|Review – Seven Herbs: Plants as Teachers by Matthew Wood, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1987. |
I was drawn to review Seven Herbs: Plants as Teachers at the recommendation of a good friend, Jennifer who said this is one of her favorite books. These herbs open us to a deeper meaning of seven stores from the Book of Genesis beginning with the story of Adam and Eve and ending with Joseph and his coat of many colors. Also, Matthew offered to let me read his latest yet to be published manuscript, Seven Guidepost on a Spiritual Path: The Shamanic Story in Genesis which explores the deeper meaning and teachings of these same seven stories from Genesis.
After being passed down orally for many generations the stories of The Book of Genesis were recorded many eons ago during the time that Jean Gebser calls the era of myths, myths written to explain the creation and life on Earth. The language of these recorded myths is metaphoric, a language that Matthew Wood describes as secret or shamanic. There are those people who read these stories of antiquity as literally or historically true and do not recognize their mythic/metaphoric nature, but their mythic nature takes us to a much deeper level of meaning and understanding. These seven metaphoric stories of Genesis describe the healing journey that began when Adam, a name that means “man” or “mankind,” was thrown out of the Garden of Eden, a journey that concludes with the story of Joseph who finds heightened spirituality for the return to the Garden, an interpretation that I find especially meaningful and inspiring. The seven medicinal herbs that provide an outline for the book give this journey a personal healing dimension.
In my own published writings I have shown that the Old English story of Beowulf (Grendel and His Mother) and the Nordic Prose Edda (Loki’s Children) are similar journeys through the healing process, the process of psychotherapy that can bring us to a heightened sense of spirituality. Both myths are stories of overcoming the tormenting monsters that arise in life.
The narrative of Genesis leads us on a spiritual path to higher self-actualization or heightened spiritual authority by taking us on a journey through the lives of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Joseph and his coat of many colors, a coat that represents this highest spiritual authority. In this journey through these lives Wood offers seven medicinal herbs that facilitate the journey: Easter Lily, Yerba Santa, Iris, Sagebrush, Cat’s Ears, Black Cohosh, and Lady Slipper. As found in the lives of these Biblical characters and the seven herbs, the dynamics of the healing process can be described with seven laws, the first three laws from the practice of Homoeopathy, and the remaining four proposed by Matthew Wood:
· The Doctrine of Similarities – that likes treat likes.
· The Law of Direct Cure – that symptoms leave from the inside to the outside.
· The Law of the Healing Crisis – that in the process of healing one needs to pass through a time of crisis.
· The Law of Appropriate Therapeutic Inactivity – that on this journey to healing, one’s spiritual life needs time to percolate, a time of preparation for letting go in the spiritual growth process.
· The Law that True Healing is an Art – i.e., the healing acts require the use of the imagination.
· Law of Appropriate Therapeutic Activity – i.e., one needs to grab hold of one’s fears in the healing process or for spiritual growth.
· Law of Therapeutic Authority – i.e., one needs to accept with self-confidence the flow of one’s inner knowing of that which is true. Easter Lilly
On this return journey to the Garden of Eden we begin with Adam and Eve. Like Adam, we begin in a state of innocence at the time of our creation, but soon we find temptation when the snake convinces Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. With our loss of innocence of being thrown out of the Garden we are made aware of opposites, of that which is good and that which is evil. Though we mean well in trying to do what is right, we require something to protect us from doing evil so God tells us to wear animal skins as a suitable protection, animal skins that represent our animal instinct or libido that protects us from the dangers of the world around us.
On the journey towards spiritual purification spiritual knowledge starts with the realization that we are imperfect and vulnerable to conflicting desires. The cleansing nature of the Easter Lilly facilitates us on this journey by cleansing or creating space needed for us to experience and accept these opposites as part of life. The Easter Lilly is a flower with purity of motivation and single mindedness that must be tempered with receptivity to what will happen. We need to not be close-minded but prepared to be open to change. It is a flower of the union of opposites, e.g. happiness and sadness, contradicting opposites that we need to experience to become whole. Matthew Wood offers a number of examples of how the Easter Lilly can open us to accept such contradicting opposites, i.e. the acceptance that the needs for healing require sympathetic understanding of likes treating likes, the Homeopathic Doctrine of Similarities. From my experience with hypnosis and hypnotic healing this doctrine is equivalent to joining with the client/patient by using the trance inducing language of the “yes-set,” i.e., speaking words such that the client will consistently answer, “Yes, that’s correct,” whether verbally or non-verbally. Wood’s case studies are important in understanding this stage of the journey. Yerba Santa
Next we meet Cain and Abel, Cain the farmer who sacrifices to God his fruits of the soil, and Abel a shepherd who offers God a blood sacrifice from his flock. Abel lives with his animal instinct, his libido, and though naïve he is honest to his true self. He wears the animal skins as given by God. The materialistic and self-cultivating Cain, in his desire to conform to social propriety, works in his fields to impress others with his accumulated wealth. Cain’s sacrifice is manmade while Abel’s is God made. Cain, being jealous of his brother, kills Abel, and though Cain denies this murder before God, God hears the voice of Abel’s blood crying from the land. Thus, God drives Cain from the land, causing him to become a fugitive and wanderer. God’s purpose is not to save lives but to drive truth to the surface, driving to the surface the self-serving poison in Cain’s soul.
The herb that facilitates this journey in driving truth to the surface is Yerba Santa, a remedy for coughs and congestion, driving to the surface the impurities kept in the inner spaces or sanctuaries of the body linings that corresponds to psychic body linings. Yerba Santa identifies and drives these psychic toxins, impersonal psychic garbage, to the surface, thus it follows the Homeopathic Law of Direct Cure, i.e. symptoms leave from the inside to the outside. Matthew Wood describes extensively the signature of the Yerba Santa and again offers several case studies to demonstrate its effectiveness. Iris
The third guidepost is found in the story of Noah and the Ark. Noah does not point his finger at others, but in his time the world is in a state of spiritual decadence, corrupt and violent, a world that God seeks to destroy with the great flood. God instructs Noah to build an ark, i.e., the self-enclosed totality of the soul, with no windows except on top so that those who survive the flood can only look towards heaven. God tells Noah to take aboard four couples, those of Noah’s extended family, and a pair of each animal of the Earth. When the great crisis of the flood subsides and the ark again find’s land, God finds Noah acceptable and sets the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of his satisfaction and spiritual beauty. From then on God lets man work to till the land.
Among the signature characteristics of the Iris is its ability to rise above the bog in which it lives, rising in beauty above the crisis of the flood. It is effective in treating the pain of the crises of the acute reactions that occur in the process of overcoming disease conditions, “The Law of the Healing Crisis,” again a law of homeopathy. So far on this journey the soul must first open itself to the greater life which lies beyond its innocence. Second, the soul must follow-through on its spiritual impulses or animal instinct, and third, with the flood, the soul needs to brave the storm of leaving behind old patterns to possess basic spiritual integrity. Sagebrush
As we continue on this journey to find our spiritual soul, the story of Abraham is the story of recognizing that we are required to let go and experience the pain of sacrifice when we don’t get what we want. Abraham and Sarah dearly want a son. Abraham prospers, is given much land and has great wealth, but he needs an heir for all that he had. At the age of ninety nine years, after having given up all hope in having a son, the Lord assures him that he will have a son, and soon Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac. But as a continued test of Abraham’s faith the Lord instructs him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham takes Isaac to the altar he built on Mt. Moriah, and with his knife wielding hand raised above his son the Lord calls to him to not harm the boy. Abraham then looks up and sees a ram caught in a thicket, a ram that becomes his sacrifice. Because of Abraham’s faith he and Isaac are blessed.
To facilitate our own journey through such unwinnable situations we can find help from Sagebrush. Sagebrush, like other members of the Artemisia family, grows in areas of great devastation, the signature that it is a remedy for the devastations in human life. The way out of an unwinnable situation is to let go of something we initially felt we had to have. On this healing journey a person needs the empty space or time to percolate on that which is unwinnable before he or she is able to let it go, i.e. The Law of Appropriate Therapeutic Inactivity. For Abraham and Sarah there were many years of facing their desire to have children before they let go of the desire, and only then was their desire to have children finally fulfilled. Again the brief case studies offered add great value to understanding this process.Cat’s Ear
While the story of Abraham was a story of letting go, and we will soon see that Jacob’s story is of grabbing on, the story of Isaac is of the balance between letting go and grabbing on. Isaac is contemplative and retiring in seeking spiritual visions. When he is forty years old his father, Abraham, sends a servant out to the land of his people to find a wife for Isaac, and the servant returns with Rebekah. Isaac and Rebekah lead a prosperous life but she is barren of child. So Isaac at the age of sixty years prays to the Lord for Rebekah and his prayer is granted. Rebekah conceives and gives birth to twins. The first born is named Esau, Isaac’s favorite, and the second is Jacob the favorite of Rebekah.
To receive spiritual visions one needs to let go of one’s rational mind to allow the images of the vision to come in. The plant Cat’s Ear, which appeals to one’s imagination presents the picture of one who turns away from the world to listen to the voice of a higher world. It is a mystical plant. The Cat’s Ear is gray. Dwelling in the gray of dusk between day and night brings a person to one’s inner awareness. The Law associated with the story of Isaac is that true healing is an art and requires the use of one’s imagination.Black Cohosh
At the sixth guidepost on this journey we are greeted by Jacob who knows to grab onto what he fears, facing that which has been formerly hidden from our view. Being the second son of twins, at birth he is grabbing onto the heels of his elder brother. Being a second son is a disadvantage in dealing with the world. Throughout his life he finds himself in continuous struggles with his brothers, father, wives, concubines and father-in-laws. Late in life when returning from exile to his homeland, as he is about to ford the bordering river he meets a supernatural being. They grapple with Jacob grabbing on, and refusing to let go. The being commands that Jacob let go, but Jacob refuses and responds with “not unless you bless me.” He thus receives the blessing that gives him a new name, the name Israel, a name that means “He who fights with God,” and he is given the land of Israel.
This story is reminiscent of the story of Beowulf who grabs the arm of the feared Grendel and refuses to let go, an act that eventually ends in the death of this tormenting monster. Black Cohosh with its gnarled roots is a remedy for those caught in a state of dark hopelessness, and entangled in a web of coercive forces against which he must fight. It is a remedial treatment for the neck pain of a whiplash and for family entanglement struggles. The law offered by Matthew Wood is the Law of Therapeutic Activity, of knowing decisively when to act and when to wait. There is no tension between the outer and the inner. The case studies offered demonstrates the effectiveness of the decisive use of Black Cohosh.Lady Slipper
Finally we reach Joseph who wears the spiritual coat of many colors, the clothing of his soul that represents the highest level of spirituality. The power he gains in his ability to interpret dreams carries him through the painful struggles of life into the new world of the spirits, the return to paradise. From birth Joseph is aware of his spiritual authority. His dreams show him that he will have much authority over the land. But to his brothers he is an impractical dreamer, and they feel that it is unfair that he does not join them in doing the chores of farming, so they decide to kill him, but Joseph’s energy leads them to first sit down to eat. While eating they see the approach of a caravan and decide they would benefit more by selling him as a slave to the caravan. Because of his ability to interpret dreams he is soon made overseer of the slaves, but when they arrive in Egypt again jealously leads to him being thrown in prison where he continues to successfully interpret dreams. The Pharaoh hears of Joseph’s ability and calls for his advice in dream interpretation, and soon he is give great authority over Egypt where he prospers.
The Lady Slipper, a tonic for the nervous system, resembles a slipper and represents that which protects the foot of a wanderer. It suggests that the wanderer settle down, i.e. if the shoe fits, wear it. When in doubt the Lady Slipper gives you self-confidence that your inner knowing is true. The law of this seventh guidepost is the Law of Therapeutic Authority, of accepting the truthfulness of what you experience.
The seven herbs identified by Matthew Wood facilitate the journey past each of the seven guidepost stories of Genesis in the process of healing, a process that leads a person into the world of the spirits, the return to Paradise or the Garden of Eden. This journey is facilitated by the power of seven herbs, but I have also experienced the same power of the postures I use in my practice of ecstatic trance. Ecstatic trance, a shamanic for of trance, is induced by rapid drumming or rattling that stimulates the nervous system with direction being given to the trance experience by using specific body postures. The anthropologist Felicitas Goodman searched the art work of various hunter-gathering cultures to find postures that she believed were used by the shaman of these cultures. Experimenting with these postures while in the state of ecstatic trance, she found that the postures give direction to the trance experience. I find that seven or eight of the postures that I have used can take us on this same journey back to the Garden of Eden. First, the cleansing power of the Easter Lilly suggests the use of the Tlazolteotl posture of the Aztec Goddess that cleanses a person from his or her sins to give rebirth to innocence. Second, the Yerba Santa that gives direction to the cure by bringing the toxins from the inside to the outside suggests an underworld posture that brings to conscious awareness that which has resided in or has been hidden in the unconscious. Third, the Iris that brings a person through a healing crisis can also be facilitated by the Bear Spirit posture of the Northwest that increases a person’s ego strength, strength that is needed to face personal traumas. Fourth, Sagebrush that leads a person to let go of something that has seemed impossible can be seen in the letting go with determination that which is unhealthy with the rebirth of innocence as provided by the posture of the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs, an initiation or death/rebirth experience. Fifth, the Calling the Spirits Posture can replace the Cat’s Ear that calls upon the use of the person’s imagination.
Sixth, for the need to grab onto that which is feared as facilitated by Black Cohosh, I have experienced this grabbing on in an ecstatic trance experience of a tug-of-war contest using the metamorphosis posture of the Jama Coaque people of Ecuador. In this posture, as I moved forward hand over hand along the rope I soon found myself in a cave facing a Bear who is laughing at me and gives me a new sense of strength. On another occasion in following the rope while using the same posture I find myself at a river’s edge below an eagle’s nest where an eagle feather is dropped to me, giving me the strength to rise above my fear. Black Cohosh is also often used for whiplashes or neck pain, and the treatment for such pains-in- the-neck suggest another healing posture, the Standing Woman of Jalisco who is grasping the back of her neck. And finally in experiencing the spiritual release that brings us back to the Garden of Eden, a posture that carries us into the Spiritual Upper World brings us to this journey’s conclusion.
Nicholas E. Brink, PhDAuthor of Ecstatic Soul Retrieval (publisher – Inner Traditions / Bear & Co.)Power of Ecstatic TranceBaldr’s MagicBeowulf’s Ecstatic Trance MagicTrance Journeys of the Hunter-Gatherers
Grendel and His Mother (publisher – Routledge)Applying the Constructivist Approach to Cognitive Therapy: Resolving the Unconscious Past (Routledge)Available from Postmark Books in Rosendale, NY or your preferred booksellerFacebook Site: Nick Brink’s Books