the way that they feel in your mouth and in your body, comes from learning to pay attention in a deep way. This kind of bodily awareness is a skill to be learnt and nurtured, but it’s accessible to everyone. The accumulation of this type of knowledge, experienced and compiled by many people over many generations, is what gives us the body of knowledge that is traditional herbal literature and herbal wisdom. 

Bodily knowledge can now be verified and complimented by scientific knowledge, but one without the other leads to an incomplete and superficial understanding of herbs and their relationship to the body. 

Mind, Body & Spirit – Seeking herbal knowledge in all the right places 

Spiritual knowing

Much traditional tribal wisdom around herbal medicine is based on intuition and dream knowledge. This metaphysical, or spiritual aspect of herbal medicine is perhaps the hardest herbal knowledge to comprehend for many. Like bodily knowing, it is a hard sense to develop for those firmly rooted in the rational and logical world. 

Despite the Enlightenment being over 200 years ago, there is a fear in the West of subjective experience, resulting in the disregard and derision of both body and spiritual knowledge. The word holistic is likewise reduced simply mean ‘alternative’, when it really refers to the whole picture, not just looking at a very small part of the picture. 

As a herbalist, it’s only when I access all three forms of knowledge, the scientific, the bodily sense, and the intuitive – that I can really gain a complete and holistic understanding. 

This is something we can all learn to do, we just need to incorporate the different parts of ourselves, and our different ways of knowing. By learning to reconnect with ourselves and with plants, we’re not only nurturing our own health, but our communities, and the earth herself. 

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