Update : This post formed the beginning thoughts of what eventually became the Shennong Relational Herb Learning Method. If you think you might be interested in taking a course that tackles what’s below – why don’t you consider signing up for the interest list? You’ll get the free Shennong Formula for your troubles…
Herbs are not tools
When I learned Chinese herbs in school, I fell in love. In part, that was because the teacher used the Shennong Bencao Jing as part of his teaching materials. This connected me to the larger stream of my tradition while also adding some interesting flavor to the information – those of you who have perused this text will know what I mean. I have seen class notes from other herbs classes, and what I see there helps me to understand why so many people don’t enjoy learning herbs.
The herbs are reduced to a series of bits of data : flavor, nature, channel affinity, primary indications, maybe some formulas or combinations. The students are then asked to absorb a huge number of such bits of data, in preparation for the even more data heavy formulas class. Many students leave this experience feeling more than a little dismayed and disillusioned. That is true even for those who come to school really excited to learn this stuff. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for those of you who don’t like herbs to begin with!
While knowing the basic information is important (flavor, nature, etc) dwelling too long in the lap of this information without moving beyond is deadening. It causes one to relate to the herbs as tools, as objects, as things to be manipulated. Theories and ideas come to the foreground and drown out the mutable, messy relationship that has been the experience of herbalists for centuries. All of you know that I’m a sucker for data (and databases) and also have a deep and abiding love for theory. However, I know their place, and I know their peril.
Ultimately, I see herbs as Beings with which I can have a relationship. This relationship has many of the same facets, and requires many of the same skills, that I use in my relationships with human beings. When I come into this fully, I am more easily able to understand herbs, remember herbs and – most importantly – accurately and effectively prescribe herbs to my patients. Yep, folks, this is clinically relevant stuff. Seriously!
Even if you don’t believe it is TRUE, try thinking of herbs as Beings with a capital B
What would it be like if you were to think of herbs as something with which you can have a relationship? I mean a real relationship. I’m talking about “getting to know them” and “developing rapport” and “sharing experiences” and “building memories” and all the rest. What if you thought about herbs as multi-faceted Beings with likes, dislikes, a home, a family, preferred activities, favorite places, present, past and future? What if you used the same skills you’ve learned in building relationships to get to know herbs? It’s possible, it’s powerful and it’s what helped me to learn herbs so deeply that they infiltrate my dreams on a regular basis!
I would like to share some best practices about this, and some stories about how it has helped me move into a whole different world with regards to my herbalism. I’ll break it down into bite-sized chunks, however, and release it over the next few days. So, please read tomorrow to learn more about building your relationship with Chinese herbs. As always, I’m interested to hear what you have to say in the comments. Have you done something similar to what I’m describing, either with Chinese herbs or something else? Has this post stimulated any thoughts or discussion? Let us know – it’s easy to leave a comment on the post – no sign up is required.
About Eric Grey
Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.