Corazón a Corazón: Exploring Traditional Models of the Healer’s Practice
by Kiva Rose Hardin
Even after so many years of devotion to the plants and experiential practice in herbalism, something just didn’t feel right… At a certain point in my healing studies, I narrowed my focus almost entirely to herbs, cutting out much of the attention I’d previously given to a wider array of medicine ways. During that time, this was a very efficient way for me to hone my skills and give sufficient time to what is surely one of the most demanding and complex fields of the healing arts. The problem came when I began to feel drained and exhausted by my studies and work, not just from the endless hours I put in, but the very nature of studying the plants separate from the larger medicine that serves as the very matrix of traditional healing. While strictly clinical work clearly serves some herbalists very well, I could feel in my aching heart and restless feet that I needed more in order to feel fully satisfied in my work again.
Returning to the work of my heart, I’ve begun to broaden my focus again, back to its original scope, the multifaceted mantle of the Medicine Woman. In this model, counseling and many other aspects of healing get equal priority alongside herbalism. Skills such as counseling, nutrition, lifestyle, story medicine, and much more, are always necessary components of any herbal practice to some degree, but not usually given the same emphasis as the plants. Rooted in my personal experience, I’d like to explore some options that are prevalent in a wide variety of folk healing traditions but are often under-utilized in mainstream herbal practice and education.
To provide some context for what I discuss here, I should explain that I work and live within a primarily Latino culture, and thus am most familiar with its particular terminology and perspective. For this reason, I will use curanderismo for many of the examples and conceptual understandings here. However, it’s very easy to find vast world-wide similarities when one looks at folk medicine across the globe, from early Celtic healing ways to African medicine. And indeed, I have found incredible parallels between New Mexican curanderas to the healers known in the culture of my ancestors as znakharki, wise women or medicine women. Whether we were born in the same corner of the map or speak the same language matters little when it comes to the commonalities that working as a healer provides us.
Toda la Gente: The Dynamics of Diversity
“Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.”
- Bell Hooks
One of the most amazing things about herbalism in the Americas is its vibrance and diversity. We’re a wild bunch, and that’s a good thing! By Americas, I don’t mean just the U.S., but also Canada, Mexico, Central and South America. The beautiful blends (and sometimes painful clashes) of cultures, ethnicities, languages, ecosystems, and flora has come together to create a unique and constantly shifting tapestry of healing traditions that many of us know little about. Alongside and woven with the powerful indigenous practices of the Americas, immigrants have brought their knowledge from all corners of the world. I recently spoke to a curandera from Sonora who integrates Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnostics and Ayurvedic constitutional theory into her existing framework of Aztec/Huichol/Hispanic healing. I also know a number of herbalists in the Southeastern United States who draw from both Irish/Scottish traditions as well as African and Latino. Everywhere we look, there are plentiful examples of the magic made where people touch, change, and overlap.
Eclecticism can result in an unwieldy, ineffective mess, especially if cherry picked according to wishful thinking and romanticized notions about cultures with which we have no actual interaction with or foundation in. On the other hand, more organic blends that arise from actual experience and personal interaction can bloom into something new, dynamic, and incredibly beautiful. Diversity is the lifeblood of our work, and an important element of power that underlies our work as healers and allows us to keep growing and learning from each other.
Conversations about looking at or emulating models of practicing from traditional cultures inevitably leads to concerns about cultural appropriate and disrespectful uses of other peoples’ traditions. To me, this highlights the reasons to avoid mindless adoption or undiscerning amalgamation, and the distinct need for first-hand experience of and in the culture.
Most all of us are of mixed blood, and have inherited ways of being and doing alongside hereditary hardwiring, that together contribute to making us the unique individuals that we are. It’s no secret that all cultures have begged, borrowed, and stolen from each other for as long as they’ve had contact. In most cases, we call that assimilation and integration rather than appropriation. However, with mass colonization, this has become a more difficult and heated matter. Respectful dialogue and community building often go a long way toward creating an atmosphere conducive to sharing with and learning from each other, regardless of culture, race, gender, or other potentially divisive factors.
We’re all in danger of losing precious wisdom garnered by previous generations, with so many healing traditions dying out in the face of disinterest by recent generations, and the pressure from mainstream society to emulate modern biomedicine. I have see this personally, and listened to Latino, Ukrainian, Apache, and many other elders mourn the disinterest of their own children and grandchildren in traditional healing ways. To avoid further loss of this valuable knowledge, it’s imperative that at least some of us take on the task of learning the healing ways of our ancestors and the land/people we belong to. For some of us this will result in a crazy mix, but this blend, once integrated through experience, can become another strand in the vibrant weave of healing traditions across the world.
La Visión Clara: In Consideration of Convention, Conformity, and Creativity
“I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.”
-Rita Mae Brown
The other side of valuable traditions with their hard won wisdom, is the trap of convention that makes us feel as if we all need to hold to a certain pre-defined role, and holds us back from developing and impedes our growth as healers. There can be pressure for herbalists to conform to the mold of conventional medicine, to work behind a desk in an office, to treat whoever makes an appointment, and see as many clients as we can fit into the day. While I reckon that the current biomedical model needs work in any case to be fully effective and sensitive to the patient’s needs, it can still present a valid and fulfilling template for some of us, especially those who choose to work alongside medical doctors in a more widely accepted setting. However, it need not to be the measure by which we all evaluate our abilities.
There are abundant examples of other models of herbalism through history and currently, we need only look around us. If not on our own block, then very likely in the nearest barrio, or in many neighborhoods where cultural traditions are still alive and celebrated. Besides these excellent models, we also have the option of developing new ways of envisioning our practice and ways of interaction with plants and people. Wherever there is convention, there is also the opportunity to break free and come up with a totally new way of doing things.
El Corazón: The Heart of Healing
“No medicine cures what happiness cannot.”
- Gabriel García Márquez
A significant part of many traditional healing models is what is called a plática here in the American Southwest (as well as throughout much of Latin America), a heart to heart talk in which the healer listens carefully to the person she’s working with, and can often include some amount of counseling. I can’t emphasize the importance of listening skills enough, as so much of the healing for many is found in the chance to finally be heard and to tell their story. This heart to heart connection between person and person, between person and place, between person and plant, is the channel through which all healing is transmitted. At its core, health is about relationships. Our relationships to each other, to the herbs, to our food, to our bodies, and ourselves as a whole within the context of our communities.
I spend a great deal of time observing and considering the ways in which healers interact with the people they work with. With special consideration given to understanding the specific intimacy and relationship we enter into when we reach out our hands to try to help, to facilitate wholeness within our villages and neighborhoods. It’s not enough, however, to just look and understand. This particular aspect of traditional herbalism needs revival nowhere more than in a culture that often promotes politeness, superficiality, and efficiency at the price of real sharing and hearing. Not being heard creates its own kind of sickness, and certainly exacerbates existing issues in most folks, especially since most illness is accompanied by fear and uncertainty about outcomes. In the Ukraine, babky (grandmothers, or older women serving as healers) often spend part of their treatment time comforting and reassuring the patient in whatever ways they can, with hugs, smiles, and warmth being common to many folk healers across the planet.
Curar del Susto: Addressing Fear & Giving Support
“I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear. I release you. You were my beloved and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you as myself”
- Joy Harjo
In many places, the healer not only provides counsel, but also a degree of emotional support through words, comfort, and usually a spiritual method. In most cultures, there is some concept of the damage that can be done to a person on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level by fear and trauma. If not addressed immediately, this fear can work itself deep into the core of the person and begin to make them sick in various different ways. In Latin America, the fear sickness is known as susto, while in the Ukraine it’s called liak or prystrit. Under whatever name, the symptoms are very similar, including insomnia, restlessness, digestive upset, bad dreams, muscular spasms, a lack of interest in formerly engaging activities, among other signs.
Traditionally, these manifestations of fear sickness are considered at least as important as other, more popularly recognized, ailments. In biomedicine, the most severe forms of fear sickness would likely be called post traumatic stress disorder or even schizophrenia, but milder or less obvious forms are often ignored entirely or quickly medicated into suppression, which in traditional thought, only drives the sickness deeper.
I have found it incredibly useful in my practice to allow people to express and talk about their fears and the context/story they stem from before actively attempting to do anything about them. Additionally, recognizing the symptom pattern with an actual word like susto or some other appropriate term can in itself be incredibly helpful Sometimes these two elements alone are enough to purge the issue and allow for healing. Other times, a combination of herbs, counseling, ritual, and long term support is necessary to work through issues, especially if they are deep seated and long term.
La Cantadora: Healing in MythTime & the Storyteller’s Work
“By creating a new mythos – that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave – la mestiza creates a new consciousness. The work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject/object duality that keeps her prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts.”
Traditionally, healers not only providing herbs or massage or steam baths, but also comfort, counsel, ceremony, and common sense to the folks they help. Additionally, most healers acted as storytellers and lore-keepers to some degree. Speaking to experienced herbalists, curanderas and similar folks, I could often listen for hours to the stories they have to tell about the plants, people, traditions, ways of being, and ideas about health and healing. Beyond holding and retelling information and experiences, healers often help clarify, bring to light, and even change a patient’s personal stories.
Medicine people are also myth keepers and myth creators to some degree, assisting the people they work with by helping to shift perspective. As herbalists, we need to be listeners, but we can also help adjust, and sometimes transform, people’s stories. This is its own kind of healing, and one of the most lasting kinds. Giving people new ways of viewing their life journeys, their illnesses and challenges, and their whole conception of health, can provide more wellness than all the herbs in the world.
Not all story telling and shifting is entirely comfortable or pleasant. In order to shift perception we must often challenge assumptions and ask people to look at things they’d likely rather avoid. In stories from across the world we’re presented with characters in the roles of medicine people and witches. Very often, these characters both heal and frighten, usually the challenging aspects also serving as a deeper form of healing. It’s not unusual for these characters to initially reject, threaten, or even harm the hero or heroine of the story. Respect, acceptance, and even safety have to be earned by tenacity and services rendered.
While herbalists in the United States are unlikely to wear a full on Baba Yaga visage, we still present questions and challenges that often seem frightening or threatening, at least initially. This is part of the larger role of a medicine person, taking on more than just the temporary physical comfort of a client. In this way, we meet much deeper needs that could ever be addressed by a practitioner of conventional healthcare.
Espiritú de la Tierra
“It was hard for an Apache-raised girl to understand how some could see the planet as but a lifeless rock, upon whose surface a bounty was distributed for the good of man. Who saw animals not as spirits but as steaks, fur and wool, pet or threat. Who saw trees only as lumber to be turned into buildings or to shade the sun. Who judged plants as being decorative or itchy, weeds or crops.
To Omen, they were not just wondrous sunshine-eating entities, without whom humans and most of the life on Earth would die. They were proof of miracles, and reason for hope. The inspiration for a good and balanced life, and examples of how to live it.”
- Jesse Wolf Hardin, The Medicine Bear
In every tribal culture I am aware of, there has been a word or understanding of the vital force that enlivens human and herb, raven and wildcat, bacteria and stone. It is this intelligent and powerful spirit of life itself that healers across the world have recognized. From the earliest indigenous medicine woman to the Eclectic physicians of the 19th century, we have given names to that which makes us alive. The labels vary from place to place, but the bone deep knowing remains the same.
Likewise, the plants represent more than just chemical compounds that cause certain physiological changes in the body, they are personalities and forces in their own rights, and add their own fibers to the overall weave of the story of healing. All traditional healers seem to know this innately, and I have yet to meet a single traditional herbalist of who doesn’t recognize the power and personality of the herbs. Again, how we give language to our understandings changes from culture to culture, but what matters most is that we acknowledge and respect the living spirit of the plants, of our own bodies, of the earth herself, Nuestra Madre Tierra.
Whatever model of healing we work from, what we share is both powerful and old. Rather than forcing ourselves to fit into a mold, or criticizing others for practicing in a different way, we all benefit by celebrating the incredible diversity we hold in our many joined hands and hearts, with a common cause and love for people and plants. As the medicine people for a world in turmoil, we offer a guiding light for our communities, illuminating both our ancient traditions and the new paths we’re learning together.
Corazón a corazón, heart to heart, we walk the medicine trail.