THE SHAMANIC HERBALIST
by Susun S. Weed
You Are Invited to Be Part of the Shamanic Herbalists/Healers Association
SHA is an invisible association. There are no board meetings, no dues,
no membership drive, no fund raising. This association is a figment
of our imaginations. As such, it is always changing.
The purpose of this association is to define the characteristics of
the shamanic (aka, wise woman) herbalist/healer and, by doing so, to
claim a space which cannot be defined and limited by law or licensing
I'M AGAINST LICENSING HERBALISTS
Ever since I went to my first herbalist's gathering two decades ago,
there has been one topic guaranteed to elicit raised voices: Shall herbalists
be licensed? My position has always been an unequivocal "NO!"
I believe that shamanic healer/herbalists especially have everything
to lose and nothing to gain from being licensed, accredited, tested,
or certified in any manner whatsoever.
Before we go on to the things we can do to keep our "profession"
vital and on the beauty way, I would like to share a little of my life
with you - a few of the experiences that have shaped the way I think
about healing, healers, herbs, and shamans.
WHAT MIDWIVES CAN TELL US ABOUT LICENSING
My sister and many of my friends are, or were, midwives. Some are certified
nurse midwives, some lay midwives, all are well-trained, experienced,
skilled, and wise. Barely ten percent of them are working as midwives.
Most are disgruntled, discouraged, and depressed about their ability
to offer real individualized care to their clients. They sought to license
and police themselves, for fear that outside forces would do it if they
didn't. And they licensed themselves into oblivion. Rather than ensuring
the freedom to help women give birth, midwives find themselves now bound
with laws, rules, regulations, protocols, fear of losing one's license,
and insurance demands.
I TRUST THE CHAOS OF THE UNIVERSE
In order to issue a license, one must quantify, score a test, determine
the measure of a human's knowledge and wisdom, define, lay out the rules,
say how it should be. But birth doesn't follow rules. Neither does life.
Nor healing. Nor do herbs.
Herbs can change their constituents dramatically in response to being
grazed, overgrazed, attacked by insects or molds, experiencing drought
or flood, suffering from lack of nutrients, poisoned by too much, or
a host of other variables. The scientific drive to quantify active ingredients
in herbs creates herbal products that are as dangerous as drugs. I am
an herbalist because I believe nature's infinite variety, expressed
in the herbs, offers more health/wholeness/holiness than the standardized,
sanitized remedies of orthodox medicine.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
How can we continue to practice as shamanic herbalists/healers, as
wise women, in the face of pressures to mainstream, certify, and license
alternative medicine and its practitioners?
I propose that we define ourselves. That we make ourselves visible
in words and thereby declare clearly the impossibility, illegality (according
to cosmic law), and absurdity of trying to license shamanic herbalists/healers.
Let us present ourselves to ourselves, each other, and our communities
- as we have always done, through story, song, dance, and drama, and
now through defining words - so that the weave of everyone's reality
is touched by a shamanic thread, and our work is kept safe from restriction
by the language of law.
Though it is a daunting task, it is necessary to undertake it and possible
to do it. What are the characteristics of the shamanic healer? What
ought a shamanic healer not do? I envision a discussion that takes place
in person, in print, on the Web, by letters, and in the dreamtime.
Here's my list of the characteristics of shamanic herbalists/healers.
It isn't meant to be definitive, but to spark discussion. I hope it
will be copied, circulated, changed. Comments to Weed, PO Box 64, Woodstock,
NY 12498 or www.susunweed.com.
1. Shamanic healers and herbalists answer solely to the universal "way”
as their authority and as such cannot be restricted by the language
of men's law, for such language constitutes an unfair restriction upon
the practices, livelihood and life of the shamanic healer.
2. Shamanic healers and herbalists work without regard for payment,
but absolutely insist on being honored for the work they do. Any healer
who withholds treatment until payment is made is guilty of blackmail
and is not to be considered a shamanic healer.
3. Shamanic healers and herbalists use the plant and animal resources
of their locality as their healing allies. These resources are harvested
in a way that sustains or builds their abundance and diversity. The
plants and animals are accorded power, dignity, and sentience. They
are addressed directly, prayed to, and usually thanked ritually as well
4. Shamanic healers and herbalists frequently use power plants in their
work. Power plants include indigenous natural (not synthetic) psychoactives
such as psilocybin, tobacco, datura, peyote, marijuana, coco leaves,
and the like. Trafficking in such plants is not typical of the shamanic
healer, who may, nonetheless, supply apprentices with these plants for
the purposes of their studies, and keep a personal supply of up to two
year's worth of such power plants. These practices are not to be infringed
upon by the language or intent of man's law, as such restrictions unfairly
prevent the shamanic healer from accessing certain kinds of information.
5. Shamanic healers and herbalists may be very limited in their ability
to read, write, figure sums, or otherwise function in the modern world.
To try to conceive of a written test which could give any information
which would be of use in determining the worth of a shamanic herbalist/healer
is to enter the realm of the absurd.
6. Shamanic healers may also be quite limited in their understanding
of anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and other modern medical necessities.
Nonetheless, each shamanic healer has a "story" about the
nature of the world(s) s/he inhabits, and a vision of the health/wholeness
toward which the individual patient is moving.
7. Shamanic healers frequently use drama to potentize healing. Community
enactments, melodic messages, rhythmic movements, colorful visions,
memorable aromas, and more are interwoven in the work of shamanic healers
and herbalists. Expect the unexpected here, the unique, the gift of
8. Shamanic healers respect the power of kundalini/life force and therefore
do not engage in sexual release with their patients/clients. This is
not to say that shamanic healers and herbalists do not flirt! On the
contrary, they are often very raunchy, suggestive, and lewd. But they
never cross the line from loving, healing touch to frank sexual need/exchange.
Anyone who implies or suggests that their healing power can be best
accessed through sexual connection is not a shamanic healer.
9. Shamanic healers support and direct the processes which are common
to all of us - birth, initiation, and death - in ways that are unique
to the culture and the individual, but which are always characterized,
in true shamanic healing, by the intention to honor the person involved
and to increase the person's self-confidence and self-acceptance.
10. Shamanic healers are passionate and compassionate. They move easily
into joy, anger, and grief, knowing that all feelings can be healers
and liberators. Shamanic healers know few fears. They approach life
and healing as a cosmic joke, always ready to laugh first at themselves.
11. Shamanic healers don't claim to have the answer or know the answer
or be the answer; they remind us that the answer lies within ourselves.
WHAT'S SCIENCE GOT TO DO WITH IT?
Once upon a time, healing was considered an art. Healing was understood
by all to be a complex interaction between the patient, the healer,
the community of living people, the communities of the plants and animals
(and insects and rocks and fish), the communities of the non-living
people (such as ancestors, spirit guides, and archetypes) and that mysterious
movement known by so many names: Creator, God/dess, All High.
The healing arts included a keen knowledge of human behavior, a thorough
knowledge of plants, a flair for the dramatic arts, especially singing/chanting
and costuming/body painting, and a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy,
physiology, and biochemistry. (If you think these areas are not arts,
look at the system used by Traditional Chinese Practitioners, which
includes such "organs" as the triple heater and a dozen different
Art does not preclude or oppose science. Science is, after all, only
the honest testing of ideas and the ability to observe clearly the confusing
relationship of cause and effect. The best of science is deeply indebted
to art. Art understands that science is left-brained and art is right-brained,
and a whole brain includes both.
Science, however, is not so easy with art. Science believes art is
superstition. Science believes art is fuzzy, soft, not-replicable, and
therefore untrustworthy. (It is interesting to me that the Liberal Arts
University I attended - UCLA - required students to take a variety of
science courses, but the Science College I turned down - MIT - did not
require students to study the arts.) Science defines itself as factual
and art as fantastical.
Truly great scientists understand the need to honor intuition along
with information. But the world is rarely run by the truly great. So
bit by bit, the art of healing is denigrated and the science of healing
is venerated. The healer spends more and more time interacting with
machines and drugs and technology and less and less time with the patient;
more and more time studying books and less and less time learning about
the strange, symbolic, provocative powers of the psyche. The healer
focuses more and more on fixing the sick individual and less and less
on the patient's need for wholeness in self, family, and community.
The herbalist becomes a biochemist. The pharmacist no longer needs
to know botany. Herbs are presented as drugs in green coats. And the
active ingredient is the only one worth mentioning.
Is this what I want? Is this what drew me to herbs? Is this what fascinates
me about herbal medicine? My answer to all these questions is absolutely
NOT. While acknowledging the usefulness of science, I maintain the right-brain's
superior abilities in the art of healing. I defend the rights of the
miracle-workers, the shamans, the witch doctors, the old-wife herbalists,
the wise women, those who have the skill, the personal power, and the
courage to midwife the changes - large and small, from birth to death
and in between - in the lives of those around them.
Herbal medicine. Magical plants. Psycho-active plants. There is a thread
here, and it goes a long way back. At least 40,000 years. The plants
say they spoke with us all until recently. Forty thousand years ago
we know our ancestors were genetically manipulating, hybridizing, and
crossbreeding specific psychedelic plants. And using them in healing.
Maria Sabina, one of the 20th Century's most renowned shamanic healers,
went into the forest as a small child and ate psilocybin mushrooms because
they spoke to her. She healed only with the aid of the "little
people" (mushrooms) and she healed not just body but soul. In the
Amazon, the students of herbalism, of healing, are apprenticed to psychoactive
plants as well as to human teachers.
There is a lot of talk lately about the active ingredients in plants.
I've had many a chuckle as product ads claim to have the most of this
or that only to be superseded by the announcement that a new, better,
more active active ingredient has been found.
For example, when Kyolic Garlic was shown by Consumer Reports to have
virtually no allicin (the "active" ingredient), Kyolic countered
with an ad campaign claiming superiority because it contained a different,
stronger, active ingredient.
For instance, most standardized St. John's/Joan's wort tinctures are
standardized for hypericin. But the latest research shows that hyperforin
is the real active ingredient!
To illustrate: an article several years ago in JAMA on use of Ginkgo
biloba to counter dementia explained that no active ingredient from
among the several hundred constituents present had been determined and
it was, in fact, likely that the effect resulted from a complex, synergistic
interplay of the parts. An article in the New York Times, however, cautioned
readers not to use ginkgo until an active ingredient had been established.
It happened to me: An MD on a menopause panel with me told the audience
that no herb was safe to use unless its active ingredient was measured
and standardized. What can I say? To me the active ingredient of a plant
is the very part that cannot be measured: the energy, the life force,
the chi, the fairy of the plant, not a "poisonous" constituent.
To the healer/artist/herbalist, the active part of the plant is that
part that can be used by the right brain to actively, chaotically, naturally,
"jump the octave" and work a miracle. This active part is
refined away in standardized products, for the real active part is the
messy part, the changeable part, the subtle part, the invisible part.
Does science have anything to do with it? Certainly. The process of
identifying specific compounds in plants, replicating them in the laboratory
and mass-producing them as drugs cannot be replicated by or superseded
by any healer or herbalist. Preparation of standardized drugs protects
the consumer (usually) and protects the plants from over harvesting
(although the net effect on the environment may be detrimental).
If we put into the lap of science anything having to do with measuring
and certifying, then surely I beg science to be the guardian of the
purity of the herbs we trade in our commerce, knowing that art is the
guardian of the purity of the herbs we gather ourselves. (A tip from
the apprentice book: When harvesting, put only one kind of plant in
a basket. This allows one to quickly and easily notice if an interloper
has been mistakenly introduced.)
This story doesn't have an ending, for it is ongoing. The dance of
health and illness, of art and science (and don't forget commerce) has
no pause. So the ending of our tale is not happy, but neither is it
sad. Take a look; the real ending of the rainbow is in your own heart.
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