Friday, March 21, 2014

Good Relationship

For those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, today is the first full day of spring! For me, the solstices and equinoxes are the closest thing to a "religious" holiday. I always take these days off as times for ceremony and reflection, both on my own and with the members of my community. They are important transition points in the yearly cycle of the seasons, and excellent times to honor our relationship with the world that we are part of.

Spring may be officially here, but spring weather will probably be later than usual this year!

This morning when I was out at my prayer circle offering my morning prayers, beginning for the first time this year in the eastern direction of this new season, twice I heard the call note of a male red-winged blackbird as one flew overhead. In this region red-wings are the first birds to arrive from wintering in the south. Hearing them for the first time on this first day of spring was a good omen that, in spite of the lingering below normal temperatures, spring is arriving. There are other signs as well. Among the birds that overwinter here, the cardinals and black-capped chickadees started singing their spring songs a couple of weeks ago. The robins started whinnying around the same time, but I only heard the first one singing this afternoon when I was walking my dogs in the woods. The song sparrows haven't started yet, but they will soon. The dark-eyed juncos are still here. They won't be heading back up north for some time yet.

The increasing intensity and amount of daylight as the sun climbs higher in the sky each day is another sign that is very noticeable. The greatest amount of change per day of the amount daylight occurs at the time of the equinoxes - three minutes per day at the latitude where I live. During the last couple of decades the red-wings have usually arrived much sooner than the equinox. After this years longer and colder winter their call is a welcome sound.

The trembling aspens (Populus tremuloides) are getting impatient!

In contemporary Western society we tend to live cut off from the natural rhythms and cycles of nature, both within us and around us. We do so at our own peril! Not only has it had an overwhelming negative impact on our physical, psychological, spiritual and social well-being, it has similarly affected the well-being of our Earth Mother and all of the other beings that we share our lives with. Our life is only as healthy and fulfilling as the quality of our relationships.

As an herbalist, it is essential that I am in a good relationship with the medicines that I use and the land where they live. My role is as a mediator between the medicines and Nature, and human society - both as a healer and as an educator. It would be awesome if we lived in a society where we are as time-rich as our ancestors, the traditional peoples of the world, once were. I could take people out and acquaint them with the medicines that they need so that they could be in a deeper relationship with those medicines. The healing would be so much more powerful! Sadly, this is not possible any longer.

That being said, for people who wish to live a life of greater health and well-being, and who also have an interest in herbs, getting to know some of the plant medicines even on a casual basis can be a powerful way to enrich our lives and enhance our healing process. It allows us an opportunity not only to create a deeper relationship with some of the plant people, but with all of Nature as well. Whether we are atheists or agnostics, or believe that the natural world is connected to or an expression of a deeper spiritual reality, we must acknowledge that all healing comes from Nature. Connecting with plant medicines and Nature are essentially two sides of the same coin when it comes to the healing process.

Some plants overwinter as a rosette. This European sweet violet (Viola odorata) is taking advantage of full sun
(in the winter only) and a slightly south facing slope.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s when I first started teaching, the Herbal Field Studies workshops (which were then called 'Herbs of Ontario') were the first courses that I offered. Teaching people how to identify local herbs during the various stages of their life cycle, harvest them and use them was a big part of what these workshops were and are about. However, my primary objective was to use the participants' interest in herbs as a means of getting them out into Nature. This is an essential part of the healing process because it is our disconnection from Nature that is directly and indirectly the main reason why people and society are unhealthy to begin with.

Eventually I knew I needed take it deeper and after experimenting with different content and formats The Spirit of Herbs workshops were born: first as a weekend, then six days, then eventually (in response to where I knew the Medicine needed to go and requests from students for more) I added two more workshops to the series. I consider these workshops to be the most important courses that I teach. For any herbalist, having a wealth of knowledge of herbs and a good system for applying that knowledge is essential - as is plenty of experience. Together they can produce profound healing. However, what separates the good herbalists from the great herbalists is the depth of their relationship with the medicines. This is not only true for herbalists, but for anyone who uses herbs personally or professionally. The deeper our relationship with the herbs and Nature, the deeper the healing we are able to receive or facilitate when we need to use them.

The Spirit of Herbs workshops are also my favorite courses to teach because they always stretch me. To teach the Medicine I have to be able to live it. It is always a powerful learning and transformative process for me having to hold the space for the benefit of the participants and offering the Medicine at a much deeper level. It is also a profoundly humbling and fulfilling experience for me to witness the transformations that the participants go through as they develop a greater capacity to connect more deeply with themselves, the plant medicines and Nature.

Grandmother white pine (Pinus strobus) is happy to enjoy some early spring sunshine!
I spend some time sitting with her every day when I walk my dogs.

In summary, I can not over-emphasize the importance of being in and connecting with Nature. It is essential to who we are because we are Nature and Nature is us. This is not only the experience and wisdom of traditional peoples worldwide, for those who need "proof" there is a growing body of research that is beginning to demonstrate it as well (for example, see: What's amazing is that the benefits that are being demonstrated in these studies are the result of relatively simple things like more trees in urban areas, or spending a little time exercising or doing activities in more natural settings. Most people are still pretty distracted when they are in "greener" spaces: by their thoughts and by their technological gadgets. Add a certain level of quiet of our mind and deeper connection and the benefits increase exponentially!

The workshops that I offer provide an opportunity for participants to deepen their connection with Nature through their interest in medicinal plants. However, there are other teachers out there that offer similar experiences through other connections. For instance, in his recent book What the Robin Knows, Jon Young provides guidance about how we can foster a deeper connection with Nature through learning the language of birds. Whether it's birds or other animals, general nature awareness, or wilderness survival, there are teachers and mentors who truly walk their talk and from that place of experience and knowing are able to help others to more deeply connect with themselves and Nature by developing these skills in a way that fosters greater awareness and good relationships. Developing these personal interests is an excellent way to more deeply connect with Nature and live healthier, more fulfilling lives.

One of the most important tools for achieving this, which is explained in detail in Jon's book, is what we call the sit spot. It is simply a place in as natural a setting as possible where we intuitively feel good and can spend time sitting quietly and observing the world around us through the seasons. Although it's great for those of us who live in rural areas or on the edge of parks or other natural areas to find a sit spot that is in a more wild, natural environment, the most important characteristic of a good sit spot is its accessibility. The more effort we need to put into getting there, the less often we will use it. It's much better to find a nice spot under some trees in our backyard than some place that we need to walk or drive 20 minutes to visit, because the more often we use our spot, the deeper the results. Nature is everywhere! All we have to do is quiet our mind and be fully present with all of our senses. When we do this in the same spot on a regular basis, it provides a framework from which we can really get to know a place through its various cycles and changes. It is best if we can spend some time there at least several times per week. The more we make this a priority in our life, the greater the benefits. This season is a great time to start!

On that note, I would like to wish everyone a great spring (or great autumn to my sisters and brothers in the Southern Hemisphere)!

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