The Language of Healing:
The Power Of Conscious Vernacular & Deliberate Terminology
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
An Excerpt from the full length article, in the March Issue of Plant Healer: A Journal of Traditional Western Herbalism.
Languages are forever evolving, depending on shifting understandings and cultural context, the watering down of some definitions and the recasting of others. This is true of the English language in general, and the ways we use it, and even more so when it comes to the vernacular of informal and professional sub-groups such as the field of herbalism and its diverse community of herbalists. Most obviously we can see how conflicted or detached patients can get due to the conventional modern biomedical use of oppositional metaphors such as “the war on cancer” or “the battle with disease”, with it sometimes recommended that they picture their illness as a hated enemy, visualizing antibodies as fast-firing little tanks attacking on their behalf. In comparison, a client whose herbalist explains things in terms of the body as an ecosystem in which microorganisms are integral of often beneficial coinhabitants, where no one imagines our bodies have “betrayed” us just because we might be ill – and where we consider that we treat imbalances rather than somehow corrupted corporeal beings – is much more likely to trust and therefore better nourish, tend and listen to their bodies, more likely to be at ease and at home in their selves and in this way less stressed out and quicker to self-repair.
The ability of herbalist’s clients to accept, love and wholly inhabit their ailing bodies is supported by a language of nourishment and accord, more than by one of judgment or conflict, disassociation or transcendence. And so it is for us as well, that the words we speak and write each have their own kind of power, and that the ways we perceive and define help to determine who we are. The words we use and definitions we assign them affect our ability to wholly understand concepts and techniques, influence our self image as people and as practitioners and healers, help determine our degree of empowering self confidence or sabotaging self doubt, and both connect us to other discoveries, ideas and tools, and sometimes hinder us from seeing past our bias, dogma, systems, models and habits to new connections, combinations and conclusions. It is with our selection of and understanding of terms, that we define not only words but our field, our calling, passion or profession.
To increase the chances that we are clearly imparting what is most important to clients and students, minimizing projection and confusion, avoiding unnecessary hot buttons and trigger words, encouraging rather than discouraging response, it’s important that we consciously craft our sentences to best effect. The sample examples below are words central to the world of the herbalist, but the principle of a deliberated language and responsible communication applies to you no matter what your vocation, interests or mission.
A Few Sample Misunderstood, Maldefined or Misused Terms
Health: Wholeness, balance, functionality, integration and mutually beneficial cooperation of all our parts; measured not by some bodily perfection but by the degree of vitality, responsiveness, effectiveness, and satisfaction.
One example of a less helpful connotation is equating health to an absence of symptoms, sometimes resulting in insufficient attention to underlying foundational causes (such as lifestyle habits, degraded liver function or vitamin D deficiency). Someone can have no symptoms and serious problems, obviously, or have certain recurrent symptoms but otherwise be vital and healthy.
Herbalist: Anyone and everyone who knowledgeably and effectively uses plants to help facilitate the natural healing process of their bodies or the bodies of others.
It feels important that this definition be deliberately wide, largely inclusive and possibly even generous, so as many herb allies and herb associates as possible can reasonably claim the title… even if they’re primarily herbal teachers, artists, activists, botanists or gardeners, whether they treat others professionally or only tend their families or their selves. After all, the term “herbalist” has never ensured nor really indicated a specific level of proficiency or experience, a particular number of years of practice or amount of clients seen.
Certainly there is a qualitative difference between a veteran practitioner that is highly respected and uses freshly grown or gathered ingredients, and someone who has only read about herbs and perhaps always purchases their herbs from a whole-foods market. But there is also a measurable difference between those who use fresh plants when appropriate and those who are limited to or only choose to use purchased and dried products. Between those who have apprenticed and those who are self taught. Between compassionate and service-focused practitioners and those who are simply brilliant herbalists. A highly motivated herbalist who is adept at synthesizing ideas and information, or someone without much herbal knowledge who is especially intuitive, can prove better at diagnosis and formulations, and thus more effective with their treatments, than someone who has hung the herbalist shingle for decades. For us to make such distinctions can be arrogant or self-effacing when applied to ourselves, disempowering or elevating for those people we evaluate and label, and divisive for the community.
Folk Herbalism: The herbalism of the common folk, or more importantly, diverse expressions of herbalism that is common to all kinds of folks… not only the schooled, certified or income producing but also the illiterate who learn their skills from watching their elders, those practicing without the approval or permission of modern health authorities, herbalists who provide assistance for free or treat only their neighbors and families. Literally, folk herbalism applies equally to herbalcentric academians and the oft-maligned “kitchen herbalists,” professional certified clinical herbalists and plant-rendering rainforest shamans… though it characteristically evokes an herbalism which is personally empowering and largely egalitarian, experiential and in some ways subjective, available, accessible and gladly shared. It appears grounded in the earth and the lessons of nature, and is thus home to the coveralls wearing herb gardener, the feather bedecked Hourani healer, the free clinic herbal anarchist, herbal rebel and herbal outcast.
At the same time, it could be a mistake to use language that unrealistically sentimentalizes or glorifies folk herbalism. Just because someone was smart enough to quit a boring school doesn’t mean they’re necessarily innovative, self educated, experienced and wise… sometimes it just means that they can’t keep commitments and have accumulated less useful information. Just because an herbalist rejects certification or bucks medical convention is no indication that their diagnosis or treatment will be any more effective, or even more innovative, than those closer affiliated with guilds, universities or hospitals. And just because an herbal treatment derives from a cool tribal culture shouldn’t exempt it from analysis and evaluation, nor should even the most comfortable of traditional herbal story-lines prevent us from considering and weighing-in the latest scientific research or even our own sometimes contrary experiences.
Medical Herbalist: Basically any herbalist administering herbs or herbal advice in hopes of a medical outcome or improvement, a practitioner. In some cases it seems employed primarily to make the practitioner or teacher feel more important.
Master Herbalist: A nice sounding title or herbal degree, but nonetheless kind of a bullshit term that anyone could be forgiven for feeling embarrassed about. In one sense, to “master” means to rule over. In another, it suggests someone has reached a level where there is nothing more to be learned. In these two senses, no one really masters anything since there is always a possibility of new insights, greater wisdom and further developed proficiency.
Accredited Herbalist, Certified & Approved: Being given credit by an organization; being vouched for by an organization that certain qualifications are met; receiving approval from an organization, authority or agency acting as if they have the power to disapprove and deny.
Understand first of all, if you don’t already – that there is currently no licensure or certification required in the United States to practice herbalism. And it is the language we speak, that can in part facilitate any systems and rules to follow, or that can establish the fact and tone of any alternative.
Accreditation and certification of herbalists can beneficially increase acceptance of our field by the large numbers of people in this culture brainwashed to equate official monikers and scientific degrees with knowledge and competence. In this sense, a language of professionalism serves to legitimize the modern recommendation and use of herbs, theoretically reducing the future likelihood or extent of draconian governmental regulation, expanding the market for herbs and herbal information, and broadening the client base for practicing herbalists. It could be useful to have a certification system whereby the overall quality of the plant is ensured, or to know that when we are ill, the herbalist we seek help from meets certain agreed upon standards.
At the same time, the language of certification can stratify the community, giving increasing control over roles and titles to a governing board, resulting in the unintentional impugning of the credits of those who do not qualify or belong, and inadvertently impacting their incomes. A language of qualification and authorization can’t help but contribute to elitism, no matter how hard we might try to prevent that from happening. Any type of accreditation, no matter how beneficial otherwise, unfortunately legitimizes less desirable official qualification and governance, setting the tenor for what will likely be much less benign herbal legislation, regulation or even prohibition on the part of our government. Finally, as the government increasingly seeks in stages to control not only herbal products but also herbalist behavior and even who can practice, they may find membership lists a useful resource for management and repression.
The power of speaking professionally – and of employing letters of accreditation or certification at the ends of our names – is nothing less than great… both in the many benefits that can bring, and the problems that it without question ushers in.
Tradition: The system of knowledge, skills and customs passed from one generation to the next. The value of tradition is huge, the ways that it delineates roles for new folks to identify with, equips them with an informational base to build upon, and sets out a way of perceiving and acting on the world that has already been well tested. A significant portion of TWH and Plant Healer Magazine’s mission is to identify, explore, encourage, share and showcase the many under-promoted native, place-based Western folk herbal traditions.
The flip side is that tradition can become dogmatic, restrictive or resistant to new ideas and discoveries. It’s essential that it be a vessel to carry us forward in our lives and practice, and not dogma we blindly repeat or a straight jacket within which we are unable to move or adapt. A Taos Pueblo Indian friend of mine once told me a story one day that carries the point well: “My mother would always cut off and set aside one end of a venison roast, before putting it in a pan to cook. One day when I was young, I asked her the reason for this ritual behavior, figuring it might have something to do with the spirit of the deer or some such thing, but all she could tell me was it was a family tradition and she had learned it from her mom. Later, I witnessed my grandmother doing the exact same thing, cutting off and discarding one end of what would be our dinner, and when I inquired about it she told me almost the same thing, that it was just the way the women of the family had always done it, and that it was a tradition. Some months down the road, I was fortunate to get to visit my ailing great grandmother. I told her my story, and repeated the question as to why she and the rest of the family cut the ends off that way. ‘I don’t know why they do it that way,’ she answered with one eyebrow up, ‘but the reason I always did, was because my only pan was too small.’”
Whatever your identity, aims and intentions, describe it well… for it is the ideas that our chosen words convey that can either weaken our positions and purpose, or else help to make truly effective healing action possible.
Our hope is that this article will inspire discussion in the community, so please post and forward often. For the complete 5,000 word version of this article, click here to go to the Plant Healer site and subscribe:
Plant Healer Magazine