Reawakening the faculty of touch in learning Chinese herbs

So, I didn’t write much about using the faculty of sight in learning Chinese herbs. That’s mostly because I’m doing other research about it, particularly around the doctrine of signatures and I’d prefer to write more when I have more to say. I’m already retooling my NCNM class for next year based on what I’ve learned. Let it suffice to say for now that, in class, we enjoyed ourselves working with our eyes. Overall, one of the most interesting things I learned is that many have resistance many people have to just sitting with something and looking at it. lily_bulb.jpg Maybe it’s because so many cultures find it rude to stare? I don’t think the plants care. Anyway…

Many people seem to believe that what they see at first glance is as much as there is to see. Nothing could be further from the truth. My hope is to encourage students, and consistently re-encourage myself, to really SEE things in their fullness. The subtle changes in color, the textures, the shadows cast, the subtle suggestions of where they were on the plant, how they were treated during growth and in processing. It isn’t as if this information is recorded as data and filed away for use in therapy – but just like getting to know a person, all of these tiny pieces of information fill in the skeletal lines of first impressions with color, depth, beauty.

Sight aside, I’ve had a lot of fun with the students at NCNM working with our underused faculty of touch. We have been working with two types of touch, though I haven’t had time to go into depth with either. One of the hardest things about this class is the fact that it’s only an hour. That’s why an online version will be so great – more time, more space! However, this limitation does force me to try to get the teaching down to essentials.

The two ways we are using touch:

  1. The most basic – “just touching.” There is a ton of information a person can get from touching an herb, even at the most superficial level. You can get a sense for its density, its heft – particularly in relation to other herbs. You get a greater sense for the texture of the herb. With some herbs, like Mutong, you can start to understand what the herb does – it feels like a filter! Or think about something like Ganjiang that feels like it is, drying and warm. Aside from looking to get a sense for what part of the plant is, simple touching can also give you some good information for the doctrine of signatures. Light things may tend to rise, heavier things to sink – and so on.
  2. A little deeper. At NCNM, we are taught a variety of ways to use our hands to perceive more subtle sensations. But, anyone can get good information by just sitting with an herb in their hands. I usually take some time to do some Qigong or prayer, just connecting with subtle reality. Then I close my eyes and touch the herb, allowing my mind to rest and eventually to wander. I may just hold the herb in place, or may manipulate it. Usually, going deeper in this way allows one to get information that is a little outside of what one would expect. Actions, temperatures, even colors start to flood the mind.

This week, with the class, we used blindfolds to isolate the feeling faculty. While in practice I encourage everyone to use all of their senses, it can sometimes be extraordinarily helpful to just focus on one at a time. Exhaust it! See what you can find.

Just using touch, the class interacted with Baihe – lily bulb. Now, note, these are second year students – just learning herbs. Here is the list of qualities they got, blindfolded, without knowing the name of the herb or anything about it beforehand.

  • Lung
  • Treats diabetes
  • Treats arthritis
  • Neutral to cooling
  • Expels phlegm
  • Whitish yellow (I kid you not)
  • Slightly transparent (seriously)
  • Taiyin
  • Claws
  • Relieves dampness
  • Clears heat
  • Pungent – bitter
  • Cold
  • Replenishing
  • Moves, but not through Yang force

There are a lot of interesting observations here, I think you will agree!

Baihe is sweet, according to the Shennong Bencao Jing (SNBCJ) – though later commentators say it is sweet and slightly bitter. In the SNBCJ it is listed as neutral, though later commentators say it is slightly cooling. Of these basic affinities, only the bitter is out of place in what the students found. It does clear heat, and while the dampness and phlegm properties are contrary to basic understanding of the herb, it’s not so far out of the realm of possibility. It is indeed replenishing, related to Taiyin and interestingly, is known to treat diabetes!

Most interesting to me is the symbolic association of the Lung organ system. Lily, in channel affinity language, does enter the Lung (as well as the Heart). Again, we do have the relationship with Taiyin. But what about the claws?! Now Baihe in its dried form does feel a little like toenails, as many students jokingly remarked. The claw association could have something to do with that, but more than one student did get a sense of actual claws or talons. This, to me, is related to the Tiger – the animal associated with the earthly branch Tai and the Lung organ system. I just thought it was interesting that these associations came up so consistently.

We did several other herbs in class, and I was just astonished at how much information we could get with just an hour of holding the herbs. If you haven’t tried this before, I recommend it. Yes, just the dried herb. While fresh herbs are great, while plants are great, I do believe that the dried herb holds a lot of information in a holographic way. Students in class were getting senses of the way the plant grows, what kinds of conditions it likes, all without having any contact with the living plant at all. Give it a try!

I want to make clear that I’m not suggesting people just sit with herbs and use that information exclusively. It’s a matter of using our sensory experience to enhance and ground the head knowledge of which we get so much. Also, I wonder how long it will take for these students to forget that Baihe is related to the Lung? Won’t they have a slightly better understanding of the herb, having spent a little time with it? What if they were to use all their senses, and consistently reengage with it over a period of months, years? It gives me high hopes for their future as herbalists! Give it a try, and come back here to tell us how it went – add your thoughts in the comments!

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.

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